BRAIN TUBA: Contrarianism
...or, It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Downloading, part II:
The widespread production of xerox-scorched ‘zines in the 1980s and ’90s was many things: the forging of a culture, a way for ideas to be aired in a democratic (if not always widely read) way, for aesthetics to be established, for information to be spread. It was all of these, but it was also something physical: the manual layout of graphics and text on a page, the trip to a sympathetic (or cheap) copying machine, the stapling parties, the distribution to friends, fans, and local book and record stores.
Their gradual replacement by the intercyberwebnet — and presently the ubiquitous Blogspot template — is part of a broader progression: the condensation of culture to information. Where one once had to visit specialty shops or order from the back pages of obscure magazines (often only sold at the aforementioned specialty shops) to acquire things like, say, ska albums, it’s all in the same place nowadays.
"Everything that can be expressed as bits will be expressed as bits," the digital mantra goes. As pop culture swirls into the data cloud, the difference between consuming film and music and writing and even commercials becomes more and more negligible. A work can excel within its own medium, it is implied, but it is nothing if it doesn’t have the power to go viral and cut through it all. "The problem of an author is obscurity," sci-fi author/BoingBoing.net co-editor Cory Doctorow has noted, which seems a not-unreasonable philosophical justification for Warhol’s proverbial 15 minutes of fame. Doctorow was speaking as an author, but could be offering advice to anybody trying to make the Show: find a hook, ride a meme, just do something that nobody else has done yet. In other words: be novel.
By itself, this is nothing new. Having a shtick was always rule number one of any entertainment-related business. Coupled with culture’s bit reduction, though, this becomes more and more like a juggling act: what new things can be said or done using the sources at hand that will be worth remembering at the end of the day? Is it just a way of reordering the same old bits in new and meaningful arrangements? And at one point does is cease to be meaningful? The net result — no pun intended — has been a widespread affectation of contrarianism. Since there is only a wispy line between being a contrarian and being anti-authoritarian, it’s hardly surprising that it’s been adopted as the new cool. And since there’s an even finer line between being an anti-authoritarian and being a know-it-all asshole, it’s even less surprising that the whole enterprise feels very, very dirty. And not in a good way.
Idolator, recently launched by the Gawker snark-blog empire. ‘Every time we introduce you to a new artist, we promise to wait at least three months before starting out own backlash against them,’ they promise in their manifesto. Claiming to be disappointed by current music blogs, Idolator posts on a recent afternoon (uh, today) include ironic news items about Clay Aiken and INXS, a YouTube clip of Diane Lane, and a round-up of other snarky blog-posts about Austin City Limits. Apparently, there is also a fine line between the solution and the problem (which isn’t to say that I’m not going to check on Idolator most mornings).
For prime examples of contrarianism, see Chuck Klosterman’s hilarious essay on Advancement, or perhaps the success of bands like Animal Collective, who have been lionized for detonating songform in a way that will surely seem quaint some years from now. Speaking from experience, it’s a pretty addictive impulse and one that turns people into dickhead roommates. But it’s also an impulse at least partially dictated by the times, in a way. Here we are. Perhaps we have Advanced, perhaps we are a very long distance from that point.
Jesse Jarnow blogs at