This is a pretty long ramble — sorry.
So there’s this thing I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, but haven’t really found a way to cram into a Tumblr post. Let’s just make up a way, okay? Here is an article about music that someone else on Tumblr just linked: it’s called “Where is the Underground?” You don’t necessarily need to read it, or anything. I just want to point out the topic. It quotes Simon Reynolds saying “the web has extinguished the idea of a true underground; it’s too easy for anybody to find out anything now.” Then it argues that the underground is really a “guerrilla philosophy,” and that the internet has actually invigorated that.
Which is fine and interesting. If you read much about culture, especially music, you will see a lot of this type of thing — where’s the underground? what is avant-garde? what’s really bohemian now? what’s the real counterculture? where is the DIY insurgency? where’s the radical new youth movement that will make us obsolete? where is the new thing that will carry the new flag against the new establishment? what’s subversive now? what’s cutting-edge? is punk dead? is hip-hop?
For instance: anyone saying the notion of an underground is “over” is generally seen as delivering some kind of bad news, right?
So let’s just note that this is the mental map lots of people seem to carry around and use to figure out where they’re standing, culture-wise. There’s a big gray row of buildings representing the establishment, and then there’s some district of basements, warehouses, lofts, and garages where the vibrant and challenging and revolutionary thing is.
And of course you want to find that second place. Because this isn’t just a map, it’s also a narrative — it sort of promises that this dynamic is always the case, and that putting yourself on the right side of it will eventually pay dividends. The underground will one day be the prized revolutionary thing you wish you were there for, right? (Ha: isn’t this a little like a Marxist/materialist viewpoint, except with cultural capital instead of actual capital?)
This map/narrative doesn’t get re-evaluated much, I don’t think. It’s just sort of a basic, unexamined assumption — a ground rule of a lot of talk about popular culture and art. Musically especially. So we often worry about the health of our undergrounds, or worry about the possibility of having one. If we can’t find one, we get sad. People get older and shake their heads about it: where are the vigorous pop-culture insurgencies of yesteryear? It’s just a basic of our rhetoric: if I’m trying to explain to you why one piece of art is better than another, it’s a standard tactic to say, well, this thing represents an underground, a revolution, a next thing. And I don’t want to turn into Thomas Frank here, but this is so rote that it’s long been part of advertising, even, which’ll pitch almost anything as a counterculture alternative. Because advertisers know that’s just how we think.
And there are loads of perfectly good reasons for this — this whole map/narrative is often a workable and effective way of looking at things. I’m not necessarily arguing with it. The thing I find myself dwelling on lately, though, is that it’s also a pretty old way of looking at things. We could trace it backwards through art far enough into history that I wouldn’t know what I was talking about anymore. Wikipedia tells me the first use of the term “avant-garde” to describe the purpose of the artist came in 1825. And there’s the rise of a western-European bourgeoisie, with the image of the artist as anti-bourgeois. And there’s modernism. And then most of all …
Well, if you’re American, here’s the part that might depress you: the map/narrative we’re talking about is basically a Baby Boomer thing, isn’t it? Isn’t the use of this map basically an attempt to relive the narrative Boomers brought forward out of the 1960s? Obviously I’m pretending to be a bit naive here, because I think you probably realize this already: the template and narrative for how modern Americans think about counter-culture and social change is insanely influenced by the Boomer experience. People attempt to reframe it, but they still hold on to the same template, the same dynamics. (Even when something avoids those dynamics, the world might retro-fit it to match: “Hip-hop is rock’n’roll" says the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame.) We switch up the details, but there’s this urge floating around — especially through lots of middle-class people who care about art — to somehow relive or recreate the experience of the very generation we claim to be most sick of.
This is why we’re sick of them, of course: we’re stuck in their narratives. And a lot of why that is — and a lot of why they have those narratives in the first place — is that there were so freaking many of them. That’s what a boom does. I mean, of course the culture and radicalism of their youth looms large: there were loads of them! Loads of youth raised in a prosperous 50s around adults whose worldview encompassed stuff like World War Two and the Depression. I don’t think white American counter-culture was creative so much as it was just inevitable.
And also, despite all our mythologizing, partly depressing — filled with the same crap as any other slice of life, filled with youthful folly and stupidity and horror and violence. Have you ever read Joan Didion’s essay “Slouching Toward Bethlehem?” I imagine part of why people love it is that reminder of what we know must be true. Her vision of the hippies around Golden Gate Park is of children who are basically lost and resourceless and lacking even language. Somewhere along the line, she says, adults forgot to explain to these kids the game society happened to be playing — and now they are washed up here, making crude attempts to cobble together some kind of society of their own. Results are mostly gross and sad! Exploitative and dumb and pathetic!
It surely helped that the game changed a whole lot between those parents and those kids, and that there were a lot of kids to explain to. Our birth rates are now more steady on the low side and we do a much better job of explaining, to each generation, what that game is — the big cry of social radicals now isn’t that the game has changed, it’s that the game must change, that the current game is unsustainable and on the verge of collapse. Compared to a lot of the past, it’s way more of a pre-emptive counterculture: it wants to find new ways to do things before huge chunks of society are really forced to.
But we’re talking about culture, and of course this is what I was trying to get at above: the idea of a counterculture is part of the culture narrative now. It’s part of our map; we expect it and seek out its cultural products. So:
Do you watch Mad Men? Last week Peggy started hanging out with some downtown friends. Thus far, one of the most interesting things about Mad Men is that it’s one of the only American visions of the 60s that isn’t (yet) about a character’s experience with the counterculture. (One of the best moments in the first few episodes involved Don, downtown, walking out of a building during a police raid: you can’t leave, he told some hip kid, but I can. Which was like a symbolic reclaiming of the whole of 60s narratives from the counterculture.) This last episode ended with a shot of Peggy, on one side of a glass door, standing with her new downtown friends, and Pete, on the other, with old clients in gray suits. Peggy’s new friends seem more fun, obviously, but when talking about this era, we usually blow that up into a much bigger narrative: do you go counter-culture or not? So many of our guts are trained to have an obvious, myth-based answer to this, but I’m not sure that answer is really based on those people’s reality or social politics or real moral questions. Sometimes it’s based on two things that are weirdly antagonistic:
- we live in the future, and those people remind us of ourselves
- we crave the same experience of finding some vibrant oppositional culture
If we genuinely found the second, then the first might not be quite as true. But we fudge it. At this point, in American culture, this is practically a generational rite: you will find some pop-culture thing that will feel meaningful and youthful and revolutionary to you. It will not actually be that much of a bother to the culture at large. But it will matter to you, and you will carry it forward, and help convince future generations that they, too, should have some small thing to feel like they chose, some pop-culture idea of a radical or eye-opening notion. For me it was indie and rave (you should have seen the radical/Utopian/techno-futurist rhetoric floating around rave in the 90s!) — but hey, the culture and rhetoric behind those things has surely influenced a lot of stuff, like the very blog platform I’m using right now.
My modest proposal here is this: would it be interesting if we tried to abandon this map? If we tried to abandon that rite? The problem with having a handy map/narrative for interpreting the world is that you will wind up squashing the world to fit it — you’ll miss opportunities to notice new arrangements and new dynamics that might be interesting, too. You’ll always be waiting for the end of a story that might not actually being told. Maybe we should let the map die and see what happens! Every effort to sum up America’s very-young suggests that they are less in the shadow of this Boomer map than before — the map might be less applicable to them! So should we start helping them look for new ones?
Punch line: I would have attempted to talk about this stuff in a column for Pitchfork, but it would probably be interpreted as some meta-commentary on whether Pitchfork is or is not sufficiently “underground” or something!