How Middlebrow Are You?

Dear CF,

n+1 has chronicled and foretold the death of the hipster, but only now does it seem to be happening. Not the hipster’s death, but exhaustion within the ranks of the tastemakers. People are writing about brows and where one wears them. (This season, high is the new low! they seem to say, wearing their eyebrows on their cheeks.) I’m just going to leave them here, because the conversation just dances and dances around the question of what taste is for:

From Nitsuh Abebe’s “Why We Fight” in Pitchfork (via):

4. We are suspicious of enjoying anything anyone else has told us about.

This is the habit that strikes me as most problematic. Fifteen years ago, the main problem a lover of music– or film, or television, or other varieties of pop culture– would experience was scarcity. It took money to get hold of the stuff, and if you liked anything weird, it took effort, too. As a result, the default mode was to like what you could. In fact, the best way to demonstrate to others that you cared and were discerning about music was to like things– to have enjoyed exploring all these realms that took some effort to get to.

Over the past decade and a half, this situation seems to have reversed. The problem people talk about now is not scarcity but glut: a glut of music available to consume, a glut of media to tell you about it, a glut of things that desperately want your attention. Somewhere along the way, the default mode has taken a hard shift in the direction of showing your discernment by not liking things– by seeing through the hype and feeling superior to whatever you’re being told about in a given week. Give it the attention it wants, but in the negative.

This extends far outside of music. There’s an entire Arch Snarky Commenter persona people now rush to adopt, in which they read things on the Internet and then compete to most effectively roll their eyes at it. And there’s nothing inherently terrible about that; a lot of the phenomena we read about every day can afford that kind of skepticism.

It’s interesting, though, just how overclocked a bullshit detector can get– to the point where we’re verging on a kind of paranoia about things that are, in the end, mostly trying to offer us pleasure. There’s some kind of whiff of it in just knowing that some artist couldn’t possibly be what she seems, and must be part of an elaborate plot to trick people less savvy than you are. Or maybe that line of thinking just makes us feel more clever than saying something sucks.

And Devin Friedman in GQ, wherein he takes a (sarcastic) shot at Pitchfork while writing for GQ in what might be the weirdest middlebrow-high-middlebrow-lowbrow ironic Mobius strip ever made (OH GOD, IT ONLY HAS ONE SIDE):

Saying you like Feist is like not having an opinion, the greatest offense in certain Internetty precincts of our contemporary culture. You might as well say you like chocolate or potato chips. It says nothing about you. It’s not curated. It doesn’t say what we most want our music to say about us: I used to read Pitchfork.com until it got lame. You can’t like Feist, in other words, because it’s middlebrow. And loving the middlebrow is an unforgivable crime against taste.

[snip]

People tend to hate the middlebrow because of its embarrassingly earnest desire to be liked, its scientific and successful approach to hitting people’s pleasure buttons. It points out the obvious fact that you’re not as much an individual as you’d like to think, that human beings are designed to like chocolate and potato chips and Jack Purcells. That’s where the high middle differs. Take Vampire Weekend. Sarah Goldstein, associate editor here, calls it “elevator music from Africa.” She’s right, of course: Last Christmas season, companies like Tommy Hilfiger and Honda used the song “Holiday” in their ads, even though it’s supposed to actually be about American imperialism.

[snip]

At bottom, perhaps my affection for the Stings of this world is just a function of the stage of life I’m in. Two kids, not a lot of time to read or etc., always pretty tired, no longer afraid of being uncool. A phase where I pretty much look for comfort food in whatever I consume. Music, film, literature, clothing: All I want right now is what could be described as the macaroni and cheese. And it’ll probably only get worse as I age. My parents have hardly any critical filter at all anymore. Everything feels like a fastball right down the middlebrow plate to them. Almost every movie is good. They go nuts over almost every meal they eat. Pretty much every glass of wine is amazing to them now—they’re not worried that Pinot Noir is played out. And you know what they suffer as a result? Unrelenting happiness and satisfaction. You can say it’s a critical lobotomy, and maybe you’re right. I’ll grant you that it’s important to challenge yourself at times. Read some Beckett. Go lowbrow and eat some Twinkies. Wear some asymmetrical nipple-revealing shirt from a Japanese designer who may or may not be a eunuch. But just admit that when you go home at night, you’d rather be watching Friday Night Lights.

Fondly,

M

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