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 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.


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.


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.



On Programmes/Fictions

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

Dear CF,

I started the evening rereading “Brief Interviews” and felt convicted and abased, recognizing in myself too much of what the Depressed Person says. And you, dear friend, are the beleaguered Support System with whom I (i.e. the depressed person) try constantly to really truly literally “share,” to whom I reach out for a glimmer of connectedness, for whom I try to Be There. To see myself thusly has only exacerbated my isolation-feelings, my anguish, my sense of injury, my feelings of abandonment. I’m nothing but a cracked bundle of need, a pail of neuroses. I think my three therapists would agree.

In that story the therapist dies “without leaving any sort of note or cassette or encouraging final words for any of the persons and/or clients in his life.”

For a moment I fantasized about DFW being my fourth therapist and indulged the ghoulish question that first struck me when I heard about his suicide:

Did he leave a note?

At any rate he left a cassette, and you found it. You’re right. It may be eleven years old, but Charlie Rose’s interview of David Foster Wallace covers 80% of what we’ve talked about, minus the sex. And I mean that literally–every time women appear, it’s a negative for him. He’s unhappy or exasperated with their role in his artistic world, and the feeling seems mutual.

On Unforgiven:

What’s interesting is that I don’t know a single female who likes the film. Females think ‘Western?’ It stinks. And if you can get them to watch it, it’s not a western at all. It’s a moral drama. It’s Henry James, basically. It’s very odd.”

Charlie gets worked up about this, agrees, and adds that this is the greatest rift his girlfriend and he have ever had about a movie.

(And there’s Henry James, king of the tragedy of manners, large as life. In a Western, no less–the one genre he might be least expected to appear in. I may have to watch Unforgiven after all.)

Wallace is even less happy with feminists who interpret the length of his books as having to do the length of his dick. I don’t blame him. First, it’s not true. Secondly, it’s not surprising that he prickles. The stakes of that sort of criticism are higher for him than they are for most. Returning for a moment to the irony of our generation constituting a Demographic, nothing would be quite so humiliating, for the culminating practitioner of a particular brand of artistic self-awareness, than to be found guilty of a truly unconscious influence.

But the dick’s not totally off the table. The Chronicle published an article on “intellectual crushes”–the brainy attraction a student feels to a certain kind of teacher. If anything, it’s the organ responsible for this feeling, the “intellectual dick,” that is the Firecracker’s great preoccupation (and Wallace is one, make no mistake). The writers he mentions—Delillo, Barthelme, Barth, Pynchon—were all well-hung in this department, and are all regular recipients of the male Firecracker’s admiration and energy. This isn’t penis envy, which Freud reserved for girls, and which it is evident, I think, that I suffer from. But it’s close.

Wallace says Lynch’s obsession is “The unbelievably grotesque existing in a kind of union with the unbelievably banal.” This truly brilliant take on Lynch gestures, I think, at what appeals to the cerebral Male. Let’s drag Henry’s brother William into this and call the Firecracker’s fierce (and not unjustified) admiration for Lynch, Barth et al. what it is, at least in part: a drive. Earlier than sex, but post-pre-Oedipal. It’s tribal and does not easily admit women–let’s be frank, it works better without them. It’s the universal desire to get lost in the funhouse and wee vigorously into the Po-Mo Stream of Consciousness (sponsored, alas, by the Depend Adult Undergarment).

Urinal cakes, mirrors, death diapers and the sublime, all in a tidy package.
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The Post-Mortem

Dear one,

How to explain the death of a powerful crush? Curiously enough (or not curiously at all), I too talked to a beloved mutual friend about firecrackers, only in a romantical connection—-namely, the problem of love/hating them.

The Firecracker (Male) is exciting. He takes you to unexpected places and shows a different way of rubbing elbows with the world. His gift is his uniqueness and his insistence on that uniqueness–his cultivation of what you rightly identify as sophistication or indie-intellect. It’s a beautiful facade; the boy equivalent of makeup or a Joan-Holloway-type foundation garment. The problem is that the structures underlying all this are only informed by real passion (in our metaphor, a flawless complexion? a perfect torso?) half the time. The rest of the time this creature’s life is governed by the need to feed the monsters of exclusivity and rarefied taste.

Having written that, I think it’s wrong. I wish it were really just a question of authenticity vs. pretension. I don’t think it is. I used to think that the virulent strain of contempt displayed by the urban sophisticate was all bluster. It was a comfort to think that no one really cared all that much, that these determined forays into the unvisited corners of the internet (or the record store, or the video rental place) were fact-gathering missions. These are our modern-day explorers, the people who dig up the crazy and funny and arcane and present it to you. They’re the docents of the world, and I love their investigative powers and their passion and their insistence on finding the out-of-the-way thing.

The fact is, though, that what drives that kind of research is avoidance–or hatred–or judgment–of the in-the-way thing, otherwise they probably wouldn’t bother.

Now I know we’re all guilty of these sorts of judgments, but the fact is that as much as I hate Tucker Max, I don’t despise his readers. I don’t find them stupid and blinkered, and I can’t despise the structures that produced them. And he’s a more pernicious influence than, say, Napoleon Dynamite. Or Sleepless in Seattle. It’s like hating someone for eating junk food. Sure, you could make better choices, but I have a hard time getting really worked up about the fact that the Moldy Peaches song at the end of Juno shows up three times earlier.

But they do get worked up, even when they’re not creating anything in their own right. How right you are to point out that people get inarticulate when asked to explain their opinions. Is it too embarrassing? Does it expose the wiring too crudely? Is it that they really haven’t thought about it? You say you find this exhausting–I wish you would say more. I hunger for that kind of explanation; I want so badly to understand the steps of reasoning, the premises, the aesthetic underpinnings. I want this education because in its absence I find the Firecrackers paralyzing. I find them toxic.

And yet I’m drawn to them like sodium to chloride. Married one, in fact.

The end of my story is that I WISH it were pretentiousness. I could overlook that. The shock of my marriage was that it wasn’t–Firecrackers are actually filled with gunpowder, not bathhouse salts that gently scrub your impurities away and reveal your better self. There’s a kickback, there’s blue flame. They’re the .44, not our .22 Gunnie.

Our friend observed, and I think she’s right, that the truly interesting Firecracker is so because the “interesting” choice is always the one that permits the attachments of the world to fall away like a shiny piece of tinfoil wrapping a tuna sandwich. In this respect I agree wholeheartedly with your account of wickedness as the easiest path to Firecrackerness. Whether wickedness, mania, etc., masks a lack of talent or is a necessary evil for it, I wouldn’t like to say.

This actually reminds me of the idea of the Calvinist elect–a certain predestined few are Chosen, so everyone must behave as if they were. If not, they betray that they are not. You yourself have taught me to accept, grudgingly, that some of the Firecrackers are indeed Chosen People.

My fantasy, I suppose, is an inclusive Firecracker.

My crush was not one.

I feel I’ve been of very little comfort to you in dealing with your own Firecrackers. I wish for you matches and a long wick.

Let’s stay in the sixties. I leave you to choose our first film, and I promise to watch it within a day. Today, even!