Links on Culture - November 2022
Drake's daft Daft Punk, Moneyball culture, Third Eye Blind as cool, the other Gallagher brothers, and natural wine decline
Once a month I analyze recent culture-related news and developments within the framework of my book, Status and Culture. (Order here.)
If you’re interested in hearing me speak about the book, I was a guest on the Bob Lefsetz podcast and Blamo! Recent print interviews on Public Seminar and in The Byzantium Review.
Cultural Self-Vasectomy: “Circo Loco” by Drake & 21 Savage
On their new album Her Loss, Drake and 21 Savage offer a song called "Circo Loco" built atop Daft Punk’s “One More Time" that sounds like how a 13 year-old with GarageBand would sample Daft Punk’s “One More Time” — inelegantly pitched down to hip-hop speed, layered with preset 808 bass, ticky high-hats, and a crisp snare, and that’s it, no more. I do enjoy "Circo Loco" because I enjoy “One More Time,” but the song makes me wonder: Is this the best music that our monopoly artists can provide us?
There is an old debate in economics, dating back to at least Joseph Schumpeter, about whether monopoly firms create or stifle innovation, and we can certainly extend this question to pop music. The Beatles used their clout to sneak convention-breaking into the pop charts, from sitar riffs to avant-garde tape loops to infinite singalongs. Drake’s superstardom affords him the same privileges, and surely, he could work with the most innovative producers. Yet he appears happy to just make a new song based directly on an old song, in the exact same old template as Ye’s (not particularly great) “Stronger.” (Who will be the first to rap over "Digital Love"?)
I doubt Drake’s creative laziness results from actual laziness. “Circo Loco” is just how music in 2022 works — an era in which 20% of new hits steal the hook of previous hits. And perhaps the song's obvious sampling is a form of conspicuous consumption: Just like Drake fills his closets with Birkin bags, "Circo Loco" shows he has enough riches to pay Daft Punk for the rights to sing their most famous hook.
I hate to always go back to the Nineties, but back in the day there was an ethic in sampling where producers felt pressure to turn phrases from old songs into something that sounded completely different. This video on Instagram demonstrates the intricate craftsmanship Daft Punk employed to make the track “Face to Face,” which sounds nothing like the Alan Parsons Project. Perhaps such nerdy precision isn’t necessary for making the club bounce, but here's the thing about sampling: at some point, some musicians have to create new things or otherwise there's nothing new to sample or reference in the future. As much as I'm entertained by “Circo Loco,” it's fully parasitic on "One More Time," thus falling into same cultural vasectomy trap as “Stronger” in 2008. “Circo Loco” wins attention by letting people think, "Oh my god I know that song!” but it takes without giving — leaving us with no meaningful contributions to the cultural ecosystem.
(Compare this track to Pharrell’s “Cash In Cash Out” — a “million dollar beat” that brings out the best of 21 Savage and has some lyrical and musical depth.)
Cultural Stasis: Moneyball’ed Everything
In The Atlantic, Derek Thompson notes “The quantitative revolution in culture is a living creature that consumes data and spits out homogeneity.” By relying on data to strategize content creation, firms in the cultural industry (including sports teams) are able to maximize for success, but in the process, reduce variability. The problem is that variability is a core part of the cultural experience. As much as pop culture must stick to certain conventions to win over conservative mass audiences, there must be some semblance of novelty or surprise. Otherwise everyone’s jam would eternally be “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
At any time there are certain formats that audiences prefer — e.g. cliffhangers at end of TV episodes or well-tested melodic hooks. But once these tricks become obviously conventional, they lose their power. (The key change, for example, is now a signifier of cheesiness.) The entire point of art is to provide alternative structural conventions that allow for cultural refresh.
This leads us to the eternal struggle between virtuosity and artistry, which are not the same thing. A virtuoso, writes painter and art theorist John D. Graham, simply possesses the "ability to perform brilliantly the creation of others.” Virtuosos do incredible things within preset conventions through maximizing technical or mechanical skills. Artists, on the other hand, reveal the staid conventions underlying cultural activity and posit a “solution” of rival conventions.
Firms engaged in cultural production have only one “problem” in mind: how to maximize profit to increase shareholder value. Since most consumers want culture that immediately conforms to the conventions in their brain already, the culture industry prefers output that maintains rather than shifts humans’ perceptual frameworks. Algorithms, ultimately, are a form of virtuosity, and moneyball culture will always keep us trapped in existing conventions rather than shift our attention to completely new problems. It is inevitable this will make us bored over time.
New “Cool”: Perfectly Imperfect
The New York Times’ “What the ‘Cool Kids’ Are Super Into” asked attendees at Perfectly Imperfect’s IRL party what they’re “super into.” Perfectly Imperfect — as if you don’t already know! — is a newsletter that interviews important up-and-coming creatives like Anna Delvey (not her real name), who, I learned, is into a cool magazine called The Paris Review.
I honestly don’t know how to understand this article: Is it a self-reflexive meta gag? Are the cool kids actually super into Third Eye Blind, Northern Soul, and wet cupping? Is The Cobrasnake is a “kid”? No matter what level of irony is required for decoding the quotes from attendees, the piece is further proof we are very post-cool. These trend stories used to function as ritual humiliation for adults, where we’d read long lists of proper nouns and say, I don’t know any of this! Oh god am I my parents now??? Instead any mention of "Semi-Charmed Life" just makes us recall being a teenager listening to “Semi-Charmed Life” — an extremely catchy post-alternative, Hanson-esque, Smashmouth-precursor that currently tends to pop up right after Pink’s “Get the Party Started” on Singapore morning drive time radio. I am assured that no adults were humiliated in the wake of this NYT piece, but maybe that is the humiliation — that we had to be there to know whether the entire thing was ironic or ironically unironic?
My social media feeds serve well as celebrity-death alert systems, and yet I didn’t see a single soul opine the death of watermelon-smashing, increasingly-bigoted comedian Gallagher. Anyone who grew up flipping through 1990s cable TV would come upon a Gallagher special or two on VH1 or Comedy Central — with an excited front row audience covering themselves in a tarp to protect from flying fruit debris — and anyone familiar with any other forms of comedy would immediately recognize “smashing a watermelon with a Sledge-O-Matic” as the lowest possible form of entertainment. But Gallagher was very popular in his time the way Leif Garrett was very popular in his time: Doesn't that allow him entry to the canon? No. Two things have ruled him out for long-term veneration: (1) being intensely hacky, and (2) becoming a “paranoid, right-wing maniac.” This newsletter blurb may be the last thing you ever read about Gallagher (until Gallagher Two dies.)
Fashion Cycles: Natural Wines
Exactly four years ago an actor visiting Tokyo asked me for a list of cool spots where he could drink natural wine, because he was very into natural wine. This was 2018, an era in which, as Jordan Michelman of Bon Appétit notes, “Natural wine was something like a niche beverage subculture, and a signifier of quirk and idiosyncrasy for the establishments that catered to it.” Natural wine, to put it bluntly in the vocabulary of my book, had high status value. But today: “This stuff is everywhere.” Natural wine is clogging up mid Instagram accounts and menus of uncool bars in third-rate cities. Alas, there is declining cachet for natural wine, and the snob contingent at nolitadirtbag etc. joke about it as a signifier of belated bougie taste.
Does it matter that natural wine is “uncool”? Shouldn’t we just judge it on its intrinsic flavor? And shouldn’t we be happy the early majority are drinking better wine? This is where culture gets very complicated, and I’ll repeat my (slightly) controversial point that status value undergirds the actual pleasure in consumption. In other words, we perceive beverages with higher status value as tasting better, and when the status value drops, they taste worse. Before you say this sounds insane, read this neuroscience paper that suggests that our brains register a different kind of pleasure drinking wine after being told it’s expensive. So as much as Meinklang may be objectively “great and wonderful,” will people drink it in the future even if it lacks status value? History suggests not.