4 min read

Links on Culture for September

Links on Culture for September
Old Old Money long before the dawn of hashtags, from The Official Preppie Handbook

Beer cooler status symbols, wet putty cars, and how #oldmoney isn't very Old Money

The last few months have seen some excellent cultural journalism and critique, and I wanted to share a few highlights.

New Status Symbol: Beer Coolers
Anything can be an effective status symbol if it has (1) cachet, i.e. symbolic associations to high-status groups, (2) signaling costs to keep outsiders out, and (3) an alibi that makes it appear not to be a status symbol. In The Atlantic’s “Yeti Coolers Are Luxury Goods for Bros,” Amanda Mull shows how Yeti Coolers fulfill these three conditions and have emerged as bro culture status symbols. An interesting implication is that the idealized version of an outdoor sportsman, such as the stoic fly-fisherman, has taken on high-status associations in our minds.

New Aesthetic Convention: Wet Putty Cars
We have a hard time grasping new conventions when they're unnamed, and Blackbird Spyplane did us all a favor by chronicling the quiet proliferation of shiny-yet-matte finish automobiles and christening them “wet putty cars.”

New Technological Convention: Synonymized Texts
A few days before Status and Culture came out, Amazon was selling 13 different “study guides” to the book, which all turned out to be scraped text run through AI synonymizer software and packaged up as original work. (For more on this scam, read David Gaughran’s "Amazon Has a Fake Book Problem"). I’ve now realized this is a web-wide problem: There are thousands of fake blogs and news sites that run popular articles through AI software to generate “original” articles.

New Social Norm: Reality TV’s Impact on Identity Expectations
Art critic Dean Kissick went long on Spike about Nathan Fielder’s truly excellent The Rehearsal, and in the midst of analyzing the show, also hit this important observation about changing mutual expectations on public behavior: “While pop used to offer a fantasy, social media and reality TV offered performances of authenticity; the acting out of fictions that feel real. The game is not to recover authenticity for yourself but to perform it for others.” If I'm reading this correctly, the paradigm of fantastical pop culture meant there was little pressure on us normal people to have such polished lives. With reality TV, however, the merger of fantasy and reality on TV forces us to constantly play out our idealized selves as “authentic.”

New Cliché: Hollywood’s Depictions of Arab Countries
The first step to dismantling conventions is to reveal them. This group effort on TikTok mocks the American film industry’s go-to conventions for depicting Arab countries on the big screen. Also see: the "yellow filter" used in editing to make undeveloped nations appear more squalid.

Semantic Drift: #oldmoney
Over at Town & Country, powerhouse net-culture detective Taylor Lorenz analyzed the popular TikTok hashtag #oldmoney. But as she shows, this is a New “Old Money” aesthetic, far from the muted, detached Old Money aesthetics Nelson Aldrich wrote about in Old Money. Gen Z seems to believe Old Money loves big, flashy expenditures like yachts, rather than counter-signaling their wealth by focusing on dull, patinated goods. But really, how would young people know about Old Money thrift when our conception of wealth in the 21st century is all celebrities and tech-billionaires? I didn't grow up in towns with Old Money, but we still had George Plimpton show up on TV in shetland sweaters, and I had a lot of questions whether his mid-Atlantic accent was real or a bit.

Old Hits: Hamilton
Someone noted that the musical Hamilton dropped out of the cultural dialogue, to which the famed puppy dog lawyer answered: “Hamilton is still the top-grossing show on Broadway every week. It supports two national touring companies and residencies in Chicago and the West End. Its streaming premiere in 2020, five years after opening on Broadway, drove up Disney+ downloads 74%.” This is an excellent reminder that culture is always a narrative, not an objective measure of consumer behavior. Writers, editors, and other cultural experts have undue power in determining what we discuss, and there isn't much to say affirmative anymore about Hamilton. Old trends can stay popular, but they make bad copy.

New Dissents: Against the Long Tail
We're living through a re-assessment of all the initial theories about how the Internet would change the world. "Virality" is on the ropes, and Dave Karpf questions the Kevin Kelly’s “Thousand True Fans” theory. Next to be challenged is Chris Anderson's "Long Tail." I have been criminally delinquent in reading Ted Gioia's books and will make up for that soon (he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath — 'The pile of unread books! The pile of unread books!'), but Gioia's Substack article on the Long Tail demonstrates that it’s not just a cultural failure (a conclusion I also reach in Status and Culture, as the “Head” is more important than ever) but hardly made any sense as a business strategy, either. (Very lucrative topic for Chris Anderson, however.)

Books That I Haven’t Read But I’d Like To

  1. Aria S. Halliday: Buy Black: How Black Women Transformed US Pop Culture (University of Illinois Press, 2022)
    A deep look into how Black women producers and consumers became the unspoken vanguards of pop culture. (listen to Halliday on this podcast)
  2. Minh-Ha T. Pham: Why We Can′t Have Nice Things: Social Media's Influence on Fashion, Ethics, and Property (Duke University Press Books, 2022)
    A critical look at the modern global fashion ecosystem that looks at how social media users police for counterfeit goods and the lingering colonialist beliefs underneath. (listen to Pham on this podcast)
  3. Grant McCracken: Return of the Artisan: How America Went from Industrial to Handmade (S&S/Simon Element, 2022)
    McCracken looks at how artisans have returned to play a leading role in commerce — a trend that has given Japanese culture a second life on the global stage. (read McCracken interviewed here)
  4. Chip Wilson: Little Black Stretchy Pants (RosettaBooks, 2018)
    An unauthorized history of Lululemon, a defining brand of our times. (h/t SV IV)