Monday, November 19, 2007

THE GREAT ROCK 'N' REIHAN SWINDLE. Reihan Salam is very high (as is his colleague James Poulos*) on an essay by Kevin Barnes, a rock star who hit the jackpot, sees no need to apologize for it, and thus decrees that there is no such thing as selling out. I am somewhat in sympathy with Barnes, less so with the American Scenesters. The tradition of complaining about complaints that one is selling out is a venerable one that extends from time immemorial ("Better to be a rich man's dog than a poor man's saint") to Black Francis. Barnes is merely flicking off, with more style than most, some impediments to his enjoyment of success; he is not paid to be a deep thinker, and may be excused from that noxious responsibility.

Salam and Poulos*, though, are supposed to be some sort of intellectuals. Yet they take at face value, for example, the rock star's claim that "the pseudo-nihilistic punk rockers of the 70’s created an impossible code in which no one can actually live by." I guess it's possible that they have never read Emerson, but they might have phoned a friend; ambivalence about conformity goes a hell of a lot further back than 1977. Poulos* seems to misread his own subject, who states
It's impossible to be a sell out in a capitalist society. You're only a winner or a loser. Either you've found a way to crack the code or you are struggling to do so. To sell out in capitalism is basically to be too accommodating, to not get what you think you deserve. In capitalism, you don't get what you think you deserve though. You get what someone else thinks you deserve. So the trick is to make them think you are worth what you feel you deserve. You deserve a lot, but you'll only get it when you figure out how to manipulate the system.
This is not quite coherent (whence come the "too accommodating" sellouts if selling out is impossible?) but it at least hints at some awareness of the difficulties of making a living, which is admirable in a young rock star. Salam thinks it "an insightful meditation on the ethics of commercial life," and Poulos* reads this into it:
The smart today are those who can contextualize themselves as fleeting market actors without despairing, who can maintain, without resolving it, the contradiction between writing ‘authentic’ music and selling it obviously inauthentic corporations. The agony of resolving the contradiction on terms that sacrifice one or another benefit goes away, and Barnes’ manifesto seems to suggest that, with a little practice, we can more perfectly eliminate the big uptick in anxiety that has been our modern tradeoff for trying to minimize agony.
In both tone and content, this is much arty-fartier than what Barnes provides, and more evasive. What Barnes portrays as stark choices in an unsympathetic world -- "you're only a winner or a loser" -- Poulos* describes as a Jedi mind trick. He talks about minimizing "agony" and "despair," but doesn't explain how to do it if you don't have a big recording contract... or a prime slot on the punditocracy fast-track.

One of the advantages of youth is that it keeps the possibility of failure remote. It may be relatively easy for 20somethings to "contextualize themselves as fleeting market actors," assuming they have enough liberal arts education to comprehend those terms, because they are inclined to expect early returns on their generous self-assessment. But even for the young and confident, getting the market to agree is no snap. Though they may find the droopy-drawers non-conformity of ancient punks irrelevant, they may also find that the reality with which they are eager to conform is out of their reach. Despite the optimistic claims of the digerati, not everyone can be a rock star or a pundit; your MySpace music page or blog competes with thousands of others, and over time your may be forced to reckon with the odds.

History is not the only thing written by the winners. They write pop psychology, too. Salam's and Poulos'* concordances to Barnes' essay comprise a self-help tract for educated kids who, despite their natural vigor, are vaguely haunted by early warning signs that the future may not be all they have been trained to expect. These hauntings, Salam and Poulos* tell them, are a Marxist humbug; think positive. Contextualize yourself, eliminate the uptick in anxiety, and find your inner rock star. The possibilities are endless, not only for you but for America:
Because the world is profoundly unfair, those of us born into the US middle class are extraordinarily fortunate, and I tend to think we thus are almost obligated to task risks in pursuit of happiness. The very poor face different constraints, and my hope is that we one day construct the kind of enabling state that will give all Americans, and hopefully all people, the freedom to do the same.
Napoleon Hill couldn't have put it any better.

*UPDATE. Being insensitive to the singularities of their respective styles and new to the Safari "tabs" feature, I confused Salam' and Poulos' contributions in the original. Thanks to Mr. Porrofatto for the correction.

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