Aging White Men, Like Everyone, Are Aware of the Discursive Reality in Which They Live
every 40-year-old white dad I know won't shut the fuck up about Kendrick Lamar
So this piece about the “last rock band,” from The New York Times Magazine, made me very tired. It’s not terrible; it’s not really bad, exactly. It just doesn’t seem to know what year this is despite being exactly about “what year this is” in pop cultural terms. (Do we need another “is rock dead?” piece, in 2023?) I don’t want to go into my usual 40-point complaint about poptimism here - the piece is, in broad strokes, about the death of rock music and the ascension of pop, which is consonant with my own observation of pop’s dominance. But it’s very guilty of something that is poptimism-adjacent and a kind of motivated misunderstanding that I increasingly can’t live with: it speaks to the cultural and discursive spaces in which rock and pop music live without ever being plainly honest about what those discursive spaces are really like. The conversation about music goes one way, these days, but people who write the conversation about music are dedicated to pretending that it goes another way. This is a generalizable condition in journalism, where many people seem to want to write in an ambient conversation other than the one in which they actually live. (Including me, at times, I’m sure.)
What this piece had to do, just had to do - what any piece written about these subjects has to do - is to be entirely forthright about what music criticism is like right now. And in professional music criticism right now there is an absolutely hegemonic mindset call poptimism, which has leveraged a (mostly false) claim that pop music was once dismissed and ridiculed by a rock-worshipping music establishment into the enforcement of pop as the only legitimate taste. That’s what music commentary is, in 2023; it’s a large mass of people gleefully enforcing a pro-pop consensus and punishing those who dissent, a tiny number of people who dare to point this reality out, and another big group of those who know this isn’t a healthy state of affairs but who are scared to speak out for fear of retribution and so keep their head down. And I believe that what Dan Brooks needed to do in this NYT mag piece was to have one clear, unambiguous, declarative paragraph where he reflected the fact that Måneskin’s status as the Last Rock Band (or, really, the latest Last Rock Band) exists in the shadow of a culture that could produce a full-time Taylor Swift reporter for Gannett. The piece simply is not fully honest about the cultural moment we’re in, and that’s as a matter of convenience for the argument it wants to make.
When Brooks writes
This perspective reflects the post-’90s rock consensus (PNRC) that anything that sounds too much like a mass-market product is no good. The PNRC is premised on the idea that rock is not just a structure of song but also a structure of relationship between the band and society. From rock’s earliest days as Black music, the real or perceived opposition between rocker and society has been central to its appeal; this adversarial relationship animated the youth and counterculture eras of the ’60s and then, when the economic dominance of mass-market rock made it impossible to believe in, provoked the revitalizing backlash of punk. Even major labels felt obliged to play into this paradoxical worldview, e.g. that period after Nirvana when the most popular genre of music was called “alternative.”
I miiiiiight agree that this is an accurate description of some real thing in our culture’s past. But it’s a little like writing about the Washington Generals instead of the Harlem Globetrotters or about the opposition party in North Korea. Where does the power lie, Dan? Brooks swipes at Fugazi fans as “rock snobs,” but… why? For what earthly purpose? If I go on Twitter and say “I don’t care for the music of Ariana Grande,” her fans will doxx me and set fire to my house. But Fugazi fans were snobby 35 years ago? Who fucking cares? What are we doing here? Why would the existence of a tiny sliver of humanity that Brooks himself says is shrinking merit an essay, instead of (oh, I don’t know) the fact that Kpop fans are absolutely fucking insane and will destroy anyone who crosses them? Guess I answered the question myself! Calling Fugazi fans snobs is weird and pointless but safe. Taking a critical look at Kpop fans is not, and anyway, such a piece would never get published in the Times magazine.
Brooks is hardly alone. When you’re writing about arts & media, a type of writing which typically lacks the rigor of numbers and fact in most cases, it’s hard to resist embracing a selective understanding of the culture in which you work, given your argumentative needs. And what is most useful to culture writers is that which flatters themselves and the most possible people in their audience. For example, culture writers flatter themselves and their liberal audiences when they act as though drag generally (as opposed to specific drag shows or traditions) is still inherently a rebel culture. This is, I stress, a very different question from whether drag is good or worth defending. But RuPaul has used drag to sell Vitamin Water for almost fifteen years now; big drag shows in NYC have become destinations for bachelorette parties and drunk wine moms in for the weekend. They are unthreatening. That’s no insult to drag, really, and drag shows are still often fun and artistic. No doubt there’s challenging drag taking place far away from the tourist traps where I would never see them, and drag needs to be defended either way. But the idea that drag lives in a perpetual state of subversion just by existing is transparently false. And what I’m willing to bet is that a majority of people who write about culture wouldn’t really disagree with me, but also wouldn’t feel they could ever say so publicly, for fear of professional and personal consequences, and no matter how many pieces get written about a “vibe shift,” that is our current misery.
Here is a general cultural assumption that pops up everywhere: aging white men love rock music, power chord music, music by white men with guitars. They look fondly back to the days of grunge and Nirvana and Pearl Jam or, if of a somewhat newer vintage, to Interpol and Arcade Fire and their Williamsburg days. They’re disdainful of music that’s produced electronically or with computers. They’re scared of hip hop and annoyed by pop. They want to go back to the good old days of carrying their girlfriend on their shoulders at a concert while holding a lighter aloft during the ballad played as a second encore. When music was music, man.
None of that is broadly true. Indeed, the opposite is usually true, because aging white men are aware of the negative cultural assumptions about aging white men. I am an aging white man. Naturally, I have a social cohort with a lot of aging white men in it. Are most of them the kind of aging white dudes who will regale you with tales of the glory days when musicians knew how to play their instruments? No! Not at all! Instead, most of them loudly champion hip hop (usually) or pop (sometimes) BECAUSE THEY DON’T WANT TO APPEAR TO BE AGING WHITE MEN. Isn’t that simple, obvious, and profoundly human? It’s the same reason many of them spent a decade yammering about how The Wire was the greatest art since Shakespeare; it’s not like they didn’t actually like it - I’m sure they liked it very much, and really do like Olivia Rodrigo, and Barbie too - but there was desperation in how loudly they told you. That desperation made it clear they were telling you more to say something about them than to say something about the show. If you follow me.
This is perhaps the most basic human psychology I can imagine, and yet modern cultural critics insist on pretending they can’t understand it. The aging white guys of my vintage are now the kind of 40-year-old white dudes who won’t shut the fuck up about how much they love 21 Savage, which once was Kendrick Lamar, which once was Kanye…. They’re the ones who spend a fortune on Taylor Swift tickets for their daughters, then say with a wink “but really for me!” on Facebook. That’s most white guys I know, of my own cohort. They’re not unthinkingly clinging to the past, but rather clumsily signaling their dedication to keeping up with the future. And this is entirely predictable given the incentive structure built into our social discourse. You see, when people create an archetype of the out-of-touch white guy who can’t let go of what used to be cool, they’re ensuring that there’s going to be a lot of white guys who will do anything to defy that archetype.
Sometimes it feels like 90% of culture writing these days is just “Everyone Embodies an Embarrassing Stereotype Except for Me.”
You might consider this little poem from Jacob Bacharach. It indicts the tweet above, taking the form of doggerel to advance the cultural commonplace that old people like to complain about young people, but it’s just because they’re old. (Not like Jacob, who is too advanced for such things.) This is not his first foray in this genre. The trouble is that, while the tweeter overgeneralizing wildly, the problem she identifies is real; the Zoomers, with many exceptions, really are the generation that defies subtext and subtlety and asks to be hit over the head with every theme. It’s the generation of Everything Everywhere All at Once, where rocks just tell you how to feel about the movie halfway through, and Stranger Things, where once an episode a character looks dead into the lens and says “friendship is the real magic!” That those are made, respectively, by archetypally Millennial and Gen X artists only speaks to the fact that Gen Z remains a consuming class rather than a producing class, for now. Saying this exposes yourself to ridicule as a grumpy old person, but it exposes other people to the truth, so it’s a good trade.
I’ll forgive Bacharach because he had the good stuff for this next one.
This fellow, who Bacharach also indicts, is something like the platonic ideal of what I'm talking about: he is an aging white man who feels great anxiety about being part of that demographic and thus weepily confines all the rest of us to its stereotypes. This unfortunate fellow is just one of a cohort of aging white men who will chew your ear off about (say) how “Call Me Maybe,” once dismissed as a trifle, has proven to be a multi-generational anthem and deeper than the entire Led Zeppelin corpus. The kind of man I’m talking about is a prisoner of his fear of being something other people have already made fun of, and thus he attempts to embody its negation, not understanding that this is the most aging white man thing you can possibly be: the guy who tries to stay too long at the party. Maybe his defenses of The Kids are more right, maybe more wrong, but they are always, fundamentally, self-defensive. I would much, much rather state the plain truth that I am a child of the 1990s who does indeed love Nirvana and misses when guitar music was popular than build such a vainglorious smoke signal to my own defiance of time and aging. Buddy, it tolls for thee. It’s fine not to care about lawns and sports, but perhaps Christopher Canning, which sounds like the lead character from an off-brand Young Adult series about a magic blanket, should consider whether anyone else wants to work through their trauma with him. Banalities about cars or home renovations are less offensive than the assumption that every passing stranger is our guru, our sensei, and our therapist.
To return to the matter at hand - it turns out that, in fact, the kids are neither alright nor all wrong because there is no such thing as “the kids.” Like all of us, I am by turns immensely frustrated with talk of generations and all of its inevitable distortions and yet unable to describe the world and its progress without them. Many years of turning this over in my head convinces me we are all doomed to rage against and participate in generation talk. I can definitely say that “this young generation is all good” is as stupid as “this young generation is all bad,” and the former carries with it that inherent incentive of making you look Not Old, so you get more of the former while people pretend there’s more of the latter. There are many more people sharing that tired “Old Man Yells at Cloud” jpeg than there are old men yelling at clouds. This is permanent.
As for substance, I don’t know how the refusal to ever criticize the youth can possibly coexist with the ability to meaningfully complain about some new development in the world; many new developments are the doing of the youth, mostly for good, sometimes for bad. For the world, I’m afraid, does get worse. Occasionally. Yet many gradually-softening writers of my generation are dedicated to forgiving the youth of everything because they, like me, mourned their own youth in real time and are hoping to claw a little of it back. But sometimes kids are dumbfucks, Jacob. That’s life. There genuinely are some very concerning elements of the Gen Z story. If you’d like to acquit them of all charges, you could point out that they’re suffering from the absurd fretful helicopter parenting of their Gen X yuppie parents. You wouldn’t be wrong.
I’m left with this same deeply discouraging feeling that provocation is dead and gone forever. And if no one gets mad, what’s the point? If the New York Times Magazine or a similar publication wanted to impress me, if they wanted real subversion, real provocation, real challenge, they’d publish a piece called “Hip Hop is Dead,” and send a white guy to write it. No one in the world is under the misapprehension that writing about “the death of rock” is challenging. But if you were to harness the growing sense among many hip hop traditionalists that the genre has lost its way, you might absolutely rouse people; that’s a fucking conversation. But I doubt you’ll see that piece until it’s safe to print it, as the NYT magazine, like its parent paper, is indispensable, impeccably made, stuffed with talent, and seemingly trapped in cliché and commonplace, destined to trace the same worn lines on the same often-folded sheet of greying paper. And that’s the problem not just with that magazine, but for all of us.