Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Beats And Peaces

The other day, a lot of people passed around The Entrepreneurial Generation, a New York Times story on entrepreneurialism as youth culture, but I had a hard time reading it. It starts out reasonably enough:

Ever since I moved three years ago to Portland, Ore., that hotbed of all things hipster, I’ve been trying to get a handle on today’s youth culture. The style is easy enough to describe — the skinny pants, the retro hats, the wall-to-wall tattoos. But style is superficial. The question is, what’s underneath? What idea of life? What stance with respect to the world?

But it all goes to shit as early as the fourth paragraph:

The punks were all about rage, their social program nihilistic anarchy. “Get pissed,” Johnny Rotten sang. “Destroy.” Hip-hop, punk’s younger brother, was all about rage and nihilism, too, at least until it turned to a vision of individual aggrandizement.

I couldn't disagree more.

Consider the book Bomb The Suburbs.

An angry, nihilistic title if you ever saw one, right? Except "bomb" means "paint" in graffiti parlance, the author, Upski, is a graffiti artist, and the main argument of his book is that artists in the city should expand their artistic purview into new cultural environments to prevent the de facto re-segregation of America. This is a book which blurs the line between hippie and hip-hop as well as De La Soul or Digable Planets did.

In Bomb The Suburbs, Upski tells how his friends from the toughest neighborhoods in Chicago feared a neighborhood even tougher, one he'd never even heard of. He asked his toughest friends about it, bone fide gun-toting thugs, and they told him not to go there ever, because it was a scary place, even to them. But he said to them, look, here I am, a white kid from the suburbs, hanging out in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago, and all my suburb friends and family told me to never come here. So he ignores the advice of his tough-guy friends and goes to this legendary neighborhood, and finds the entire place given over to wilderness. He sees deer, and long grass grown tall enough to hide them, where buildings and sidewalks used to be, with the Chicago skyline visible all around in 360 degree panaroma. It's a stark moment of beauty and irony in a cheap self-published book which also contains throwaway remarks about the sheer number of people Upski met who told him that hip-hop had saved their lives.

Feast your eyes on the rage and nihilism on display here:

This is KRS-ONE telling the story of how using visualization helped him lift himself from homeless man to world-famous rapper.

"Right back here, in 1980, I was homeless. I was sleeping right here. You don't realize how real this show is to me right now... While everybody else was down on Flatbush Avenue... people were walking around here aimless, nothing to do. I was over at the Brooklyn Public Library, right there... I'm not saying this for any credit to me. I'm trying to tell the young ones here tonight, and some of the adults: every night before you go to sleep, see your future. See your future. Take five minutes before you go to sleep... I used to be in that band shell right there, me and a couple other guys, sleeping... I used to say, one day, we gonna rock this park... This is so crazy, because I'm in my dreams right now. You can't even imagine what I'm going through up here. Follow your purpose, even if it seems impossible. If you know what your purpose is, you know what the universe's purpose is for you. What seems impossible to everyone else will be possible be for you."

To quote the NYT article again:

Hip-hop, punk’s younger brother, was all about rage and nihilism, too, at least until it turned to a vision of individual aggrandizement.

I give the guy credit for remarking on the historical link between hip-hop and punk. That link is tiny, but interesting and often overlooked. Other than that, though, the man has no idea what he's talking about. Check out these lyrics from Jay-Z, written at a time when he absolutely had no need for more fame or glory in the world of hip-hop:

I do this for my culture
To show them what a nigga looks like
When a nigga in a Rollster

A "Rollster" is a Rolls-Royce. The video shows pictures of smiling black children when he says these words. A translation:

I do this for my people
Including, for instance, these children I am showing you right now
To show them what a black person looks like
When a black person's in a Rolls-Royce

Rage, nihilism, and personal aggrandizement? Really? Nothing else in the equation there?

The Entrepreneurial Generation gets even worse in the next paragraph:

As for the slackers of the late ’80s and early ’90s (Generation X, grunge music, the fiction of David Foster Wallace), their affect ran to apathy and angst, a sense of aimlessness and pointlessness. Whatever. That they had no social vision was precisely what their social vision was: a defensive withdrawal from all commitment as inherently phony.

Reminds me of some hip-hop, namely "Sure Shot" by the Beastie Boys:

You say I'm twenty-something and I should be slacking
But I'm working harder than ever and you can call it macking

That was Mike D calling bullshit on the "slacker" meme when it was current. How something like that even survived to 2011 is a mystery, but I think you get my point. Anybody who sets out to investigate something they call "youth culture" by skipping past Jay-Z with some brisk, dismissive condescension, but approaching David Foster Wallace as gospel, is not going to be a reliable source of information. Our unreliable source of information shares with us that he used to teach at Yale, which is a great school but also the same place which graduated George W. Bush -- making it an unreliable source of graduates -- and proceeds to pontificate:

Today’s ideal social form is not the commune or the movement or even the individual creator as such; it’s the small business. Every artistic or moral aspiration -- music, food, good works, what have you -- is expressed in those terms...

Forty years ago, even 20 years ago, a young person’s first thought, or even second or third thought, was certainly not to start a business. That was selling out — an idea that has rather tellingly disappeared from our vocabulary. Where did it come from, this change? Less Reaganism, as a former student suggested to me, than Clintonism — the heroic age of dot-com entrepreneurship that emerged during the Millennials’ childhood and youth. Add a distrust of large organizations, including government, as well as the sense, a legacy of the last decade, that it’s every man for himself.

Because this isn’t only them. The small business is the idealized social form of our time. Our culture hero is not the artist or reformer, not the saint or scientist, but the entrepreneur. (Think of Steve Jobs, our new deity.) Autonomy, adventure, imagination: entrepreneurship comprehends all this and more for us. The characteristic art form of our age may be the business plan.

Let's get this straight. Occupy Wall Street is happening right now in New York. The authorities decided to shut it down at 2am on a Monday night with no press allowed anywhere near the event. And The New York Times brings us an article about how the only thing that young people think is cool any more is starting a business, how they all distrust the government, and how they all feel that it's every man for himself.


Our Yale professor rambles on:

unlike those of previous youth cultures, the hipster ethos contains no element of rebellion, rejection or dissent


Tear gas at Occupy Oakland.

There's something to this article, in that entrepreneurship can be a very positive force, and it is at least accurate that young people respect entrepreneurs today more than young people did in the 1960s. Other than that, however, the stink of horseshit on this one is so strong it could incinerate every last little hair in your nostrils from six miles away.

One assumption this guy never exposes to analysis: only one youth culture exists at a time. But before we question that one, let's get to the more basic assumption: youth cultures exist. What the fuck is a youth culture? Does anybody, besides magazine writers, seriously believe that Nirvana led a generation anywhere, or spoke for every person of a certain age range, whether black or white, gay or straight, conservative or liberal, rich or poor? The unfathomable diversity and complexity of a group made up of every single American born from X Year to Y Year, from the woods of Maine to the deserts of Arizona, is a lot to pin on the shoulders of a reasonably good band that made one strong album. I suspect the term "youth culture" is a myth journalists tell us about the Sixties, a phrase cooked up in the aftermath of that hectic decade to explain away its strident politics, because everything I can recall people using the term "youth culture" to describe was, in my opinion, a subculture organized around music and fashion, not age group. When I was a raver, one of my DJ friends was forty years old. In 2011, hippies still exist.

And they are gooooooooood-looking.