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Snob power

Original Idol Kelly Clarkson has managed to survive the stigma of winning her music contract through a game show, not to mention the ignominy of making a film with Justin Guarini, to earn grudging respect from critics in such places as The New Yorker, where Sasha Frere-Jones recently praised Clarkson’s hit-making instincts and her stolid determination: “Anti-poppists will have a hard time holding the line against Kelly Clarkson,” Frere-Jones writes, “who currently has the best rock song on the charts.” With Clarkson edging toward respectability and evincing some surprising cultural staying power, does her success then represent a vindication of the American Idol method for manufacturing pop stars? Is the ability to withstand the media glare and remain interesting (or at least tolerable) to watch to a stuporous yet fickle television public week after week ultimately more important than actual ability? Do the rigors of its season-long schedule, with all the audience pandering and carefully orchestrated indignities involved, make it akin to American presidential campaigns, where one’s mere ability to survive the inane scrutiny and the endless repetition and meaningless questions and the contrived face-offs with one’s competitors, proves one has the fortitude necessary for the national stage?

The comparison seems apt, because both American Idol, and our presidential elections function as celebrations of voting for its own sake, showcases for our ersatz democracy in which you, the wise viewer/citizen, are endlessly applauded for “exercising one’s rights” and choosing among the limited options offered without questioning why they are so pathetically inadequate and demanding better ones. No one thinks the performers on American Idol are the best the country has to offer any more than they think the customary presidential candidates represent our nation’s best and brightest. But voting isn’t an expression of one’s confidence in the choices. It’s an expression of self-satisfaction in one’s power to choose, and have one’s choice tallied. Awash in the ideology of democracy, of the sanctity of having a right to one’s own opinion and having one’s voice heard, we believe we are fulfilling our most exalted spiritual duty whether we’re trekking to our polling place on Election Day or we’re registering our whims in an Internet instapoll or phoning American Idol to weigh in on whose Elton John cover sounded better. Content that their voice is being heard, people can be complacent and apathetic about what they are choosing from and about. The voting booth becomes the best political pacification tool ever invented; it makes passivity seem like participation.

It’s easy to see why token voting has happened in the world of politics. Few Americans have the patience for policy details (typically dismissed as “wonkery” only a geek would care about), so they are content to let all the terms of all political debates be set by pundits, lobbyists and professional activists as long as thy get their moment to play-act the exercise of power every four years when everyone else seems to be paying attention. But it’s less clear why viewers would abdicate control over aesthetics, over the kind of entertainment that brings them pleasure, over the culture that furnishes our fantasies and aspirations. Why would anyone invest any time choosing between a few pop idols dredged up by a game show, why would one limit oneself to those meager options, when one can exercise one’s cultural tastes at any time in a myriad ways from a virtually limitless array of possibilities?

American Idol rests upon a contradiction in the ideology of democracy; it attempts to resolve the conundrum of everyone having a perfectly valid point of view on the one hand, and the majority always being indubitably right on the other. Taste is held to be absolutely subjective and yet is subject to the leverage that mass popularity brings to bear. The show captures in miniature what is generally true of art in a capitalist consumer culture, that we are free to register our aesthetic opinion in a “marketplace of ideas” that is always already circumscribed by the lowest common denominator of the largest feasible demographic. In the magic reconciliation the show tries to pull off, these incompatible ideas synthesize into the utopian notion that everyone’s taste has equal value in the culture, which the voting process certifies and protects. But there are tastemakers in our society, and wielding certain kinds of elitist taste does manifest real power, drawing the shadowy lines of class that determine opportunity. So our eagerness to embrace the show and the bland talent it puts on offer reveals just how much we’re willing to sacrifice to wish away the reality of cultural capital. Before we’ll admit the reality of snob power, we’ll listen to Clay Aiken sing and we’ll even pretend to like it.



Speaking of anti-intellectualism, this item from Salon seems to show how insidious it can be, worming its way into the most casual and offhanded remarks of an allegedly liberal journal about culture. Salon’s music columist Thomas Bartlett is basically providing a link to a Pitchfork feature in which David Cross lambastes Pitchfork’s peculiar over-heated style. I’m not much of a fan of Pitchfork, but I respect the quality of writing they’ve achieved while establishing an idiosyncratic, instantly recognizable style whose influence is far reaching in the cloistered (fetid) rock-journalism universe. Pitchfork is basically the Lester Bangs of this era, redefining rock criticism for those benighted enough to want to start writing it. Pitchfork writers are not afraid of throwing out allusions that maybe five other people who can read English would get, they’re not afraid of making ludicrous arguments that put pop music on a level of metaphysical significance with Kant and Thomas Aquinas, they manage to blend irony and enthusiasm in such a way as to refute the silly post-ironist argument made by dour Believer types that they’re irreconcilable. More than anything, the writing is smart, and the intelligence is preserved even in the face of inscrutability. Thus writers are allowed to elevate rock criticism to Adornoesque levels of tortuousness with statements like this, which Bartlett (following Cross) singles out for ridicule: “Our self-imposed solitude renders us politically and spiritually inert, but rather than take steps to heal our emotional and existential wounds, we have chosen to revel in them. We consume the affected martyrdom of our purported idols and spit it back in mocking defiance.” This was written about the Arcade Fire’s album (not Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness though I suspect the author of this quip is familiar with it). Cross selects it for ridicule because it’s a statement rich with personality, it is redolent with belief and in love with its own complexity; the writer seems anxious to follow her train of thought straight into its implications for the totality even if that makes her sound silly. But it is perfectly comprehensible and pretty cogent considering Arcade Fire’s oft-repeated insistence that their music is cathartic. By citing this remark, Cross underscores how entertaining this kind of writing is in spite of being diffuse, how it longs to be read and re-read, as an example of someone who is alive to thought. By imitating it to mock it, Cross pays respect to it at the same time. That’s why Pitchfork ran the piece in the first place. But Bartlett assumes the sentence has no meaning and is unwilling to even try to parse it or take its claims seriously. He cites it just to scorn it and the writer’s attempt to say something meaningful instead of spout the weary cliches of hype prepared and market-tested by the PR releases the music industry unflaggingly generates and mainstream rock critics dutifully adopt. He accuses Cross of sour grapes, but I wonder if its not he who suffers instead, since apparently he has surrendered his own intellectual pretensions long ago, writes neutered paragraphs for a lifestyle zine, and has nothing left to do but cackle impotently at those who still dare to try to make meaning. Thus Cross’s joke, while it seems to be on Pitchfork, is really on him.


Why does the American media and American politics lack grandstanding and showmanship like this? Or am I just missing it? Is the joy I derived from this the same kind of pleasure that hate-radio aficionados derive from master rhetoricians like Rush Limbaugh? The substance of what Galloway says here is nothing new, but the vigor and venom with which he says it makes it seem as if these things are being disclosed for the very first time.

Americans seem to prefer that their politicians act like sonorous simpletons so that they can feel wiser than those glad-handing, cliche-spouting dullards and believe that politics has no impact on their lives and curtails none of their personal autonomy, even as their tax dollars are being misappropriated and the very real impact of decaying social conditions impacts their precious personal freedom. Most likely America will never have fire-breathing politicians like this (who are not spouting religious invective, anyway) because this kind of rhetoric teems with wit, and Americans of all poltical persuasions seem to be unite in one thing, their contempt for intellectuals. Smart politicians conjure immediately the “know-it-alls in Washington who presume to know what’s best for you and your family” attack and quickly become unviable.

Also, boring politics leads to voter apathy, which leads to protected incumbents and entrenched systems of political patronage. Apparently, nothing is better for the powers that be in a “democracy” than an uninterested electorate. So it is in the vested interest of politicians to be dullards and bad speakers, characteristics that are likely enforced collectively, each upon the other, through traditions and passed-down rules of decorum and myriad other little ways. Perhaps that’s why it’s so refreshing to see someone come in from the outside (a real Washington outsider as opposed to all the phoney pseudo-populist ones the system dredges up) and blows all that self-protecting crypto-gentility away.

The game of life

More breaking cell-phone technology “news,” courtesy of The Wall Street Journal. I was thinking how I seem to write about nothing but cell-phone innovations lately, and was going to castigate myself for my futile Luddite obession with resisting it, but in fact, I’m not to blame here. The Journal continues to pump up these “developments” as if they are news, giving the air of triumphal inevitability to these technological tweaks, promoting the advance of cell-phone culture because it’s unmistakable good for commerce, if for nothing else. Today’s big news? “Videogame Makers Bet That Playing on the Go Will Be Hot,” a headline from the front page of the Marketplace section. The idea here is that your cell phone rings you with important information in immersive role-playing games you can participate in: “online play on the go,” so that the real world need not impinge on your fantasy world even when you have to go palces in that dreary real world. This is such an obvious fit for my argument that the cell phone is the anti-communicaton device whose real purpose is to encase you in a solipsistic, personally target-marketed bubble that renders all commitment to the outside world inconvenient, a scarily impersonal hassle that I won’t waste any words connecting those dots. But what’s important is not the idea that Americans might start playing fantasy games on the their cell phones. What’s important is that they already have; that cell phones make the responsibilities of everyday life take on a fantastic air of unreality. They encourage the idea that life is already a game, that everything is basically optional and provisional, subject to change at whim and a phone call from anywhere. Cell phones afford the illusion of autonomy and ubiquity, of God like power, that one used to only experience in immersive role-playing games, where you really do have unquestioned power over all the details of your existence in that world. The real world is not so malleable, no matter how urgently cell-phone makers and their shills in the buisness press argue that technology empowers you. The reality of life remains that one is embedded in social networks of power. If one is willing to deal with that loss of total autonomy, who knows what feelings of connectedness, spontaneity, surprise, and meaningfulness one might derive from engaging with something truly other and thus truly unpredictable. But the cell phone reviles all those things; it encourages you to choose the fantasy of total control over all circumstances and encasement in a bubble of one’s own narrow preferences.

Class warfare

It was nice to see this morning that The New York Times has begun an inquiry into class in America, even if it was joined with all sorts of risible codicils qualifying class’s very existance, and ultimately endorsing only this tentative definition: “Class is one way societies sort themselves out.”

The article is full of mixed blessings. It repeated the discredited claim by economic ideologist Gary Becker (who also argues that addiction is a rational choice) that the children of the rich and the poor have equal opportunities in life in such a way that its later refutation seems in question. (Part of the bogus “balancing” style of reporting that equates lies with truth because one side of the political spectrum prefers lies.) It presents some compelling data about the degree to which class affects well-being (in terms of health care and education) but then undermines it by soft-selling it in the analysis, emphasizing instead Americans’ “optimism” about social mobility. We get the usual fatalistic bromides from interview subjects about being realistic and about how you can’t fix the system and how it’s “as fair as you can make it” and how in the end one can still work hard and get ahead, off-handedly pinning all the blame for social inequality right on the shoulders of the poor — if they can’t get educated or get health care, they simply haven’t worked hard enough. As usual, those suffering by this ideology of hard work are depicted as the ones espousing it and endorsing it.

We do learn that social mobility is lower in America than in Europe — thanks to winner-take-all economic policies of the oligarchic right, the “American dream” is now more easily fulfilled in Europe than in America. And even though it waffles about class’s existence, it does summarize the reasons why class consciousness is crippled in America: the surfeit of cheap goods, the stubborn materialism that leads people to ignore the invisible but overwhelming factor of social capital in policing class barriers. Class is less a matter of what stuff one has (that is itself an ideological notion of a consumer society; that we are all the same class because we can all own DVD players) than one’s habitus, one’s mode of reacting and responding to the world that communicates where you are in the hierarchy. Sometimes this is mystified as “aesthetic sensibility” or “charisma” or “social connections” or “etiquette.” But whatever it is called, it is the true hallmark of class.

The article also gingerly offers the thesis that Americans’ faith in social mobility is an ideology supported by shows like American Idol and The Apprentice, which attempt to dramatize meritocracy in action, and by rags-to-riches stories derived from Ben Franklin and Horatio Alger. But the article also opines that “fixed class positions … rub people the wrong way,” and then justifies why these people are right to wish class into the cornfield and pretend it no longer has any effect on them. You have to believe in social mobility in order to have any chance at it, it concludes, arguing for a placebo effect version of the classless society.

One can only hope that future installments in this series will explore further the way in which class privilege is hidden in America. At this stage there should be no debate that it exists; the only question is to explore the ways in which it works and they way in which is hidden, to quell the inevitable dissent that would otherwise result.

"Donkey punch"

I was recently forwarded an email message about activists who are protesting Cafe Press, a company who makes T-shirts and things celebrating the “donkey punch,” which (for those of you who don’t listen to Howard Stern and his ilk) is a maneuver by which a man surprises a woman with a punch to the head during sex when he’s about to come so that her vaginal muscles (allegedly) contract or to distract her so that he can sneak in some anal sex. Ha ha, right? (If you don’t think this is very funny, please share your views with Cafe Press: Call toll-free at 1-877-809-1659 between 7AM and 7PM PST. Ask for Candice in the Legal Department.  If they won’t put you through, her direct number is 510-877-1926. If Candice isn’t available, ask for Maureen or Lindsay.  Once you have a live human, explain why you are offended by the 225 “donkey punch” products currently in CafePress stores. Or write an email to:,,, and

Now I doubt that many men who haven’t spent substantial time in prison out there or who haven’t been clinicallly proven to be sociopaths are out there doing this. And few men are going to be convinced by a T-shirt to start doing it. I’d like to think that the men who wear such gear never get laid anyway (and if they do, then their partners, if they are willing, should be asking themselves some hard questions). But that’s not the point, of course. These shirts are made, sold, and worn because they allow men to advertise a cavalier attitude toward women and sexuality itself, scoffing at the idea that it is anything but a zero-sum power struggle where you must extort your own pleasure from your partner at his or her expense. Phrases such as these, that commemorate sexual acts that rarely take place (if ever) are capturing a cultural fantasy that no one individual exhibits. Few men, left alone, conceive of this kind of pointless hatred for the women they are intimate with, but culture as a whole conjures this sentiment, which seems to be required for patriarchy, for a commercial consumer culture that revolves around misdirected libido. They reflect and redirect the humilation that society subjects many of its members to giving those some members a vested interest in its perpetuation — it’s funny!


I know I’m hopelessly retrograde in my thinking about phones, quaintly and antiquatedly believing their function is to allow one person to speak to another person at a remote location. I haven’t yet accepted that they are so much more than that, and that communication is really the least of their functions. Communication is so last century: what’s happening now is the phone as personal marketing manager, a device to allow advertisers to tailor things specifically to you that can reach you wherever you are and whatever you might be doing and help you transform any environment you happen to be in into a personal you-specific playground of desire. Wherever you go, your phone, your portable personal buddy, is there to reinforce that you are at the center of the universe and all digital roads lead to you.

Once it was the Internet that put you firmly of the center of the universe, and it was pornography — that solitary, masturbatory, self-contained form of libido management — that led to its rapid adoption as a media format. Now, according to a story called “Sex Cells” in today’s Wall Street Journal, pornography will also lead the charge toward the widespread use cell phones as tiny TVs. Thanks in large part to port-a-porn, spending on video content for phones is up to one billion dollars from virtually nothing a few years ago. In Asia, cell-phone users can play with “Vivianne” a “virtual girlfriend” and in Europe you can have live chat with strippers who get naked on the little video screen.

None of this is much different from what’s already available via cable and the Internet at home. But the essential difference is its portability, which allows one isolate oneself with his porn in increasingly private places — you won’t need to lug a laptop into the bathroom to masturbate in private. And you since you can carry your fantasy-gratifier around with you, it will always be there to pull you away from the real world, the world where social interaction is necessary, where it is not scripted by prearranged money exchanges and contractual expectations. It is a more enveloping way to not be where you are but to be in the phone world instead.