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Archive for the ‘youth culture’ Category

The conversation about “selling out” in popular music has been dead for some time. And I’m not interested in reviving that conversation now. The last time it really flared up was around 1989, when Nike featured the Beatles’ “Revolution” in a commercial. Since then, it’s basically been a done deal.

So, today’s New York Times‘ story about Converse opening a recording studio did not come as that big a surprise. It’s a pretty interesting story, actually, that points out the real deadness of the “selling out” debate. Given the state of the music industry — the rise of digital downloading, the bloatedness of the major labels, the constriction of radio outlets through consolidation (and companies like Clear Channel), the so-called “360 deals,” rampant product placement in pop music and so on — why shouldn’t Converse enter the industry? Why shouldn’t Whole Foods? Barnes and Noble? You or I?

It’s a rhetorical question, of course, but it raises three important issues that we ought to be clear about, if we’re thinking about the current state of popular music.

1. Converse will make music to sell shoes. The music is “successful” if it results in shoe sales. The Converse record label is the idea of Geoff Cottrill, Converse’s chief marketing officer. Cottrill is pretty plain about his intentions:

“Let’s say over the next five years we put 1,000 artists through here, and one becomes the next Radiohead,” he said. “They’re going to have all the big brands chasing them to sponsor their tour. But the 999 artists who don’t make it, the ones who tend to get forgotten about, they’ll never forget us.”

In other words, if the company has a .01% success rate in terms of music sales, but it builds brand loyalty for its shoes, then the music is a worthwhile investment. It’s a strange approach to “arts patronage,” in which it has none of the trappings of the Rennaissance or human expression — it’s about creating art to sell shoes. And I know (thanks, Warhol), that this, too, is old, self-referential, post-modern news. Nevertheless, I think we ought to be clear about these new arrangements and what is serving and what is being served.

2. Because it is in the business of selling shoes, Converse is actually being far more generous to its artists than the labels (at least it appears to be so). The article reported that Converse has little to no interest in owning the recordings that it makes. This is something new, and it does give more power to the artists than they typically have under contract with major labels — but good luck selling your song to Nike or Starbucks or VW if you’ve already sold it to Converse. And if you’re a musician, you’re probably not making money selling records, so where are you going to sell your music?

3. The entrance of Converse into this marketplace seems like evidence of the breaking-apart of the music industry as we knew it in the 20th century. Indeed, one of the great things about music these days is that anyone with a laptop and an internet connection can become a label. This is radically liberating for many artists. But what’s the real difference between Columbia and Converse? Amidst the sweeping changes in the music industry, it still seems to be about artists serving larger corporate interests. Converse, like Columbia or EMI or Decca or whomever, has the broadcast outlets; it has the power in the marketplace that independent musicians don’t have.

And, though Converse seems to be more generous with their artists, they appear to care less about their music.

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Perusing the shelves at Blockbuster the other day, I noticed that quite a few remakes of horror films from the late 70s and 80s have appeared in the past few years.  Halloween, Friday the 13th, Prom Night, Black Christmas, Last House on the Left, and When a Stranger Calls, among many others, have been remade or reimagined in the mid-to-late 2000s.  And remakes of Fright Night and Nightmare on Elm Street are in the works.  My question that day in the video store: Why this particular cultural phenomenon, why now, and what does it all mean?  Why are these stories being reintroduced into popular culture at this moment in time?  How might we interpret this trend? 

One way to read the original versions of these films is as a commentary on generational failings.  80’s slasher flicks focus on teenagers who are typically killed soon after their ethical/moral transgressions.  For these celluloid kids, having premarital sex, doing drugs, or shirking job responsibilities will result in some kind of blood-and-guts punishment.  Many of these films similarly feature an elderly character who tries to warn the teens not to go into the house, or into the woods, or into wherever, but the kids always ignore that elderly person.  Read against the backdrop of the Reagan era, these films become an interesting commentary on the unsuitability of the rising generation to take on adult responsibilities.  The films essentially rearticulate a 1980s moral majority critique of the reckless, immoral sixties hippies who “ruined” America.  I realize it’s odd to think of horror movies as conservative, but arguably there is a consistent ideology embedded in these films that reflects the broader society’s culture wars and generational divides in the late 70s and 80s. 

Given this particular interpretation, what does it mean that these films have been remade in the 21st century?  Is this generational critique being recycled?  Perhaps these films resonate with our current discourse about “Generation Me,” or the “entitled” generation that supposedly populates our high schools and colleges today.  According to some social scientists and cultural critics, this rising generation is narcissistic and discourteous; a whole slice of our population currently believes—as a result of permissive parenting and schooling—that they are all “special” and deserving of anything they want, whether they work for it or not.  Hence the popularity of slasher films redux, depicting the slaughter of the self-important youth of today, with a new slew of ignored warnings from old folks telling them not to go in the woods.  But I deserve to go into the woods, these kids seem to say.  Perhaps this explains, in part, the currency of slasher remakes right now.

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The New York Times recently published an article on teenagers who have decided to reduce or eliminate the time they spend on Facebook in order to bolster their grades, their offline social lives, and their self-esteem (“To Deal With Obsession, Some Defriend Facebook,” December 21, 2009, A16).  I found the article especially interesting for the way it depicted teenagers and their relationship to technology.  The story reinforces one of our dominant, culturally constructed beliefs about adolescence: namely, the notion that technology poses a particular threat to teens because they lack the maturity and willpower to use it in a responsible, temperate manner.

First consider how technology is represented.  Throughout the article, Facebook is described as an addiction.  Words like “habit,” “obsession,” and “temptation” appear, as do phrases such as “like an eating disorder,” the “lure of the login,” and “time consuming but perhaps not all that fulfilling.”  One teenager mentioned by the piece even went on a “Facebook fast” for Lent.  Here, technology is depicted as a drug that can be especially dangerous and abused in the hands of teens.

Next consider the representation of adolescents.  The teenagers who have weaned themselves off of Facebook come across as having accomplished a remarkable victory.  They had to undergo a fierce struggle, one that required them to fight against their inherent adolescent traits and tendencies.  These exceptional teens exhibited “self-control,” “willpower,” and the ability to “delay gratification.”  The presumption here is that teens fundamentally lack these qualities… and they do not acquire them until they become adults.

Indeed, an unstated assumption of this New York Times story is that adults can use technology like Facebook more responsibly because adults have self-control.  However, many of my adult friends, myself included, are regular if not obsessive users of Facebook.  I even tried to “quit” Facebook back in April, posting a status update that read, “Leaving Facebook in 10 days.  I am both addicted and over it.”  In ten days I stopped looking at my account, but did not deactivate it.  Then two weeks later I was back on, and have basically logged in daily since then.  The teens profiled in this article are made of stronger stuff than I. 

One of the consequences of recirculating these assumptions about teens and technology in our mass news media is that it makes it easier for adults to claim the need to restrict or monitor teens’ use of technology.  The passing of laws targeting teens and technology comes to be seen as normal and even necessary for their safety.  For example, California recently passed a law prohibiting drivers under the age of 18 from using their cell phones; drivers over the age of 18, however, may use hands-free devices to talk on their phones.  Video games are assigned ratings (not by law, but by voluntary industry self-regulation) and people under the age of 18 cannot purchase certain games. 

I am interested in the larger questions raised by this story, questions about the role of technology in all of our lives, questions about the meaning of “maturity” and “immaturity” in our society, and questions about our cultural attitudes—and selective stigmas—regarding various “addictions” and “obsessions.”

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