Economist Tyler Cowen recently wrote an article in Bloomberg suggesting that food is replacing music as a cultural force. A respondent on his blog provides several interesting examples of how fine dining has become Western society’s new favorite signaling mechanism. This insight follows on the heels of Cowen’s recently published book The Complacent Class, which is about a growing tendency in Americans of avoiding change. His claim in the Bloomberg article is that it is not surprising to find that something apolitical and comforting like food would be so hip in a world where music has lost its touch. Quoting Cowen, “food is the opiate of the educated classes”.
The Patrician in this Brave New World
Two things are clear to me reading Cowen’s article: he is a foodie and he is not a music snob. If he were a music snob, he would know that there are more avenues than ever to express elitism through music. Despite the abundance and accessibility of music today, many of these elitist expressions haven’t changed at all from what they would have been in the 70’s:
- Having a large and varied record collection
- Attending live performances of lesser known bands
- Listening to or even being aware of underground artists
- Enjoying music that others find disagreeable
- Collecting rare band merchandise and memorabilia
- Possessing broad exposure to music from a foreign country
- Owning a high-quality sound system
My list bears a resemblance to the one shared on Tyler’s blog because it likewise misses the point about what art appreciation really is. Note the emphasis on things that other people would recognize as requiring great deals of effort or social pull to attain¹. Owning rare and/or expensive things has a lot in common with engaging in rare and/or expensive culinary experiences. The pursuit of those things as such puts status signaling above the art itself. There are people for whom the status simply is more important than the potential edification that comes from art. These people are of no interest to the connoisseur, for the status seekers will be gone when the winds of public opinion change, but the art will remain.
This lead’s into Tyler’s point: that the winds of public opinion have indeed changed, connoisseurs and enthusiasts be damned. Food is an inherently inoffensive thing to be passionate about. There seems to me to be a lot of truth to Cowen’s claim that “one can mention a taste for Senegalese food, and win credibility for sophistication and worldliness, as well as knowledge of Africa”. What a convenient and painless way it must be to gain knowledge of Africa.
I think that the connoisseurs, the “patricians,” the intellectual aristocracy will find a way to bring this party to an end soon enough, as is their wont. The imminent revolution in synthetic meat will shake the culinary world to its core. The associations between certain types and styles of food with prosperity (e.g. Michelin starred restaurants) or poverty (e.g. frozen food aisle), or better yet, the near certain linkage between the common American diet and obesity may all serve as the fault lines that eventually shatter the relative peacefulness of our mutual love of food.
If Cowen is right, when that happens we’ll see people move their attention to something even more boring.
Did Cowen Seriously Just Say That Alanis Morissette Sounds Contemporary?
Tyler Cowen mentions that you don’t hear literary references in pop songs these days, and that rock ‘n roll has undergone a decline in popular appeal. I find these claims true, although the former is of questionable importance if you consider the fact that internet references have supplanted book references simply because most people are using the internet rather than reading books in the current era (as opposed to 0 in 1980). The comment about rock is valid: there isn’t a Metallica or a Van Halen of our time. In light of the sheer number and variety of lesser known rock acts available to listen to today, lamenting the fall of “popular” rock is again a matter of weighing status signalling against art value.
Cowen did say one thing which I find wholly incorrect: “Most of the top music from the 1990s, such as say Alanis Morissette, would sound current if released today, a sign of cultural stasis in what was once a highly socially charged and rapidly changing sector”.
The “rapid change” in music post-WWII seems best attributed to technology: the rise of the electric guitar, synthesizer, digital recording, the compact disc, mp3’s, et cetera. Although the cultural impact of music may have diminished², the rapid changes have not stopped. Further, as Theodor Adorno points out in his writings on music, “dated”ness seems to be an emergent property of any trend-oriented product, not a genuine measure of progress. The mere existence of something that sounds new has the psychological effect of making the previous thing sound old.
Let’s make some comparisons:
- Billboard’s #1 song from the 90’s is How Do I Live by LeAnn Rimes (1997). I can’t think of any pop song in the last decade that makes use of the “overdone strings and choir section” effect, with a guitar solo no less. By contrast, the most popular female-fronted pop song in the past year was Work by Rihanna.
- Juicy by the Notorious B.I.G. (1994) is a fair representation of hip-hop in the 90’s. It’s still a great song today, but there’s no questioning that it sounds like an “old” track when you compare it to contemporary hits such as Panda by Desiigner or Mask Off by Future. The advances in digital production since the 90’s have made night-and-day differences in hip-hop.
- If the rise of the garage DJ changed hip-hop forever, you can only imagine how much has changed since Billboard’s #2 hit from the 90’s, Macarena by Los Del Rio (1996 for the hit mix). Compare to Billboard’s big electronic hits from last year, Closer by The Chainsmokers, This Is What You Came For by Calvin Harris, and dance hit Never Be Like You by Flume. Sounds like this literally did not exist in mainstream pop until fairly recently.
- Chick-rock like Savage Garden (Truly Madly Deeply, 1998) bear little resemblance to what I’d call their modern equivalent, Coldplay (A Sky Full of Stars), who have also underwent a change in their sound to adopt more electronic elements.
- This is not to mention genres like grunge and nu-metal which have really no contemporary comparisons, and themselves were a major divergence from popular 80’s rock
An argument can be made that underground/lesser-known artists have had these sounds long before they became popular, but as far as pop goes I see no legitimate argument that we have experienced any stagnation.
¹Note also that there is certainly nothing wrong with enjoying dissonant or otherwise unpopular music per se. The “wrongness” is a matter of self-fulfillment — being able to receive the most out of what an artist has to offer. In other words, it is a matter of why one enjoys such things. I doubt any status seeker particularly cares what I think, though.
²I prefer to say that it has changed rather than diminished; it is hard to deny the cultural impact of a song like Psy’s Gangnam Style, for example, although it is easy to see how that cultural impact differed from that of folk music during the Vietnam era.
[featured image is the Poutine episode of First We Feast’s Sean in the Wild]