The Wages of Fear

But he was cool

This piece in last week’s Times magazine caused some ruckus on my twitter feed the first Friday in April, but then died down. Reading it, you can see why: it’s a cliché masquerading as a revelation, so pretty much right in line with most of the editing, especially on the pop culture side, in the magazine since Hugo Lindgren took over at the top and the format was redesigned.

The article thinks it’s about being a cool music fan, but it’s really about just trying to be cool, and failing at it. And cool in the worst way, the way that hasunfortunately taken over long before the Gap was able to use images of true coolness to sell khakis: cool defined by what you buy, cool through the Kool-Aid you drink from your corporation of choice. This is cool in the decadent basement of late capitalism, cool as being the coolest zombie besieging the mall in Dawn of the Dead. Cool that’s best left in the hands of people who haven’t left high school yet, or who can’t leave high school behind. It’s not saved by Amanda Marcotte’s apologia either, that just makes it all worse.

Fanboys/girls love music, but they don’t do it any favors. Part of the problem is pop music itself, which is a Moebius strip genre, regurgitating itself in regular cycles, and so there’s constant pressure to be out in front of what might be coming, be an “early adopter” or a “knowledge guardian.” That last choice of words is bizarre and discomfiting to me. In the secular marketplace and the frequently socially/politically liberal cutting-edge of pop, there’s little embrace of the superstitious and smug America we’re supposed to call people of faith. Yet a “knowledge guardian” is nothing more than someone donning the revealed hipness of cool, a gnostic but without a spiritual center that promotes sharing. People like this are supposedly against the corporate state yet they protect their secrets — it’s the only way to make one kind of consumerism superior to another.

My experience with this kind of thinking tells me that, as writers, Molotkow and Marcotte have a practice of thought that veils them from the fundamental nature of music. The practice of writing (not publishing) is anti-social, it’s done alone. The practice of music is social, and before it became an abstract or even popular art, music was a social activity. Priests guard knowledge to maintain their social power which they fear losing, musicians seek ever more listeners to develop theirs, because music, which can’t be held or owned, becomes more powerful with each person who listens to it. It’s not a commodity or a limited resources, it’s culture, and it’s in everybody’s soul.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.