September 29, 2011

Why I Love the Multiculture

I first got online in 1994, as part of a special research project I was doing at WVU. At that time, you didn’t get a university email address just be stepping on to campus and home connections were still in the primitive AOHell stage. Nevertheless, the Net was already alive with the kind of discussions and connections that we see today.

For an impressionable college kid it was awesome. Suddenly I had access to whole communities of people interested in the same weird shit I was. Formula 1, at the time, was decidedly niche in the United States. Being able to connect with scattered fans around the country, not to mention those around the globe (I asked a question on USENET about the first Hungarian Grand Prix and got replies from actual Hungarians!) blew my mind. Not only did those connections nurture my love of niche sports like soccer and sports car racing, it eventually led me into the emerging modern progressive rock underground. The rest, as they say, is history.

All of which is introduction to partly explain why I find this column at Salon by the mononamed Toure to be a complete load of horseshit. In it he pines for what he calls the “monoculture,” that is the mass movement pop culture of the kind that you can’t get away from:
The epic, collective roar -- you know, the kind that followed ‘Thriller,’ ‘Nevermind,’ ‘Purple Rain,’ ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back,’ and other albums so gigantic you don't even need to name the artist -- just doesn't happen today. Those Moments made you part of a large tribe linked by sounds that spoke to who you are or who you wanted to be. Today there’s no Moments, just moments. They’re smaller, less intense, shorter in duration and shared by fewer people. The Balkanization of pop culture, the overthrow of the monopoly on distribution, and the fracturing of the collective attention into a million pieces has made it impossible for us to coalesce around one album en masse. We no longer live in a monoculture. We can't even agree to hate the same thing anymore, as we did with disco in the 1970s.
Putting aside some very valid objections from the comments, I’ll take Toure at his word. The monoculture is dead, a victim of the increased number and visibility of niche markets for pop culture works. So? Is he really suggesting that less choice is better when it comes to personal amusements? ‘cause, you know, that’s stupid.

As someone who lived through The Moments(tm) he lists, I can report that I was not swept up by them, except in the sense that I was aware of them. Michael Jackson? Never a fan. Prince? The same, except as the subject of a Kevin Smith monologue. Nirvanna? Meh. I don’t even recognize the other one so, obviously, I could care less. More to the point, at the time those Moments(tm) were happening, I was wandering in the musical desert without any real stuff that was firing my imagination.

You know what changed that? The Net allowed for the niche of all niches, progressive rock, to gain enough of a profile that I found out about it. Not only hadn’t it died in 1975, there were new and vital bands striving to do new and interesting things, as well as harken back to the glory days. It didn’t matter that they weren’t high profile enough to merit being stocked at the local CD store. Thanks to email (and eventually web commerce), I could order directly from the bands. How much more of a niche moment can you have than Alan Morse calling me at home to figure out a problem I had ordering the first Spock’s Beard album, during which he broke into a chorus of “Country Roads?” I wouldn’t trade that to be part of some massive Moment(tm).

The funniest part of Toure’s piece is his example of the devastation that the multiculture has wrought:
Nowadays my music conversations run like this:

‘So what are you listening to?’

‘Aw, you gotta check out Danny Brown and Abbe May and Das Racist.’

‘OK, cool. I've never heard of them.’

‘What are you listening to?’

‘Cat’s Eye and Ariel Pink and Little Dragon.’

‘Oh. I gotta check them out.’

No connection is made.
Wait, what? So the problem today is that when you talk to friends about music you find out about new music you might want to hear? Maybe I’m strange because, but if I had a conversation with a friend about music – presumably one in which I had some faith in his musical tastes (if not, why bother?) – and learned about three bands I’d never heard of before, I’d consider that a good day.

But, then again, maybe I’m just strange. I don’t care about Moments(tm) shared with millions of strangers. I care about finding and experiencing amazing music. New music. Old music. Confusing music. Whatever. To the extent I share those moments with anyone else, it’s in the hope that enough people get into it to keep the artists making more music.

So, fuck the monoculture. Long live the multiculture!

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