Thursday, May 23, 2013

The problem with indie rock tenure

I've written two blog posts on Andrew W.K. already, and this will be my third. Truth be told, I don't dislike his music; I'd even choose it over half the stuff that's out there. And by all accounts, he's like the nicest guy on the planet. So why do I find the cultural elite's embrace of him so problematic?

I think the answer lies in the following two hypothetical questions: Given any beloved album, could an unknown band speak to similar values and hold their own, or even beat it with an album that's superior? Would such an attempt even be welcome? Every band has its devoted fans who would answer "no!" to both, of course. They're not my concern here.

My concern is only the cultural elite, who have to answer "yes!" to both, because their musical tastes are grounded in some communicable, defensible rationale for being good. And good music requires an open market where different ideas and sounds are free to compete.

Competition in an open market is great for two reasons. First, it assures us the best quality, and second, it gives us the freedom to decide. Commercial goods and services easily come to mind as examples, but politics works this way as well. If we don't like who we voted for, we can vote them out next time.

And this is precisely the problem with Andrew W.K.: He's undefeatable. I don't mean like Rocky Marciano, who never lost a boxing match; I mean like a monopoly or an autocrat. He literally can't be beaten, because once he's voted in, he can't be voted out.

You don't have to dislike his music to find this problematic, just like you don't have to dislike Facebook or some benevolent monarch to protest their hold on power. Once the market is closed, we no longer have the assurance of quality or the freedom to decide. Those who were opposed from the beginning lose the most, of course. But we all lose in the long run.

In other words, when we grant exposure to Andrew W.K., not only is that slot no longer competitive from now until forever, but a precedent has been established for the same thing to keep happening, over and over, until zero slots are left.

I'm not exaggerating Andrew W.K.'s tenure in the public eye here. Think about it. An artist known solely for making a "so bad it's good" album ten years ago was almost appointed cultural ambassador to Bahrain as recently as last year? How is that even possible? You don't hear anyone talking about Beulah or the Wrens these days. But it all makes sense once you consider that Andrew W.K. is undefeatable. What can't be beaten, will never go away.

Or here's even simpler proof. Just how would another band compete against I Get Wet, anyway? In other words, what could a "so much worse it's actually better" album possibly sound like, especially when Andrew W.K. himself hasn't managed to pull it off in the last ten years? So the answer to our first hypothetical question is no, and the same probably goes for the second one as well. Which means that Andrew W.K. is perhaps the only artist beloved by the cultural elite for whom their reluctance to entertain any new challengers exactly matches that of Justin Bieber's fans.

Of course, one could argue that this is all symptomatic of a larger problem. Bands these days no longer compete for our awe and admiration the way the Beach Boys and the Beatles once did with Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper's, respectively, but instead huddle together to bask in our unconditional support like children putting on a Christmas pageant. Of course, we haven't actually succeeded in replacing competition with communal harmony. When so many want exposure and so few can have it, competition must necessarily exist. It's just done out of view now, leading to a preselection process that's more haphazard and brutal than ever before, precisely because we don't see it.

So maybe Andrew W.K. is just a symptom, not a cause. I'm sympathetic to that. I just don't think we should so quickly resign ourselves to blithe acceptance once we believe it's the former rather than the latter. What if the two are intertwined and mutually reinforcing? Maybe there's no harm in celebrating Andrew W.K. while there are no new Radioheads to speak of. Or maybe the new Radioheads aren't getting exposure precisely because we're all too busy celebrating Andrew W.K., who knows?

I don't know. Just a thought, that's all. In any case, this is the last I'll be writing about Andrew W.K. for sure now.

Postscript, May 23, 2013: Yes, I know, he's also known for his motivational speeches. But this side career isn't really noteworthy by itself, since the power of his message stems precisely from what little he's accomplished relative to how far he's come. It wouldn't mean anything coming from Beulah or the Wrens, for example.

Addendum, May 23, 2013: Good Lord, I'd completely forgotten about Har Mar Superstar. This might throw a wrench in my whole argument here, since I definitely haven't heard from him in a while. I'll have to think about it some more. On a side note, I shared a bill with him in 1999, back when he was Sean Na Na. He ended his set with an ironic R&B cover, but other than that, he gave no indication at the time of being anything other than a bookish scenester.

Addendum, May 24, 2013: No, I don't think the example of Har Mar Superstar contradicts my point, since he was always much more transparent as a joke.

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