Populism, aesthetic and right wing
Lately, I’ve been reading some more Chuck Klosterman, Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas, specifically. Klosterman is an endlessly fascinating read, because he’s someone who thinks a lot and is an engaging writer, but has great lapses of intellectual laziness and is neurotic, utterly afraid of commitment on any level. (To the degree that he has bragged about not owning a bed.) At times he’s provocative in a good way, but in this book he’s all too often provocative because he’s willing to make bold proclamations but unwilling to dig deep into his own ideas and find the flaws in them.
But that’s not what this post is about. It’s about a specific tendency that Klosterman embodies better than anyone, which is defensive aesthetic populism. I say “defensive”, because aesthetic populism of his sort seems to only exist defensively. It’s a way to make hipsters, snobs, and anyone else who has strong opinions about what’s good and what sucks feel bad if their category “stuff that sucks” includes something you like. It’s accusing the snob of, well, snobbery—having a downright elitist disconnect with the great unwashed and morally pure masses that love, to name two examples that Klosterman defends in this manner, Billy Joel and Ratt. The Ratt defense is the perfect example of aesthetic populism. Some member of Ratt died at the same time that Dee Dee Ramone did under similar circumstances (AIDS and heroin overdose, respectively). Klosterman writes an article mourning how unfair it is that Ramone got so much more attention because the snobberati loves the Ramones, and then proceeds to hide behind the “Ratt sold more records, a lot more records” excuse for this, aware that the reason that Dee Dee Ramone’s death was more important was because the Ramones, unlike Ratt, didn’t suck. The implication is clear: If you are one of those snobs who clings to your Ramones records while sneering at Ratt fans, you are downright undemocratic. A real populist would embrace Ratt, and be impressed at how this crap really speaks to people.
Luckily, I was inured to this guilt trip because I spotted the intellectual dishonesty of it. No fucking way would Klosterman be moved to write such an article if he didn’t love Ratt and didn’t resent the hipsters that surround him that don’t. He would never, for instance, defend Hootie and the Blowfish this way. But by his populist standards, Hootie is an even better band, because they sold even more records, plus your mom likes them.
But it was more than that, and I doubt it would have come to me if the RNC hadn’t just dumped a buttload of right wing populism on us, which makes the very same argument—the lowest common denominator is morally superior, and if you disagree, you’re undemocratic. Unless you lick the floor after bigots and assholes who hang out at Hooters walk on it, you are an “elitist” and don’t really believe in democracy. But let’s be perfectly honest—the reason that we have democracy is not because The People have unerringly good taste or judgment. The reason we have it is because all other systems concentrate power into too few hands, and power corrupts. Ideally, we spread power around equally so that corruption is watered down. Also, it’s the only fair system. There’s no objective standard to measure leaders by, and if there were, then the “how to govern” question would be much different. As it is, power-sharing is the only way to have a hope of having a self-correcting system. To quote Winston Churchill, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” And if John McCain wins in November, I will happily declare that The People have once again chosen mendacity and mediocrity over quality, which they have trouble seeing because The People are weighed down with small-minded prejudice. It’s true in politics, and it’s no doubt why the Ramones just couldn’t sell records like they should have.
Which isn’t to say that The People always have bad taste or judgment. Sometimes The People’s choices align with the snooty elitists who know better because they actually bother to give a shit. The People picked FDR and Duke Ellington. The People probably would have picked Robert Kennedy and they definitely picked the Beatles. The People picked Bill Clinton and Nirvana. In fact, I would argue that The People probably show better judgment on average in politics than in music, because they often seek someone who is willing to push for change, whereas the tendency towards mediocrity in mainstream music is due to the gaping need for unoffensive music for parties and radio play. People probably ask their leaders to challenge them more than they ask their musicians.
Still, a tendency towards mediocrity is inevitable when you have a lot of people voting on something, whether it’s a leader or a chart topper. To reach a large audience, avoiding offense tends to matter more than inspiring people, and since the former often precludes the latter, mediocrity will rise to the top.* Luckily, there’s no fairness principle or concern about corruption that requires musical taste to be held to a vote. You don’t have to buy whatever crap is currently dominating the charts. Nor should you apologize for deeming it crap.
In fact, I’d argue that the only hope for either mainstream music or the political landscape is for people to keep slogging out there, challenging people, even if they know that the mainstream will reject them. The Ramones never went platinum, but the majority of really good rock music that did percolate out into the mainstream was inspired by them, so they nonetheless moved the dialogue forward. Instead of stomping our feet and whining that the mainstream rejects progressive arguments, we should get out there and make them and not be cowed and know that they will filter into the mainstream, albeit in a watered-down form. From this perspective, it’s obvious why Republicans deem anyone who claims that we can make this a better world an “elitist”. They’re trying to cow and guilt people who want better for themselves and their community. Nor is it undemocratic to push the envelope and try to improve things. The Ramones** never rebelled against the fundamental belief that you make records, people buy it if they like it, and it’s good to sell more records than not. What they did was insist that you could plug innovation into that system. They turned out to be right, even if it never made them rich.
*It’s interesting, then, to see from what tops the charts and what never could what is truly offensive to the public. People will snatch up records that drip with misogyny, but you’re just not going to see blatant feminism rocketing up the charts.
**Sorry to stick with this band, but they really are the perfect example.