Tuesday, October 09, 2007
Rebellion, lies, et cetera
There are stereotypical cooler-than crowds in New York venues, arms crossed, staring critically at the stage for whatever band has benefited from internet word-of-mouth. There are enthusiasts who go for the sake of going, and there are impassioned fans who mark the calendar and know every word.
The Randall's Island crowd on Saturday was different. The median age looked about 22, though the average was probably five years higher. There were legions of people who weren't of drinking age, all impeccably polite, dressed in Hollister shirts, well groomed and mannered, catatonic and pristine, as if they were on a field trip and chaperones lurked every 10 feet.
It might have been the eight-hour succession of bands culminating with Arcade Fire, or the heat, or the hours of standing, which combined made for a crowd of polite young zombies. They were the 21st-century version of the Schlegel sisters attending that Beethoven recital ("It will be generally admitted that Arcade Fire's Neighborhood #1 Tunnels is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man. All sorts and conditions are satisfied by it.") although they also could have been high-school art students who went to the MoMA on Sunday afternoon because their parents had tickets to that musical about Abba, and they're too serious for that, so it's Kandinsky time.
Maybe it's a Northeast upper-middle-class thing, that these kids are so image-conscious that going to a rock show is an exercise in decorum: Do not bob head (will mess up hair), do not move legs (may injure ankle), do not smoke pot (may harm your lungs), do not clap hard (may lead to callus), do not cheer much (may scratch your voice), do not sneak beer (may get in trouble). It was the safest collection of teenagers. They were more mature and courteous than I am. There was the one dude who pulled off his shirt and danced kinda wacky, and there was the urgent girl who may have squatted and peed, and true, no one needs a repeat of Woodstock '99. There is a middle ground between museum and riot. The observation isn't lack of wild behavior so much as the symptoms of dispassion and tenseness.
Maybe they've been marketed to so ferociously that they can't distinguish. Like Thomas Frank described in his counter-history of the counterculture The Conquest of Cool, there's no distinction between an image and an experience. There was no counterculture, only a marketing opportunity; there is no band playing on stage, only another commodity, like Gossip Girl and Stone Cold Creamery. The Hollister shirt is the same thing as Arcade Fire. None of it belongs to them. They are vessels. Lies! Lies! is a jingle.
This is part of the David Brooks column on Jack Kerouac that I wrote about a few days ago. It might be the influence of the first chapters of Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine, and if that's the case expect future treatises on things like why the loss to Appalachian State will lead to the state of Michigan adopting freedom-to-work laws. Regardless, there are legions of nervous young zombies. They behave gently. One day something happens in a society that uncorks this kind of repression, leading to things like the Russian Revolution, hippies fucking in streets, bathtub gin and the Protestant Reformation.
It won't happen with these kids. They will recycle, use teeth whitener, sweep the floor, and apply environmentally responsible hair gel. Maybe there will be a rupture before their 10-year-younger counterparts come of age. More likely it will be their kids who rebel against all of this caution and hesitation. Then people will talk about the Thirties as an era of rebellion and experimentation, when Kaplan test-prep manuals burned like draft cards and a couple of people decided not to wash their hair that week.