When David Brooks references Vampire Weekend, is he doing it to annoy indie obsessives? Or is he doing it because Vampire Weekend, Chester French, the Harlem Shakes, and a slew of other Ivy/post-Ivy rock and roll bands are emblematic of the phenomenon he is describing? I think it’s pretty obvious that it is the latter. Let’s not forget that VW was recently referenced in a Sally Forth comic strip: this isn’t name-dropping. (Besides, my sense is that Brooks has musical tastes that lean more towards country music — he’s no grup, and indeed he’s poked fun at grups). Rather, he is linking Elvis Costello to Talking Heads, both bands those who came of age in the late 1970s and early 1980s will know well, to present-day manifestations of “alterna” culture that have gone mainstream. Or, to put it a little differently, he is tracking how the nerd subculture under discussion has contributed to the evolution and direction of mainstream sensibilities.
This is frustrating for those who consider themselves very knowledgeable (“how dare you make a glancing reference to a cultural phenomenon only I truly understand!”), yet the reference isn’t intended for their consumption. Honestly, there are few things I find more ridiculous than people writing things to the effect, “Aha! I know French hip-hop better than distinguished columnist X!” I’m … sure you do. And I’m sure Howard Dean didn’t intend to advocate the murder of non-Haitians when he identified Wyclef Jean’s “Jaspora” as his favorite song. Just as, in the immortal words of Simon Dumenco, it takes a douchebag to know one, the critics who accuse Brooks and other comic sociologists of being obtuse are usually way, way, way more obtuse themselves.
The aggressive defense of subcultural sensibilities — which is at the root of gang culture, and the subjection of women and children in marginalized diaspora communities — is more than a little ridiculous when we’re talking about white American rockists doing the defending, especially since the Internet has all but killed musical connoisseurship. Which, by the way, strikes me as very good news. But I digress.
This actually reminds me, tangentially, of the critical reception of Keith Gessen’s excellent All the Sad Young Literary Men and Ross’s Privilege. Both books cover territory familiar to an articulate, highly self-conscious minority. And because both aim to identify a generational sensibility, both received pretty ferocious criticism — not despite but precisely because of the fact that both did a damn good job. The narcissism of small differences takes over, and the result is near-endless nasty barbs.
Watching the Alpha Geeks
If you look at how new technologies come into play, you typically see this sequence:
1. Someone introduces a fundamental breakthrough, a disruptive technology, or business model that will change the nature of the game.
2. Hackers and “alpha geeks” push the envelope, start to use the new technology, and get more out of their systems long before ordinary users even know what’s possible.
3. Entrepreneurs create products that simplify what the hackers came up with; there’s lots of competition around features, business model, and architecture.
4. Things get standardized, either by agreement or by someone winning dominant market share.
That is pretty much the human civilization. I really hope Tim O’Reilly writes this as a book and makes millions of dollars in the process. If I had to choose one person in American public life to become really rich (or rather really richer), it would be O’Reilly. I don’t even know why, frankly. I just like the guy.