“Nevercriticize anything in public,” a semi-wise man told me as we drankabsinthe in a Colorado ski lodge, “and never build the foundation ofyour career by attacking a specific idea. Because-if you live longenough-you will inevitably come to embody the very idea that you oncecriticized. And everyone will know.”
This is a half-truth.I’ve never been in a ski lodge, I’ve never consumed absinthe, and I’mnot sure if some semi-wise man gave me this advice or if I just nowmade it up. The truth lies in the message. Over time, every dogmaticindividual evolves into his or her ideological opposite: Anti-authorityfigures slowly enter the ruling class, socialists become capitalists,Fonzie grows a beard and becomes a high school shop teacher. But whathappens if someone can exist only by embodying their opposite?
Nothing, I suppose. Or everything, possibly. Maybe these people are like hammerhead sharks; maybe they don’t need to evolve.
I bring this up because I’ve noticed a curious explosion of acertain kind of rock band: groups like Franz Ferdinand, the Stills, theKillers, the Rapture, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, and roughly 900 otherwell-dressed collectives who generally have floppy hair and at leastone excellent song (Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out,” for example, isarguably the best rock song I’ve heard in two years, and the YYYs'”Maps” has become my all-time favorite track about cartography). Theseare generally small bands who perform to small crowds in small venues(Urge Overkill being the patient zero of this epidemic), and few ofthem move very many records. Logically, these bands should representthe hyper-authentic underclass of popular music; logically, they shouldbe cultural underdogs. But this is not the case. What these bands dobest-the main purpose of their existence, and the main thing peopleseem to like about them-is embrace and embody all the signifiers ofmassive rock stardom. And nobody seems to realize how weird this is.
It was not long ago-less than 10 years, really-that “rockstar” was a negative term; if you referred to somebody as a “total rockstar,” you were generally calling him or her a self-absorbed prick.This is why people loved Kurt Cobain; they loved him because he didn’tseem like a rock star. That attitude changed at the very end of the20th century. Suddenly, it was universally assumed that being anarchetypal, coke-addled egomaniac was the greatest thing any artistcould aspire to, apparently because our society did not have enough ofthese people. Today, we’ve reached the bizarre cultural moment whenbands are adopting the trappings of superstardom without the (seeminglyessential) component of being successful. And this is not a case ofgroups trying to “fake it until they make it.” These are not bands whothink that if they act famous they’ll eventually become famous. Theseare bands who appear comfortable being smallish, indie-ish club actswho will never sell a million records. I suppose there is no need to betangibly successful if you’ve already imagined yourself a superstar.
Certainly, this movement is not exclusive to rock and/orroll. The only television I watch is reality television, a genre whosesuccess is measured by how accurately it reflects real life (read: goodTV is anything that does not seem like TV). Nonfiction publishing hasbecome increasingly dominated by memoirs, which are really justautobiographies by people who haven’t done anything; interestingwriters are people who are not necessarily interesting. The cultureindustry is reversing the nature of famousness.
Let’s say everything about America changed overnight, andInterpol suddenly became the biggest band in the world. None of theiroriginal fans could possibly turn against them if they becameeccentric, narcissistic fashionistas; that was the whole idea to beginwith! If you start your career as an unsuccessful superstar-in otherwords, if you start your career by contradicting your very essence-youcannot be changed by fame. The only way Interpol could evolve would beto become multiplatinum boring dudes. And that will happen; as statedin the first paragraph, everyone eventually embodies the ideas theyonce criticized. And what does that mean? It means that in the year2008, Interpol will be the Dave Matthews Band. Buy those skinny tiesnow, you future frat boys of America.