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And Then There's This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Cultureby Bill Wasik
EXPERIMENT: STOP PETER BJORN AND JOHN
SUBCULTURES OF NARCISSISM
In June 2004, a twenty-nine-year-old prosecutor named David Lat, who spent his days working at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Newark, New Jersey, began a hobby that eventually cost him his job but also elevated him as an icon of both his profession and his time. Adopting a persona called "Article III Groupie," a drink-addled female devotee of constitutional law, he began writing a legal blog—"Underneath Their Robes"—which promised, in its first post and de facto manifesto, to apply the methodology of celebrity magazines (Lat listed as his models People, Us Weekly, Page Six, The National Enquirer, and Tiger Beat) to the rarefied culture of appeals-court juristry. In an early series of posts, Lat selected the "Superhotties of the Federal Judiciary," male and female; of Supreme Court justice David Souter he wrote, "Certiorari is GRANTED to that hot, lean body!" Lat encouraged readers to send in anonymously sourced "blind items" on high-ranking judges, whose identities would be left to the reader's best guess, e.g.:
This southeastern district judge had her clerks pack her belongings so she could move out after she and her husband filed for divorce.
This well-known circuit court judge . . . has issues concerning the appropriate treatment of female clerks in his chambers.
The dark joke underlying Lat's antics was obvious: take the lowest form of cultural analysis (celebrity gossip), apply it to one of the more intellectual and obscure reaches of American culture (appellate law), and what you get is comedy gold. Except it didn't play as comedy, or at least not just as comedy. Appellate judges really were a sort of celebrity to a certain—if small—segment of the population, namely those lawyers who, like Lat, worked in that corner of the profession. These lawyers all avidly read Lat's blog. Few of them had previously thought of their profession as a hotbed of salacious gossip, but once a site had bothered to collect it all and present it in a jaundiced tone, the evidence was indisputable. During the two years that Lat kept up his blog (before he was exposed and stepped down from his day job), Underneath Their Robes not only tweaked its profession but on some level transformed it. The lofty reaches of constitutional law had become infected with the media mind.
So it has gone with other subcultures in our viral age, when the Internet—with its worldwide accessibility and infinite capacity for segmentation—has allowed us to connect with farther-flung people who are more and more like ourselves. Much of the emergent Internet culture is in fact a collection of a wide array of niche cultures, in keeping with the "Long Tail" argument put forward by Wired editor Chris Anderson in his book of that name: "People are re-forming," he writes, "into thousands of cultural tribes of interest, connected less by geographic proximity and workplace chatter than by shared interests." But what the Internet has done is arguably less to form such tribes than to change how they see themselves. Think about the offline publications that have traditionally catered to subcultures: many of them can still be found lining the magazine racks of one's local Barnes and Noble, those rows of sleepy titles devoted to individual professions, sports teams, musical genres, political preferences, ethnic communities, and so on. The very way we find these publications, each tucked among a slew of unrelated others, makes us keenly aware of their narrow purview, and one can sense in their pages that they realize this too. The difference online, where subcultures converse incessantly among themselves in an intense, always-on, inwardly directed banter, is that every crowd comes to talk and think about itself as if it were the center of the entire universe.
The most obvious symptom of this shift has been the online democratization of fame—what the technology writer Clive Thompson has dubbed "microcelebrity." Just as David Lat treated the 877 members of the appellate judiciary (and sometimes even their clerks!) as celebrities, and just as some flash-mobbers wanted to make "Bill" into a movement luminary, so does each subculture online tend to coronate its own small claque of mini-stars. On the Silicon Valley gossip blog Valleywag, readers follow the exploits of the young founders of Google and Facebook (and of far lesser business figures such as Jakob Lodwick, a marginally successful young web entrepreneur whose chief occupation seems to be seeking microcelebrity) in the same manner that Us Weekly stalks Tom Cruise. Even within user-run communities, fame finds a way of attaching itself to the most provocative members. The New York Times reported that when "DaShiv"—a photographer and popular commenter on the group blog MetaFilter—came to visit New York, three different parties were given in his honor by online associates.
But such nanofame is just part of a larger move toward nanostories— toward more narratives, and more perishable narratives—that has taken place within online subcultures. The reason for this larger shift is simple: the blinding speed and vast capacity of the medium essentially requires it. If impassioned chatter keeps up for days over the question of whether the forthcoming Corvette engine was unduly copied from a BMW engine—as was the case in early January 2008 on Autoblog, the biggest blog for car enthusiasts—it is only because a community that reviews twenty or more "breaking" car news stories in any given day will naturally seize on at least one story a week as earth-shattering. Moreover, the writers, seeing how readers love squabbles, begin to bake this into their posts: one imagines that PurseBlog, a site that reviews designer handbags, would not get 200,000 visits a day (making it by one count the twentieth most popular blog in America) if it did not regularly trash high-priced bags as "fug." (In one case, about a bag that went "out on a limb," it remarked: "Your limb is hanging over a river infested with piranhas and your branch just broke.") Traditionally, niche cultures were less fickle than the mainstream, because their adherents, aware of their marginal status and prizing group loyalty, wanted nothing more than to trumpet their own stars and stories into the wider culture. But today, when each subculture gets more niche news than even its fanatics can swallow, members become starved for deeper diversions, and their hit-hungry sites are more than happy to oblige.
Not long ago, I spent six months following the niche culture of indie rock—i.e., the loose musical genre, popular among collegians and young urbanites, that is defined not by any particular sound but by an opposition to (or at least exclusion from) corporate radio and labels. This subculture predates the Internet, to be sure—its lineage stretches back to the hardcore scene of the 1980s, if not before, and as a community it has been perpetuated through the years by a network of college radio stations, rundown clubs, obscure magazines, and boutique record stores. Precisely because of its oppositional roots, indie rock (like punk before it) had an even more fierce devotion than other niches to its subcultural stars: acts like Fugazi, the Pixies, Guided by Voices. But the Internet has utterly transformed indie rock, as tracks leaked through MySpace and file-sharing have allowed unknown bands to become overnight subcultural sensations, their uptake and abandonment egged on by scores of popular blogs. After observing some of these spikes flicker through the hipster hive-mind, I wondered whether I might choose one and attempt, as best I could, to document it as it actually happened. What I found, in the story of a band called Annuals, was a parable not just of fickle indie-rock fame but of a paradoxical new cultural force: the rise of niche sensationalism.
GET READY TO GET SICK
On July 17, 2006, a man named Mike on the indie-rock blog Postcore. com made what could only be called a preemptive strike. "[W]ord on the street," he wrote, "is that Pitchfork"—the Internet's most influential music site, and arguably the independent music scene's chief tastemaker, online or off—"is getting the jump on this band tomorrow, which means we're going to throw it out there today." He went on:
[T]his band's got it all: young songwriter who begs for the "wunderkind" title . . . inventive and semi-electronic production, full support from the most influential music blog out there (not this one), songs that explode halfway through, and about a hundred music blogs who feel the pressure to write about a different band every day. I'm just saying, get ready to get sick of hearing about this band.
"Get ready to get sick of hearing about this band": it would be difficult to think of a more apt motto for indie rock—or any niche culture, for that matter—in the age of the Internet. Finding out about important new culture used to depend on whom you knew or where you were. In the indie-rock scene of the 1980s, news spread almost exclusively through word of mouth, through photocopied 'zines (often with circulations in three or even two digits), or through low-watt college radio stations. Today, indie-rock culture remains an underground culture, basically by definition, in that its fans shun mainstream music in favor of lesser-known acts. But now, MySpace, iTunes, and Internet radio make location and friends irrelevant for discovering music. Blogs and aggregators enable fans to determine in just a few minutes what everyone else is listening to that day. What you know, where you are—these matter not at all. To be an insider today one must merely be fast. Once Mike found out that Pitchfork would be posting about the new band, one cannot blame him for his haste, because aprè Pitchfork le déluge: Unknown bands become all-too-familiar bands in a month, and abandoned bands the month after that. Get ready, that is, to get sick.
As promised, half past ten on the morning of July 18 saw Ryan Schreiber, the founder and editor-in-chief of Pitchfork, place his imprimatur upon the new band, which he likened to "some fantasy hybrid of Animal Collective, Arcade Fire, and Broken Social Scene." His readers would know these names—bands that ranked among the most successful indie-rock acts of the previous four years, all of which (not coincidentally) owed a debt to Pitchfork in getting there. Schreiber had essentially launched Broken Social Scene's career when he described their American debut album—which he said in his review that he had found just by "dig[ging] through the boxes upon boxes of promos that arrive at the Pitchfork mailbox each month"—as "endlessly replayable, perfect pop." More recently, a Schreiber review had conferred indierock superstardom on Brooklyn's Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, which did not even have a record deal (the band had self-produced its album). What makes Pitchfork so powerful is not the size of its readership, which by Web-magazine standards is small—one and a half million visitors each month, only a fraction of whom read the site regularly. Rather, it is its stature in the firmament of indie-rock blogs as a kind of North Star, a point of reference to be measured against. A glowing Pitchfork review need not be agreed with, but it must at the very least be reckoned with. In his post about the new band, Schreiber concluded with a wink to his site's clout. "Get familiar now," he wrote, "we could be writing about these dudes all year long." Predictably, by the end of August, more than thirty blogs had posted about the new band, and the album's leaked tracks became fixtures on the Hot Tracks list at Elbows, a site that monitors plays of downloaded music.
Once Pitchfork blesses an act, any mention of that act on other blogs needs to be accompanied by an acknowledgment that one has lagged terribly behind the times. On September 7, Stereogum.com not only quoted Pitchfork's review but wrote, "The hype machine"—by which they presumably meant blogs like themselves, because not a single dollar had yet gone into promoting the new band—"has been in motion for this band, so we feel sorta silly calling them a Band to Watch (we know, we know . . . you blogged about them first)." Even so, the first comment, just fifteen minutes after the post, began with one word in all caps: "DUH." By September 18, Idolator, the music blog of Gawker Media's online empire, could pull back for a world-weary dissection of the new band as phenomenon, complete with "Odds of Backlash," which it placed at 5 to 1. On October 5, when Rolling Stone magazine's "Rock and Roll Daily" blog finally weighed in, with an unctuous pronouncement of phony hipness—"Trust us on this one: you guys are gonna seriously sweat us for introducing you" to this band—commenter "nick" unloaded with justifiably righteous scorn:
yeah . . . everyone is really gonna "sweat you" for being (LITERALLY) the last blog on the Internet to write about these guys.
The band was called Annuals, and they hailed from Raleigh, North Carolina. I first heard the tracks on October 14, three days before their official release but three months too late. Their sound is difficult to describe, especially to those who have not heard Animal Collective, Arcade Fire, or Broken Social Scene, bands that plumbed the sonic expansiveness afforded by our high-tech, DIY musical age, when one can emerge from one's basement with music that is meticulously untidy, offhandedly epic. And if these other bands were epic, Annuals were more so. Within a single song, the vocal might rise from tender contemplation to a wail or even a hoarse, toneless scream; drums, hitherto absent, suddenly charge in, mammoth, driving, relentless, with two or even three kits going at once; arpeggios from various synths and strings wander in and out while electronica decorates the margins, a layered sheet of rigorous noise. What Annuals will sound like to you today I cannot say, but in the autumn of 2006, they sounded like the future.
GET A DYNASTY TOGETHER
Two weeks later I met Annuals in New York, at a vegan grocery/cafe on the Lower East Side. They had come to the city for the CMJ Music Marathon, a sort of indie-rock hajj for hundreds of bands, some of whom play to capacity crowds while others, bleeding flagellants, must play to almost no one—as I learned firsthand earlier in the week when, at the seven p.m. set of a band I had liked online (a wistful, countrified act called the Western States Motel), I found myself in an audience of perhaps a half-dozen, a situation in which one finds rock bands starting to make discomforting levels of eye contact. But already it had been guaranteed that Annuals would draw a crowd. Although the band's time slot was poor—number two on a six-band bill—their success at the festival had been essentially preordained, as everyone had seen the online blowup and modified their expectations accordingly. Even the New York Times, the day I met the band, had fingered Annuals, with their "grand, disheveled songs," as the festival band most likely to make good.
The orchestrator of Annuals was Adam Baker, a scruffy but strikingly purposive twenty-year-old. A meld of hipster and hippie, he wore a green hoodie, rolled up cords, and junked-out white Asics but also kept a little ponytail and a thin, messy beard, and were a blue satin cord as a choker. He spoke in a businesslike patter, his eyes darting around, a young man residing very much inside his own capacious head. With his mouth full of some sort of health food, he talked to me about creative control and how he aimed to maintain it. "That's been, like, our only rider throughout this whole thing," he said. "You can't force us to do it any other way than how we know how. We had tried recording with producers from the start, doing all the tracking with someone else and having them at the board? But it really makes us uncomfortable, and the sound doesn't come out exactly how we want it."
Instead, Adam recorded and produced all the songs essentially by himself. If he owed the Internet for his band's sudden popularity, he owed his creative control to an equally revolutionary technology: PC-based sound-engineering software, particularly Pro Tools, which has become cheap (a stripped-down version is free), remarkably powerful, and now basically ubiquitous; Adam is of a generation of musicians accustomed to producing CD-quality music in their teenage bedrooms. He had wrecked one of his eardrums, but unlike rockers of yore he incurred his injury not with amps on a stage but with headphones plugged into a computer.
Lead guitar in Annuals was handled by Kenny Florence, a gregarious, almost antic nineteen-year-old with a baby face and thick black hair closely cropped. The six members of Annuals also played together as a band called Sedona, a sort of indie-bluegrass affair led by Kenny with Adam on drums. In fact, it was while on tour as Sedona, in the van, that they got the call from a record label that had discovered Adam's Annuals songs on MySpace. Now Sedona lingered in the background while Annuals got its turn. "Annuals is our main project right now," Kenny said, "but we plan on putting out lots of different albums with lots of different styles and lots of different ideas. . . . We're planning on pretty much just like—I don't know what the word is—exploding people's brains with all of the projects that we're doing, you know?"
"The intention is to get a dynasty together, I guess," added Adam. They spoke in the half-ironic tone affected today when expressing great dreams. In the meantime, Kenny still lived with his parents, while Adam roomed with bassist Mike Robinson. "In my mom's basement," interjected Mike. "Can't lie."
"Can't afford a fucking apartment, man," said Adam.
"We're still climbing the hill," Mike said philosophically.
Kenny, Adam, and Mike had been playing together since their early teens, when they had a punk band called Timothy's Weekend. That was in 2000, they said—2000!—and suddenly the youth of these guys struck me. They played with the sophisticated sound of bands five or ten years older.
"We've been probably playing music together for the same amount of time they've been playing," Kenny pointed out.
"We just got a head start, that's all," offered Adam. He added that they hadn't even listened to Arcade Fire, Animal Collective, or Broken Social Scene until the comparisons started. His own influences, he said, tended toward the older: Paul Simon, Brian Wilson. "They're just trying to compare us to bands that are current, you know?" he said. "There's not really anyone else they can compare us to." He paused. "I think."
THE HIPSTER CONSENSUS
In The Long Tail, Chris Anderson saw the Internet as taking us out of a "watercooler" era—when we "listened, watched, and read from the same, relatively small pool of mostly hit content"—into the "microculture" era, when "we're all into different things." Anderson's conclusion on this score is predicated on the basic economist's view of human nature: we each have preexisting tastes and preferences, and we use our market choices to satisfy them as best we can. As a medium, the Internet is indeed unprecedented in its ability to sustain fan bases around anything, and thereby segment us around narrow interests. But as we saw in chapter 1, the Internet is also an unprecedented medium for the bandwagon effect, which sways large numbers of people not through some atomized personal choices of each but through each being influenced by the herd behavior of the rest.
The phenomenon that Anderson described is certainly happening, for much the same reasons that our profusion of cable-TV channels has made it impossible for any show, even the Super Bowl, to garner the overwhelming market share that could be achieved in the days of only three networks. More choice translates into more fragmentation. But I would argue that the Internet is working in two contradictory ways on the cultural landscape, and that the interaction between the two forces—the "Long Tail" effect (toward ever splintering niches) and the bandwagon effect (toward more clustering around the same thing)—is a complicated and intriguing one. Think about just this wrinkle: through the Internet, our "microcultures" all now have "watercoolers" of their own, and the social pressure within those cultures to rally around common cultural products can be far greater than in the old, offline world. Also: our "microcultures," being available online to membership by everyone at all times, can become magnets for huge followings—at which point, arguably, they are not so "micro" anymore. This has certainly become the case with indie rock, which is more broadly popular by far than it was during the hardcore or college-rock days, and perhaps even more popular than during the corporate-marketed "alternative" rock heyday of the early 1990s. It has become the musical lingua franca of an entire demographic of not just college students but a large chunk of educated urban twenty- and thirty-somethings, whether in New York or San Francisco or D.C. or Seattle. They all vote Democrat, too, and in this regard they reside in the "urban archipelago," is a very smart essay in Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger called the urban liberal consensus just after the heartbreaking (for us) 2004 election. But more remarkable than this nationwide political consensus is the nationwide cultural consensus that has sprung up within or alongside it. Far from splintering into ever narrower niches, this cultural consensus has extended its reach through the Internet, constituting a sort of universal urban middlebrow.
One might call this the hipster consensus, to use the somewhat unfortunate term that (for better or for worse) has come to denote these educated young Americans; and no cultural genre defines this consensus more than does indie rock. And if this hipster archipelago is a virtual community, it is building up its own virtual institutions, which use the Internet to harmonize the far-flung members, to allow these thousands of disparate agents to maintain a near-instantaneous and deceptively easy unanimity. Pitchfork serves as one of these institutions, as [is] the Gawker Media network of blogs (which includes the aforementioned Idolator, as well as Gawker in New York, Defamer in L.A., and a handful of other, non-geographically aligned offerings). But perhaps more intriguing than either of these is KEXP, a real-world public-radio station in Seattle that attracts a significant portion of its listenership online. Its three prime-time DJs play almost entirely indie rock, with selections that (broadly) mirror the lineups, themselves converging, of the nation's indie-rock clubs. And indeed, a list of KEXP's top-twelve cities for online listenership reads like a hipster-archipelago roll call (albeit weighted understandably westward):
FIG. 2 - 1 : KEXP STREAMING CITIES
(Numbers 13 and 15, curiously enough, are Beijing and Guangzhou, in China.) Although it should be stressed that the actual online tribe of KEXP, like that of Pitchfork, is relatively small—62,000 unique visitors per week—it nevertheless functions as a crucial pollinator of sounds, injecting the same new bands at the exact same time into similar social groups around the world.
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