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Korporate Konsumer Kulture

[Editor's note: Kristin Hersh is the lead singer and guitarist for Throwing Muses and 50FootWave. A longtime favorite here at Powell's, we're happy to welcome her to the blog. (One member of our staff actually made her own Throwing Muses concert T-shirt back in the day. Really.) Kristin recently performed at a True Stories event here in Portland; you can hear her words and music on our most recent Bookcast.]

It's 2 a.m. and the rain is so loud and the moon is so bright that I'm lying on the closet floor, trying to get some sleep. It's hard. I mean, the floor is hard and it's hard to sleep on it.

You're supposed to empty your mind of all thought, in order to fall asleep, right? Or is that meditation? Either way. I believe the brain's first order of business is to lie to you, so I like to shut that organ down every chance I get.

Tonight, though, when I try to shut it up, it keeps asking this question: why do people think I'm foreign? My brain raises a good point. I've never been sure why people tend to guess I'm foreign. 'Cause they do. Often. They ask me "what part of the world" I'm from. And it bugs me. What does "foreign" even mean in a melting pot? I mean, I speak English.

"You speak it...weird, though," says my husband, Billy. "And you like to dress like a refugee."

"Weird? What do you mean, 'weird'? And good like a refugee or bad like a refugee?"

"Oh...good," he says. "Like you were the first girl to the bale."

I've seen Billy asked for directions in Milan, Boise, Barcelona, New York and Dublin. Clearly he has no trouble fitting in, wherever he is. In most of these places, he is foreign.

I'm not asked for directions anywhere, not even in my hometown where I should look like I know where I'm going.

Today, walking down NW 23rd, here in Portland, I saw no less than six different ladies wearing the exact same shoes. Shoes that were being sold in several places on that very street. I guessed that those ladies weren't foreign — they certainly looked like they belonged.

I began to wonder if besides wearing the same shoes, maybe they all listened to the same music, too. As a musician, I wonder this a lot. Marketing is very effective when it comes to shoes and music.

I looked down at my sturdy refugee shoes and thought, "Fashion. Again." In music it often seems to come down to that tiny bit of evil: style over substance, ephemeral over timeless.

Recently, a music journalist told me that he hadn't kept up with my career for the past few years, because I had "fallen off [his] radar." The last record of mine that he'd heard was the subject of a well funded major label marketing campaign; I was on the radio and in most music publications as well as some of the magazines one might read at, say, the dentist's office.

It hadn't occurred to this man, who works in the music business, that what he thinks of as his "radar" might just be the result of marketing dollars spent by a corporation whose job it is to create popular culture by creating the impression of popular culture in order to... Make Money.

I was amazed. How could this be? I thought. How can this process be invisible even to a person who plays a role in it? Well, I guess the answer is in the shoes. Belonging at the expense of individuality. No one seems to want to give it up. We like matching feet and reliable coffee and using the same perfume as rich and famous people.

Our American cities are disappearing under the weight of corporate giants who drive out competition while peddling sameness. Once the rents go up, no store other than a chain can afford to pursue the all-important Coed Consumer Monster, waving Daddy's credit card.

Over twenty years of touring the states, I've watched local accents and local music slip away from cities like Austin, Texas, Athens, Georgia and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. So sad! There used to be places to go in this country, pictures to take, people to meet. Now they look the same and sound the same. We even eat the same food! Do you remember regional cuisine? Can you really find any? It's even happening in foreign places like Europe, Asia, Australia, even my beloved New Zealand!

I'm done. I'm going back to sleep now. My sturdy shoes are right next to my face, but I don't mind. I like them now. They're on my radar. I love being an American, but I don't feel like I have to look like one. And I listen to all kinds of music, from lots of different places and eras; not because some giant sold it to me, but because it never sucked.

I think I might just keep talking funny, too.

÷ ÷ ÷

Kristin Hersh is the lead singer and guitarist for Throwing Muses and 50FootWave. A longtime favorite here at Powell's, she blogs for us periodically — and her blogs are always a welcome surprise. You can hear her words and music on our most recent Bookcast.

12 Responses to "Korporate Konsumer Kulture"

    kate November 10th, 2006 at 9:49 pm

    i love when procrastinating on my own writing brings me to a piece of writing that reminds me why i love words so much. kristin is one hell of a storyteller, whether she's on a stage or leaping off a page.

    shannon November 11th, 2006 at 12:36 pm

    Kristin, shamelessly I'll say that I am a fan of yours, but you have been "off my radar." Thank you for reminding me of you, the present. I'll listen to the True Stories thing, but I can't help but pine for my long lost copy of the Real Ramona. Is that bad? And, shamelessly, now I'm curious - what shoes do you wear?

    Eric November 11th, 2006 at 2:26 pm

    I'm in awe of the way this woman uses words. It's surreal and inspiring because so many people don't even take the time anymore.

    mike November 12th, 2006 at 3:34 am

    I think maybe you should hang out a little longer in athens next time before you say we have lost our culture. i can't even remember the last time you played in athens, i did drive to atlanta to see you though. athens still has the 40 watt club, wuxtry records, r.e.m., pylon(they reformed), athfest, love tractor(they reformed too), oh yeah even timetoy (they reformed as well), drive by truckers, widespread panic, the elephant six collective, vic chesnutt and loads of house shows. we even have a bunch of local indie labels like happy happy birthday to me records (my label), orangetwin, hello sir, cloud recordings, and warm. we even have lots of local bands around 150 if you just count the ones that have cds or vinyl, well over that if you count the ones that just play out for fun. we have a new summer festival the athens popfest that focuses on 1/2 out of town acts, and the other 1/2 local with over 60 bands playing each year. maybe you should come down and play a show here, we still have great food, lots of art, lots of music, and i'm sure if you hung out a bit, you'd see athens is still very much on the map doing it's own thing. mike

    Rob November 12th, 2006 at 4:46 am

    I've been feeling the same as you for ages, K. Even here in the UK, we've lost our identity. Funnily enough, everyone here wants to be American. On every street in every town there's a Starbucks (ugh!) and a McDonalds (double ugh!). And no one ever asks 'Why?' Except me.

    There are no countries or continents or regions anymore. We are just the corporate world. And it sucks...

    kristin November 12th, 2006 at 9:52 am

    to Mike:

    I love Athens and I go frequently (even when I'm not playing -- I stay with Vic Chesnutt when I'm there). That's why it's so sad to see what's happened to it since I started visiting in 1986. By the way, you forgot to mention The Grit!!

    I named a few towns I'd always seen as 'untouchable', special indie towns. Corporatization is happening and in my opinion, it's eroding the specialness of these places. That's all.

    I hope that towns like Athens can continue to fight 'em off and hold on to a lot of what makes them great.

    I'll be back again in 2007, hope to see you then...


    Michael November 12th, 2006 at 6:25 pm

    Kristin --
    Sadly, your words are all too true. Our world is falling prey to sameness: wherever you go, you are already there. In the long run, capitalism will destroy everything, but in the meantime we must resist as best as we can! Cheers.

    Tom November 13th, 2006 at 8:34 pm

    I disagree somewhat with capitalism being the font of evil sameness...While there definitely is a herd mentality generated by corporate America, if you want sameness, one need only look at the old Soviet Union and see what communism did to individuality...For all it's faults, there's definitely still plenty of people being individuals in the USA...

    But, I LOVE Kristin and her music, and like the fact that there are many different avenues to buy her music so that I don't have to buy the latest from Justin Timberlake or Fergie that I choose to ignore!!

    Maria November 20th, 2006 at 4:45 pm

    What Kristin so uniquely expresses is sad, but true; it makes me all the more grateful for artists/thinkers like Kristin Hersh. I suspect we'll be hearing more from her soon. I believe there are many, many people who hunger for music and other creative offerings from a person with such a unique perspective and who can't be anything but honest.

    Kristin December 27th, 2006 at 10:57 am

    People think I'm foreign, too and I grew up in Vancouver, Washington. Weird.

    Stacey February 20th, 2007 at 6:00 am

    Your writings and music constantly thwart my attempts at doing my uni work! But i dont care. I could listen to your stories all day. You speak right of the [almost] complete commodification of our culture, which only results in the opposite to what capitalism feigns - lack of choice. And to the above person on the Soviet Union comment, the SU was by no means communist in any true sense of the word. Capitalism doesn't promote the flourishing of the individual, it promotes conformity - as Kristin mentioned, most of us end up walking around in the same shoes, same clothes, made by the same exploited women and children. Globalisation has the potential to destroy us - or free us.

    'Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.' - Rosa Luxemburg.

    I look forward to seeing you play in England!

    Nathan June 26th, 2007 at 1:27 pm

    Have you ever been to Alaska? I grew up there, and moving from there down to the mainland has really taken its toll, seeing all of what you're talking about. At least I know that no place will ever be as beautiful and free as my home, to which I someday hope to return. Just seeing that heaven changes lives, so removed is it from human meddling.

    Also, I loved your Cleveland show back in May, Kristin; my cousin and I both ended up buying the McCarricks' CD on the spot. They were amazing and blended in new and beautiful ways with your set.

    In reference to the comment above mine, well, its final note really: I have noticed this duality within many trends like globalization - the very paradox of the tragic hero, wherein the same ideal (re)presents both redemption and downfall. It's a sad irony that such ideals become (not that my observations mean anything).

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