American Culture

Overthinking: rock music, pop culture, Donald Trump and America’s desperate race to the bottom

Donald Trump isn’t an anomaly. He isn’t an outlier. He isn’t a blip on the radar of history. He’s the very embodiment of the black, ignorant American soul.


[Apologies in advance. These issues may seem unrelated to some of you, but the dots connect perfectly in my head. I’ll let you know when the big leap is about to happen.]

Jim and I have been chatting offline. I hope you’ve been reading his recent work, especially the McDonaldization series and his outstanding tribute to Tom Petty, which goes way past Petty’s career and into some deeper questions about the genre we know as “Rock.” He concluded a recent email with this:

So there’s a huge question – can any of these genres survive/thrive/go mainstream with rock receding into niche genre status itself?

To which I replied: Is there a “mainstream” anymore?

No question Rock is now a niche genre, although artistically it remains a lot more viable than I think most people realize. There’s a lot of fantastic work being done in that vein, but you don’t really hear it unless you go hunting, which most people don’t. It’s not like it used to be, when you could turn on your radio and hear the latest and greatest. Turn on the radio today and you get Classic Rock, Prefabricated Corporate Pop, Hip-Hop and perhaps the gravest offense of all, Pop Country (which has more in common with Beyonce than it does Tammy Wynette).

Don’t get me wrong – there are talented C&W artists. But for every Alan Jackson there are a hundred Florida-Georgia Lines. Chris Stapleton is legit, but then there’s Sam Hunt. I still have no idea why Nashville likes Stapleton, though – to my ears he’s a reincarnation of Storyville, which is precisely the sort of Austin rootsy thing Country programmers are having nothing to do with. And consider the case of Jason Isbell: he isn’t just the best Country artist alive, he’s one the four or five best in any genre, but the folks in Na$hVega$ wouldn’t play him if you put a gun to their heads.

But I digress.

Intellectually I have always been a culturalist, and given where I come from it’s always been heavily slanted toward pop culture. I believe that studying the things “the people” do – what they watch, what they listen to, how they spend their spare time, what they spend their money on, what they read – will tell you most of what there is to know about that society. So music, TV, movies, these have always been far more than pastimes to me. They have been the texts I use to understand America.

As a result, I understand Jim’s question above as being sort of about music – Rock as a niche genre, etc. – but mostly I hear a question about the state of the nation. If I see a genre which attained greatness in large part because its leading lights saw what they did as art instead of mere product fading away while soulless, all-style-no-substance, over-processed MusicWhiz® takes over, I don’t ask what it means for music, I ask what it says about the culture.

[Alert: here comes the big associative leap.]

For me, then, Jim and I were actually engaged in a discussion about the spiritual and intellectual state of the society. And the conclusions I’m reaching aren’t pretty ones. If you have an IQ above 60, you don’t need to be told that America is in crisis. We’ve been an ignorant, self-defeating oligarchic grease fire for … well, decades, anyway. And last November the out-of-control express train to hell completely jumped the tracks. Literally every day I wake up, log in and check the news, knowing two things before the browser even loads:

  1. Something unspeakably, indefensibly, sociopathically appalling will have happened.
  2. I won’t be remotely surprised by it.

I have for years argued that education is the cure, that if we take the right steps today pretty much every major problem we have currently will be solved, or at least heavily mitigated, in a generation. I still believe this, but I’ve always been a Romantic, an idealist, and for so much of my life I have Quixotically fixated on words like “education” and “solved.” However, I have finally, reluctantly, accepted that the only word in the formulation that matters is “if.”

In short: I have given up.

A famous man once said:

The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems…When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us.

There are many problems with this famous man’s words, obviously. But they do call to mind some important things we should remember about our nation’s history.

The unfortunate truth is, when America was being settled, all those European countries didn’t send their best. Our forebears were the worst possible stock on which to build a society. Religious extremists and bald-faced theocrats. Anti-social adventurers who wanted to get as far from civilization as possible. The Scots-Irish, a bunch of honor culture herders who comprise a good portion of my own genetic makeup. Without their descendants Donald Trump wouldn’t have made it to the first primary debate. Lesser sons of English nobility, a crowd who believed in many things, but egalitarian humanism wasn’t one of them. They thought it was okay to actually own other human beings, for instance, and in time they declared the bloodiest war in our history, one that wiped out a generation of young men.

Basically, the US was established by people who were trying to escape (or were compelled to) the very kind of society an enlightened person would want to live in. The best stayed home and the outcasts came here, where their ignorance and hatefulness became our cultural DNA.

Donald Trump isn’t an anomaly. He isn’t an outlier. He isn’t a blip on the radar of history. He’s the very embodiment of the black, ignorant American soul. When we look in the mirror, if we don’t see Trump we need to take off our rose-colored glasses.

So back to Jim’s question, or rather the one I hear lurking beneath the one he asked. I look at popular music these days and see a fashionable, frantic race to the bottom that mirrors the broader political and social reality of our culture. We’re going to hell and the music industry is determined to get there first.

Lately I’ve been thinking about leaving the US, perhaps for good. A good job offer from someplace like The Netherlands, Denmark, Norway or Sweden would be hard to ignore….

6 replies »

  1. ‘Miurca was founded by a bunch of religious outcasts Europe was happy to get rid of; guns are legal and the highest rate of gun ownership of the next ten planets combined as well as the highest death by gun rate of anywhere on this planet, higher even than active war zones; forty seven percent can’t read, write or cypher to the level requisite to filling out a job application and subscribe to adolescent fairy tales to explain away the dark, keep the bed dry at night and justify sex with children; and a health care system ranks at the bottom of the rest of the world. Australia was founded by theives, cutthroats and whores, guns are banned and has one of the lowest murder rates; a first rate public education system and a relatively well educated voting population; and a first rate public health system.

    The Australians got the better deal.

  2. If all you see when you look in that mirror is Donald Trump, then you’re glasses are tinted too dark. He’s there, clearly, but so is Martin Luther King Jr. So is Albert Einstein (yes, I realize he was an immigrant – that’s partly the point). So is Abraham Lincoln. So is Thurgood Marshall. And so on. And to call the homelands our apparently sub-standard ancestors were fleeing “enlightened societies” is beyond absurd.

    Ancestry is not destiny.

    • You need to distinguish between rules and exceptions, between dominant and minority. If it isn’t clear to you by now that King and Einstein didn’t exactly win the war convincingly, we need to talk about YOUR glasses.

      And while Lincoln did the right thing freeing the slaves, he was hardly anybody’s model of a race-blind humanitarian…

      • “You need to distinguish between rules and exceptions, between dominant and minority.”

        So do you. More people voted for Clinton than voted for Trump. Obama was elected – twice. Just as we have ignorance and hatefulness and bigotry in our national DNA, so too do we have the capacity to overcome that. We’ve done it, repeatedly. And every time we’ve made progress, our base instincts have tried to drag us back to a darker past. It’s always been two steps forward, one step back for America.

        Hell, wasn’t it Churchill who said something like “America could always be counted on to do the right thing – after all the wrong things had been tried?” Well, Trump is clearly and obviously the wrong thing, and even apolitical didn’t-vote-last-election types are realizing they screwed up, that Trump is as horrible as many of us said he would be, and that the people who support him need to be convinced of the error of their ways or shoved out of the way of progress.

        The press isn’t the behemoth it once was, but it’s woken up and remembered that it’s both strong and capable. Social media’s double-edged sword is being turned against it by its own users and the same almighty dollar that is driving the dumbing-down of music is forcing social media companies to change or perish. “Old boy’s” networks are being exposed to sunlight and the roaches like Weinstein and his supporters are fleeing the light. There are at least as many reasons to hope as there are reasons to despair. And I say that as someone who spends a decent amount of time every fucking day documenting just how deep the abyss is.

        Hope isn’t enough, of course. It’ll take a metric shit-ton of effort and fight too. We’ve made progress since 1776. We turned the United States of America from a nation divided against itself into a nation that was imperfect, but worthy of self-respect. We’re regressing under Donald, but we’ve moved forward before, so we can do it again.

        • You say more people voted for Clinton, which is a) true, and b) not as huge a comfort as I’d like. Regardless, we have a system rigged to empower the Trumps of the world and no real hope of overturning it. Also, while Trump didn’t get a majority of the vote, in a discussion like this we really have to account for all those who stayed home and let it happen, don’t we?

          I hope you’re right. I have never hoped anything so hard in my life. But right now hope is hard to come by.