Lefsetz Letter » Blog Archive » What’s Cool

Lefsetz Letter » Blog Archive » What’s Cool


“The Book That Explains Our Cultural Stagnation”: https://nyti.ms/3AEj5z2

This book is not coming out until next Tuesday, but I can’t get Michelle Goldberg’s opinion piece out of my head.

For the record, the book is entitled:

“Status and Culture: How Our Desire for Social Rank Creates Taste, Identity, Art, Fashion, and Constant Change”: https://amzn.to/3Q6g0NQ

Do you think today’s music sucks? That the studio movies are boring?

This is what EVERYBODY thinks other than those involved in the manufacture and distribution of said “art.” To the point where great swaths of the public have completely tuned out. Spotify might have a giant audience, but the major labels’ mindshare is ever-decreasing.

Even worse is the movies. Yeah, Covid is over, the theaters are open, AND ALMOST NO ONE IS GOING!

“Domestic theaters managed about $52 million this weekend, possibly a low in this century (before 2020) in actual dollars, and certainly the fewest tickets sold for much longer.”: https://bit.ly/3COQqdl

Of course there are variables, what is in release, weather, but one thing is for sure, this is a terrible number in a bad season whose only true bright spot is “Top Gun: Maverick,” which was a sequel.

And that’s just the point, the studios are taking ever fewer chances. And in TV you see so many reboots. Because it’s hard to start from zero and break through with a new idea, in music too, where we keep getting more of the same.

Ain’t it funny that the breakthroughs all come from outside the U.S., most noticeably “Squid Game.” Are you aware of the “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” phenomenon? I wasn’t, not until a few days ago. This Korean production was the most viewed on Netflix, with 77.4 million hours viewed. This even exceeds “The Sandman”!

Honestly, I haven’t seen “Extraordinary Attorney Woo,” we’re still in the middle of “Salamander,” so I don’t know how different it is from U.S. fare, but it has caught on.

Yet Netflix is a limited platform, not everything is available, it’s not like Spotify. As for music…

Used to be there were insiders and outsiders. Hipsters and the hoi polloi. The hipsters were there first, oftentimes what they were into broke through to the mainstream, sometimes it did not. But one thing was for sure, the hipsters lorded their dedication and knowledge over you. You weren’t aware of this? You’re listening to that crap?

There were all kinds of bleeding edge phenomena that broke, and almost never instantly. The hipsters had to adopt it and it took years for the rest to catch on. Don’t confuse the sixties and seventies with the MTV monoculture era. MTV anointed hits and pushed them down everybody’s throats, we were all on the same page, and then the internet came along and blew it all up. And now we’ve got the same damn sounds for twenty years, and superhero movies that are suddenly tanking at the box office. There is listener/viewer fatigue, not that anybody involved wants to acknowledge this What is going on?

“Marx posits cultural evolution as a sort of perpetual motion machine driven by people’s desire to ascend the social hierarchy. Artists innovate to gain status, and people unconsciously adjust their tastes to either signal their status tier or move up to a new one. As he writes in the introduction, ‘Status struggles fuel cultural creativity in three important realms: competition between socioeconomic classes, the formation of subcultures and countercultures, and artists’ internecine battles.’”


Used to be you were outside, on the fringe, with a number of acolytes, just waiting to be discovered. Now you’re out on the fringe and you’re never going to be discovered. The link between hipsters and the rest of the population has been broken. We’re all overwhelmed. And we all discover things after the fact, like with “Attorney Woo” above. We don’t care what the hipsters have to say and we never hear it anyway! As for being a hipster, that’s no longer fulfilling, there is no club, or it’s very small, and your favorite does not break through. Ergo, all the positive reviews of mainstream product. The media gloms on to what breaks through, even though it’s the same damn thing over and over.

“The internet, Marx writes in his book’s closing section, changes this dynamic. With so much content out there, the chance that others will recognize the meaning of any obscure cultural signal declines. Challenging art loses its prestige. Besides, in the age of the internet, taste tells you less about a person. You don’t need to make your way into any social world to develop a familiarity with Cage — or, for that matter, with underground hip-hop, weird performance art, or rare sneakers.”

In other words there used to be a scene, which you might discover and become a member of, feeling and maybe ultimately being cool. You had to be a part of a scene to uncover its details, now you can do this alone, singularly, and then keep surfing to some other subject.

I can tell you about so many scenes from my youth. W.C. Fields came back. And then the Marx Brothers. You devoured their work, you quoted it, others were interested in what you were talking about, the scene grew.

That doesn’t happen today, or it remains very small.

Or, you blow up on social media, which is less about content than fame, and still so many citizens are completely unaware of you and your efforts.

Do I have answers?

I’m still pondering the questions!

Spotify and the labels could promote outside work. But they’re only interested in their bottom line, does it behoove them to do this?

I mean let’s talk about some of the biggest acts of the sixties. Do you think Cream was embraced from the start? No! Most people were still listening to AM ditties. Although “Sunshine of Your Love” from their second album became an AM hit, most people weren’t into the band for its album work until it broke up!

Yes wasn’t a hit out of the gate, nor was Queen. It’s not like their initial work sucked, it was just too outside for most people. And it’s not like they compromised, worked with hitmakers, rather ultimately the audience came to them! If anything, these bands continued to experiment, going down their own path.

And we had the indie scene of the nineties. With its fanzines. Ultimately Nirvana signed with Geffen and then the scene blew up.

That doesn’t happen anymore.

We’re waiting for spontaneous generation when in truth the true innovators aren’t even bothering to push the envelope, create at all, BECAUSE THERE’S NO STATUS IN IT, never mind money.

And you don’t gain status from being a fan of an act.

Concomitantly, those who’ve broken through have armies who don’t want to bring you into their BTS or Swift tent, and insult you for not being a member of their cult and not getting it. They don’t want you, never mind not wanting your questions. And there’s no great artistic development unless it’s analyzed and there are questions about it.

We live in a new world, and the major studios and labels are living in the old one. But it’s even worse, they’re releasing ever less monochromatic programming.

And the funny thing is we defer to the lowest common denominator. Used to be the brainiacs tested the limits, whether they be mathematicians or artists, today it’s all about dumbing the product down and serving the broad swath of the ignorant, who decry you for taking artistic productions seriously.

Don’t expect these questions to be bantered about. Because the people who run labels and studios aren’t art lovers, but business people, concerned with the bottom line, in this case their salaries and their bonuses.

We live in a society where questioning the status quo is taboo, where having an open mind is anathema, where you join your tribe and stick to it. And the only thing that breaks through is politics, because it has the greatest weight. Following an artist? Why? They’re inured to the money too, they’re not honest, they’re thinking about their sponsors. And they’re fearful of alienating any potential customer.

And if the truth can’t break through in politics, if people don’t want to hear it even if they’re exposed to it, not wanting to question their beliefs, what are the odds that something challenging, something new and different, can break through in art?

Very low.

This is the world we live in.


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