Saturday, October 20, 2007

Nerd Alert (Notes on Twee #0)

Carl Wilson, another of my favorite living critics (and not to be confused with one of my favorite dead singers), has a great piece on Slate about the cultural politics of contemporary indie rock, written in response to Sasha Frere-Jones' provocative but less convincing New Yorker article about race and the current lack of "miscegenation" in same. The whole thing is worth reading (as is SFJ's), but here are two of the most intriguing bits, which incidentally suggest a point of departure for a socioeconomic analysis of "twee," as well as the even more visible public hegemony of "nerd" culture (watch this space):

"With its true spiritual center in Richard Florida-lauded 'creative' college towns such as Portland, Ore., [indie rock] is the music of young 'knowledge workers' in training, and that has sonic consequences: Rather than body-centered, it is bookish and nerdy; rather than being instrumentally or vocally virtuosic, it shows off its chops via its range of allusions and high concepts with the kind of fluency both postmodern pop culture and higher education teach its listeners to admire … This doesn't make coffeehouse-indie shallow, but it can result in something more akin to the 1960s folk revival, with fretful collegiate intellectuals in a Cuban Missile Crisis mood, seeking purity and depth in antiquarian music and escapist spirituality. Not exactly a recipe for a booty-shaking party …

"The profile of this university demographic often includes a sojourn in extended adolescence, comprising graduate degrees, internships, foreign jaunts, and so on, which easily can last until their early 30s. Unlike in the early 1990s, when this was perceived as a form of generational exclusion and protested in 'slacker'/grunge music, it's now been normalized as a passage to later-life career success. Its musical consequences might include an open but less urgent expression of sexuality, or else a leaning to the twee, sexless, childhood nostalgia that many older critics … find puzzling and irritating. Female and queer artists still have pressing sexual issues and identities to explore and celebrate, but the straight boys often seem to fall back on performing their haplessness and hyper-sensitivity. (Pity the indie-rock girlfriend.)"

I have a few problems with the last paragraph: the too-easy, meaningless side-taking with anonymous "female and queer artists" (not any female or queer artists in particular) against equally hypostasized "straight boys," and the related leap from aesthetic self-representation to social practice embodied here by "the indie-rock girlfriend." But on the whole I find it kind of a fascinating idea: that the powerlessness and smallness that twee (and, these days, indie more generally) connotes can be seen as a function of, and response to, the knowledge/power conferred on its target audience by years of academic legitimation.

And, before anybody says anything, glass houses, stones, yeah I know.