Pretentiousness: a response

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Pretentiousness: a response

Post by Guest »

After reading John's diary entry about pretentiousness on the site, a few thoughts come to mind. I appreciate that the dumbing down of American culture is a frustrating spectacle to be faced with, but it also provides some unique opportunities.

John, some of your comments seem to presuppose that a good percentage of the general populace is either a) playing down their secret genius or b) wishing they had secret genius. The description seems to suggest that many members of the mainstream, in their secret lives, wish that they could only find a forum in which to discuss their ideas about the state of the world around them without being labeled pretentious - but perhaps they feel no need or desire to discuss ideas. If you think about how much you secretly dream that your hometown football team does well this season, or how much you care about the outcome of the intricately scripted “reality” show, or what’s on sale at the mall – the total of your concerns in this arena (if these things do not matter to you) are probably about equal to their anguish about the lack of Socratic method present in their minivan-to-minivan cellphone conversations.

Of course this statement employs cartoonish stereotypes as well, but hopefully they serve to illustrate the point.

Maybe we don’t ask our heroes to prove that they’re crass and stupid – maybe they are chosen as heroes because they ARE that way. Why is it automatically a front? Maybe the mainstream does not want to think, they want to be spoon-fed. They want to lie on their sofas and be entertained, period. Perhaps they are not covering up their preoccupation with higher thought as much as they simply don’t have these concerns, and, this is crucial: perhaps they don’t care that they don’t. I do get what you are saying, but I also think it is possible that you are projecting your own desire for knowledge upon them. As a “thinker”, it is difficult to imagine someone satisfied in a life without such ponderings.

While there are surely some braniacs who confine themselves to ghettos of like-minded for fear of being labeled nerdy, this conglomeration of thinkers, in all probability, springs forth because this is where they thrive. It is not unlike the jock and his buddies who talk only of baseball. It is no use talking about esoteric ideas with someone who wants to talk RBIs, just as the baseball fan isn’t interested in talking with a painter or plumber or butcher about the game they did not see. People stick with who stimulates them, not necessarily because they are too scared to mingle with others.

Respecting diversity – yes. And it has paid off, hasn’t it? To come back to indie rock, 20 years ago you could not simply start a band, hit up a small, local label and go out and make enough money to survive. Plus, it is only now, with the advent of the internet, that people who do like to talk about ideas can reach so many others, and there is a limitless forum for these ideas to be expressed (and countered). If not for the more commercial side of new media, the renegade faction of the internet would not have easy access to the far-reaching network it now enjoys.

The mainstream cesspool is indeed large and extreme, but the duality of our human experience is such that a stronger move in one cultural direction (be it however crass) generally results in a stronger countercultural movement also. So, maybe the secret lies in celebrating the opportunities for “other” types due to the very existence of the pop culture media whores, rather than wishing for a level playing field. A culture chock full o’ mediocre, fairly intelligent people, without a soulless or mindless mass culture to aggravate and inspire them to speak out – what will impel them to rise above the mediocrity?

Sure, it is easy to say that the world would be great if things were more diverse, but one must be cautious about investing too much in this dream. Would it REALLY be better for thinkers?

What is it that provides thinkers with the fuel for their commentaries, their ideas, their art? The fucked-up-edness of the world around them. In many ways, isn’t it the “otherness” that appeals? The way you describe a better culture, if a large percentage of people were more verbose, then the pockets of brainiacs you mention would then be a part of (or at least closer to) the mainstream. But would they be satisfied with that? Or would they seek out a different way to be “other”? People who treasure being different often complain about those around them, but if everyone were more analogous, then the satisfaction of being different would disappear, would it not?

This is stated with the realization that you mentioned a culture that enjoyed more diversity – but this gives the same end result as them becoming so similar. Doesn’t it mean that the otherness that artists enjoy would be, in fact, normal? If being diverse is a fundamental attribute of the culture, then how does an artist set himself apart?

The fantasy of a more creative, philosophical, probing culture is kind of like a new-age vision: that all could be peace and love and no one would fight or hurt or suffer. Can this ever be? Is it not the dualities in our world that keep us moving? The push and pull, the ebb and flow, these are what create niches for thinkers, and musicians.

Would the romantic notion of a diverse, melting-pot culture not leave you with a uniform colored sludge in the end?
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Post by esatnik »

We are the *indie* rockers, and our good taste is implied. We are as clumsy as we are stupid, yet we fancy ourselves the elite. In a society of rotten meat, we are the crushed flowers.

Or are we *prog* rockers? I forget.
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Post by grant »

This is the diary entry being discussed.

On first read, that "coy vocals" line appears to be a bit (ho ho!) counter-revolutionary.

But then, I would say that, as a fellow who has dedicated far too much effort to the ironic appropriation of pathos. I mean, if you're a ruddy post-modernist, what isn't a pose? "Pretension" is a suit other people strap you into, not something you button up for yourself.

I might have more to say after I've had a bit of a lie-down.
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Post by esatnik »

So many words from such a small alphabet. Athena, goddess of wisdom, once told me that to speak much is to know little. Then she put on her helmet and dissappeared.

"Duality of human experience"?
"Ironic appropriation of pathos"?
Do you people actually communicate by such language? If so, then you are quite pretentious indeed.

Such is the sad existence of the *indie* rocker.
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Post by Merlin »

If you value your seat at the unpretentious-guy cracker barrel, I'd minimize the mythological references.
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Post by miss michaela dee »

I've heard this song -- "scent of lime" -- you may know it; it has an oddly appropriate lyric.

"The plainest words are the finest/I've been waiting half my life to find the real world/It's not the real world/If you find the real world let me know."

Amen.
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Post by lucy »

I thougt guests were no longer able to post...hmmm......queer.
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Post by meg »

esatnik wrote:"Duality of human experience"?
"Ironic appropriation of pathos"?
Do you people actually communicate by such language? If so, then you are quite pretentious indeed.


I love the word "duality," it's a very exact word and it sounds pretty when I say it. I also love RBIs, they're nice. I think what gets missed in any discussion of "pretention" is the fact that "pretentious" is often nothing more than a word hurled at someone who seems to be showing off. It's a comment on attitude more than a comment on a person's education or choice of topic. I could talk about Gore Vidal and I could be thought pretentious just as easily as I could dissect a box score and be thought pretentious.

Futhermore, rather than work in sweeping statements about the intelligence of the general population, why not concentrate on something a little closer to home. Use a few I Statements. Do you ever feel pressured to dumb yourself down? Ever catch yourself speaking non-grammatically because you don't want to seem over-educated? Ever scan the top twenty singles or all of your cable channels and wonder why you can't find a lyric or show to hang onto?

I feel like it's much more common (accepted?) for people to discuss Feeling Stupid. There's a sense that we all Feel Stupid. But I think there's a reason that the bands I like best have these incredible lyrics that force me to look up words and double-check my mythology. I've been smart my whole life and to be honest, I'd rather spend my time with people who are just a bit smarter than I am. There's plenty of room to Just Fucking Rock Out, there's plenty of room for rest and escapism, blah blah blah, but you know? I'm sitting here, very young, working hard, learning crap, I want to have the assurance that I'm not alone. And that's rock and roll too.
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Post by Merlin »

lucy wrote:I thougt guests were no longer able to post...hmmm......queer.

They are if they register and choose the completely awesome username of "guest".

Score one against the dumb administrator. :-)
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Post by royal »

Sounds to me like guest is just throwing some pretentiousness shapes.
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Post by lucy »

"Guest" is clever like fox.
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Post by John »

I wasn't making an argument that I felt like the world was full of geniuses pretending to be stupid. I was saying that we have stacked the cultural deck with stupid people to the point that normal intelligence and interests seem uncomfortably "brainy". I disagree that the mass of people prefers to be fed corn paste and sugar water. All those letters written home during the Civil War that make that damn PBS documentary so appealing, they were all written by privates educated in one room schoolhouses. Oprah can start a mini cultural revolution by just suggesting that bored houswives read.
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and

Post by sean »

who is lucy calling "queer," anyway?

and, if there's any apple butter left at the unpretentious guy cracker barrel, would you mind picking up a jar for me? they won't let me anywhere near the fucker, which is why i appreciated john's post.

i agree that the negative proposition addressed by "guest"—i.e. that low intelligence is more common than masked intelligence—is relevant. but i think JR was focusing on a relatively narrow sphere: the group of honky lib-labs who make, buy, and live in what we "dubiously" call indie rock. by that yardstick, it seems a perfectly valid question to pose, as anyone who has been labeled pretentious for using more than two syllables at once can tell you. in my experience of this demimonde (which, i daresay, is VAST--my experience, that is; pardon the dangler) wordplay, intellectual energy, and artful thought are not the gold standard. instead, the scene seems more concerned, by and large, with what i consider to be the less interesting, more visceral byways of expression. that doesn't mean they're dumb. it just means they don't prize intellectualism. that's not a sweeping value judgment, either. it's not as though the ability to diagram a sentence itself is inherently more valuable than, say, the ability to build a house. but we're not talking about building houses, or even diagramming sentences. we're talking about indie rock, which exists on a continuum where brains, blues, and bass frequencies tend to fall somewhere below the platonic ideal. i'd cite modest mouse at the ultimate musical exponent of this idea; they are super expressive, but also super-inarticulate. on purpose, i believe. you have to be smart to appreciate the meta-humor of "this is a long dirve for someone with nothing to think about," but you also have to be willing to take a stand against showy smarts--which, in their way, are every bit as foul as willful ignorance. this ethos that extends to their fans, and outward to indie rock spheres far and wide. it is dude-speak, which is full of meaning and beauty, however coded. unfortunately, in the hands and mouths of less gifted artists, the intentionally muted argot of bands like mm becomes a language of gimme caps, grunts, and belches--which, ironically or not, is easily interpreted by emotionally hungry fellow travelers. and so it becomes a tribe. a tribe of people trying to communicate without seeming like they're trying to seem smart. who among us hasn't felt the chill wind of indie rock autism blow through a room? i have only recently learned to dismiss the vacant stare and jittery mien of indie kids as a youthful pose (which it unmistakably is), rather than just an unforgivable lapse in basic courtesy (which is also unmistakably is). i have also learned that just because they act dumb doesn't mean they are.

on the other hand, however, "guest" seems to be coming from the familiar position that says the world consists primarily of moronic louts, which we all know is true. that doesn't mean it isn't cynical, poisonous, or regressive. of course we live in a culture where, like in a dirty french novel, the absurd courts the vulgar. to resign yourself to that vista, however, is to deny the essential engine that motorizes all rock music, especially in the underground, and really, all meaningful art and culture, which is this: we choose to invent our own reality, and surround ourselves with interesting, not necessarily like-minded people who stimulate, inspire, and appreciate us. we may be surrounded by mouth-breathing knuckle scrapers, but we also contain the power to transcend them. part of that process involves a bit of reaction against. but part of it must also involve a bit of rank-closing, which means not making a person feel like a little biznatch just because he knows how to spell "prestidigitation" or the whereabouts of the maginot line. this is why the pretentiousness discourse was a welcome bit of reflection, and why the response inspired me to sit here for 10 minutes and rattle off this rambling message.

also, however, the world is full of people, and people are full of surprises. assuming that most people are dumb is a guarantee that you will encounter mostly dumb people on your journey, which will be narrow and unfulfilling as a result.

this is swerving into the land of ideologues, which is not my neighborhood, and if i dared to re-read this post, i would probably cringe, so i won't. i'll merely close by saying that there is another kingdom to be considered in this discussion, the one where intellectualism is held as its own virtue, and where ostentatious knowledge is somehow prized as superior by definition to "lower" forms of intellect. rot! i have always been surrounded by people who embody this anti-quality, and have always been disgusted by them, even when i was one. the wisdom of "the plainest words are the finest," that the greatest intelligence usualy lies in the simplest, most direct kind of communication, is something i cling to, even as i struggle to implement it. i live in language the way some people live in houses. i have probably been branded pretentious more times than anyone you know, and have earned it at least once or twice. (to quote smog: "i'll never be a rock'n'roll saint/'cause i can't say 'ain't.'") the problem is that "pretentious," like "nazi," is a conversation killer, the ultimate blind alley, because it doesn't seek to comment, it seeks to invalidate, like calling someone a fag. usually it's about as useful as covering your eyes to become invisible. it's a smart bomb. sometimes, however, the word is an apt criticism (i think the band rainer maria is the perfect illustration of pretention: vacuous appropriation dressed up as lofty appreciation). if there are sides to be taken here, i'd like to line up for the rescue of "pretentious" from its common usage--meaning "smarter than me"--to its actual meaning, which involves the word "pretense," or claiming knowledge that you can't back up.

i am now off the rails.
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Post by Ryan »

John wrote:All those letters written home during the Civil War that make that damn PBS documentary so appealing, they were all written by privates educated in one room schoolhouses. Oprah can start a mini cultural revolution by just suggesting that bored houswives read.
i saw that damn PBS documentary while i was on the uss nimitz, and it was disheartening, to say the least. seaman recruits (the navy equivalent of private) were writing their 'girls' while we were at sea, and it was flowery prose, let me tell you. "baby, i'm so horny. i can't wait to get back and hit that ass." and on. and on. and on. seriously. i worked with these guys (ask me about work, later) who were supposed to be the 'best and the brightest', and they were nothing but bores and braggarts - morons in freshly starched dungarees.

the masses are almost always satisfied by the lowest common denominator. in the military, in the private sector, in nearly every walk of life. it's a struggle to rise above, especially when so many of them like the taste of corn paste and sugar water. they don't know any better, and anything different is too difficult on the ol' palate.

how else can you explain regis? daily soaps? 'cribs' on mtv?
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oops

Post by sean »

i meant "pretension."
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Post by Forrest »

Wow, check out all the discourse taking place here.
Very nice.
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Post by longtimecoming »

i personally think its stupid when people base themselves on how cool they are by what music you listen too.

i have a certain group of rockstars that i consider to be genuises- like sean and john, kurt cobain, the electric 6,(hahaha theres a fire in the taco bell) brandon boyd jason boyd (wee he will take me on his tour bus the next time he comes around) there are many local genuis'- i cant name them all.

anyway, i didnt want to read this entire thing, but i grasped the words stupid and stuff, lol.

what makes sean a genius? simply put, hes AMAZING. AS i listen to when i pretend to fall- it pains me to hear cinnamon and some otherr songs. i know most likely john wrote those- johns lyrics make him a genius.

ill shut up now
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Post by Guest »

Right. Well, for my part, I was simply drawing attention to the fact that a knee-jerk reaction to the condition of the world, at any given point or any given period, is often to say that it could be so much better if only ______, without seeing that perhaps what has given a person his very place in it is the present-day state. It is easy to don rose-colored glasses and feel hard-done by, but to see and appreciate that the culture we live in, for all its faults, also leaves room for a powerful backlash force that provides an alternate to the mainstream and gives the “other” types a place to congregate is important, isn't it?

Also, it is easy to slip into the position of feeling sorry for those who do not spend their lives pondering higher questions, and that can be an arrogant and narrow-minded view. Isn’t it important to suppose that a lot of people who buy into what the mainstream monster feeds them are perfectly happy to do so? We cannot assume that they feel their lives are lacking in the very thoughts that give some people the pretentious label. Oprah indeed inspired housewives to read, and this is a wonderful thing – but it is not going to impel the majority of them to spend their days WRITING books and discussing ideas and therefore abandon their suburban existence, their trips to wal-mart, their… um… Oprah. Nor should it, is the point. To each his own. Each group assures the existence of the next.

Using the term “dumb” and “stupid” to refer to large groups of people, as Sean was getting at, is dangerous – and I don’t suggest that everyone who is not a thinker or an artist is dumb. These labels are hurled in every direction – there are many who might be considered by some in this thread as “stupid” who would react by saying that we are “dumb” for having this conversation. Generally these terms are reserved for those who share values different than our own. Their gross overuse renders them meaningless.

Assuming that the world is full of dumb people will certainly doom one to failure. So will assuming that the world is full of brilliant people with a thin crust covering them, only requiring a soft tap to make the shards fall away, thus revealing the diamond beneath. Moving through the world fully aware that there are pockets of brilliance leaves one open to finding them.

Sean’s mention of levels of intellectualism is valid and warrants thought. The most ostentatious intellects are often spouting the same b.s. as the brain-dead drones, they simply deliver in such a way that the majority listening believe they must know what they’re talking about. Frustrating for those who don’t buy what they’re selling but are simply labeled as feeling inferior if they voice resistance.

The plainest words can indeed be the finest. So can the largest words, depending on the instance. Striving for the appropriate words is key – to find the most succinct way to communicate. Not to search for the simplest terms to avoid being called pretentious, and not to employ the floweriest terms to elevate yourself above the possibility of retort.

I understand that John was referring to the indie rock circle for the most part. And I largely agree with his views and appreciate his taking the time to share his thoughts – but this is a salon, dammit! It was time for something to be slapped on the discussion table, and John’s post was the first I have seen that warranted further discussion of a number of topics.
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Post by anthropomorphizing_kitty »

May I just step outside of it all for a moment and say that really, what I found most intriguing in all of this philosophical debate, was the fact that John knows about "Jenny from the block".
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Post by John »

I'm immensely gratified that these ideas are being bandied about, so much so that I'll not labor the fact that much of your "schooling" tone, Guest, is directed at straw men. The actual post in question contains few of the assertions that you're quick to scold me for. In your busy reading between the lines you may have missed the simplicity of what I was saying and inserted some arguments from a different text.

That said I think it's clear that much of our culture is a front, both the mass culture and the smaller indie culture. Think about it, if every rapper who claimed to "pop" suckas actually ever "popped" a single sucka, there'd be no suckas left. There can't possibly be as many hard, gangsta motherfuckas as represent to be, because the streets would run red with blood. Fifteen years ago there was still the concept of 'fronting' in hip-hop and it was something that was called out and dissed upon. Now, almost every rapper on TV is totally fronting, it's as obvious as the eyes on your face, and there's no outcry because there's no "real" to be "keeping it" anymore.

The same is true in indie rock, as Sean said. There can't possibly be this many retarded motherfuckas that still manage the difficult task of making records and promoting themselves. Nor can there be this many hardcore punkas who "just don't give a fuck". Especially not because most of them on the TV are also beautiful, perfect teenage sex machines.

No Sir. I was not at any point advocating an oligarchy of philosopher kings. Rather I was noting that in this mass rush to achieve a state of National cartoon-hardness, we have reduced our popular music and celebrity culture to a parody of the first ten minutes of a Sean Penn teenage prison movie. And the losers are not the hyper-verbal brain thugs who weave wigwams of words, the losers are average people who enjoy stretching their minds, reading things they don't completely understand for pleasure, and talking about ideas that strike them with casual friends or strangers, who are inhibited by all the other kids clicking their switchblade combs.

And this culture is absolutely produced, and is not an authentic representation of "the people's" desires any more than the popular culture of 20 years ago was, which saw regular people all across America fronting like they'd gone to East Coast prep schools. It's the same cynical manipulation of fear and sex for commercial gain as it's always been. Only now it seems every last noble human ambition has been stripped out of the sales pitch.

Our humble endeavor is to make another small place where it's safe to talk. Thanks for joining us.

...and of course I know Jenny from the block, because I religiously read Walter Scott's Personality Parade in the Sunday paper.
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