Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Modern Lovers

My kinda love story

Awright, let's cut to the chase: I'm a cynical, internalizing, unempathetic, antitheistic bastard. I roll my eyes at poetry, refuse to write love songs, and have occassionally treated weddings as a kind of funeral. I am as unromantic as it gets. Seriously, ask my wife.

But I would never argue that romanticism is dead.

If anything, it is the most alive & well it's been in at least a decade. Hollywood is starting the tackle the emotional toll & realities of war with what I'd consider a modicum of sincerity. Meanwhile, three of the most successful & acclaimed indie flicks of the decade have been romances. Hip-hop has found room for earnest, confessional MCs - and Christ, don't even get me started on indie rock.

There's also been steady influxes of youthful idealists into certain ascendent bourgeois-boho enclaves over the course of the decade. Five years ago, it was (and, albeit to a lesser extent, still is) Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Over the past year, thanks to the new crop of snotty art-rockers exploding out of ATL, the southern city has become a new magnet for students, artists, wannabes, also-rans, and cases of arrested development. As SixFootSubwoofer pointed out, "Kids have a romantic attachment to places where creativity seems to trump logic and formula."

Where I disagree with SFSW is on the notion that "romanticism fails utterly because it can be marketed and created, its potential energy turned into dollars." Strictly speaking, this is true - but it's far from a failure exclusive to romanticism. For all those of us who can shudderingly recall, "It's like punk rock... but it's a car," it's clear that rebellion, cynicism, party-time extroversion, icy isolationism - ALL these things can be marketed and created. But again, much like romanticism, all these ideas & attitudes can be used on a personal level to combat commercial opportunism & predatory capitalism. "Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right."

It's been a confusing couple of decades for romantics, though. After the thoroughly unsensual & materialist Reagan era, romanticism enjoyed a short-lived heyday, thanks to the heart-on-sleeve hysteria of Kurt Cobain and his acolytes. But combining personal pain with ironic distance proved too confusing for the public, and pop culture split into two opposing camps: the mainstream that confused the romantic with the histrionic (see: Korn, Limp Bizkit, and emo), and an underground that refused to admit it cared about anything (see: anyone who ever owned a Pavement record).

And then (you knew this was coming) 9/11 happened. The shift in paradigm there was that the snake ate its tail: people were pushed so far towards the extremes of their respective ends of the spectrum that they popped out on the other side. The amateur primal-scream culture crossed into straight aggro territory, and vomitted up such new spokesmen as Toby Keith and 50 "Bush is a Gangsta" Cent. Meanwhile, as the underground attempted to discuss the event in an honest, objective way, irony had to make way for earnestness, elevating such previously marginalized figures as Elliott Smith to near-sainthood and making basket cases like Bright Eyes homeowners.

Personally, I have little use for either extreme. Appealing to people's anger can be as dangerous as appealing to their sentimentality can be placating & appeasing. Histrionics are by definition false, and emotions as irrational phenomena cannot justify themselves. (Can you tell I'm not a big fan of identity politics?) I'm a staunch believer in civil disobedience as the perfect balance of the rational & the compassionate; on the other hand, the insulin shock of so much melancholic instrospection in rock & indie-pop (I've no use for capitalised Pop) has driven me to become oddly macho in my musical taste.

But smack me if I ever say romanticism never did anything for anyone, because how else could I possibly explain the singularly brilliant ouevre of Tom Waits? Seriously.

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