Hunting the cool hunt

Historically, the relationship between mainstream and non-mainstream music has been love-hate. Pop stars love the welter of ideas in the underground and the indie world hates them precisely for their avarice. Whether it’s the newfangled French disco influence on the last Madonna record or the electronic strains on Radiohead’s Kid A and Amnesiac, when mainstream musicians seek inspiration, they inevitably look underground. (from Mayer, Andre. 2002. Listen: Snap, Crackle…Pop? Shift Magazine. 10/3 September, 63-64, p. 63.)

This is the received assumption: the mainstream takes, the non-mainstream gives, that the mainstream exploits and the margin is exploited, that capitalism feeds on the innovations of the groups it excludes and despises.

But it is, anthropologically and economically, only one way of looking at things.

MSP (mainstream parties) are speaking to their publics, only thus do they sustain themselves. They know their audiences are interested in the “new”. They know that their audiences can “hear” innovations in, say, French disco, if only distantly, and that they have perked up their ears. French disco is a little strange but not unattractive. This means three things: 1) that the MSP must incorporate the “new” into what they take to market, 2) that if they don’t do it, someone else will, 3) they must chose their moment exquisitely: too early and the audience recoils, too late and they sneer. Accessing the “new” in this way is part of their contract with their audience. It is, to use the language of the Harvard Business School, the way they create value for the consumer.

By this rendering, it’s not clear that the MSP are “raiding” cool, as Thomas Frank and now Naomi Klein would say (and as Mayer implies, though his argument is more subtle). They are acting on behalf of their audience…both when “sourcing” the “new” for them, and when “stepping it down” so that it thrills but does not frighten.

Well, the interlocutor might say, but this merely pushes the Frankian accusation down the path to the ultimate beneficiary of the raid. Whoever benefits, marketer or consumer, the charge of cool hunting still stands.

But does it? The ultimate recipient, the consumer, does not “profit” from the receipt of the cool in any obvious way, certainly not in the ways that a studio or magazine does. The “new” works for them as a kind of “cultural capital” but what they do with this capital and why they care about it, these questions demand ethnographically nuanced answers that the “raiding” metaphor cannot deliver (and actually serves to obviate). (One such question: “what does the main stream use the “new” for? How and why does it use it to construct self and world?”)

A post Frankian model has several advantages. One of them is that it helps to explain the likes of Moby. We might say that when Moby made his music available to clothing stores as the sound track of commerce, he was merely cutting out the middle man. He was delivering cool “direct,” so to “disintermediate” the studios and magazines. Clearly, it would be wrong to ignore two external conditions that made this possible: first, that the music in question wasn’t as difficult as avant-garde artifacts sometimes are, and, second, that the mainstream has moved away from the banalities that were once its stock in trade. Moby may or may not be a fair test.

Naturally, the margin (M) disdains the whole affair. That someone should steal their innovations, that they should then water them down, that they should be driven by commercial motives and not artistic ones…all of this is galling. But it is still not clear that M is an injured party. It would have moved on to new innovations in any case and that it is not, therefore, being driven by market predations. Second, this system actually sees to the distribution of music without the M having to step it down. (There are some in the M camp who argue that they don’t want anyone else to have access to their music…and some who say that those who want it should only be allowed to have the “raw” original form. We can agree, I think, this is anti-democratic in the first case and elitist in the second. Parties in the M camp are entitled to these arguments, but they can hardly use them as the cri de coeur of an injured party or as the foundation of their “j’accuse” attack on the mainstream.)

We could push this notion a step further, which I do now mostly for the sake of argument. We could say that M is rather well provided for. Its structural position is inevitable. It can invent without regard for popular taste. It can speak to very small audiences and even merely to itself. In an egoistic, individualistic society, many people want this liberty, only M gets to have it. Indeed, it looks as if M are the classic beneficiaries of an avant-garde model. The deal here has always been poverty (or at least an insufficiency of goods) in exchange for freedom and a superfluidity of currency. Even when an avant-garde artist is not very good or productive, s/he has a robust cultural capital and the right to sneer. In the history of the West, fierce contests have been fought over the right to sneer, the right to claim status. To think that, in our moment, it comes merely from a subfluidity of goods is…well, perhaps not such a bad deal, after all.

Let us push the argument one more step. We could say that when the MSP and the M interact as they do, they create a division of cultural labor. The M creates cultural innovation, the “new,” for the mainstream. (It is another and relatively unexplored question why the mainstream should be so dependent on the “new,” but it is.) The MSP act as conduits here, capturing the “new” and, with appropriate and progressive modification, passing it along to the mainstream. Like any trans-shipper, they chip off some of the value they are helping to distribute. This division of labor pays out in two quite different ways. The M is paid for their trouble in “currency,” the MSP is paid for their trouble in value that is more tangible but not obviously more valuable. This is one of the ways cultural capital and economic capital meet and doe-see-doe in the economies of a capitalist society.

Let us push the argument one last step. There is perhaps a division of symbolic labor at work as well. The MSP need the M to create the “new,” to render the currency with which the economy, desire and especially the modernist and postmodernist self perpetuate themselves. And the M need the MSP and the mainstream in order to create an anti-new, a terra cognito, a center which in its turn creates an edge, a verge, a new. In this division of labor, the antagonists are mutually defining and the complaint in Frank and Mayer is not actually a complaint. It is an exercise in the process by which a modern and post modern cultures construct themselves out of the interaction, the contest, of disparate groups and conflicting projects.

See also:

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1990. In Other Words: Essays toward a reflexive sociology. Oxford: Polity.

Brooks, David. 2000. Bobos in paradise: The new upper class and how they got there. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Gladwell, Malcolm. 1997. The Coolhunt. The New Yorker. March 17, 1997: 78-88.

Frank, Thomas. 1997. The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Klein, Naomi. 2000. No logo: taking aim at the brand bullies. Toronto: A.A. Knopf .

Thorton, Sarah. 1996. Club Cultures: Music, media and subcultural capital. Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press.

5 thoughts on “Hunting the cool hunt

  1. Anonymous

    re the mainstream raiding/raping the margins then laughing all the way to the bank. yes it’s too easy to take the leftist/utopian approach…

    what i have some difficulty with is the idea put fwd the that the mainstream always wants something “new” and therefore the madonnas of the world are right to pilfer from those cooler and more courageous etc etc. but is it also not true that so much of what the mainstream gives us as “new” is not that new after all? how often do we really get artistic movements of significance…that actually clear a new path…

    i wonder if the last thing the mainstream wants is something new. they want us to believe it’s new…like avril lavigne. i was thinking how hilarious it is that mothers and daughters can now communicate with each other better (i think i read this in the latest spin) because avril is not britney and doesn’t dress like a ‘ho and writes her own songs etc. as if though the same machine (and machinations) aren’t at work here too.

    I think the mainstream do want the new, if only its the frisson. I was walking by a table of ladies who lunch some years ago and I heard one of them produce “what’s up with that” with a triumphant flourish. We are quick to diss this as the emptiest fashion seeking, but I think she is what I was able to show in the CARS paper, that we are a culture committed to the new, and those who forsake this end up making themselves look ridiculous. You have to keep up. Naturally, it often doesn’t take much to give them a sense of having caught up and this is another grounds for suspicion. Getting your lapels a little wider may feel like a walk on the wild side for some people, (using the word “dis” is no doubt mine) but in the 1960s it made our fathers look like idiots who really did not get it. But it was their way of participating, and shifts in fashions and ideas do go hand in hand and having wider lapels was both an indicator that they had moved and a promissory note that obliged them to.

  2. Anonymous

    it also occurred to me that there’s a potentially problematic area re your argument in that madonna, eg, get the full reward for “borrowing” from voguing, electronica, etc etc without having to engage in the risk associated with being the first in with a certain look, sound, lifestyle, etc; always a (sub)cultural tourist, yet getting great return via the subcultural capital.

    I don’t believe she does get the full reward, everyone in the know snears at her, I know I do; as to the risk, I think most people embrace that risk as interesting and defining, which is to say it isn’t very risky!

  3. John Deighton

    The process seems plausible – the MSPs take from the Ms without leaving them worse off. What the Ms say, whether condemnatory of the MSPs or contemptuous, or whether they say nothing, or even if they said they were happy, and what Naomi Klein says, all seem irrelevant. The economists have a phrase ‘talk is cheap’ which says among other things that what people say does not determine what happens. (exceptions being enforceable contracts and your reference to Austin’s performative speech acts might be another. And of course what happens certainly determines what people say.). Love or hate, exploitation or homage, raids or shopping trips, seem like the dogs that bark as the caravan moves on. What’s neat about what you are saying here is the accounting for the mutual gains from trade, not the press commentary on the trade. Or am I missing something?

  4. xcbccxc

    from xcbcxc

    madonna certainly gets the financial reward. i can’t help but think of early, and i mean early turntablists like grandmaster flash…how must they feel when they see (white) guys like fatboy slim and moby cleaning up and achieving world domination using ideas they had 20+ years ago. but so it goes.

    response from CxC

    This is the toughest statement of the problem and it reminds us of that shamefull moment in the history of popular culture…especially when white audiences needed a white mediator (i.e., Elvis) for their music.

    But that moment has passed, hasn’t it? Most white audiences now prefer direct, disintermediated, access. Moby, maybe. But it’s not clear that he is merely helping himself to Curtis May, but many others besides.

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