What happens when you de-claw a hipster? Contemporary Conformist.

Originally posted on Yet Another Fashion Revolution:

Do you live in a city but strive to look as though you live in the country?

Does your apartment or coffee house or bar of choice use reclaimed wood, bare brick walls, or Edison light bulbs in quaint fixtures?

Do you drink ‘craft’ coffee or beer? Eat ‘artisanal’ bread?

Do you consume curated experiences?

Does your workplace let you wear ‘workplace casual’ clothing?

Do you consider yourself grown out of youth culture, but above or apart from the mainstream?

…Then you may be a Contemporary Conformist.

This new term for the upwardly-mobile, tech-literate, middle-class, urban, declawed-bohemian lifestyle or scene or aesthetic or whatever it can be said to be is the brainchild of Carles, the man behind Hipster Runoff, a now-defunct blog that still attracts a modicum of interest.

His critiques had me hooked on several levels.

First off, I fit pretty squarely within the contemporary conformist on several…

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Love, Hypocrisy, Jesus, and Marilyn

It’s St. Valentine’s Month again. In the deluge of romance across social media, you’ve no doubt seen someone re-posting a certain quote attributed to Marilyn Monroe.

Better writers than I have dissected this little Oscar Wilde-esque quip in terms of interpersonal relationships, but I lately found myself rewriting this little gem in the midst of a recent brouhaha over the terrible things people are willing to do for the love of God.

The President of the United States recently spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast recently, and brought up the fact that violence in the name of God or faith is not exclusive to one religion, backing this up with the specific historical examples of the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Salem witch trials, all of which were conducted by people of faith against supposed enemies of God.

How did the culture at large react to this innocuous reminder of the dark past of the majority faith in the US? Of course, Fox News jumped straight down POTUS’ throat, but they were promptly followed by many other voices in the corporate media, all clamoring for the President to apologize, or to single out “Islamic terrorism” and proclaim it “evil,” or to deny the violent history of Christianity.

Pundits have been lining up of late to put their feet in their million-dollar mouths regarding the role that Christianity played in terms of American slavery and civil rights, and conveniently forgetting that their favorite religion was and is on all sides of  these issues.

How weak does your faith have to be that you can’t even listen to facts about the dark side of its history without screeching shrill protests and trying to drown out the facts with irrelevant points from brighter parts of its timeline?

No faith is a monolith, and Christianity straddles ALL of the major cultural battles of our time. There are Christians on both sides of picket lines in front of companies that abuse their workers, police offices, abortion clinics, pop concerts, military funerals, mosques under construction, and the sites of proposed pipelines and logging ventures. What would it cost those Christians hurt by the President’s words to make room in their heads for the whole history of their faith and not to see reminders of that history as ‘attacks’?

The thing about Christianity — and Islam, for that matter — is that they evolved out of tribal religions to become world religions. Both Jesus’ and Mohammed’s message was that the body of believers, whether the Christian Church or the Islamic Ummah, would contain people from all different tribes, building bridges with which to understand and sit in fellowship with people from all over the world. At their best, that is what world religions do. But in practice, that came with a lot of unpleasant baggage. Both Christianity and Islam were partially spread by force, the former swallowing up the aging Roman Empire, and the latter creating an empire more or less from scratch, and both used the imperial might gained to turf out or stamp out indigenous, tribal religions across the Middle East, North Africa, Mali, the Swahili trading ports in the east of Africa, Central Asia, and Europe, and later the Americas and the South Pacific. There is barbarity enough to spare in this process for both religions, but there is also the legacy of the peaceful spread of ideas through trade and diplomacy. Forgetting either the bloodshed or the brotherhood does these religions and their adherents a disservice. We need to remember both, not out of some quest for ‘fairness’ or ‘balance,’ but out of respect for the facts, and a need to understand other people and things as complexly as we wish to be understood ourselves.

In all of this recent cacophony, with politicos popping off on all sides, I found myself thinking about Marilyn’s quote.

Christians, if you can’t handle a reminder of the worst parts of your history, don’t expect my applause when you remind me of the best parts.

And finally, here’s some advice for what to do when somebody insults your religion from the late lamented Bill Hicks:

A Country Conundrum

This video is very interesting to me. A year or two ago, I would have said that this shows country artists are just lazy musicians, leaning on the same old tropes and the same old riffs. Indeed, a lot of my musician friends seem to see it that way, and hold up this video as a laughingstock and a way to feel smugly superior. But after learning how important middlemen like producers, promoters, and the like are to the music industry, I am revising my own ideas about this phenomenon. Some of these songs may be the product of genuine laziness on the part of the artists, but if any of them really are, we may never know which.

The music industry is enormous. With bands and acts being put together daily, a global market, and different sounds and scenes emerging constantly, anyone who wants to make money has to keep their ears open. ‘Twas ever thus, but the music industry seems to be getting ever more complex, diverse, and entangled. Genres are mating and budding subgenres like nobody’s business, and people are using the Internet to become stars without reliance on typical music-industry pathways to breakout success. In a world like that, with so much sound and so little time, industry middle-entities gain power to push certain songs through to radio stations, movies, TV, and even playlists for retail stores and other spaces.

That flies in the face of what many of us like to think about pop music. We give pop music a pass to be mediocre because that is how we think of the rest of the music-consuming public, who must have requested or purchased or upvoted or retweeted or liked whatever silly, inane, but irresistibly catchy song is on in the mall enough for it to get some airtime. We think that pop music is a democracy, but in fact, it is much more complicated than that. Companies invest in not only capturing what is actually trendy at the moment, but also in anticipating and in many cases creating the stuff that will be trendy tomorrow. PBS Idea Channel explains it better than I:

This is clearly not just a pop-country problem. Often times, a really innovative rock band will put out a very bland single just to get airplay – think of the Raconteurs’ hit Steady As She Goes – it’s a solid song in its way, but nothing anywhere near as psychedelic, wild, or even as musically interesting as the rest of the album it comes from.

Fans of independent music of many genres have long been aware of the seeming disparity in creativity between small, local outfits who do it for the fans/ for the art/ etc. and the national or international faces of the genre in question, who (we assume) are only in it for the money.

So… where does that leave us? As a folk musician & songwriter, it would be easy enough to ignore this, or to hold it up in comparison with my own work and feel smugly superior myself. But something stops me. It seems to me that the folk processes that created the songs I hold dear, the songs that I curate as much as perform, are a rough opposite to the top-down market forces that shove pop songs in our faces until we learn to like them. In days long forgotten, folk music and popular music were two terms describing basically the same thing. Its subject matter, instrumentation, languages, keys, modes, and rhythms were different not only country to country but region to region, community to community. People preserved songs from the old days, rewrote lyrics reflecting their specific life experiences, adapted to new instruments, appropriating and sharing other traditions, stole songs from church and made them bawdy, or took bawdy songs and made them holy — and all as they saw fit, with only the opinion of their peers to make a song sink or float. The divorce of folk music and popular music came only recently in the long dance of humanity. I suspect that recorded music had a lot to do with it, as well as the rise of tin pan alley, though the professional composers and songwriters have also made a great deal of both art and money mining traditional music, like Brahms’ Hungarian Dances, and traditional music has appropriated some commercial popular music — many beloved ‘Irish ballads’ I might name are actually English music-hall numbers meant to satirize and dehumanize the plight of the Irish. Irish and Irish-diaspora singers took some of these songs and made them their own, and over the years, their origin has mostly been quietly ignored.

These days, it’s also heartening for me to see so many people willing to cover, remix, rewrite, and re-imagine pop songs. People feel empowered to do so, and sometimes the parodies or covers or remixes get almost as big as the original. Does this mean that pop music is becoming subject to the folk process? Maybe. We’ll see.

In the meantime, I’ll be over here, curating, re-working, and creating songs that reflect my own life experiences – putting my shoulder to the wheel of the folk process, whatever instrument I use or style I embody. I know that I am not an island, not a rugged individualist writing songs ex nihilo for my own enrichment and aggrandizement – I have a tradition, several in fact, that I feel called to participate in. I enjoy it, and other people seem to as well. I have musical ancestors that I choose to honor in my way, and I hope that one day I get to be somebody else’s musical ancestor. I find myself delightfully stuck: I can’t divorce myself from rock and pop covers and rock and pop-influenced originals enough to go full-time folk music curator, and I can’t break away from history and tradition enough to go full pop. It seems to me that many country artists may feel the same as I do. Folk and country scenes often seem to look at one another across an abyss, but I trust those on the other side enough to know that there is genuine creativity there – beyond what the CEOs decide to sell us. All that the seeming monotony in pop music means is that we have to look a little deeper to find that creativity.

At the end of the day, I love making music. The rest is nonsense.

Notes and Meditations

The recent wave of police slayings has had me thinking this way:

The police detain, question, search, arrest, torture, and kill people, far too often Black and Brown people, in service of a political and economic fiction. They are then exonerated by a legal fiction, and despite being condemned far and wide by actual people, the accounts of these various fictions and their agents are somehow more binding than the real will of real people.

These same fictions set up profit-and-loss games marketed as meritocracies but fatally skewed by social privilege, forcing these games on people with other, more humane games to play. These fictions put real people’s very lives on the line if they decide the game is rigged and try to get off the treadmill. Any violence or threat of violence to these games is seen as base treachery, and punished as much as or more than violence toward actual people.

These same fictions tell us what to do with our lives, tear apart traditional social structures in every culture they infest and replace them with alienating alternatives. We survive on currency no more real than the tickets spat out in an arcade – only our devotion to the fiction makes them valuable.

We are taught to regard these fictions as extensions of our own family – bigger versions of our own mother and/or father, with all the Freudian implications thereof. Thus we ourselves begin to emotionally invest in these fictions, seeing ourselves as powerless to do the things we see them do. We tattle on our naughty neighbors like the teacher’s pet in a great big Kindergarten, and we are taught to go to agents of these fictions rather than friends, family, or neighbors whenever we need help.

Why not write better fictions? Many have tried, and many have been crushed. Anyone who presents a serious threat is monitored, censored, discredited, recruited or disappeared. The only thing that has a chance to disrupt the prevailing fictions, perhaps, is a resistance so crazy that instead of fighting back, people humor it, and willingly join the fun. The case of Emperor Joshua Norton comes to mind.

But how can we possibly be crazy and lighthearted and joyous when our neighbors are being slaughtered in the street, by the authority of the prevailing fictions of our time?

Fight or Flight Forever

Are we all walking around in a constant flood of stress hormones? A lot of articles floating my way via social media seem to say that a constant, low-grade fight-or-flight response explains a great deal of the anxiety, stress, and even the murderous rage that seems to be on the rise in modern Western cultures. These articles go on to stress the importance of relaxation, promulgating the usual yoga or meditation techniques (is anyone else super tired of hearing how good for us these practices are?) and end with a bland optimism that if everyone can just chill, everything will be all right.

I am forced to wonder how much of this is real, but then again, it does make sense. In a culture where we push children to achieve at their peak from day one, and where all that hard work may still count for nothing on the whim of a bank, a government, or a ‘lone nut,’ we may well feel more stress than our ancestors would have. The dissolution of tight-knit communities and traditional support structures has probably not helped either. As we subvert more of our traditions to the demands of the economic and political fictions and factions, to say nothing of our individual Wills, we feel disempowered and oppressed.

Whether or not everyone has artificially high stress levels because of these or other reasons, enough of us are suffering through anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, and other mental complications that it begs the question – is Mother Culture interested in our mental health? She seems to regard physical health as the sole provenance of those who can afford to pay for it – why should she be any less cavalier about its mental counterpart?

How does Mother Culture demand we look at people who take their physical health into their own hands as opposed to leaving it all to the doctor? How does She look at people who do the same with their mental health?

The economy doesn’t care whether you’re healthy as long as you can service your debt. The government doesn’t care about your health as long as you pay your taxes and don’t cause trouble. Until we take this cultural behemoth in hand, we need to care for ourselves and one another. To have health as a priority is radical because the culture wants us to leverage our health on our ‘success’ or ‘failure.’ Take care of yourselves.

Overthinking the Book of Mormon

This Show Will Change Your Life

Trey Parker and Matt Stone may have saved the great American musical.

When I first found out that the creators of South Park were doing a musical, I was hugely skeptical, as many good Broadway snobs were at the time. However, looking at the track record of South Park, you begin to see that the show is riddled with musical numbers, many of them hilarious, most of them… less than polite, but all of them showing a fascination with the American music scene, skewering many musical genres, and often paying tongue-in-cheek tribute to classic Broadway.

I had the chance to see the show when the tour came to PPAC in March, and I was blown away. I have been listening to the Broadway soundtrack since it came out, and I was shocked to see people walking out of the show, despite having years to learn exactly what they were getting themselves into. Other reviewers will get into why these stuffy souls tuned tail and quit on the show, either agreeing that the show’s scatological moments make it shitty, or agreeing with me that the show has more to offer. I want to go one step beyond the surface.


That Makes Perfect Sense

The show has a lot to say about religion, as you might guess, but you may not guess how sympathetic the musical is to the unique quirks of the “All-American” religion at its center. The idea that Joseph Smith dug up golden plates, translated them into the Bible’s “Part Three” with the help of God’s angel Moroni, and in so doing became a prophet equal to Moses, Elijah, and the rest, was hard to swallow for many Americans of the 1820s, and it sounds just as far-fetched today if not more so, especially to someone raised secular like myself. The show makes use of a classic production number which relates the tale of how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was founded, to the astonishment of the Ugandan villagers onstage and the amusement of the audience. We have another look at some snippets of Mormon beliefs in the show’s uplifting power ballad “I Believe,” and many of the tenets listed here are odd or shocking to the middle-class sensibilities I grew up with.

The interesting thing is that by choosing a relatively young religion, and one with which most Americans are only glancingly familiar, Parker and Stone free people of non-Mormon religious mores to laugh at the foibles of both Scripture and those who take it literally. If the aforesaid missionaries were mainline Protestants, and the scripture being skewered was the New Testament (and not the Newer Testament, to coin a phrase), the show would raise many more hackles. Bertolt Brecht said that ideologically incendiary theatre should take place in a foreign setting so that people would feel that the play was not being critical of them. For example, the Mikado lampooned the strictures of Victorian England despite its Japanese setting, and many of Shakespeare’s best works were set abroad to avoid seeming critical of the famously paranoid Elizabeth I. Without calling Parker and Stone Brechtian, I can say that they use this idea to great effect. The show never states it outright, but the implication is clear to me that the foibles of religious doctrine are not unique to Mormonism. If people of faith went through their own scriptures of choice, they would find a lot to question and wrestle with – perhaps even to laugh at, but it is much easier to do this with a scripture that you are not emotionally attached to. If you want to then go home and have a good laugh over your own Bible, that’s wonderful, let me recommend a few passages. Likewise, the show exposes a critical flaw in scriptural literalism: every time a new issue comes up, you need a new scripture. But you can’t just make up something and call it holy…. right?

A Bible Full of Hobbits

The show seems to ask the question “what should the function of religion be”? Should it offer a place for a community to gather and celebrate shared beliefs with life-cycle events and other holy days? Should it offer a ruler with which to measure the world and feel superior? Should it offer a point of reference, a leader or teacher to admire and imitate? Or should it address the problems of the community directly?

The show’s main ideological thrust seems to be the assertion that religious beliefs do not have to make sense in the everyday, look-both-ways-before-crossing-the-street way that more pedestrian ideas do — as long as they help you and your world. The more exotic beliefs of a religion seem to be trappings over a deeper current of thought that reflects the first tenet of the society founded in an eighties movie by a metal band known as Wyld Stallions:

“Be excellent to each other.”

In the Egyptian myth of Isis, this ‘being excellent to each other’ roughly translated to, “seriously, guys, stop eating dirt and human corpses and try your hand at agriculture. That river over there? That’s going to flood in a couple days. Plow the fields, plant these seeds, and eat the plants that grow there. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a husband to resurrect.”

Mormonism places a few more things on the “do not eat” list besides dirt and human flesh, and it has a lot of other quirky beliefs, but the acid test of this and every religion, according to Parker and Stone, seems to be what kind of a person do your beliefs make you. The loving gay Methodist pastor and the homophobic peons of the WBC read the same words from the same supposed savior. Clearly, it is in the union, the yoga, of the scripture and the heart and mind of the believer that makes the critical difference between follower and fanatic.

In a world where you have an unprecedented smorgasbord of beliefs to choose from, your choices only have to make sense in your own head, and as long as you harm no one (o hai Wiccans), you do not have to answer to anyone about your choice of religion – or your rejection of religion. It’s not what you believe that matters: it’s what you do with it.

This is an amazing message to send out to people who feel stuck or trapped by religion, whether that means a teenager who feels oppressively stifled by her parents’ fundamentalism, or a middle-aged seeker looking for something that fits him. There are of course many people who do not have the freedom to choose – who are indoctrinated from day one and isolated from any dissenting voices. For mainstream beliefs, this behavior is ignored – for more fringe believers, this is the kind of behavior that invites media scrutiny, public speculation, and, sometimes, Broadway musicals. New religious movements and fringe offshoots of older faiths that fight back with violence are often squashed. But the Latter-Day Saints seem to be able to adapt to the world in which they find themselves – giving up ideas like blood atonement and plural marriage and focusing on good works – as well as being able, for the most part, to watch this musical and laugh along.

So, in the world that Stone and Parker have put together, what does it matter if your bible is full of hobbits? Parker and Stone point to a world where, if God exists, He is big enough to see that what matters is how His creations treat one another and their planet. How you arrive at those ethical values and that positive, grateful attitude, is up to you. And if God doesn’t exist, you are still treating yourself and others well, and encouraging others to do the same. Virtues and values remain with or without the Great Morality Playwright in the Sky. And perhaps a God who would damn me for saying that, or for inviting you to entertain that notion, is not worth bowing to.

Tomorrow is a Latter Day

The overwhelmingly nonjudgemental tone of the show regarding Mormon beliefs is a bold choice. It would be easy, perhaps too easy, to out-and-out ridicule the clean-cut Utahn lads and their refusal to swear or drink coffee and suchlike, but the show really just puts those practices and beliefs onstage. It is our sense of their difference from us that jolts us to laugh at them. I don’t say this to rob anybody of a belly laugh, even if it is at somebody else’s expense: I say it in the hope that once you’ve had your belly laugh, you look at yourself and find a belief or practice that you cherish and imagine, even for a minute, how silly it might seem. It’s a world-shaking idea, but you simply have to try it.

For example, I keep writing this blog despite the fact that my following is spotty and small, the topics I write about are obscure and obtuse, and half the time I doubt that anyone anywhere will find it interesting. That’s bloody hilarious! I’m shouting into an abyss huger than I can fathom, and smiling every time I hear the faintest echo.


Oh well. Audience or no audience, God or no God, tomorrow is (quite by definition) a Latter Day. And I am here for you.

In Quest of OK

In an earlier article, Fear And (Self) Loathing on I-95, I discussed an internal dialogue that I had with my old nemesis, the one who lives in my brain. I have since rediscovered Transactional Analysis, a branch of psychology begun by Eric Berne in the 1950s, and elaborated upon by Claude Steiner and others, and it has shed a rather interesting light on my predicament.

It calls my internal tormentor the Critical Parent. I would go so far as to call it the Abusive Parent, and even the Archfiend, but whatever you call it, it is the part of me (and you and most other domesticated primates) that is convinced that deep down, I must not be OK. Now, my own parents, by the grace of “Bob,” were and are pretty awesome people. If they did err, it was on the side of caution – I was never physically disciplined, and I was told to use my words rather than to accept invitations to step outside. It was a loving household with plenty of attention paid to each of us three kids (though as the oldest, I admit that I had a bit of a head start in terms of attention).


But the Critical Parent archetype got in just the same, and it categorically denies the benefits of this style of upbringing  — emotional intelligence, compassion, curiosity, intellectual freedom, and unconditional love, among other things. When thinking about this, my Critical Parent claims that I could not hold my own in a bar brawl or mosh pit, fend off some maniac on the street, or rebuff some creep who threatens my girlfriend. The Critical Parent tells me that I would not lift a hand in my own defense, or in defense of those I love because of my candy-ass, bleeding-heart liberal upbringing, that my compassion is a mask for moral weakness, and my flabby physical form is evidence that I know deep down I am not worth even a show of self-defense. And it is hard to argue with that voice because I’ve never had the chance to gather relevant data to contradict it.

That’s not the only thing that my inner Critical Parent has to say, but that will suffice for my point.

The kicker here is that we all have some measure of the Critical Parent inside us, no matter how we were brought up. Freud thought of this facet of ourselves as the internalized voice of society, like a cop in your head, observing and criticizing and sentencing you to emotional jail time every time you transgress the boundaries that you were taught to believe in. We seek recognition, known in the jargon of TA as ‘strokes,’ in order to counter this nagging negativity, but society limits the ways in which we can seek these strokes, creating a tightly regulated ‘stroke economy’ (thanks, Obama).

Society demands a lot from each of us, and there are precious few, if any, who can truthfully fulfill everything expected of them. There may be no one, however, who can fulfill the demands of the Critical Parent. No matter how hard we work, how good we are, how far inside the lines we color, the Critical Parent is there to say we could have done better, we didn’t give it our all, we should be doing other kinds of work: in short, giving us different rationalizations for this rule: “You don’t get to feel OK yet. Do this, and then maybe I’ll allow you to feel OK.”

The Critical Parent begins to sound like certain United States politicians, doesn’t it?

The Critical Parent also sounds a lot like the social commentators who look at everything from marijuana to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and say that they will ruin society. Their arguments often center around people, substances, events, and other phenomena that make us feel OK without ‘earning’ it.

Ladies and gentlemen…. the face of evil.

This in turn, the argument goes, will lead to a country full of lazy, entitled, amoral degenerates, and so on and so forth in the grand old Puritan style. How will the wheels of industry turn, the pundits wonder, without the clawing, grasping, fire-under-the-ass-lighting need to earn the ability to feel OK?

It raises an interesting question: Do domesticated primates operate optimally when we’re desperately seeking permission to feel OK, or when we start from a feeling of OK-ness? Do we work at all when warm fuzzy feelings are free? Do we just laze around? Or do we work differently, toward other purposes? There are great rationalizations for both sides of this, and perhaps both/neither are optimal working conditions for different situations. I certainly have an opinion about this, but I want to hear yours down below.

I also want to know more about your experiences of the Critical Parent, its complaints about you (if you feel like sharing), and any ways that you have used to cope with or master the Critical Parent.

Thanks for reading! You’re OK. And maybe I am, too.

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