Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Odds and ends

The unfathomable problems created by a subway-control-room fire (allegedly it will take five years to fix the damage -- five years?) has lots of New Yorkers contemplating transport problems. In my way I think about them all the time when walking down the street. I always assume the cars will stop if they catch me in the middle of their turn, I assume they can always see me. In fact, there's a sense of recognition you sense when cars do stop for you; it's one of the rare city moments where you feel unequivocably noticed, in the simple purity of your being, as something that is alive and significant for no other reason. Then there's the negotiations necessary for making your way down the sidewalk, the intricate system of switches and signals (dispersed throughout all pedestrians and thus immune to control-room fires started by freezing homeless people) that facilitate the flow. I've become a connoiseur of the moments when someone walking towards you signals which way she's going to go; a little nod, a faint to the left, a step not quite on her natural axis, a slight hesitation, a lean this way or that -- I relish these near invisible communications, humanizing my rush down the sidewalk.

A deleted passage from my most recent PopMatters column: Nostalgia may just be the impulse to resist mass production’s built-in disposability, to elevate junk culture to art and claim larger significance for time spent on it. The nostalgist sees plentitude where the culture wants you to detect emptiness after a brief blast of excitement. Like those "positive" approaches to consumption and consumerism, which configure the consumer as not a passive sponge but an active re-producer, the nostalgist subverts society's intention to pacify us with serial, spiraling instants of shallow pleasure by making disposable items into rich artifacts with lasting personal significance. Think of the mix-tape: On the surface, it seems another way to edit life into a greater level of disposability, streamlining your music collection for quicker consumption. But really it’s the opposite of editing; it prolongs the relevance of ephemeral pop songs, combining them in a constellation that’s intricately personal, that defines a unique life moment. It’s our struggle, then, to find a mix-tape approach to the whole of life, a way to edit existence down to meaningful moments without making them disposable in the process.

I've been listening to those new albums by Bright Eyes, and trying really hard to like them and not dismiss them out of hand as adenoidal pretentiousness. All the songs seem to be about being a fresh-faced hipster in New York; it's like the songs add up to the Ballad of Williamsburg. But that should be okay, that shouldn't make it de facto awful, should it? He's describing a typical, semi-universal experience (with its analogues across America in moves out of the suburbs to the nearby city) and rendering it with earnest emotion, with some well-turned phrases . . . maybe it just sucks. Anyone from Nebraska who feigns an accent and who takes his vocal cues from Robert Smith of the Cure is surely someone to be skeptical of. All the eighties-revival music makes me feel old, reminds me of how predictable my own tastes were when I was a teenager. Some people my age remember those years with pride and nostalgia and perhaps enjoy the music that casts them back to their glory years. Not me. I hated myself then, and I feel like my taste in music at that time showed how little respect I had for myself. How else could I have owned a Frankie Goes to Hollywood album?

A lingering lesson from those years was to never want to try to dress cool and fail. I lean instead toward bland clothes, items no one would ever assume were worn to attract attention: button-down shirts in drab colors like light-blue and cream, shapeless sweaters without patterns. Ideally I would have a uniform, but something so bland that it would defy being recognized as a uniform, it would prompt no questions. Dress to be ignored has been my somewhat self-defeating my motto. But perhaps there's something to be said for it. You escape privacy-invasion, the all-penetrating force of the subjugating gaze, when you make your appearance a mask.

1 comment:

  1. If you're inclined toward self-castigation over the flotsam and jetsam that washed up on your late 80s musical beach, please don't forget your (perhaps apochryphal but certainly legendary) purchase of a Box of Frogs CD. But of course we all have cause for retroactive shame - I seem to remember liking Wire Train.....