Lester Leaps In
Why conservative culture crits suck
I’ll keep this brief. There’s not much reason to read any of what Mark Hemingway recently wrote at a well-funded rightwing website about Taylor Swift, apparently as part of some general conservative hate-on for the pop star. There’s probably a whole lot of Henry James you haven’t gotten to yet.
But I will talk you through some of what appear to be his main points, for reasons TBD.
First, Swift is very successful, which within recent memory was something conservatives applauded because it showed the glory of capitalism. But:
And it’s not just that Swift has conquered the unwashed masses, America’s elite tastemakers have also become unrepentant Swifties. This summer, The New York Times blah blah blah blah…
Most recently, The New Yorker blah blah blah blah…
(Because really, who needs it, you get the anti-“elite” idea.)
Still, someone who truly, deeply cares about the state of popular music has to stand athwart Taylor Swift, yelling “what is this @#?!,” and it might as well be an intellectually dyspeptic Gen X guy with nothing to lose.
Remember that blog post about the State of the Culture that your weird buddy from college posted twelve years ago and, after five comments that were all spam, never followed up? That was the sourbro starter for this.
To be clear, I’m not so hostile or out of touch that I don’t get important aspects of her appeal. I think she’s worth paying attention to because something about Swift resonates at the frequency of America. But I’m genuinely not sure her popularity is a testament to her talent…
Ugh never mind never mind never mind. I wanted to get to some of the more egregiously rock-pop-critical bits of this TWENTY-FIVE HUNDRED WORD ESSAY just to give you some idea, but maybe it’s not even worth it. Well, OK here, this microdose might not poison you:
…her music sucks [because] it’s utterly defined by self-obsession rather than introspection.
Some riddle-me-this lines work because the character and/or the context make them understandable (“the man is clear in his mind, but his soul is mad”). They have to be more intriguing than “you can pick your friends and you can pick your nose but you can’t pick your friend’s nose,” though.
Still, maybe you can imagine Hemingway (well, if you’ve never read him before) explicating his “self-obsession rather than introspection” thing in a way that’s interesting and even revelatory. It isn’t too far off, facially, from something the great Lester Bangs wrote many years ago:
My spleen is reserved for Elton John, James Taylor, all the glory boys of I-Rock. I call it I-Rock, even though I just made up the name, because most of it is so relentlessly, involutedly egocentric…
— except, hang on —
… that you finally actually stop hating the punk and just want to take the poor bastard out and get him a drink, and then kick his ass, preferably off a high cliff into the nearest ocean.
Matter of fact, if I ever get down to Carolina I’m gonna try to figure out a way to off James Taylor. Hate to come on like a Nazi, but if I hear one more Jesus-walking-the-boys-and-girls-down-a-Carolina-path-while-the-dilemma-of-existence-crashes-like-a-slab-of-hod-on-J.T.’s-shoulders song, I will drop everything (I got nothin’ to do here in California but drink beer and watch TV anyway) and hop the first Greyhound to Carolina for the signal satisfaction of breaking off a bottle of Ripple (he deserves no better, and I wish I could think of worse, but they’re all local brands) and twisting it into James Taylor’s guts until he expires in a spasm of adenoidal poesy.
Now, there are a lot things — even if you don’t know Bangs’ fuller body of work — that distinguish him from Hemingway: verve, skill, passion, gusto, etc. But mainly it’s a matter of guts. You can’t imagine Hemingway letting go like this even after three days of severe constipation and a fracking enema. You can imagine him, if anything like Bangs’ beatific beatdown vision somehow entered his mind, being horrified and shit-scared that maybe somehow he’d suddenly black out and when he woke up this monstrous thought would be published under his byline for all the world to see. How would he explain himself to The Federalist’s donors? He couldn’t just continue writing what he felt — shit, he long ago gave up any dream of doing that (if he ever had such a dream — he really can’t remember) and that’s sure not why they’re paying him so much money.
You also couldn’t imagine Hemingway, a short time later, switching direction and saying, hey, yeah, you know what, this Taylor Swift’s OK, the way Bangs did with James Taylor (“Just look at him on the cover of One Man Dog, out in a canoe with his mutt, wearing a necktie even which is a cool move at this point in time”) just because that’s how he’d come to feel and he’d bought enough goodwill with his audience that they’d entertain the switch. Hemingway’s audience isn’t looking for surprises, because they’ve mutually agreed nothing should or would ever change.
In short, though I still maintain there have been and can be great conservative artists, that’s why conservative culture critics absolutely suck.