As one would expect, my reading across the usual array of sites and blogs during the period of my recent relocation was at best sporadic. One thing that did catch my attention a few weeks ago came via a series of posts by Aaron at Airport Through The Trees, who had a number of thoughts and misgivings prompted by his visit to the recently-opened Rough Trade shop in Brooklyn. The one bit that most lodged itself in my memory was his comment:
"How to write a record that gets a 0.0 on Pitchfork's website and is also so excellent in its own way as to delegitimize that website? I can't even imagine this aesthetically."
Nor can I; but it's an amusing idea, and a mental exercise worth attempting. And admittedly, there was a time – in the not-too-distant past -- when such a scenario wasn’t all that unlikely as far as the online publication in question is concerned. But no matter, more interesting is the general focus of Aaron’s posts, specifically about the shop’s presentation of its wares, and what that mode of presentation indicates about the shape and character of contemporary culture. Over the course of which, he touches on a number of topics I've spent a great deal of time turning over in my own head over the years, and which I have long regarded with a deepening sense of ambivalence.
Most curious for me was Aaron's remarks about what he perceived as the heavily curated nature of the shop. Not having been there myself, I can't chime in to concur with or refute this.* But it's a description that sounds quite familiar to me. Perhaps mostly because the showroom scenario he sketches seems typical of the boutiqification-of-everything syndrome that has become increasingly prevalent in the past two decades. Which I suppose one could subject to the Pierre Bourdieu treatment -- dissecting about it along the lines about an orchestrated signifying of taste and the market of symbolic goods or whatever. But that sort of tack usually winds up being too reductive in this instance.
Me, I find myself wondering if perhaps it's only one part rotely curated exhibition, but at the same time also two (or three) parts shrine. Y'know, seeing how The Kids (ugh) have recently -- according to so many lifestyle-section articles on the topic these past 6 years -- developed some fetishistic thing for vinyl and record shops and other such anachronistic stuff. The resuscitation/maintenance of a particular type of social space (which – noted – also happens to be a marketplace), a space devoted to a reaffirmation of things past, or to how things were once done. Perhaps a type of honorific ritual, an activity hinged on acknowledging a particular aesthetic continuum – whatever its present state or means of delivery – owes its existence and pedigree to its place in a specific domain of a material culture. The once-marginalized/now-official “alt canon,” which had to find its place (its audience, its merits) amidst all the vagaries of previous modes of production & distro – in those few niches not crowded out by the dominant culture.
And maybe it’s that last aspect that lies at the core of Aaron’s comments. That being: That when it’s all been pre-sorted and -filtered and prissily curated for you. All killer and no (bin-)filler, the dross has lost, because the canon has long since ossified and pretty much everyone agrees on what’s what these days. Which effectively means that previous status of marginalized or “oppositional” cultural product has long since entered the realm of myth. Or at least (for those who weren’t around at the time), now exists as only the wispiest of rumors.
Admittedly, the above is a loose collection of thoughts; poorly focused, barely lucid, begging to be addressed at greater length. If anything, it's a spastic dance on my part; a dance around the thorny notion of "oppositional culture," inasmuch as such a thing could ever boil down to what a bunch of white guys do with their guitars, or in most things having to do with music or art or literature in the present age. I think I had doubts about that sort of thing upon exiting my teens, and have remained a full-blown agnostic about it ever since. But that might probably only constitutes yet another "failure of imagination." Dunno. Yeah, more'n likely. Definitely.
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* But if the photos above, as well as others I've seen of the place are any indication, then I can can easily imagine a jazz record store that mirrored this one -- where clerks, in a sort of top-down administration of conservatorial taste, fussily re-sifted the bins to make sure that Kind of Blue, A Love Supreme, This is Our Music, Time Out, Waltz for Debby, Mingus Ah Um, etc. always had full-frontal display?