EdWard | Tuesday May 14th, 2013
It was perfectly inevitable that several friends of mine would send me links to this article in the Washington Post, about the Sweetlife Food and Music Festival, one of several events of its kind that are springing up these days. After all, the two subjects I’ve probably written the most about are food and music. Truth is, I sort of agree with the commenter who said that it was the dumbest thing ever published anywhere ever, but that doesn’t mean the subject isn’t worth comment.
Food and music festivals have been with us for a long time, ever since the folks who organized Woodstock dropped the ball and forgot people would have to be fed and then got bailed out by Wavy Gravy and the Hog Farm and their brown rice. The longest-running one, of course, has been the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which has been going on since 1970, and which provided many an out-of-towner with their first taste of crawfish, alligator (which doesn’t taste like much) and pralines. As the percentage of New Orleans jazz and heritage dropped (Billy Joel and Fleetwood Mac were this year’s news) the food remained an attraction.
It’s also no secret that Today’s Youth are caught up in the current food scene in a big way: go to any certified hipster center in the U.S. — Austin, Portland, Brooklyn — and you’ll find some of the most interesting food in the country, often at very affordable prices because it’s being served out of a food trailer. Last year, I saw it reliably reported, there were 1800 food trailers operating in Austin. I have no figures for this year, but I’m certain it’s more than that — and then there’s Brooklyn and Portland, etcetera. On occasion, the proprietors of these places graduate to a full-fledged restaurant: the most expensive meal I have actively hated was at one of these places, Foreign and Domestic, which, thanks to Barnum’s Law, is still going strong.
The Post article’s claim that “cuisine is stealing music’s role in helping young people forge and declare an identity” is ridiculous, though. Youth culture has never been exclusively about music: when I discovered rock and roll in 1957, it was partially because the older brother of the friend who turned me on to it was involved with hot-rods and motorcycles, and punk was inseparable from the art and fashion that went along with it. The fact that the current generation of indie-rockers or whatever you want to call them is attracted to the preparation and serving of food, though, brings up some interesting questions, because cooking is definitely integral to the scene — and not just because a lot of the musicians have put in time waiting tables, either.
The most interesting contrast to me is that a lot of the music being produced right now is pretty solipsistic, either in lyrics or in production. I’m not alone in thinking this, since it came up spontaneously in correspondence with a young musician in California, son of some old friends of mine, yesterday. “My output has definitely suffered the consequences of trying to do things by myself too much,” he wrote. “It’s generally pretty hard to get people together to do anything like practice, even when there’s money behind it.” This was actually pretty shocking to read, even if I wasn’t in the least surprised. He went on to lay part of the blame on “technologies that have come along to make it possible for more or less anyone to work alone. Seems like many of the figures of the past who worked in isolation were solitary geniuses,” he continued, “but that pattern definitely hasn’t extended to the everyday laptop user.”
I mentioned to him that I’d always used Booker T and the MGs as my paradigm for cooperative music making, four guys who produced simplicity via ESP: their recordings were made live in the studio, although there may have been some fixing in the mixing. The ability to check what someone else is doing as it’s happening is, to me, essential to, errr, communicating the communication. It’s why I haven’t gotten what some jazz artists were doing until I saw them live, and, once seen, never puzzled over them again. And it’s why a number of country artists’ output (particularly duets like Porter Waggoner and Dolly Parton and Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn) declined when multi-tracking arrived and before their producers knew how to use it.
But, if the unwanted press releases that seem to flood my in-box every day are anything to go by, a lot of band names today boil down to one person. Iron and Wine, for instance — great name — is one guy. And my friend is right: with the technology available today, anyone can make a record and make it at least sound good. It doesn’t give you talent, and it sure doesn’t give you the sense of urgency that playing well with others does, but it will help you release what you think the world needs to know about meeee, meeeee, meeeeeee.
Now compare this to a restaurant. A chef makes a decision and his crew works to make it a reality: the pork chops are on tonight, so everyone in the kitchen knows what they have to do to make them come out as specified on the menu, and when the order comes in, everybody does their thing and the chef’s famous pork chops come out the other end. A good kitchen can make Booker T and the MGs look like the world’s sloppiest jam band.
And this brings me to the question of whether or not the rock star/chef axis has any validity. Any rock star will tell you that the band is essential, and the band’s being able to work together is key, no matter if there is only one person who’s the focus of the audience’s attention. Few people see the chef (although some do on occasion pass through the dining room checking things out and fishing for compliments), and they never see him doing the thing that makes him famous, although some post-restaurant chefs, like Anthony Bourdain and Emerile Lagasse, have become television stars. Once chefs have risen to rock-star level, though, you’re not going to eat any of their meals.
Because I have never believed that music must be of central importance to youth culture, but have always known that collective activity, be it rock festivals, political demonstrations, or cooperative gardening, brings young people (people of all ages, ideally) together working towards a common goal, often for the first time, I’ve observed a lot of this kind of activity going on among my friends’ kids. It’s still consumption-oriented — it doesn’t really matter, structurally, if you’re watching a show or eating a meal — but as the music world changes and this generation ages, that may change to some extent, especially as family life intrudes on the old party routine. That this previously unseen element has become part of this generation’s youth bohemia could point to a change in a bunch of stuff, including attitudes towards consumption and cooperative behavior, not to mention agriculture and eating patterns.
As far as contemporary popular music, I was on a panel at SXSW a couple of years back called “I’m Not Old, Your Music Does Suck,” which you can listen to here. The fact of one-person music-making, combined with audiences who’d seemingly rather record the show on their phones than actually pay attention to it while it’s happening in front of them, not to mention the lack of any real critical voices in an era of unprecedented cultural overproduction, doesn’t bode well for quality: that music really does suck, although the technology at least renders it competent. If this causes a Darwinian die-off of a lot of music, I won’t be terribly upset.
I’ve only just started thinking about all of this, though, and may well have more to say on the topic in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, I invite your comments.