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November 2008

Absconding from commercial-cool

I've been reading Naomi Klein's "No Logo" these days, which has me thinking about branding and the idea of "cool".  For the past several decades, it seems as though notions of coolness have become almost inseparable from corporate branding.  I remember, in middle school and high school, when I felt pretty cool wearing my Nike sneakers and Levi's jeans.  In the 80's and 90's, successful corporations, in their constant quest for growth, learned to extend themselves beyond simply advertising.  The idea is to create a brand experience.  The names and logos of the most successful brands have almost come to symbolize something and mean something.  When we attach ourselves to these brands, we are told, we too become cool.

But what is coolness?  Cool is new.  Cool is rebellious.  Cool is anti-establishment.  Cool is bold, daring, smart, self-confident, dangerous...and for these reasons it is so very sexy.  Cool is what humans do, not institutions or corporations.  But in order for corporations to sell more product, they've actually attempted to become cool.  In order to become cool, they relentlessly try to move into that "human space" where coolness exists -- the clubs, the concerts, the city streets, the urban basketball courts...they had to metaphorically and literally get their logos on the behinds of the coolest women in order to become sexy.  And so they did.  Wherever cool was, corporations infiltrated that space, branded it, and exploited it.  This wasn't very difficult, as the icons of cool (the celebrities) have been quite willing to sell out for the right price.

With the success of companies like Nike and Apple, more and more corporations have pushed further and further into what was authentic cultural space to establish themselves as cool and culturally relevant.  Interestingly, as the beer companies sponsored and bought out concert festivals, artists such as Madonna, P. Diddy, Britney Spears, and dozens of others essentially were willing to essentially become brands, themselves (with sponsorships, cross-marketed product lines, etc.).  In other words, as corporations learned to act more like cool people, celebrities learned to act more like corporations.  And right up to the present moment, this approach would seem to be working.

But the problem is...nothing feels cool anymore.  While, on the surface, the symbols of cool are pervasive...the essence of cool evaporates the moment it becomes that which it is not.  When cool is sold out for a profit, it is no longer cool.  The symbols of cool are masks hiding something else.  Corporate-cool is lipstick on a pig.

Corporations are never truly anti-establishment, smart, rebellious, or independent.  Corporations are, and always will be, the opposite of cool; mainstream.  In fact, branding is only good at ruining cool in order to sell product.  Branding is a lie.  Rather than having to understand cool, having to live cool and embody cool, we are told that all we need to do is buy it.  As a result, we have a society of posers.  We have a society of thoughtless dorks masquerading as hipsters...and not even doing it well enough to fool each other.

All of this is obvious to me, on an intuitive level, as a musician.  I feel that my sounds and my ideas only have value to the extent that they are kept completely seperate from the commercial world.  Regardless of what happens in my future, my music will always be completely seperate from business.  I will never attempt to profit from my music and will never allow others to ride on the back of my inspiration in order to do so.  That's because what flows through my music cannot be understood within the context of the commercial world.  The extent to which my music is good is the extent to which it is authentic at a deep, human level.   I would never consider playing a corporate-sponsored event because such events are deflated of their meaning at the moment they are conceived.  I would never allow my music to be used to sell products, even if it meant massive exposure.  What good is exposure when all meaning and understanding is lost?

My inspiration comes from the spaces I have created between me and other people.  My ideas come to me in moments of silence...when I am looking inside myself and not at the world outside.  My music works when it finds...when it frees this same place inside the listener. 

I know I'm not alone in this.  I know that what is really cool has never changed.  Cool is not caring what people think.  Cool is uniqueness, not fitting-in.  Cool is perceiving others deeply and not being afraid to express it.  Cool is being too busy perceiving beauty to go out shopping for it.  Cool is a cup of coffee in the liveliest part of town.  Cool is a body free of corporate logos.  Cool is who you are, not what you have. Cool is that connection between two people so powerful that it creates an entirely new universe.  Cool is the idea that what is doesn't have to be that way.  Cool is being completely misunderstood by normal people.  Cool is being perceived by those very few, very special people.  Cool is an original idea.  Cool is acting on an original idea.   Cool is reading.  Cool is listening to music that nobody else knows.  Cool is truth-seeking.  Cool is creating.  Cool is doing all of this while staying strong enough to live a healthy, reasonably successful life.

In some ways cool has become harder to find, and in other ways it is easier than ever.  Abscond from commercial-cool.

The day the outsiders became the insiders

I usually avoid the topics everyone else is discussing.  I like to see myself as a person who lives in an emotional and intellectual space that is a bit independent from current events. So what am I to say about Obama's victory?

Whether because of skin color, ideology, faith (or lack thereof), nationality, or sexual orientation, so many of us have grown used to self-identifying as "outsiders".  Perhaps I, like so many others who identify as being outside the mainstream, have actually become quite comfortable living in that space.  As difficult as it is to live on the social fringes, there is comfort to be found in pointing blame at an obvious "oppressor".  In so doing, we are able to avoid a degree of responsibility and burden.  We are comfortable in a space where we suspect that all that is wrong with the world is not our fault.

Perhaps it is human nature to scapegoat other groups: Christians blame the world's problems on "non-believers", conservatives scapegoat liberals for their own failed attempts at governing.  It is well-known that "the majority" in any population tends to scapegoat "the minority" for it's perceived problems, but perhaps I've forgotten that it can also work the other way around.

That isn't to say that the Neocon rule of George Bush and the Republican Party over the past several decades, and particularly the past 8 years, hasn't done every bit as much damage as we accuse it of having done.  Through a toxic combination of greed and incompetence, these people...this misguided movement...has done immeasurable damage to countless people around the world -- to the very earth we all depend upon.  Pointing a finger at them, hating them, laughing at them, and calling for revenge has felt quite good and right, indeed.

But on November 4th, something changed.  The powerless seized a meaningful amount of power.  The oppressed took the position of its former-oppressor.  Obama is just one man, but his election represents so much more.

By getting Obama elected, we have raised our hands and stepped up to the challenge.  It will no longer be enough to point fingers and complain.  Now the blame is heading squarely in our direction and we will have to show the world exactly what Progressivism, Justice, Openness, and Sustainability look like in practice.  We finally have the opportunity to prove the value of our ideas, to measure the extent of our correctness, in the world as it actually exists!

All that said, I don't doubt that we do have the superior ideas and skills.  I don't doubt that we are more capable of providing the leadership the world needs at this time and into the forseeable future.  I just mean to say that I am adjusting to the weightiness of the responsibility brought forth by this new era.