David Brooks’s Corporate-Rock iPod — Or, In Praise of Fragmentation

In a thought piece earlier this week titled “The Segmented Society,” New York Times columnist David Brooks decried the “fragmentation” inherent in today’s diverse music scene, wishing for a halcyon era when “mega-groups attracted gigantic followings” (nytimes.com).

I pretty much never find myself agreeing with anything that Brooks writes, but what’s interesting about this particular piece of his is how he seems to put aside his vaguely libertarian, free-market mode when it comes to culture.

He is saddened that the monolithic acts of the past have given way to what could best be described as a democratization of culture. A critic of big government, he seems nonetheless to desire a big, centralized culture: “It’s going to be necessary to set up countervailing forces — institutions that span social, class and ethnic lines.” (He also seems to have not heard of Radiohead: “There are many bands that can fill 5,000-seat theaters, but there are almost no new groups with the broad following or longevity of the Rolling Stones, Springsteen or U2.” While we’re at it, how can a “new group” have “longevity”? That’s a perfect example of the stacked-deck rhetoric that makes Brooks unreadable most of the time.)

Somehow in Brooks’s imagination, the massive acts of the past were natural cultural occurrences, whereas today’s broad market is the result of a pattern of divide and conquer by record-industry executives: “In any given industry, companies are dividing the marketplace into narrower and more segmented lifestyle niches.”

Yeah, that’s right — Bruce Springsteen (whose guitarist, Little Steven, serves as a primary source of information in Brooks’s column), the Rolling Stones and U2 were cultural entities whose popularity was a natural outcome of mass appeal (no marketing or other machinations involved), whereas the rise of a more genre-aware, globally curious, shuffle-mode audience is … is what, exactly? Part of some master plan by the record industry?

Brooks’s use of the word “lifestyle” illuminates how mistaken he is. He seems to imagine that individuals elect to follow specific lifestyles and that music is then micro-tailored for them by a convenience industry. He gives no credence to the idea that rather than give their musical imaginations over to a handful of mega-groups, today’s listeners often fill their iPods (or equivalents) with a wide array of lesser-known acts — hip-hop and classic rock, soundtrack cues and novelty songs, indie-rock nuggets and non-English pop. For that is the era we live in now, which is precisely why it’s such an exciting time for music. The flourishing of electronic music in the past decade (the primary focus of this website) hasn’t been a self-contained phenomenon; it’s part and parcel of the flourishing of folk music, jazz, heavy metal, hip-hop, contemporary classical, country, etc., etc. — and the countless subgenres thereof. (Speaking of diversity, I won’t even begin to excavate Little Steven’s myopic and self-serving sense of musical history.)

But since Brooks’s usual beat is politics, I’ll just assume that he isn’t really writing in “The Segmented Society” about music — or even about fears of a multi-cultural America — at all. What he may be doing here is channeling his frustration that his own political party, after seven years in the White House, has an overstuffed block of presidential candidates who have widely differing views and who thus appeal to different segments of the party — and that there is no single evident front-runner. That is, no crowd-pleaser.

(Brooks already has been taken to task for “The Segmented Society” by various folk, including Alex “therestisnoise.com” Ross, gawker.com, playboy.com‘s Tim Mohr, thestranger.com‘s Eric Grandy and businessweek.com‘s Jon Fine.)

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