Brian Eno writes in Prospect Magazine that  “uncool” is dead.  I think Brian Eno is really cool, and I love Music for Airports, but this very short and superficial article could have been written 5 years ago by someone way less intelligent and talented (and I’m sure it was 10 times over). Eno writes,

We’re living in a stylistic tropics. There’s a whole generation of people able to access almost anything from almost anywhere, and they don’t have the same localised stylistic sense that my generation grew up with. It’s all alive, all “now,” in an ever-expanding present, be it Hildegard of Bingen or a Bollywood soundtrack. The idea that something is uncool because it’s old or foreign has left the collective consciousness.

I think this is good news. As people become increasingly comfortable with drawing their culture from a rich range of sources—cherry-picking whatever makes sense to them—it becomes more natural to do the same thing with their social, political and other cultural ideas. The sharing of art is a precursor to the sharing of other human experiences, for what is pleasurable in art becomes thinkable in life.

Really.  This seems both too obvious and too simple. Maybe the problem is that “The Death of Uncool” is the wrong title for this article.  Deciding an old or obscure piece of art, or art from another culture, is cool or workable isn’t really like deciding that people of another race/sexuality/political view/national origin are cool. Also, “cool?”  As an incredibly cool person I would love to think that our ability to combine aspects of other cultures and other time periods into today’s art will promote social and political change, but I think that’s really naive. Although it’s possible that people who want to enjoy or promote some sort of “pure” culture that does not draw on other sources will never be open other social or political ideas, it’s also possible that people who interact with other cultures through music or other means are totally unable to interact with people from other backgrounds or belief systems in real life.  Technology has made the world smaller (or something), but it doesn’t change who’s in power. You have to be in a position of cultural dominance to even make this argument; western culture is shoved down the collective global throat, so of course “cherry-picking” outside influences feels precious.   If you use Bollywood beats in a song does that make you more open-minded?  If you listen to Grime music, does that mean you respect or understand the people who made it, or that you want to? Not necessarily.  Maybe wealthy artists feel great when they can draw from a rich pool of cultural sources, but the disenfranchised DJ in Soweto who remixes old American pop-songs with native pop music probably just loves making music and wishes he didn’t live in a system where it was so hard to succeed. If someone in America hears his music, do they want to help him?  Does it make them more aware of where the music came from? If it does, does that awareness lead to action?

I know I’m coming off really cynical, but Eno’s piece just sounded so ego-stroking, and also struck me as random and unnecessary.   Yes, technology has exposed those who have it to a wonderful and incredible amount of information.  Yes, that exposure and any related dialog should open people’s minds.  Will it?  Has it? I’m not really sure it’s happening yet.  And let’s not forget that so many of the people who relish the differences of other cultures want those cultures to remain different so they present us with something that looks “authentic.”  We want to be able to tell people that when we went somewhere we heard the most wonderful local music and witnessed the most wonderful local customs and not that we encountered people half-way around the world “in the middle of nowhere” listening to Puff Daddy and arguing about whether he would wear Nike or Adidas sneakers.  When this happens we are disappointed because Western material imperialism prevented us from experiencing something that felt sufficiently different. The complication here is two fold: we are left to ponder whether this just a case of another culture cherry-picking the parts of Western culture it finds most exciting, and we (I admit I’m using “we” vaguely, inconsistently and irresponsibly) now have less foreign culture to cherry-pick from.

I know this is not Eno’s point, but to me it feels like a natural extension of the conversation.  I just keep thinking of the professor types who listen to compilations of indigenous music and run around telling people with differently-colored skin that they love their culture but are only really interested in those people because they are different and because they like thinking of themselves as someone who knows people who are different from them.  I’m not saying that Eno is this type of person.  I am sure he is not.  But I think his piece really failed to examine the phenomenon of cultural exchange and appropriation.  I also think that cultural dominance, such as the examples he gives of “abstract expressionism” still exist.  Not everyone cares, but trends still emerge and dictate or inspire the direction some percentage of culture will go in.  What I think is sad is that all this drawing from other time periods and cultures could be a trend in itself, and won’t be embraced enough to actually create the kind of change Eno talks about.

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