Triumph and Unease, The Rise of Nerd Culture

One of my few memories I have of primary school was being given a teased because I was reading The Lord of The Rings. At that time all things fantasy and sci-fi were definitely not cool; skateboarding and sports were cool. As a young boy I could never have predicted the great cultural reversal that has taken place in the last decades. Even the meat heads who I practice martial arts with have all watched the Avengers film Endgame and probably all of the proceeding titles to boot. What happened? How has our cultural world been turned upside down? I will do my best to answer this question and through this specific change try to understand how culture has changes in general.

For me it all started fittingly with Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptations of The Lord of The Rings. What he achieved with these films was to take what is sprawling and inaccessible story, which is full of obscure lore and an unmanageable large cast of characters and render it into something accessible. At the same time retaining the Wagnerian imagery and emotional power that made the books resonate so deeply with so many. The films went on to be wildly successful both commercially and critically. This I believe was the genesis of the new cultural trajectory. For surely somewhere in Hollywood a light bulb must have turned on in the head of many a film executive when they realized that nerds were willing to shell out to see cinematic renderings of beloved classics. Further, that the even those who were not hardcore fans were sucked into the orbit of these pieces by the minority who were obsessive in their devotion the sci-fi and fantasy genre. This has lead in turn to more “mainstream” titles being fully or partially displaced. This logic was proved by the earlier massive success of Star Wars which although is by comparison with Lord of The Rings quite light in terms of the complexity and intellectual challenge is none the less definitely nerdy. Another precursor to the turn in the cultural tide was the explosion in popularity for the Pokemon card game (which despite being an avid collector of the cards I never played), cartoons and films. The key difference between this and the success of the The Lord of The Rings is that Pokemon was always bounded to the younger generation and never shed its childish connotations in a way that it could be adopted by adults without some element of embarrassment, at least this was my experience growing up, now this has to some extent changed which I will discuss later.

By contrast, the success of The Lord of The Rings crossed boundaries of age, as the older generation fondly remembered the books and and the younger gained access to Tolkien’s universe through the films. Of course, there were purists who despised both the literalness that comes with the cinematic rendering of a book and the boiling down of the narrative to its barest essentials. In my experience these were a minority.

Next came the early Spiderman films staring Tobey Maguire, this development was portentous as it paved the way for every comic book no matter how stupid to be turned into a film. Once the flood gates were opened a vast quantity of such films were released, there was simply too much money to be made. This is not to say that the spate of comic book adaptations that came after this were all devoid of artistic merit, many of the Xmen films where decent. However, clearly the majority were motivated as all Hollywood blockbusters are by narrowly commercial concerns.

At the same time in the early 2000s information technology began exerting more and more influence over peoples lives, as a result many in the tech world were becoming exceedingly wealthy. The rise of the nerd in the business world is perhaps connected to the rise of nerd culture. For surely money and power have always been sources of prestige. By attain these things the nerds by proxy legitimatized the cultural expressions of this identity.

This change in our cultural landscape leaves me with a sense of vertigo and unease. the main source of this being that the changes in culture bear eerie parallels with changing generational dynamics. For fantasy and especially the type of fantasy epitomized by the popular Marvel and DC comics is childish. In many comics the motivations of the characters, the emphasis on action and the simplistic the morality are childish (although it must be said much that is considered “adult” could also be guilty of these sins). Have not the lives of millennials become increasingly indicative of a an eternal pseudo adolescence? Fewer and fewer people will have will children many still live with their parents well into their 20s and beyond. What I am not suggesting that the cultural change has caused a change in lifestyle, rather, that the two trends have occurred in parallel and each has reinforced the other. It is the infantalisation of the adult that the rise of nerd culture symbolizes. I say this as someone who is undoubtedly a nerd, I work in IT, not a day goes by when I am not interacting with one form of device or another, the majority of fiction that I have read is of the sci-fi/fantasy genre.

Part of my mistrust must surely stems from the resentment that arises when something that you used to feel was the exclusive property of you and other connoisseurs is now the property of the masses. There is an element of snobbery here which cannot be denied. In my defense, I think some of this feeling are justified. For example, the films of the The Lord of The Rings have largely supplanted the books, the memories I had of the books are supplanted by the styling of the cinematic depiction. The clunkier parts of the books were largely evaporated away from the plot of the films (with the exception of the extended editions) . This boiling down is necessary for the purposes of adaptation but removes much of what was charming from the original story. As tedious as many of the passages in the trilogy were to read they added a sense of depth and eccentricity to the narrative that linked them to strangeness of the ancient myths and legends Tolkien was inspired by. The removal of this elements can make the narrative of the films feel flimsy by comparison. Further, this theme occurs again in again in the adaption of any narrative that originally appeared in book form to film regardless of genre. Whilst the two mediums are not mutually exclusive but I cannot help but feel that in many cases the reduced low fat narrative of the film has supplanted the original. Here I must also add that in some cases this taking liberties with the original plot can lead to improvements, especially if the story being adapted was not very good in the first place.

Is my unease justified? Or a mere exercise in snobbery? One way of answering this questions is to consider the qualities of both the mediums. Is there is an inherent difference between events depicted in film and those of the written word beyond the surface and obvious? One key difference is the way they are experienced by the viewer. In the cinema you are a passive observer of the action rather than an active participant. By contrast, a book requires the reader to engage their mind and imagination with the work. A film through its immersive quality can silence the viewer’s critical faculties in a way that a book simply cannot. This is not to say their cannot be thought provoking films, but that their ability to impose their message on the mind of the viewer is far stronger due to the passive state they induce. In light of this, we can see how a bad film is far worse than a bad book, for a bad book does create as immediate an effect on the mind than the written word. The violence done to the mind by a low quality work is greater. Further, that the simplification of narrative and concept that the film encourages increases the likelihood a film will be bad as consequence of its medium. In so far as this is true my unease is justified. Unease is not the same a condemnation; I do not share Roger Scruton’s wholesale opposition to film as a medium.

Another question that should be asked is what this shift in taste can tell us about mass culture? Does it operate by a sort of logic? Or are its operations blind and purposeless? Earlier, I have argued the former. That the changes in culture has run in parallel with the changes in the world at large. Further, that they can to limited extent influence each other. As this influence can only be observed through the similarities between the two trends it is impossible to say with any precision how accurate this conjecture is and if it is true which of the two trends is the more influential. There is undoubtedly a element of cultural change that is cyclical and presumably the dominance of nerd culture is itself part of one of these larger cycles. Contrastingly, there is an element of cultural change that is undoubtedly random, I can remember when for brief period of time blue suits were all the rage in central London; now they are nowhere to be seen. It is as if they were like freak growth of some plant triggered by unusual conditions; blooming quickly but then disappearing.

However, the rise of nerd culture has by this point had many years of upward trajectory and cannot simply be dismissed as a fad or something that is likely to go away any time soon. As many societies in some respects have become increasingly anti-social might this lead to a counter reaction to a life excessively based in the world of fantasy and by proxy the internet, which in many ways embodies the idea of a fantasy world. It offers types of interaction that is simply impossible face to face or by any other medium. Further, the ability to adopt any number of pseudonyms that Edward Snowden so eloquently describes in his memoir Permanent Record, means that a user can indulge in any number of fictional existences. Surely the dominance of the internet over almost every aspect of modern society must also be symbiotic with the cultural changes under discussion? For the “real” world has increasingly become transformed through the application of internet based tools whether this be shopping, dating, careers or socializing. One consequence of this is that stereotypical interests of the computer programmers behind this change have a cachet to them that previously did not exist. Science fiction seems less ridiculous and overblown when our lives are increasingly dominated by the influence of technology.

To conclude, whatever comes next culturally after this phase (if we are indeed in a transitory state affairs rather than something permanent) is unknowable. However, a reactionary move against the constant presence, for better and for worse, of technology in our lives seems likely. I am skeptical that this could ever reach the level of mass culture as surely the vast majority of people seems to be happy with the convenience and new opportunities technology affords. To buy into some new cultural option they must surely turn against it analogue in the everyday world as well. Until this happens I suspect that any wider change in the cultural landscape is unlikely.

What I Am Listening To, January 2021

I am celebrating the start of 2021 by enjoying some new music to hopefully spark new ideas and refresh my creatively. The first CD I checked out is the raucous album Somewhere Far Beyond by Blind Guardian.

This album exists very far outside my musical comfort zone and I have enjoyed it all the more for that reason. The Tolkienesque theme reminds me of Argus by Whishbone Ash which set the standard for combining high fantasy and electric guitars. What is different about Blind Guardian’s effort is its total lack of restraint and the wild musical aggression which is characteristic of most of the songs. I find this complete lack of what would conventionally called “taste” refreshing and something I have always admired heavier music and Metal in particular. I have always thought that genres like Metal that exist far away from the mainstream have often attracted the most open minded musicians and audiences. Heavier music has consistently pioneered new technology, namely: distortion, seven string guitars, larger drum kits and many other innovations. Of course, it must be pointed out that amongst Metal fans there are certainly a fair share of idiots too.

On this CD Blind Guardian utilize an impressive instrumentation that includes bag pipes and church bells. These elements combined with the usual rock instruments create a interesting combination or archaic and new. One minor complaint I have is that on the 2011/2012 remixed version I am listening to the vocals are at times lost under cacophony of guitars and drums. Also, as is often the case at in Metal the bass is often inaudible as so much low end in present in the guitar and drum sounds. Overall, I really enjoyed Somewhere Far Beyond and will certainly be listening to it again in the future.

Next is the soundtrack from the third season of Battle Star Galatica.

I remember enjoying the show just after I had graduated from University it was fun to revisit this chapter in my life via this album. It has much in common with my previous choice as again there is unusual instrumentation: Japanese drums, strings and a variety of wind instruments are all used by the composer Bear McCreary to great effect. The most notable track is probably the heavily modified version of All Along The Watchtower McCreary’s treatment of this classic song gives it a fresh eastern flavor. I also like the very unhendrix solo at the end of the song, there is no slavish tribute here. Further, the use of strings on this album avoids cinematic cliché, the strings do not dominated the soundscape plenty of room is left for the other instruments to shine. However, is the creative use of percussion that sets this soundtrack apart from generic sounding rivals. That said, there are moments on this CD that remind me of every film that has ever been made that has American soldiers exploring a war zone somewhere in the middle east. This is the only real criticism I have to offer.

Aside from this minor the flaw the album is full of powerful (at times demented) emotional highs especially on Storming New Caprica. By contrast, there are also many tender moments too, an example being the celtic sounding Admiral and Commander.

It was a great surprise when I discovered the new TV series having only known the very kitsch original. The soundtrack was an inseparable part the new aggressive direction the new version took the basic ideas of Battle Star Galatica. I think this CD is enjoyable to listen to even if you have never watched the show. This is a testament to the strength of the music it is not merely background padding for the action on-screen, it stands by itself. Having enjoyed this soundtrack so much I am eager to check out what else Ben McCreary has done.

Recently I have been taking a trip to the past and revisiting some past favorites. One of these being Vicarious by Tool:

I have previously written about Tool’s most recent and lackluster effort Vicarious is such strong and powerful track it is hard to believe that the same band that wrote this had anything to do with Fear Inoculum. Vicarious is a study in songwriting each section flows seamlessly into the next. With great patience Tool build the musical tension gradually approaching a fierce climax. The lyrics confessing any addiction to other peoples suffering that does not just reflect on the individual but a society fed a constant stream of news that mostly consists in suffering of one form or another. There is something clinical and pornographic in the way the news is served up to us without remorse, without anything being left to the imagination. In some cases perhaps this can justified as it may spur people to action against injustice. But does not the constant stream of media which we are bombarded with also cast a spell of passivity over the viewer. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno expressed this idea in their essay The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception where they reflect that one of purposes of mass media in America, one of them being, to keep the population in a state of perpetual distraction and stupefied compliance.

On the other hand, surely being uninformed can equally engender a state of passivity? As surely one cannot change what one is ignorant of? Perhaps what is to be avoided is what the sentimentalist philosopher Martin Heidegger called “idle talk” in which topics are discussed according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy “…in a critically unexamined and unexamining way about facts and information while failing to use language to reveal their relevance…”. When we fall into this mode of discourse that is shallow and lacking in authenticity.

Returning to the music, I think writing these post has taught me is that there is always more to discover and enjoy. I look forward to more musical adventures in 2021.

The Uses and Abuses of Music Criticism

What is the point of writing about music? This is a question that is not asked enough. I will do my best to answer this in order to justify what I am doing on this site and hopefully find some fresh insight. One way to approach answering this question is to address the common mistakes that I think critics make and arrive and some better methodology via negitiva.

The first and most common mistake is the reduction of musical statements to merely be reflections of the artists biography. For example, there are endless analysis online of what was happening to a particular artist at a particular time this is then present as the final answer to the purpose and the meaning of the work. Whilst it is undoubtedly true that life experience plays a decisive factor in the creative process it is not the only factor for there is a wide spectrum among musicians as from those who’s artistry addresses personal topics an example of such a person is Jil Scott. On the other hand, there are artists such as Max Richter who work primarily in the world of instrumental music and usually produce there work under the guidance of a theme that is not directly part of there life.

A further criticism of the stock biographical interpretation is that it ignores the ways in which local and personal emotions can be channeled into something abstract. Via this route all music even that very far removed from the exact experience of the performer can become personal. Simple biographical interpretations render everything a trivial product of what has happened to a person rather than a fusion of life experience and creative intelligence. Without such a general intelligence it is hard to know how anything could be transmitted artistically from one person to another without both having had identical life experiences. Even for people who may have lived such identical lives there will always be the difference that it is they who are the experiencing it with their own unique personality.

The next mistake is simplification via some sub genre label. For example, the odious term “jazz fusion” which principle use seems to be ghettoise a variety of styles and approaches. What music exists that does not owe it’s heritage to something else? Is not almost all music if you go far back enough some kind of “fusion”? The same can said of completely ridiculous label “progressive rock” . What does it denote? According to Wikipedia “…prog’s scope is sometimes limited to a stereotype of long solos, long albums, fantasy lyrics, grandiose stage sets and costumes…” The problem with such stereotypes is that it only list of sins not a characteristic of a style. There are plenty of groups who have dressed in variety of garbs that do not commit the other sins. Fantasy is just as much a part of pop as any other genre, although in the main the fantasies are hedonistic not conceptual.

Perhaps in the past this label could be applied to a cadre of bands that shared certain characteristics and in this sense could be described as meaningful. However, culture has moved on since then as have the musicians who may even apply the label “prog” to themselves. Of course the idiotic press is ready for such developments and can simply accommodate these changes by declaring whatever developments have occurred to be “neo…”. This solves nothing. Am I perhaps uncharitable in looking for higher standards in what is ultimately slang? Also, we must keep in mind Wittgenstein’s motto that meaning is use, that language is a flexible medium that can change as people use words in different ways over time. This said, I do think the essence of my criticism still stands. That by following such practices the level of discourse is lowered.

However, I would say that often slang in reified by music critics to take on a status beyond mere slang to a stronger and more certain categorization. This I object to, it is the intellectualisation of something that is used intuitively. It is through this process that needlessly sharp distinctions are drawn and barriers erected.

What of positive purposes of music criticism? I think criticism can illuminate aspects of a work that we can have been previously blind to. Further, through the exploration of an other’s opinion we can understand more clearly why we hold the opinions we do. In this sense misguided analysis can be helpful and instructive. However, it must be said that verbal analysis is no replacement for experiencing the music. This is the place that all true musical knowledge stems from and where the transcendent power of music can be encountered. In comparison to this mere words can seem dead and lifeless. None the less, I think there is enough to be gained by writing about music that I will continue to do it.