James Van Der Beek and them sisters from “Sister, Sister”

The title is from Mike Doughty’s song “Busting Up a Starbucks”. If I’m interpreting it correctly, the song’s about impotent outrage at “corporate culture,” pop culture in particular. So at least for the rest of this post, that’s exactly what it’s about.

And what a coincidence, because that’s what I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Granted, the whole “high art vs. low art” debate is nothing new, but either I haven’t been paying attention, or within the last decade or so it’s taken a really nasty political turn.

Used to be it was just about intelligence and coolness. So the small nugget inside me which remains in denial and full of hope that I might one day be Cool, forces me to treat everything I like as a guilty pleasure. And I play Diablo while making fun of Dungeons and Dragons. Or I obsess over “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” while mocking both the ones who write fan-fics as “losers” and the ones who write academic books in defense of the show as trying too hard to justify their obsessions. Or I get teary-eyed at the Main Street Electrical Parade while complaining about empty spectacle and meaningless entertainment. I’m not sure exactly why those of us in the nerd and geek communities are so desperate to simultaneously knock down and defend the things we love, but it probably is due to this fantasy we all have of taking off our glasses and showing up for the Big Dance as the coolest kids in the whole school.

But now, to maintain my status as a Well-Mannered, Responsible Liberal, I have to rail against all of it because it’s all the work of the Huge Soul-Crushing Media Companies. Two of which have been my employers, making it even more difficult. Has there always been this gross, simplistic, nasty political tone to it all, or is that a recent partisan development? I mean, I’ve heard simple-minded people shout “television is the opiate of the masses!” and “corporate rock sucks!” and various complaints about media conglomerates and how “indie” automatically equals “better.” And of course I’ve heard plenty of people talk about Disney as if there’s a cabal of Eisner-led liches in Burbank strangling kittens and southeast Asian factory-worker children and using their blood to make pentagrams. (Which of course there isn’t, and I haven’t seen it.)

But now the accusation is that enjoying pop culture means you’re complicit in evil — EEEEEVIL! — for giving money to these horrible companies that you’re just too stupid to see through. We’ve been so indoctrinated with the philosophy that Big Corporations are Bad that it’s gotten mixed in with the high art/low art debate and become yet another way to polarize everyone. Every company larger than 200 employees is now Standard Oil, and there’s no such thing as a good corporation. Our only recourse is to boycott the media, buy organic, and if we must watch films, they should have Parker Posey in them or be directed by Europeans or Canadians. To do otherwise is no longer just stupid, it’s wrong.

Either people are getting more stupid and simple-minded, or the stupid people are getting more vocal, or I’m getting more moderate in my advancing years. I remember back around the time of the Exxon Valdez disaster, and how self-satisfied I was for boycotting the company; it made me feel as if I were really doing something. And it pains me to realize now that in spite of all the comic books and videogames, I grew up, and realized that it’s not about me and my petty grabs at being important for making meaningful choices against a cruel world. That instead, it’s a huge number of people all trying to make meaningful choices, and frequently making mistakes.

It’s comforting to be able to pick out the villains like Kenneth Lay and put a face to the huge, nebulous injustice, but I suspect that the reality is even more depressing. I believe the reality is that there are indeed many outright self-serving bastards trying to screw everyone else, but they’re outnumbered by the people who are really trying to make a difference (in the case of entertainment, to be creative) but impeded by the sheer size of the machine and its layers of bureaucracy. And all of them are far outnumbered by the people who just really don’t give a damn, but are only trying not to get fired.

As for the song: even if I’m completely off about my interpretation, it’s still a catchy song and a great turn of phrase. You can listen to it on his official site if you’re into that sort of thing.

And while I’m writing, my favorite line from the album is “You snooze you lose, well I snost and lost.”

By the way, Doughty’s in San Francisco September 30th and October 1st, playing at The Independent which is stumbling distance from my apartment. Who wants to go with me?

Haughty Melodic

I listened to Haughty Melodic, Mike Doughty’s new solo album, a lot on the drive from LA back to SF, and it’s great road trip music. Turns out it’s good sitting at the computer doing nothing music, as well. There’s nothing really “astounding” about it, like there is with a Soul Coughing album, because it’s more straightforward melodic (hence the title) instead of being all that experimental. Still, the guy’s a great songwriter — the lyrics are clever in places, and every one of the tracks is catchy at least. A couple of them, like “Unsingable Name” and “I Hear the Bells” are genuinely beautiful.

And the lyrics are predictable in places, and some of the tracks are more repetitive than catchy. So I’d say that it’s not brilliant, but still recommend it. Especially to Soul Coughing fans. (If you know El Oso, I’d say that his solo album is like an entire album of “Circles” and “So Far I Have Not Found the Science,” which isn’t bad unless you were expecting a whole album of “Rolling” and “I Miss the Girl.”)