Thursday, January 30, 2020

The Billie Eilish phenomenon

I say "phenomenon" because I don't find Eilish herself very interesting. I can see why some teenagers are very attracted to her. What I don't get is adults who obsess about pop music. Which brings me to a bit from the New York Times (I found it, as I often find source material for my posts, at Ann Althouse's blog).

Here's the first bit.
The enthusiasm of Ms. Eilish’s devotees denotes a striking turnabout, a new generation’s rejection of the flirty babe aesthetic embodied by contemporary idols like Ariana Grande in favor of something more crazily improvised and less strenuously sexual. 
There is a lot of wishful thinking in that sentence. For starters, it's not even close to true. Eilish is the woman who wrote, "Bruises on both my knees for you; Don't say thank you or please, I do what I want when I'm wanting to." If that isn't strenuously sexual, I don't know what is. Meanwhile, Ruth La Ferla, the author of the piece, has made her living for four decades now writing about fashion—do you believe her when she writes about rejecting an "aesthetic"?

Notice also the leap from "Eilish's devotees" to "a new generation". The likelihood of that being true is very small. If you go back to the 1960s, when pop music had much deeper cultural penetration than it does now, no pop star represented an entire generation. In today's highly fragmented music market, even a big star such as Eilish will only each a small fraction of the new generation.

Which brings me to the wishful thinking: we're reading an older woman who would like to see younger women reject the "flirty babe aesthetic." Yeah, that will happen.
Let's read some more.
At 18, [Billie] Eilish, who often goes without makeup, favors a pastiche of outsize 1980s and ’90s hip-hop and skater looks. That look speaks assertively to a Gen Z crowd chary of artifice and aggressive displays of sensuality. 'Her look is not about vanity,' said Lucie Greene, a trend forecaster and brand strategist. 'She is flipping the idea of beauty to something surreal, something influenced by gaming and the cyberculture. These are not the filtered images of millennials' ...
Ah yes, a "trend forecaster". But at least we are getting closer to the truth here: it's not sexuality that bothers these women. It's the aggressive display of sexuality they want to stop. (It's telling how often it is the case that attempts to control women's sexuality are actually the work of other women. It shouldn't be surprising, women have a much stronger interest in controlling other women's sexual display than men do so, of course, they try. It's only necessary to point it out because several decades of feminist rhetoric has tried to pin most of the blame on men.)

There is also something noteworthy hidden in plain sight here.  Eilish, we are told, "favors a pastiche of outsize 1980s and ’90s hip-hop and skater looks." Do you see it? This new phenom is actually pushing a look that was around two decades before she was born. The issue here is not just that she's dressing in a way some people have always dressed but that she is doing so for the same reasons: to flip "the idea of beauty to something surreal". If you were around in the 1980s that will be very familiar.

in that regard, she is very reminiscent of Boy George, another star who took his looks from a counterculture that had been around for decades and pushed it very hard to become a star. Like Eilish, Boy George also, one the one hand, wrote lyrics that spoke of his vulnerability and fear of being hurt and, on the other hand, wrote other lyrics about his desire to take risks. Unfortunately, another quality that Eilish shares with Boy George is that neither her music nor her lyrics shown much depth and that was a huge problem for him for, once had achieved great fame, he couldn't do much with it. That, of course, is true of most pop stars, but in some, and I fear Eilish will go down this road, that failure is followed by public self destruction.

Is it true that, "Her look is not about vanity"?  While it is true that she sometimes goes without makeup, she often wears a whole lot of it. What Eilish really, really doesn't like is being judged. Her makeup is a mask. I understand the desire not to be judged according to the flirty babe aesthetic. It creates winners and losers and it's no fun being a loser. But Eilish is not an accidental star. She worked very hard to be famous and she clearly loves being famous. She wants to be in the spotlight and be loved but she doesn't want to be judged. One of her songs is about her fear committing suicide and no one caring.

I think what a lot of older people, both men and women, find tiresome about the flirty babe aesthetic is that it's about getting attention and not about getting sex. They think it would be more "honest" if these girls were trying to get laid.
Her style resonates, [Amanda Petrusich wrote in The New Yorker], 'in a cultural moment when we are all trying very hard to sort out real people from the ones who are merely savvy and ambitious enough to know the right way to curate and present an authentic-seeming vibe.
A lot of people do say that. Most of them, however, are in media. But ask yourself this question. Someone hands you the keys to a Ferrari and gives you two choices. You can either drive it slowly down main street of a tourist town on a  summer's day where hundreds of people will look at you and your very hot car or you can drive it very fast down a winding road in the country with the very real risk that you might die in a spectacular accident. Call me shallow and inauthentic but I'm driving down main street.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Did we see the same movie?

Robin Hanson has a post up comparing Parasite with Joker. I can't comment on the first movie as I have not seen it have no desire to see it. But I'm a bit puzzled by Hanson's take on Joker.

He writes that both movies are "social commentary" [the scare quotes are in the original] and comments,
That commentary is said to be about inequality and class conflict, and most critics see Parasite as more “sophisticated” than Joker. My take: Parasite is done in a setting and style designed to appeal to upper class folks, and it is about class conflict from a more upper class perspective. Joker is designed to appeal to lower class folks, and it is about class conflict from a more lower class perspective. Which is partly why upper class critics prefer Parasite.
My position is that Joker is not class commentary.

Now Hanson has left himself lots of wiggle room here—first with the scare quotes and then the "is said to be". He may not think Joker is about inequality and class conflict. That said, he proceeds as if that was the case and nowhere considers any alternative.

Towards the bottom he quotes the Joker's character during his television appearance, "when he gains a public stage",
Everybody just yells and screams at each other. Nobody’s civil anymore. Nobody thinks what it’s like to be the other guy. You think men like Thomas Wayne, men at ease, ever think what it’s like to be a guy like me? To be anybody but themselves. 
Here's the question I have, at any time in this entire movie, does the Joker character wonder what it's like to be anyone but himself?  The answer to that question is "No!!!!" There are a couple of moments when he appears to but we later find out this is fantasy. With the possible exception of his mother, he has no real relationship with anyone.

If there is a villain in his life, that villain is his mother. If! We can't really be certain about that. When he kills her, you feel zero sympathy for her. Can we trust him, though? I'm not sure even on this point.

The movie resonates with people because we can see how easy it would be to go down that victim route. That's the social commentary. Class has nothing to do with it.

I think it's telling that academics like Hanson, whose blog is called "Overcoming Bias", don't seem to be able to see a social commentary as anything but a class commentary. [But! Note the caveat about wiggle room above.]

Further thought, what do the terms "upper class" and "lower class" mean in this context? When we read a line like this, "Parasite is done in an art-house film style, while Joker is done in a mass-market comic-book style," what does that suggest? I'll grant you that art house primarily appeals to people who consider themselves intellectuals but that's a funny way to designate upper class. Given the choice between art-house style and mass market comic-book style, which do you think Donald Trump would prefer? Some people may like to think of people like Donald Trump as lacking class but I don't think we can reasonably call him lower class.

I think we're talking not about any "upper class" but rather about a credentialed class. That is people whose status depends on credentials conferred upon them by "peers and experts" as I discussed in my last post. A credentialed class is a lot like a peacetime army. The challenge for a peacetime army is that it can't evaluate officers in actual combat. A series of other measures have to be devised. Worse, the whole system is subject to corruption because the officer class are the ones who create the measures—and while some of them may actually be experts, most are just peers.

This is speculative, but suppose that there was a credentialed class whose power base was founded upon, oh I don't know, how about  a postwar liberal consensus. And suppose that consensus was in danger of crumbling. And let's imagine that members of this credentialed class looked out and saw that something momentous was happening but, instead of seeing there was a danger that their entire world could come crashing down on them, they saw it as a conflict between economic classes—they saw it as a conflict between abstract entities. How might that work out for them?

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Something to ponder

Having picked on the always-worth-reading Tyler Cowen for his travel recommendations the other day, I here praise him for calling our attention to this fascinating quote:
We examine the educational backgrounds of more than 2,900 members of the U.S. cultural elite and compare these backgrounds to a sample of nearly 4,000 business and political leaders. We find that the leading U.S. educational institutions are substantially more important for preparing future members of the cultural elite than they are for preparing future members of the business or political elite. In addition, members of the cultural elite who are recognized for outstanding achievements by peers and experts are much more likely to have obtained degrees from the leading educational institutions than are those who achieve acclaim from popular audiences.
That is from a paper titled, "Where Ivy Matters: The Educational Backgrounds of U.S. Cultural Elites". Cowen's post can be found here.

What this tells us is that an Ivy League degree is of more value as a credential than the actual education that goes with it. It is only the latest bit of evidence that suggests that these elite universities have succeeded in creating an unfair system that looks like a meritocracy on the surface but is actually based on privilege at the core.

I suspect Canadian stats would be similar. What I would like to see would be a comparison between the bureaucratic, who tend to be evaluated by "peers and experts", and elected politicians. [Last sentence edited 2020-01-27.]

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Places to go?

Tyler Cowen has shared a list of "Places to go in 2020".

Two thoughts:

1. I'm far from the only one to say this but do intellectual elites actually believe in anything anymore? Seriously, how could someone simultaneously claim to believe in anthropogenic climate change and publish a list like this? This is way beyond hypocrisy; it suggests a complete disdain for the meaning of words, a belief that the author can say whatever he wants just because he can.

2. Again, this is not a novel observation but a need to travel on that scale suggests more a desire to run away from something than towards anything. I see that list and my first thought is, "What an empty life someone must have to need this much distraction."

Friday, January 10, 2020

This candle smells like ...

If we are to trust Gwyneth Paltrow, the candle in question smells like her vagina. Could be. I'm not going to spend $75 to find out.*

The good folks at The Cut couldn't resist giving her free advertising and did an article about it. They also decided to test the proposition. Not really, they gave a number of women the opportunity to prove they could be even more narcissistic about it than Gwyneth. Way to go guys.

They didn't ask a single man for his opinion, I suspect because they couldn't count on us to be sufficiently snarky and dismissive about it. I've never know any scented candle of any variety to smell exactly like what it's meant to evoke. That said, if merely evoking that smell, rather than duplicating it, is what the candle is supposed to do, that's what every successful perfume does.

In other news, one of the most-read stories at the site suggests that Brad Pitt is offensively good looking. Yes, offensively, like it's yet another burden making life unfair for women.

* Nobody asked me but, when properly made, which it rarely is, spaghetti alla puttanesca, tastes something like it. Not like Gwyneth's in particular ...

Saturday, January 4, 2020

This is how bad it has gotten

I was sent a link recently to a four-year-old story in The Guardian.

Title: "Swallowing the Red Pill: a journey to the heart of modern misogyny"

First sentence of the article (I'm not making this up)" "How shitty are men really?"

Think for a moment of how utterly lacking in self-awareness you have to be to write something like that.

This is what happens when people stop believing in anything but the pursuit of power. Stephen Marche is everything Nietzsche wrote Beyond Good and Evil to warn us about.