Tuesday, August 24, 2010

In a Similar Vein

You may or may not have heard of a band called The Young Veins. They’re very well-backed by the media and have garnered attention because they have two emo expats on their side: Ryan Ross and Jon Walker, formerly of Panic! at the Disco fame. The Young Veins push a reasonably psychedelic brand of shoegaze. Nothing to complain about but also nothing revolutionary. A recent press picture released by Spin Magazine supports this aura nicely.

Contrast that, then, with this: a stock photo of Panic! at the Disco. You may not be able to spot the similarity between these two pictures, but I assure you that somewhere hiding behind all that guyliner and sadness are two of the men from the first picture.

Whereas any self-respecting Spin reader would obediently vomit upon hearing or reading any suggestion that Panic! at the Disco had even the most remote amount of talent, the Young Veins were releasing what Spin considered one of the Top 25 Albums of the summer. Personally, I’m a bit irked by the idea that you can garner musical respect simply by shedding mascara, creepy 1890s garb, and morose facial expressions and then wrapping yourself up in offbeat fabrics and a more uplifting worldview. (That being said, it is completely reasonable for a man to gain respect just by abandoning mascara.)


Once upon a time, this thing called Counter Culture sprung up from a desire – no, a need – for individualism in a world that seemed to be becoming more homogeneous by the day. Some would argue that the world as a whole has become more homogeneous since then, but others might say the opposite. The trend that matters, however, is that those who strive to be different and more individualistic are themselves becoming eerily like one another. In other words, those who want to be different are becoming the same.

Now, I know you’ve heard this argument before: that hipster-ism (one of the modern-day incarnations of Counter Culture) is a logical fallacy in that its adherents, in trying to be unique, end up looking, eating, drinking, and thinking the same.

Social networking and the Internet only exacerbate this problem. In a split second, we can become acutely aware of what’s in and what’s out – not just in our neighborhood, but across the world (most notably in trendsetting locales). But when everybody’s on the cutting edge, there’s no such thing as the cutting edge anymore. Just as “good” and “evil” are relative terms that lose their meaning when inspected singularly, “revolutionary” and “normal” become hollow and meaningless when you have one without the other.

At this point, I could go off on a tangent (or maybe this is really the main point) about how stores like Urban Outfitters and Hot Topic boxed up this culture and sold it. I’m certainly not the first to find it counter-intuitive that you can standardize a culture that is by definition un-standardized. But I’ll stick to this as it applies to music.1

Our migration to a surface-level image-based culture has made visual appeal susceptible to conflation with musical talent, and this is scary. Music should be evaluated on its music-ness, not on the appearance of its creators. Two slightly modified truisms refine this point: don’t judge the messenger (it’s about the sound that comes out of your speakers). Furthermore, don’t judge a band by its cover (press kits only go so far in demonstrating what a band sounds like. Songs do a much better job of this).

In order to fit the bill of modern-day shoegazers, the Young Veins (or at least Walker and Ross) had to peel off their disposable uniform and instead slip into something more comfortable – more comfortable, at least, given their revised mission statement.2 If Ross and Walker had set their sights on rap stardom, they would’ve ditched the forest they’re casually chilling in and hop in a diamond-encrusted Hummer with some dope “dubs.” However, The Young Veins’ current goal is to succeed in the world of Indie Rock, where listeners subscribe to the music that best perpetuates the idealized image of uniqueness that they’re striving for – no matter how illusory that image may be.

1I do realize that my analysis plays by the conventional music snob idea that there are high walls erected between indie and mainstream music – walls that distinguish the legitimate from the illegitimate. Thus, I’m treating music as if it fits into different, well-defined categories. It doesn’t, and it shouldn’t. However, the only way to advance to a place where music isn’t judged based on the image it’s presented with is to analyze why we’re in the current framework to begin with.

2For the record, I have considered the possibility that Ross and Walker are earnestly searching for their own creative niche by exploring new realms of musical artistry. After all, they left Panic! at the Disco due to creative differences. However, today’s superficial image culture has led my cynical side to think otherwise.

—Joe Pinsker


  1. I think there are a lot of interesting unwritten connections being drawn here between two counter-culture movements that would probably prefer not to be associated with each other.

    The truth is, for better or for worse, that since at least the beginning of the 20th century, counter-culture movements have been inextricably linked with their fashions (see the Zazous of WWII era France: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zazou). So while it does perhaps rub us the wrong way that Ross and Walker have adopted new modes of style, we can't really fault them for it. It may be upsetting that their styles of music and fashion are so transient, but so are the tastes of everyone who will be listening to their music--there's not one person on the face of this earth who's been a hipster his/her whole life.

    Like you suggested, it essentially all comes down to the music: How much do Ross/Walker actually care about the music and how much are they sacrificing by using the hipster image as a convenient means for packaging a product?

  2. lets be real, no one thinks being a hipster is about individuality

    but otherwise, liked the article. i can see why you think there's something hypocritical about what these band members are doing, although i don't really see the conflict in embodying more than one style of dress or more than one style of music. granted, you addressed this in your footnote.

    i've also never thought people were as superficial with musical taste as you claim they are. i think people will ultimately judge for themselves whether they like the band's music, and there's nothing wrong with using style as a cue to the band's general sound