Do you want to rebel against the establishment? Do you want to make a statement? Do it with your food.
This article originally appeared here.
My friend Conor Sen (Twitter, Tumblr) tweeted this WaPo story to me, but I think it asks the wrong question. Actually, I don’t think it should’ve been a question at all. If anyone or anything killed rock & roll, it wasn’t the foodies. Or food.
But, let’s investigate this nexus a bit more. Because there does seem to be a coincidental aspect to the rise of food and the decline of music:
Over the past decade, we’ve seen the rise of the foodie class and decline of the record industry. Are the two related? When did we start talking about new food trucks instead of new bands? When did the line outside El Centro D.F. taqueria get longer than the line outside the Black Cat? Is $8 a reasonable price for an order of duck fat french fries just because we can stream our music for free on Spotify?
But coincidental events (i.e. correlations) do not equal causation. Can we really say our hankering for the perfect Korean taco means we care about music less? Hardly. But, there is a variable that needs to be included here in some manner, although I’m not sure how you would incorporate it: the need for self-expression.
Music was very much a traditional avenue for that self-expression. And, it was very much a local phenomenon. But since companies like Clear Channel control most of the radio stations in most markets, that avenue has been closed off. With their nationwide reach and standardized playlist programming, that pretty much means you’re hearing the same playlists from Dubuque, IA to Delray Beach, FL. In a word, it’s homogenization.
And you could see that homogenization in food, too. Every time one of those big out of town food chains opened up a new outpost, it just seemed to make life a little less interesting and lot more bland. It’s why I don’t understand the throngs of tourists that visit places like New York, just to go to TGIFriday’s in Times Square.
So why the excitement about food?
That’s because today’s gastronomical adventures provide the thrills that rock-and-roll used to. New restaurants appeal to our sense of discovery. Our diets can reflect our identities, our politics. For fans of thrash metal and/or live octopus sashimi, food is a way to sate cravings for the maximal, visceral and extreme.
And above all, unlike music, food provides a sensual pleasure that can’t be transmitted digitally. We can’t download a banh mi.
No, you can’t download a banh mi. Or a dram of scotch, much to my chagrin after many failed attempts. But food does seem to be the last outpost of true experience. It’s like something got lost in music and video once they became something we could download on to our phones and take with us wherever we go.
Plus, music doesn’t reflect politics the way it once did. In the ‘60s during the height of Vietnam, you seemingly had a whole generation that rallied around the idea that we shouldn’t have been there, fighting that war. Everything since then has been a lot more partisan and divided. Music doesn’t transcend the masses the way they once did.
But in terms of exploration, there’s tons to explore in terms of music. Perhaps too much. This is where I hope companies like Spotify and Pandora (I like them both for different reasons) can help. Cloud storage of music plus algorithms to help me find things I will probably like would be a huge benefit.
But, at the same time, you also have to acknowledge something else: it’s never been easier or cheaper to create music. When classical music was the only game in town, many of those pieces were commissioned to be written and played. Meaning you had to have enough money to hire a composer and a performance ensemble to play it. Clearly, music was a status symbol.
Over time though, not so much. You see this over and over again. Technology disrupts. Bill Gates even talks about this when the idea of GDP in the developing world comes up:
I have long believed that GDP understates growth even in rich countries, where its measurement is quite sophisticated, because it is very difficult to compare the value of baskets of goods across different time periods. In the United States, for example, a set of encyclopedias in 1960 was expensive but held great value for families with studious kids. (I can speak from experience, having spent many hours poring over the multi-volume World Book Encyclopedia that my parents bought for my sisters and me.) Now, thanks to the Internet, kids have access to far more information for free. How do you factor that into GDP?
The simple answer is, you don’t.
So here we are, talking about food. The one thing where technology can’t disrupt our lives unless you go whole-hog on The Jetsons concept, where robots can cook our meals, for us too. But where’s the fun in that? After all, as the LA Times Jonathon Gold said in the WaPo article:
In American culture, “there’s always been that sort of glamorization of the working class,” says Gold. “The rock guys tried to ride that for a really long time. . . . But no matter how glamorous it is, no matter how much you pay for dinner, chefs are still doing things with their hands. . . . In a time when guitar solos are incredibly uncool, somebody has to be doing something that has a physical manifestation to it, right?”
We still like to see folks do stuff with their hands. Hell, many of us still like making stuff with our hands, too. For all the increased convenience and efficiency technology affords us, we still have to find something to do with ourselves and our time. Making our own food or having it made by someone in a food truck brings us back to that place.
And that’s why food matters. We need it to survive physically, sure. But we also need it for all of the other things it means. Ingenuity. Authenticity. Expression. Legacy. It offers us a window into the human soul. Because without those, well, we’re just dead.
Music still offers that window too, but it’s different. All of that synthesized, re-mastered, uber-edited and overly promoted bullshit that surrounds modern music just gets in the way. It’s tougher to find good music now than before, but it can still be done. And, I’d say it’s still worth the time and effort to do it.
So no, food hasn’t killed music. But it has definitely taken its place as that thing we connect with. For now …