I wish I had the language when I was a teenager to explain cultural capital. Then I would have been able to explain why this conversation bugged me as much as it did: Sitting in the classroom before AP English began, one kid asked this other one what kind of music he listened to, and he responded (if only the written word could convey the smugness of the tone but it can’t): “Oh you know, stuff like REM, The Psychedelic Furs, Camper Van Beethoven [this was at the end of the eighties, in case you hadn’t guessed], and The Velvet Underground. . . . Not The Digital Underground, The Velvet Underground.” Then there were some knowing nods exchanged between the two. I distinctly remember thinking: what is wrong with these motherfuckers?
What the silent nod expressed was their agreement that not only was The Velvet Underground vastly superior to The Digital Underground but that they themselves showed great wisdom in knowing the difference. Culture, specifically popular music, established the distinction between themselves and those who were unable to show the cultural competency to understand what separated the two bands. As Bourdieu points out, these cultural distinctions have historically mapped onto economic divisions so that “taste” becomes in modern capitalist society a code for class difference. So by affirming their good taste in music, these kids were also affirming their class superiority.
Now I’m not going to sit here and tell you that The Digital Underground is as good a band as The Velvet Underground because their respective discographies show that just isn’t true. But I will insist that “Humpty Dance” is as relevant as any song that The Velvet Underground performed and that it’s commercial success does not make it any less brilliant. Just as The Velvet Underground was able to divest its music of artificiality and pandering and replace it with self-conscious and ironic artistic posturing, so too did The Digital Underground make ironic the aggressive, masculinist rhetoric of Hip Hop. “Humpty Dance” knows what it’s doing, knows how to manipulate the form and tradition that it has inherited, and it invents something new and original out of its awareness.
The quick dismissal of bands like The Digital Underground is a knee-jerk response made by people who want to distance themselves from the class associations that come with commercial popular music—it’s popular because those dimwitted, unwashed masses don’t know any better. In my mind it is one of the purest forms of cultural distinction, made by people who would normally imagine themselves as siding with justice against power, with the disadvantaged against the privileged. The purpose of this blog is to reject the cultural distinctions between commercial popular music and the less popular, boutique-ish alternatives and the social hierarchies implicit in them. I try to treat seriously music that is usually dismissed out of hand, to understand how and why it speaks to its audience. And I try to not take myself too seriously while doing it. I hope you enjoy it.