March 31st, 2008


The kids aren't alright ;-(

"Que es mas macho, pineapple o knife?" The bizarre question appears in the song Smoke Rings on Laurie Anderson's Home of the Brave album. The surprise answer is that a pineapple is more macho than a knife. The quiz continues with a second question with an equally surprising answer: a schoolbus is more macho than a lightbulb.

Today I have a question in the same vein. Which is more elitist, art or marketing? On the face of it, it's a no-brainer. The art world is clearly more elitist than the marketing world, because the art world is a tightknit knot of collectors, investors, artists and commentators speaking an abstruse jargon replete with -isms. The marketing world, on the other hand, is a bunch of people with clipboards asking folks on the street what they want then trying to give it to them. Marketing is clearly oriented to the mass, the mainstream, the grass roots, the people, the salt of the earth.

Of course, that's bullshit. Marketing is a lot more top down, a lot more elitist (in its own way) than that. The marketer's client is the company, and the company is beholden to the shareholder. The marketer's task is not to find out what people really want and give it to them, but to whip up desire for the pre-existing products manufacturers have decided to offer. At its worst, marketing is totally elitist: it speaks without listening, it uses slick babytalk, it exploits people's desires, giving them other than what they want and less than they deserve.

But I'm not a total cynic about marketing. When I first heard that Marxy had got a job in marketing I thought there might be a good side -- clipboard in hand, standing on street corners, he'd now be listening to the Japanese consumers he'd previously tended to denigrate, trying to ascertain what they want and ensure that they get it. This would make him drop the "everything Japan has done since Shibuya-kei is wrong" line which made his old blog Neomarxisme such an infuriatingly mean read.

Alas, far from it. Marxy's main concern, as a blogger working in marketing, continues to be the attempt to show that the kids are not alright, and that the grassroots Japanese creativity reported in the Western media is in fact either an illusion or concocted by a small elite. The message seems to be "Don't bother listening for the sound of the grass growing -- it isn't. Not unless we -- the marketers, the brands, the corporations -- pour fertilizer on it, that is."

This mostly seems to involve withering scorn for all Japanese examples of what marketers call CGM -- consumer-generated media. On the current page at Meta No Tame ("staff blog" for Neojaponisme) we get refutations of the idea that Japanese is the world's number one blogging language (in fact, Marxy tells us, 40% of Japanese-language blog sites are generated by spambots), and the information that a trend for barcoded gravestones doesn't come from consumers but from the manufacturer who invented them. We get the announcement that Marxy is talking at a conference at UCLA on the subject of "whether Japanese fashion styles are “bottom-up” or “top-down” and how fashion magazines play a part in setting trends". We get a review of a book about the Harajuku fashion scene, Style Deficit Disorder, which debunks the book's introduction, with its emphasis on grassroots creativity:

"The Harajuku of SDD’s introductory chapter is quite literally the most amazing place on earth: masses of youth successfully fighting to create their own trends at a “grass-roots” level in the face of an increasingly-irrelevant global fashion market pushing industry-decided clothing on a rigid seasonal basis". This won't do: Marxy isn't buying this picture of "grass-roots democracy, consumer-driven markets, an almost anarcho-syndicalist model of opinion leadership, Japanese influence on global culture, a sense of fashion liberty, Japanese cultural independence, and a freedom from dogmatic ideologies".

So keen is he to puncture and debunk too-kind, too-optimistic Western views of Japanese grassroots creativity that Marxy doesn't seem to notice internal contradictions in his arguments: Harajuku is not all it's cracked up to be, he tells us, because "brands and magazines play a massive role in setting Harajuku trends". In a withering piece about Nakameguro, though, Marxy says that Nakameguro isn't all it's cracked up to be for precisely the opposite reason: this time it's because "almost none of the major retailers in Japan have decided to put a store there". The kids aren't alright if top-down brands influence their trendy neighbourhood, but also aren't alright if those same top-down brands spurn their trendy neighbourhoods. The kids, it seems, just can't win -- and all because those starry-eyed foreigners keep saying they're great!

Actually -- and this brings us back to the marketing versus art theme, and the elitism question -- foreign commentators aren't saying that Japanese kids are uniformly great. That certainly would be projection, and wish-fulfillment. Rather, those of us interested in Japanese creativity have a different concern. Marketing people tend to disregard anything which is too niche, too marginal. Their concern is with getting products out of their niches and into the mainstream. For talent-spotters, though, one swallow makes a summer.

In the last seven days of Click Opera alone, I've endorsed the work of dozens of Japanese creators (Yurie Ido, Akio Suzuki, Atsuhiko Sudo, Kasuga Nakamatsu, Yoko Ono, Aoki Takamasa, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Tujiko Noriko, Jun Togawa, Hanayo, Koji Ueno, Keiichi Ohta, Haruomi Hosono, Misora Hibari, Miharu Koshi, Otomo Yoshihide). What I haven't done is make any claim that these people are "the kids" or represent a democratic movement, a grassroots creativity. They're mostly professional artists and performers. Even if I were blogging about Japanese street fashion, I'd probably focus on Shoichi Aoki just as much as the kids he puts in FRUiTS.

I therefore agree, broadly, with Marxy's emphasis on the top-down; I'm an elitist too. The difference comes in our chosen fields of operation and preoccupation: I'm an artist championing artists, whereas he's a marketing spook giving props to... well, marketing spooks. But there is hope that he'll come over to the good kind of elitism, the artist kind that champions creativity rather than the marketing kind that denigrates the kids: the man has a new album out.