Industrial Cool, Heroin Chic and Pop Culture as Slumming

Researchers usually strive vainly to be objective but sometimes you can read out devastating critiques between the lines. Like last week, when I read an article about urban exploring in a big Swedish newspaper, in which an ethnologist explains the values of the movement:
"There's an aesthetisation of the decay," he says. "People see something exciting in old houses, where corrosion has started to form patterns and nature is taking its environment back."

Robert Willim sees this as an exotification, even if it can appear to be a search for something authentic. Those who explore abandoned factories rarely have any previous experience of the place they visit. The places can bring up associations to history, but just as easily to fictional worlds, he claims.
(Emphasis mine.)
I'm definitely going to check out his book, because I've always seen urban exploring as something essentially positive. Yet it totally hits me how essentially correct the man is: we're never going to gain essential insight into industrial buildings. We've never been part of their world, or lived under their system. We don't get the depth of their complexities of meaning.

And I'm wondering whether we're completely guilty of this kind of thing in the music world as well.
The week before last me and my girlfriend were making a package to send to a friend. I proceded to "artfully" put gaffa tape and stickers on the package to make it look a bit fun and designer sloppy, or so I thought. My girlfriend, who comes from a working class family, asked me: "You rich kids think it's cool to make things things look badly and rushedly put together. Are you trying to be working class?" Well, are we?

Abject poverty, just like those oppressive industrial locales, is surprisingly often considered cool. Heroin Chic is the classic example, or more recently that spread in Vogue India with the poor people carrying fashion items. We're exotifying without having experienced the places we visit. I say "we" because I'm certainly (at least on the surface) part of the charade as well, listening to music from a series of poor ghettoes.

Maybe ultimately all of popular culture is like this? Oh, it certainly can be deep, and interesting, and compulsive, but it's not really my culture. It's not directed at me. In my social situation, as a graduate student in musicology, I should be listening (at best) to Ólafur Arnalds or something. Some people in my situation access popular culture through who they once were, going to nostalgia nights and collecting seventies Japanese toy robots, but I've never been a homeless kid on the streets of Luanda. (Thankfully.)

Where does that leave us? I can understand the impulse of wanting to understand and empathise completely with the poor, however foolhardy it might seem. I can just as well understand the desire to steer clear of it all and construct your own system of music where the poor are circumvented. But yet it's clear that those with less media access than me have something important to say that needs to be heard. Rather than be a trustafarian maybe I can somehow be a contact that helps bridge the access gap?

It's another very vain hope. But next time I go urban exploring, whether in real life or in music, I think I'd like my guide to be one of the old workers.

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