A few months ago, while dining at Veggie Grill (one of the new breed of Chipotle-class fast-casual restaurants), a phrase popped unbidden into my head: premium mediocre. The food, I opined to my wife, was premium mediocre. She instantly got what I meant, though she didn’t quite agree that Veggie Grill qualified. In the weeks that followed, premium mediocre turned into a term of art for us, and we gleefully went around labeling various things with the term, sometimes disagreeing, but mostly agreeing. And it wasn’t just us. When I tried the term on my Facebook wall, and on Twitter, again everybody instantly got the idea, and into the spirit of the labeling game.
Premium mediocre is the finest bottle of wine at Olive Garden. Premium mediocre is cupcakes and froyo. Premium mediocre is “truffle” oil on anything (no actual truffles are harmed in the making of “truffle” oil), and extra-leg-room seats in Economy. Premium mediocre is cruise ships, artisan pizza, Game of Thrones, and The Bellagio.
Premium mediocre is food that Instagrams better than it tastes.
Premium mediocre is Starbucks’ Italian names for drink sizes, and its original pumpkin spice lattes featuring a staggering absence of pumpkin in the preparation. Actually all the coffee at Starbucks is premium mediocre. I like it anyway.And, of course, we have premium mediocre in music as well. As music is rather more abstract than a meal at Olive Garden, it manifests a bit differently. Premium mediocre is the glitzy and shallow presented as the authentic and heartfelt. We have music videos that are commercials for makeup, jewelry and lingerie but are presented as musical essays on infidelity:
On a higher level is Beyoncé's album Lemonade which has songs like "Don't Hurt Yourself" that "celebrates" black womanhood with a pretty nasty song that supposedly is about Jay-Z's infidelity. Lots of black and white verité along with Beyoncé's usual sexy moves all taking place in a graffitied parking garage. The song contains a quote by Malcolm X about black women. As the whole sweep of intellectual ferment these days is about race, class and gender, it is as if the aesthetic goal of the album is to check all the boxes, make exactly the points and references needed to fulfill every bias and predisposition of every popular music critic (and academic) in America. But isn't this the most conventional of wisdom? Is there the slightest shred of the unexpected here? And isn't the using of the most melodramatic soap opera episodes in your own life as fodder for your next album the essence of premium mediocre?