Monday, August 28, 2017

"Premium Mediocre" in Music

I sometimes think that, alongside the real marvels of the 21st century, such as the high-end computer/communicator/life-accessory that is the smartphone, there is the marketing triumph of passing off the truly mediocre to us as something "premium" with a price-tag to match. Let's let Venkatesh Rao (with a hat-tip to Instapundit) tell us about it:
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?


Will Wilkin said...

Where do you even find the time to know what is happening in popular culture, on television, in advertising, etc? I don't have a television, let all my magazine subscriptions go (too superficial), quickly bore of workmates' pop fact, learning to play my instruments (started with violin a little over 2 years ago, and accumulating more even this week) means not only did I quit politics (after decades of activism), but shouldn't even be on this computer now! Therefore logging out....

Bryan Townsend said...

Pop music occupies so much of the public space, that I almost feel a responsibility to comment on it occasionally. But yes, I could probably be doing something much more productive!