False Consciousness

This fellow was a member of the landed gentry
This fellow was a member of the landed gentry

The Bay Area is an incredibly expensive place to live, and one of the main topics of conversation there is rent and where you’re thinking about moving to. One thing that struck me when visiting the Bay Area was how concerned people were about becoming gentrifiers. It was interesting to me, because people would freely talk about how poor people in the Mission District and Oakland are being priced out of their neighborhoods by newcomers, and say things that reeked of guilt, like, “We are the problem.”

And that’s definitely one way of thinking about it. But that is such a foreign notion to me. I don’t live in a world where upper-middle-class people victimize working class people. I live in a world where we are all at the mercy of vast, impersonal economic forces. Like, people don’t move to Oakland because they want to: it’s not that great to live somewhere full of crime, where you’re a minority amongst people you distrust and who distrust you–a place that is not particularly walkable and which everywhere exhibits signs of the grossest urban decay. People don’t move to Oakland because they’ve decided it’s a better environment than San Francisco–they go there because they’ve been priced out of San Francisco. What is true for poor Hispanic people in the Mission District is also true for graduate students or someone who works at a nonprofit or as a salesperson at a tech company. San Francisco is really, really expensive.

And, sure, now Oakland is also becoming fairly expensive, but what’re you going to do? The only places where a person can afford to move in the SF Bay Area are places that’ve historically been awful. And all the places that’ve been historically awful are places that’ve historically been filled with people of color. There’s not some mystical historically-white township full of affordable housing that people are refusing to move to because it’s not hip. Even places that people sneer at (Fremont! Milpitas! [which are both majority-Asian, by the way]) are not inexpensive.

Given that, all this guilt smacks of false consciousness. People have this sense that they are the movers and shakers and they are the decision-makers even though they’re just as much at the mercy of the system as everyone else. The system might have given them a few more privileges than everyone else, but it hasn’t given them any more power.

I’m starting to think that being familiar with the work of Ke$ha is not the cultural touchstone that I thought it was

47e29f9fe96a1771642fb05ac8a8fd00_XLI’m in Berkeley for the summer, and I have to say that it’s a bit like an alternate world out here. You know, everything is mostly the same as in Baltimore: people walk on two legs and wear pants and say ‘Hello’ and eat at vegan bakeries and go to Farmer’s Markets and drive bikes to work (on a sidenote: it’s unbelievable how many Bay Area people think that the standard markers of modern yuppie living–farmer markets, veganism, etc–are unique to their little part of the world).

But there are differences. And one of the weirder ones is that no one knows what’s on the radio. I listen to the radio all the time: if it’s on the radio, I’ve definitely heard it. But many 27 year olds around here do not. That’s for two reasons: a) lots of them don’t own cars; and b) they’re way too cool for the radio.

Which puts me in the weird position, because almost everyone that I meet around here is really, really into music. They all play in bands and go to shows and are just generally up on things. And whenever the talk turns to music, I can generally only contribute information about: a) Nashville-based pop-country music (which no one cares about); or b) whatever I heard on the radio.

So, wometimes I’ll say something like, “Oh yeah, I listened to that Ke$ha song ‘Die Young’ like fifty times while I was driving across country.”

And my conversation partner will respond: “Who?”

“Uhh, Ke$ha? The pop singer?”

And then there’ll just be incomprehension. It’s very weird to me; there’s a real cultural disconnect here. My view of engagement with art is very shaped by my experience with science fiction. You start with the most accessible, most poppy stuff (Ender’s Game, Dune, Starship Troopers, etc) and then, when that stops providing you with pleasure, you go out and you find more and more obscure artists. But you always stay current with the mainstream, because that’s, it’s just…it’s like what you have in common with the rest of the world. When I meet another SF fan, we don’t talk about Ted Chiang…we talk about Neal Stephenson and John Scalzi. Because that’s how shit works.

But in music, at least out here, it feels different. I don’t know. Maybe it is an age thing. It feels obvious, to me, that the radio is primarily geared towards sixteen year olds. Maybe the model is that when you’re sixteen, you listen intensively to the radio, and then you branch out and, as you age and become less and less the target demographic for the music industry, more and more of the bands you like aren’t on the radio anymore.

To me, it seems a bit uncool to not be familiar with what’s on the radio. I mean…that’s the radio. How can you know anything about music if you don’t know what people like? I mean, you don’t need to like what you hear on the radio, but you should at least hear it on occasion.

But since all my friends out here are super cool, I think that my supposition is incorrect. Here, in the East Bay, amongst a certain age group, the radio is irrelevant.

I know, right? It’s like I’m summering on Mars.

(It’s also possible that this is true everywhere, but I just notice it more here because I have more friends here. I’ve certainly encountered people in DC who were too cool for the radio).