Everything’s Happy Underground: the Unquantifiable Socio-Cultural Import of Context

While reading an article that a friend posted about Prince Harry’s confession of intent regarding the “lewd” photographs of the prodigal military man which recently circulated the celebrity rags of print and screen, I got to considering a dilemma of the most basic contemporary meta-existential variety: that of the unfortunate negation of contextuality in the largely Internet-fueled perceived-objectivism of our current society.  While we are undeniably granted the ability to more immediately share the chronology of our selves with the circumstantially distanced loved-ones upon whom we still hang our kinship, the inherent bi-product of this hyper-connected pseudo-existence is an exponentially heightened sense of the weight of the darkest denotations of the collective unconscious.  Simply put, the more exposure we experience via our “web presence” — as with any sort of notoriety or fame — the more we are called to task for our actions.  There is of course nothing inherently wrong with the idea that an observer would want to fully understand the complete scenario surrounding an event they had witnessed; this sort of intellectual voyeurism is, after all, the path to discovery.  The problem arises, however, when the observing party’s sense of moral righteousness overcomes his thirst for enlightenment.

In the case of Prince Harry, we are reminded that anyone who breaks protocol is required to hold himself accountable to all who bear witness — to atone, even for well-considered and spontaneously-enacted moments of pure being, simply because they piss in the face of self-regard.  In the worst of cases, an individual allows this hive-mind mentality to cripple him or her to the point of inactivity.  In the best, one still finds him-or-herself prone to second-guessing his-or-her actions in an ill-fated attempt to deign the will of a fallaciously conceived theoretical objectivist notion of Absolute Ethics.

Now, I am not one to advocate anarchism or nihilism in any blanket sense of the terms, but there is a valid fear that the Orwellian nightmare of Conformity could be a logical progression from the increased appetite for approval bred by all stripes of social networking.  This is not to say that either wallflowerism or class-clownery is necessarily more rampant now than it was before, but simply that they are abetted and made more attractive by the tools at hand.

There is, of course, a certain irony in the fact that most people who feel uneasy within one section of a codified strata (be it social, intellectual, religious, etc.) attempt to find comfort within another — albeit, usually smaller (and, implicitly, more selective) — level of this accepted taxonomy.  Back in 1995, a three piece band from Chapel Hill who eschewed all contemporary notions of mass appeal released their first single; Ben Folds Five’s “Underground” addressed this very dichotomy of finding acceptance through rejection, and did so with impeccable insight, wit, melody, and concision.  It was, in many ways, the ultimate anthem for the 90s, a time when the idea that everyone can essentially have their own Underground was just coming into its fullest fruition.

Just as pirate radio and the independent press had a generation before, public access television was changing the notions of regional-vs-national identity as well as the availability, viability, and marketability of an increasingly personal and subjective manner of public artistic expression.  We can look and laugh at the harmless self-satisfaction and endearing lack of pretension prevalent in characters like Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar, but a big part of the joke was that there was nothing particularly noteworthy or attention-warranting about these two overly-excitable townies.

These sorts of entertainments were still, more or less, regional curiosities, growing only as far as their enterprise could manage.  Just infiltrating the mainstream, however, was the World Wide Web, a new means of connecting people from all over the world with one another and with record speed.  Every on-line individual’s circle grew immediately and exponentially as they explored sites and groups dedicated to their most esoteric interests.  One of the most noteworthy of these was the music news and review site Pitchfork, founded the same year “Underground” was released and dedicated to giving national exposure to independent, regional or otherwise neglected musicians and releases.  Ben Folds Five were one of the earliest bands to benefit from this far-reaching (and, at the time, somewhat overlooked and undervalued) form of word-of-mouth exposure.

They were also one of the first to suffer from its occasionally fickle whims.  After their ambitious and superlative third album was largely derided by the critical and commercial public despite a hit single, a dedicated fan base, and undeniable signs of musical ambition and growth, they separated, with Folds pursuing a solo career that at its best matches the heights of his previous band, while at its worst would wallow in cheap sentiment and uninspired pastiche.

In the intervening years, we have seen a staggering increase in the basic mechanics of self promotion and its prevalence in even the most humble and self-contained of individuals.  As Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have exploded — preceded by the marginally less attention-deficit Livejournal, Xanga, and MySpace — the definition of “news” has grown increasingly elastic so as to encompass even the most trivial of life events, provided they are “reported” in some externally directed manner.  An individual, even if he or she abstains from these twice removed virtual interactions, is still indicted by his association with anyone who does engage electronically with the world.  This is the fear of a dystopic future as envisioned by George Orwell or Philip K. Dick: that everything we do can be witnessed and judged by a biased and unsympathetic third party — who is watching and what they can do about what they’ve witnessed is almost beside the point if you affix yourself acutely to the libertarian implications of the premise alone.

To scale back from the grandiose, let’s once again consider the wallflower and the class-clown.  For both of these archetypes, their behavior is dictated by the actions and reactions of those surrounding them.  A sensitivity to any number of factors ranging from an altruistic disinclination to offend or disturb, to a more self-involved desire for approval (whether through attention or the lack there of) can cripple an individual if he or she is unable to keep it in check.  As the perceived audience for one’s actions grows, one is less likely to act on one’s own behalf without regard for (his or her irredeemably ineligible notion of) the Public Opinion.

We’re quantifying our joy and worth by how many “like”s and “share”s we receive, crowd-sourcing our perspective from those of others.  With Wikipedia, we’re deciding how we feel about something without the hassle of actually having to experience it ourselves.  We are doing much more than looking before we leap — we’re asking someone else what the landing was like and saying, Good enough for me.  And of course, when someone comes along and acts like no one’s looking, many of us grant ourselves a moral superiority without concern for, or consideration of, relative context, perverting the systems which used to bolster the individual until they are redoubling the hive-mind.

Sigh.  It’s enough to send you crying into your copies of Heidegger’s Being and Time and Hofstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop.  Luckily, our aforementioned heroes of Ben Folds Five have returned from their thirteen year hiatus reciting a simple dictum that is perhaps more important and more flippant than ever in this age of mass transcription: “Do it anyway.”

Produced and spearheaded by Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist Network and directed by Phil Hodges, the Fraggle-featuring new video for BF5 comeback single “Do It Anyway” is the latest entry in the growing universe of nerd-rock/Jim Henson crossovers.  Up until this point, The Muppets pretty much monopolized the field, having collaborated with both Weezer and half of Flight of the Conchords (and snagging an Oscar in the process, no less).  Now, the Fraggles, who have always been more underground (both literally and figuratively) than Jim Henson’s prime-time players, are due for the cultural excavation treatment.  While it’s very easy to dismiss the “Do It Anyway” video as a pale imitation of Weezer’s “Keep Fishin'”, there are a few deeper points of cultural integration that make it a much more timely and conceptually ripe piece of filmmaking.

Whereas “Keep Fishin'” saw Weezer comply to the established rules of the Muppet Show (guest arrives, kvetches, manages to help the amateur crew and frazzled director overcome myriad setbacks to deliver an entertaining show), “Do It Anyway” allows Ben Folds Five to work as a channel for exposing the ostensibly dormant Fraggles to the rest of the world.  The video opens with Traveling Matt passing undetected through the apathetic machinery of commerce, which in this case is a recording studio employing a distracted security guard (Chris Hardwick), a disinterested secretary (Anna Kendrick), and a loutish and pandering engineer (Rob Corddry) who attempts to mask his ineptitude and dispassion through feigned enthusiasm and superficial engagement with his clients.  This is a role at which Corddry is especially adept, having played a variant of it in the largely misunderstood and undervalued Operation: Endgame.  Here, he fully utilizes his gift for using contextually humorous verbal disclosure to concisely encapsulate the greater, over-arching themes of the work.

It is of course a platitudinous remark when Corddry asks, “You ready to change Rock and Roll?”  However, the query addresses one of the paramount concerns of the iGeneration: that of the precarious balance between merit and exposure.  We used to qualify our lionization of less meritorious individuals with the signifier “Internet famous,” implying not only that the Internet only represented one corner of the larger world, but that due to its largely self-published and self-regulated nature there was an implicitly inculpable element of guilty pleasure, akin to the tabloids that we would read in the checkout line but upon which we would largely balk at the notion of spending actual money.  Let us for now ignore what this says about the relative capital we place upon our time, our mind, and our money, and further explore the metaphor.

As the influx of “reality” television demonstrates, these concepts of Merit and Exposure are becoming willfully obscured as base, regurgitative “entertainment” continues to infiltrate all mediums, and thus coloring the way we conduct ourselves as social beings.  We’ve been conditioned to believe that self presentation, more so than self expression, is an art form; rather than create a product, we are the product, and it becomes more important to be heard than to have something to say.

That the Fraggles use a microphone cable as a rope to emerge from the underground is fitting: it is through the technology of broadcast that an individual is thought to emerge within a greater social schema.  But just as the microphone cable can stand in for our iPhones, Facebook, webcam, or any other electronically dependent channel of consumption and expression, so too can the studio be thought of as the entirety of the Internet, populated as it were by a choice few passionate individuals amidst a system of dispassionate operators.  There seems to be a collective assumption that because the means of immediate and exponential propagation of content are established and provided, it behooves us to capture and share our own personal, ephemeral moments of esoterica for the edification of those around us.  There is nothing wrong with sharing our joy or our grief, but we must be careful not to negate the purity of the creative act by valuing the speculative perception/reception of an assumed audience over the initial impulse of the justly motivated and self-considering individual.

When our favorite artists attempt to expand their sphere of influence, whether by adjusting their content or their context, we brand them “sell-outs” and accuse them of sacrificing their integrity in pursuit of the impure and fickle charms of fame, money, etc.  When we as individuals strive for the same, however, we simply call ourselves enterprising.  Where is the distinction?  Is it in motive?  In execution?  The consensus seems to be that the distinction relies upon that one tricky idea: integrity.  Integrity, however, is a much more fluid concept than that of truth, which presupposes an objective absoluteness based upon only observable and quantifiable facts.  Integrity, rather, is the circumstantially unique product of an infinite number of theoretically considered variables.  Descartes in particular was critical of the belief than any individual, unavoidably operating within his unique sphere of experience and thus from his own perspective, could adequately surmise the interiority of an Other, let alone conceive of a universal, objectively true postulate of perception.  So, presuming that an individual is personally satisfied with his or her own motivations and reasons for an action, what is he or she to do if he or she is unable to confidently predict and ensure the approval of all witnessing parties?  Do it anyway.

In terms of the song and the video, what qualifies “Do It Anyway” as more than a shallow #YOLO clarion call aimed at absolving perpetrators from accountability for their actions is the acute awareness and celebration of the contextually imperative nature of value judgments inherent in any voyeuristically motivated form of consumption and their irrelevance to and lack of influence upon the meaning of the act itself.  As such, the spirit of an act is reaffirmed as more intrinsically valid and valuable than the capture or broadcast of an act, affording the acting party not only the onus of accountability, but full stewardship of the act’s integrity insofar as it is quantifiable.

In this self-contingent web of value/worth we find a harmonious balance wherein responsibility, risk, and reward are inexorably linked and reliant upon one another, and it is within this nexus that we are able to most successfully and prosperously exist as individuals within an assumed Social Contract.  That the recording engineer has failed in his task to capture the band’s performance does nothing to diminish its meaning to those who participated.  One can act independently of the perceived Other without acting in spite of the perceived Other; as we accumulate empirical data through personal experience, our worldview expands and we develop a more egalitarian set of principles, allowing us to more naturally act in a manner that favors the self without necessarily compromising the whole.

This is, of course, the ultimate allure of the underground: the notion of an ideological space wherein we can think, act, and exist holistically without having to account for or justify the means by which we as individuals have arrived there.  To this end, we could all stand to learn from the Fraggles, who look outside of their world with curiosity and wonder, making no judgment upon that which they do not recognize nor apologies for what the outside world misunderstands about them.




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