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Herb Sundays 53: W. David Marx
The Tokyo-based author knits together rock of different ages to reveal their connective tissue.
I’ll let David introduce himself:
I am W. David Marx, the Tokyo-based author of Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style. I have a new book called Status and Culture about how the fundamental human desire for social status defines, creates, and changes culture. The book tries to solve what I call the “Grand Mystery of Culture” — why we switch from certain styles to others over time for no apparent reason. In answering that question, I uncover many of the universal principles that guide cultural behavior. If you’re interested in culture — that could be music, art, fashion trends, or even certain beliefs — the book will help organize your thoughts on the topic and teach you something new.
I won’t pull a late night TV host and pretend I’ve finished the new book, and you’re not here for a book review anyways, but I’ll share my initial thoughts. Status and Culture: How Our Desire for Social Rank Creates Taste, Identity, Art, Fashion, and Constant Change (links to order are here) is pretty astonishing at first blush in its pure ambition. Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style, Marx’s first book, which dove into how Japan identified, upgraded, and reconstituted American Menswear was a revelation as it took on culture at a micro-scale to identify how movements flow unexpectedly.
While traveling with Colin Nagy (co-runner of the magic Substack, Why Is This Interesting who just ran a great "Monday Media Diet” by Marx) in 2019 we hung out with Marx, his old friend. I had read Ametora at Colin’s behest, so was excited to ask him what was next. He said he was working on a book about the signs and signifiers of “cool” and how it evolves over time. I asked for more and he framed the thesis around 1994’s Beck and Thurston Moore convo on MTV’s 120 minutes where Beck sort of stood trial in front of a generation waiting to decide if they’d accept him as their slacker leader (the honor bestowed upon him by the elder statesman of crossover indie rock, Moore), and deliciously succeeded with a melange of references (highbrow, lowbrow, absurdist) that afforded him the right to keep marching onward. I was happy to see the reference made it in the book.
Status and Culture (so far) seeks to identify how culture works writ large. It’s a massive undertaking which I would guess will make this something of a master level handbook and not a trend-based book feels out of vogue in 5 years. In this week’s New York Times review of the book, Kaitlin Philips (who also has a banger MMD on WITI) sort of shames Marx for not being dishier or more Wolfe-ian in his analysis which I suspect was precisely Marx’s point in writing it. Marx is trying to offer a reasoned topography of culture, a democratic field guide to how status works.
The book also comes at an interesting time in culture, where there is considerable anxiety around what’s next and if there will be anything truly new at all. The blur of the era and the rehashing of culture (a Top Gun replicant, which I’m excited to see finally, is the movie of the year) or as the Subtack Dirt calls this moment, “Hot regression summer.” Katie Rothstein says: “These recreated moments are often masked as homage, but it’s pretty clear they’re little more than an attempt to reach for the past in order to escape the cursed present. If we keep going down this road of endlessly recreating iconic things, it follows that we’re both not creating anything new AND actively regressing.”
If every atomic unit of culture (TikTok, Instagram, meme, Tweet) is a vessel of taste, then we’ve become intense readers of the nuance of each moment. The book’s fourth chapter is on “taste” in general which this newsletter/series is about. Herb Sundays (working slogan: “there are no guilty pleasures, only guilty people”) is a study on taste, not necessarily seeking to find the socially accepted Best Taste which usually leads to commonly held ideas, in both academic or“poptimist” zones, both which both feel too surefooted for the current quicksands of culture for me.
People are deliciously anachronistic purveyors of taste, and the more unexpected, the more thrilling. I remember reaching out to meet Robin Carolan, founder of the then-new record label Tri Angle in 2011 whose sludgy and ominous releases would become what was tagged “witch house" by many. I was a big fan of what he was doing and asked him something banal like what he was listening to. Robin preceded to mow me down with a two-paragraph treatise on the greatness of Britney Spears’ 2007 album Blackout. I was sort of spun out by this, expecting something more obvious from the heavily bearded gothic man before me, but was comforted by his sincerity and enthusiasm. It also showed why he was such a good a&r person in that he wasn’t limited by the underground “taste world” (a key term from Marx’s book) circles he traveled in. Sasha Frere-Jones (Herb Sundays 37 ) profiled Robin in The New Yorker in 2013:
His first Tri Angle release, which came out in 2010, when he was twenty-four, was “Let Me Shine for You,” by multiple artists, a tribute to Lindsay Lohan and to the scrutiny that female celebrities face. “I kind of thought if you could actually be inside Lindsay Lohan’s head, that’s probably a really terrifying space to be in,” he said. “So I thought maybe I could get some guys to remake her songs as if they’re actually in her head.”
Robin’s instincts on pop, celebrity, and empathy were dead on of course. This ripple would find its way into what came next between Yeezus, PC Music, and Hyperpop, or distillation and celebration of the manufactured landscape as a new spiritual lane, a merge between underground and pop, electronic and hip-hop. The cues would no longer be about flaneurism, false modesty, or a Gen X version of signaling (i.e. Beck v. Thurston) but a new, queerer veneer of pop, as emblemized by artists like the late Sophie whose contributions to music are still coming into view. Robin is still infecting the mainstream recently co-composing the score, for Robert Eggers’s 2022 film 'The Northman'.
My interaction with Carolan was a moment where I could faintly detect the culture changing right before me (ahem, see: Sean Monahan’s ‘vibe shift’) which I did’t have the language for yet. So Marx’s Grand Mystery of Culture aims to be a handbook to how things move or at least moved in pre-internet terms to brace us as a guidepost to what may come next. It’s a bold move from a young-ish writer and I was super happy he agreed to do a playlist. In true Herb Sundays fashion, Marx pulls from the thread of very different musical worlds and makes them bedfellows. What a time to be alive. Take it away WDM:
“In America during the early 1990s, rock and electronic music were antithetical genres, which may explain why my introduction to dance music came through Atari Teenage Riot, a band that used jungle breaks, distorted gabba kicks, and loopy sampling to attempt an even louder form of hardcore punk.
The eventual melding of rock and electronic music over the last two decades has not just been liberating but enables us to listen to past rock songs differently. I don’t just mean better appreciation for bands using their standard guitars and drums to make machine-warped electronic sounds. I also think we can better appreciate rock songs that used dance-like looped repetition rather than conventional verse-chorus-verses.
This particular mix pulls from a wide range of bands and genres, most of which wouldn’t have blended together at the time of their release. (I’m doubtful many people in the 1970s loved both Yes and Wire). Listening today, however, the resemblance in the timbres and the looping structures creates a seamless flow.”