Last week, my old friend Lindsey emailed me to tell me that the home of my first writing gig ever—a short-lived run as A&E editor for the University of Utah’s student newspaper, The Daily Utah Chronicle, which also indirectly ended my college career—was in trouble. They have a deficit that’s going nowhere, and its fate is being dictated by the university’s nebulous and generally evil Student Media Council, in a “shark-tank style meeting” [sic] to come up with a solution in the form of a “student media revolution,” as lead by some guy named Ryan Bennett. They were reaching out to alumni for letters of support.
I don’t think they should be at that meeting. I didn’t write a letter of support. I wrote Lindsey back with the following:
————— Forwarded message ————— From: Foster Kamer Date: Tue, Feb 11, 2014 at 2:44 PM Subject: Re: Student Media Revolution
You got more than you bargained for.
I’m not writing a letter of support. I’m going to give you a relatively minced explanation of why the Chrony’s position is wrong, and I’ll let you decide whether or not to forward it on to them. I loved my time at the Chronicle. I don’t know how much it had to do with my current career, if at all, but I know some wonderful people for whom it did. And I write this letter out of love, and out of trying to contribute to something better for them and for those to come.
First, let’s run over the problems at hand:
Problem 1. Print is a luxury product in 2014. It’s an unnecessary luxury to have tangible evidence of one’s work to hold and spill coffee on, and it’s also a slow, costly, and environmentally unsound medium given the alternatives. If Chrony writers are so fickle as to operate under the idea that having their work on dead trees adds value to it, they need better work done.
Problem 2. The media council and the publishing side are big if not the biggest failures in all of this. The publishing side was resisting selling banner ads on the site and giving them away in off-the-books ticket trades since when I was there less than a decade ago. I can’t imagine it got all that much better. Of all the things about the Chronicle that are retrograde, its ad units are probably the worst. In any kind of ostensibly progressive, educational environment, the business side would employ someone familiar with emerging trends in media sales—instead, they’ve got a banner unit advertising the student union right now on top of the site. If the [student union] is all the business-side can sell for the Chrony, they need to be cleared right the fuck out. It’s essentially their fault The Chrony is in this.
Problem 3. The greatest issue with cutting the Chronicle’s print edition outright isn’t any kind of moral implication or reckoning. The problem is that—because said business-side people have been so patently retrograde, as enabled by the media council—they’ve always sold advertisers on the fact that students will pick up the paper before class and read it, thus being exposed to their ads. This might’ve been true, like, ten years ago, when the only things on our cell phones to distract us was Snake. Today, students have little incentive to pick up the paper if they have a smartphone, because there’s a ton of other shit vying for their attention. If the council cuts the print edition outright, they will lose their sole source of revenue that’s still ostensibly decent to them. This is likely the foundation of their thinking that the entire thing needs to be rethought: Because these idiots have sat on their hands for over a decade as the tide’s long loomed over them. Granted, this change affected the largest and the most supposedly important media institutions in the world (who have either adapted, died, or are still trying to adapt while dying), but if an institution of learning is supposed to be as progressive as it’s positioned to be, it should’ve been nimble enough to affect change on its own level.
Problem 4. This is where the arrogance and comfort of writing types comes into the greater picture of culpability for the Chrony’s current condition: At no point has anyone at the Chronicle sitting on the left side of the office ever concerned themselves with the Chronicle turning a buck. Ever. I certainly didn’t. And mostly because that kind of thing has always been thought to be beneath noble writerly types. It’s not. The money’s gotta come from somewhere. Understanding what hand is feeding you will, at the very least, give you the positioning/leverage to occasionally bite it, which right now, the Chronicle has none of. This, from the email you sent on?
My protests that The Chrony isn’t about turning a “profit” (the word that multiple council members kept using) but about an educational experience for students and for serving as an independent monitor of power for the U went unheard.
This is the absolute dumbest motherfucking thing I’ve read about the crossroads of higher-education and media in a while. It bears repeating, because it will come in handy later: The staff of the Chronicle has zero leverage in this conversation. And no small or even medium amount of shaming or protesting ideals will change that.
Ask yourself, not rhetorically:
- What kind of educational experience is the Chronicle supposed to be if it shields staff members from the realities of the media business? I genuinely think—and I’m not joking, at all—that there is no more educational experience one could get out of the Chronicle than the one they’re getting throughout this crisis. At the very least, it will dose everyone with the practical realities of the experience they say they want an education in. But at best, it will inspire them to begin to tackle these issues.
- Under what obligation, incentive, hard contract, or even abstract ethical contract is the U under to provide an independent monitor? Don’t other institutions that could act as independent monitors of the U (the Trib, the CityNews, and so on) already exist? Doesn’t the U already answer to higher powers that hold it accountable?
- Most critically: What’s to be done? The adage that the greatest revenge is living quietly and well is generally true. But when dealing with the Ryan Bennetts of the world, the greatest and most effective revenge is stripping them of their power, and then, as a bonus, exposing him for the absolutely ignorant ho that he is.
There are ways to create leverage—a hunger strike? A sit-in? Daily, front-page, borderline-torturous tabloid-style coverage of each member of the media council, exposing them for the snakes they are?—but (A) given what I’ve already read, I don’t think the current staff has the grit to commit to that kind of thing, and (B) they shouldn’t commit to that kind of thing, because the Chronicle ain’t worth saving. Why not?
- The Chronicle is inextricably tied to the very institution it’s supposedly checking the power of [and those reins are easily tightened]. No matter how much they may affect change, how powerful does that ultimately make it?
- Nobody reads the thing. Sorry, but it’s true. It always has been. And while it may break news that could affect a larger news cycle, the old model of the Chrony supporting itself off an ideal (it needs to exist because it needs to exist) or being the only competition in town for attention before or after class, or on Trax or a bus, or via the stories that garner attention from external sources, it’s just not enough.
- At the end of the day, Chrony alum in 2014 depending on this current model will be done more harm than good by operating under its reality distortion field, not just because they’ll be ill-prepared for what’s outside of it, but the quality of the thing they’re trying to do will always be inherently hampered by the cushioning of something existing without having to fight for its existence.
So, we’ve reached the portion of this email when I’ve basically shattered the hopes and dreams of the Chronicle, not to mention your own of getting a somewhat uplifting and inspiring email from me.
But let’s here revisit the point above about Best Practices In Matters of Revenge, and stripping the Ryan Bennetts of the world of their power, and exposing them for the hos that they are. And here, we’ll establish a few more points:
1. The Chronicle has never had any competition.
2. The Chronicle could never be as independent or as nimble as an independent media outlet.
3. Regardless of how you feel about it, entrepreneurial media projects are the new normal.
4. An independent student media outlet sounds like the dumbest fucking thing ever. Especially for those who need to make a living.
5. But it would also reflect the current climate of media exponentially more than the Chrony has over the last ten years, and especially now. Ezra Klein just left the Washington Post to go work for Jim Bankoff. ProPublica is one of the greatest media outlets of our time, and it’s a nonprofit. Andrew Sullivan left both The Atlantic and then Newsweek to run his own operation. Not all independent media outlets will succeed, but at least they’re in exponentially more control of their fates than anyone with their heads and livelihoods so far up the ass of outdated models as to not have breathed fresh air in decades.
6. Independent student media outlets have not just been built, but they’ve succeeded. Wildly. Look at NYU Local: It was created as a digital-only outlet to compete with NYU’s official student newspaper, the Washington Square News. It has beat them at every angle. It is regarded by real people with actual jobs in media as a serious talent farm, which is to say nothing of the fact that it has achieved the near-impossible: A student media outlet that is taken seriously. Its alumni have gone on to work for a number of outlets. There’s a reason for this (theory: Point 5).
7. There is no better way to strip Ryan Bennett of his power than for the staff of the Chronicle to completely capitulate, start their own site, bring on their own business people, and compete for/win the ad dollars of whatever hokey media revolution bullshit his crowdsourced monkey business will come up with. Bennett will then be the guy responsible for the dissolution of student media at the U, and the loss of potential revenue for the university, which they need regardless of whether the Chronicle/student media exists or not, because idiots like him have left a deficit hole that needs to be filled. And the Powers That Be won’t be happy about it. Especially when it starts to create said aforementioned leverage via attention from places they don’t want it, and decrease the pool of students who see a university with student media as a place they want to invest four years of time (and four years of tuition with, as well).
To make this work will take sacrifice. The beginning is ugly. But it’s a hell of a lot better—and likely to be a workable solution for both the educational experience Chrony staffers supposedly want—than letting some guy named Ryan Bennett who wouldn’t know a byline from a conga line determine their fate. After all, revolutions are usually nothing more than coups run by despots-in-waiting. And fuck that noise. To win in this situation requires relinquishing any reliance on a system that put this creep in power in the first place. And I could think of no greater start than for the entire staff of the Chronicle to tell Bennett to stick it.
But it would require hard work, unilateral commitment, and sacrifice, especially where [the current Chronicle editors] are concerned. It’ll require digging into the business of running a media outlet. It might require fundraisers, and alumni outreach, and all the things that suck about being an institution that exists primarily to fulfill ideals (and not profit margins). But it can be done. It can even be profitable. And the results will ultimately benefit those to come more than those who are there, now (but if the ideals the Chronicle’s current leadership say they hold are so true, then that’s a nonissue).
And if they decide to go this route, I’m pledging my support and time to the cause—I’ll even fly out there to help support the cause and lend some ground support for a few days, as well as try to rustle up support from some friends with experience in situations like this who might be down. I’m sure [our Chrony alum friends] would be down, too.
I truly do believe there’s a workable solution within these parameters than whatever the Student Media Council can come up. They’re idiots. And the kids at the Chronicle have always been a cut above the rest of the school. Here’s hoping they get one over on them—in that, they’ve got my wholehearted support.
- - -
Lindsey forwarded the letter onto them, but they decided to go the standard route. A few alum I’ve been in conversation with agree with most of this, but ultimately know it ain’t happening. And again, the Student Media Council meeting doesn’t seem to be going all that well today.
I finished the new single-player DLC for The Last of Us, Left Behind, this morning. It costs $15, clocks in at around three hours, and…is incredible. I reviewed it here, but basically, If you play video games or are curious about the new directions they’re headed, you should really, really, really look into this one.
I wrote this yesterday afternoon and it sat on my phone and I decided not to publish it because whatever but also because I found out Insanul ran something about this last week and it was quite good and I’d rather have his word be the last word on the site, and then Macklemore won way more Grammys than I thought he would because he really is that awful so here.
I don’t hate Macklemore because he’s white. Let’s get that out of the way first: The fact that Macklemore is white isn’t the problem. Macklemore could be brown, mulatto, mauve,* whatever. But Macklemore’s whiteness—which is different from the fact that he’s white, and we’ll get to that later—definitely has something to do with it. And it should probably be cleared up here that when I say I “hate” Macklemore, I don’t mean I hate the guy who plays the character of Macklemore, let alone have a serious, burning hatred of Macklemore in the darkest depths of my soul. From what I can gather, Macklemore The Human Being seems like a patently nice guy. Like, he wouldn’t be a terrible in-law. If your sister dated MTHB, you wouldn’t be too upset, because your sister is more likely to make Macklemore cry than Macklemore is to make your sister cry, and that’s about where you want things.
I hate Macklemore the same way I hate Floyd Mayweather Jr, Ron Paul, or Crossfit: Partly because it’s funny, partly because it whips their most ardent defenders into a frothy psychosis, but mostly because this is a person/institution in a position of cultural power who Most People regularly mistake for being good. And more often than not, they make this mistake because a property of mass culture is that “good” regularly gets conflated with “ubiquitous.”
That’s not to say there aren’t popular things that aren’t great. Harry Potter. The Beatles. Otis Redding. Etc. Popular things are often popular because they’re great, and more often than not, objectively great. Like, Pretty Boy Floyd, who’s an undefeated boxer. People love a victor. I love to hate this victor because he fights a bunch of pussy boxers and cheats in the ring and threatens to punch senile old men like Larry Merchant, but that’s another thing entirely. The point is: I get pleasure out of hating on Pretty Boy Floyd. It’s therapeutic for me because of my own issues with what Floyd means to me. It’s the same way hating on Macklemore is therapeutic, or at least, used to be.
Because now, Macklemore is beginning to do more than just represent bad things, but actually, inhabit them. As I write this, hours before the start of the Grammys, I am pretty convinced that Macklemore will win every award in which he is nominated with other rappers, and that tomorrow, people will be upset about this.
But we shouldn’t be surprised, or even upset that he won whatever Grammys he did. The Grammys are a short-term problem, and at this point, given the totality of morons and idiots that barely distinguish the Grammy voting body from a rigged student council election, not winning a Grammy as a critically acclaimed rapper is almost a mark of accomplishment.
The win-lose record isn’t the problem, though. The problem—the real one, the one that will absolutely happen, and the one that dwarfs whatever awards he will or won’t win—is that people are gonna leave the Grammys telecast knowing more about Macklemore than they will about any ostensible rap artist tonight.
And there are a lot of reasons this sucks, but the main one is really all that matters: People have a certain number of hours in the day to listen to music. After tonight, Macklemore is going to take more of those hours from more people. These are people who could be listening to Kendrick Lamar, or Kanye West, or Nas, or Wale, or any number of rappers whose music is more compelling, less sanitized, more nuanced, and more important than Macklemore’s. These are the people who subconsciously file Macklemore under their cultural consumption’s rap requisite, and push all else away. These are people who think they know Outkast because they know “Hey Ya.”
Do you think it would have taken this long for Outkast to reunite if we didn’t reward them for making an album on which they barely rapped together? Consider, for a moment, another dimension in which Outkast gets Album of the Year for ATLiens or Aquemini or even Stankonia instead of Speakerboxx/The Love Below, and then tell me that’s not the universe you’d rather live in.
Macklemore is the Rap Game Starbucks, the Rap Game Wal-Mart.
Macklemore The Rapper’s rise in popularity comes in a decade when the rest of America had finally decided to wake the fuck up and get on board with the gay marriage train, because not being with it is some medieval mentality shit. And Macklemore’s big single, the one he’s performing at the Grammys, is a song about gay marriage. In 2014. How revolutionary.
This is a great message to be hip to, and to promote. But there’s a difference between promoting a message implicitly through the virtue of being great—see: Frank Ocean—and exploiting a message explicitly through a song that basically screams GAY MARRIAGE IS GREAT.
What Macklemore boosters conveniently forget when they bring up the virtues of “Same Love” is that the best possible world isn’t a world where a straight rapper tells everyone gay marriage is okay. The best possible world is one where nobody hears a love song and feels singled out or left out, where the sexual orientation of the performer or the love song’s message or constructions aren’t even a talking point. Those people already exist (again, see: Frank Ocean), but they’re not crass commercialists who need to exploit that message for brownie points as populism.
Macklemore is the #Kony2012 of pop music.
Macklemore fans think they’re special for promoting this supposedly unique cause in their slice of culture, but the byproduct of their conquest is that they’re ruining the nuance of the landscape, and calling attention to themselves and their leader and their targets instead of systemic problems, and savaging any surrounding issues along the way. It shouldn’t be cool or trendy to be hip to a good cause. It should be pro forma.
And then there’s the issue of Macklemore’s whiteness. Again, not the fact that he is white, but the fact that he’s unapologetic in his whiteness. Macklemore is an act that takes pride in the middlebrow, who wears their distinct unfunkiness on their sleeve, like people who eat at Olive Garden because it’s “ironic.”
Take “Thrift Shop,” for example: The message about not spending tons of disposable income on clothing and instead spending it at a thrift shop is ostensibly a good one. Yet: Macklemore talking about “popping tags” is awful because he sincerely repurposes rap slang in a knowingly lame context. It’s barely one degree shy of a Weird Al parody of a rap song, if that. It’s not that “Thrift Shop” distinguishes itself from a parody of a rap song because it calls itself a rap song, but because Weird Al distinguishes parody from Macklemore’s version of rap, because he knows he’s making parody, and nobody has to cosign him to validate that argument either.
And this is where the Macklemore contagion really begins to get bad. Some of the best rappers of our generation will be destroyed by Macklemore madness, or at least, the memory of them will be. This will vary person-to-person, but all I’ll say for this is that I saw Dead Prez on the Okayplayer tour in 2001, and I was enthralled, and a little terrified, but mostly had a moment of revelation about culture and identity and the singularity of how great rap can change the world.
And then I came to my senses and realized that this is again another instance where it looks on the surface as if Macklemore is doing something that brings another cause or entity—in this case, the greatness of Dead Prez—good will and exposure to the mass of his fans, but ultimately won’t, because Macklemore’s fans aren’t about to pick up Dead Prez records so much as Dead Prez fans are going to have to wonder if they were wrong about Macklemore.
It’s brilliant and canny marketing that comes for free, because if you’re M1, why not take the chance to play the stage at the Garden? And if you’re Macklemore, the credence and attention you can get for this single cosign will go a long way in terms of getting people like me to begrudgingly talk about it, or at the very least, watch in abject horror.
And so much of that abject horror is the sheen with which Macklemore presents his schtick: As an independent entity from the rest of music fighting against everything else that’s popular. Macklemore’s independence is, again, a sales pitch. The idea that he’s speaking to and uniting an alienated group of people is brilliant, because what better way to unite a mass of people in fandom then making them feel like they are special and unique for liking him? Macklemore is the Tea Party of pop music. And (I told you we’d get here eventually) part of this appeal as a rap fulfillment segment is that Macklemore is a nonthreatening rap presence, because Macklemore is white, and plays up that whiteness. Macklemore being white isn’t the problem—Macklemore using his whiteness as if to claim this independent statehood is. Anyone who has any questions about the sincerity with which he takes his mission of independence can please refer to the heavy-handed metaphor that is the genuinely absurd “Can’t Hold Us” video.
Note that you haven’t seen me write that Macklemore is a terrible rapper. As a technician, he’s perfunctory at best and cut-rate at worst. As an artist, well…
Let’s just say that we’ve come a long way from the opening lines of “Mama Said Knock You Out” to the opening lines of “Can’t Hold Us,” which sound like someone who took a faceful of poppers and read out of a rhyming dictionary: Sounds great, means nothing. Macklemore’s penchant for subtlety is best exemplified by the chorus punchline of “Thrift Shop,” which is “This is fucking awesome.” It’s the kind of rap that would make Joe Biden proud.
But again, we return to the Grammys: For those of us who love rap, and love music, is that the kind of rap we’re proud of? Is the the great yield of this moment that rap has to offer for the world that will watch the Grammys tonight?
Again, the winners don’t matter, because The Grammys.
But convincing the people in your life who don’t listen to rap—who don’t understand why Kendrick Lamar’s album is a revelation for rap, let alone that Kendrick’s Lamar’s song about the dangers of alcoholism is so much more substantial than Macklemore’s woe-is-me tale about being a pillhead—is about to get that much more difficult after tonight, Grammy win or no.
And that’s why I hate Macklemore.
[*Someone asked me if I’d reconsider Macklemore if he were black. I told them I’d reconsider him if he were mauve, because that’d be remarkable: a mauve rapper. Also, I was a Childish Gambino booster for a long time before he popped, and his ‘whiteness’ has been the subject of supposedly high-minded critique for a while, which goes without saying that Macklemore is on the new Childish Gambino album, which for me was a surefire indicator that it would suck, which it mostly did.]
I have written many things in this space about n+1, many of which have been rooted in a fundamental antagonism of Sad Young Literary People I feel they are due if only for the feels they have about it being anything but their due, among other beefs.
But they can and sometimes do hit the nail on the head, right through the board.
This is one of those times:
We are all cosmopolitans online, attentive to everything; but the internet is not one big General Assembly, and the controversies planted in establishment newspapers aren’t always the sort of problems that require the patient attention of a working group. Some opinions deserve radical stack (like #solidarityisforwhitewomen), but the glorified publicity stunts that dress up in opinion’s clothes to get viral distribution in the form of “debate” (Open Letters to Miley Cyrus) do not. We ought to be selective about who deserves our good faith. Some people duke it out to solve problems. Others pick fights for the spectacle, knowing we’ll stick around to watch. In the meantime they’ll sell us refreshments, as we loiter on the sideline, waiting to see which troll will out-troll his troll.
So, Richard Siken’s Crush (pictured, bottom-right) is one of those books I’ve purchased multiple times, for me, and for other people. I’ll never forget the first time I read it, which was when I was living in Salt Lake City, in a way too small loft with Eryn: I lived in the kitchen, he lived under a staircase. Despite also being the site of the most miserably depressing period of my life through that point, it was also, prior to that, a decent amount of fun, because we were living out a dumbass dream at 20 and 21 we had as dumbass teenagers at 16 and 17—when we first started writing together—which was to live together in a loft and make a living writing, or at least, paid enough to buy weed and Mocasalsa or B&D Burgers and a lift ticket every now and again (in that order).
One day Eryn comes rushing through the door and I’m already packing a bowl and listening to whatever I was listening to in 2005 way too loud—Ambulance LTD, I think—and probably just thinking about how fucking awful everything was then, and I’d likely just gotten home either from a job at The Gap (woof) or the construction job at convention center, which wasn’t so bad a job as I was bad at it, so as much fun as it was it didn’t necessarily help me with the thing I was going through at the time.
Eryn flies down stairs and snatches the bowl out of my hand and presses the book against my chest so hard he almost knocks the wind out of me, and he says: Just start reading, now. And at that time, I was reading nothing, because when you’re clinically depressed to that extent and self-medicating, you really just don’t give a shit and you’re numb to everything and you make everything about you to a crippling extent, so something like reading can become a futile endeavor, or so it was for me.
But I crack it open begrudgingly anyway to dignify him and just start reading, and for the first time in what felt like forever (it was probably about six months), some words on a page hit me. I didn’t let it go so we went back to the bookstore to buy another copy, and I kept it by my shitty mattress (bordering on a cot) for the rest of my time in the loft.
Eryn was supposed to go to law school after college; both of us more or less, were. I’d already dropped out by that point. Eryn went on to get an MFA, after which, he would go to law school. By the time he got his MFA, the market for lawyers got turned upside down, and while law school was certainly an option, Eryn decided there were equal prospects in investing in, yes, a doctorate in poetry. As someone who was repeatedly told multiple times that dropping out of college was the worst idea I’d ever have, I’m not one to give pause to anyone’s ambitions, but like everyone else, I asked him what the fuck he intended on doing with a doctorate in poetry. He asked me what the fuck he’d do with a law degree (“Be a lawyer?”) and then explained that at the end of the day, at the very least, he’d be a guy who owned three remarkably bad investments that you can still put on a wall with a modicum of self-respect. It was absurd but also the only proper and fair response.
But back to that day: The thing I remember the most about it was when I’m reading out of the book, standing up, Eryn bouncing his leg up and down, sitting on his chair at his desk, looking at the floor, and—this is someone who’s got words for everything, but especially so in college, when he had them in the most painfully, gratingly irritating of ways, as an overeducated young turk is wont to have—looks up and says, without any of his usual elan or flair or flourish:
This is what I need to do.
He didn’t specify but he didn’t have to, because I knew what he meant, and it made my heart swell and broke it a little, because Eryn knew not just what he wanted but what he felt he needed to do at 21 and was dead set on it, and the conviction with which he spoke of it was, for me, the last word in whether or not it’d happen. I didn’t have the slightest goddamn idea what I needed to do the next day, or month, or year, let alone over the next decade, and even I did, I was pretty sure I’d never have the level of conviction Eryn did when I talked about wanting to do it. But I’d begin to get at some of these answers for the first time about a month later, and that book stayed by my side through most of it.
As for Eryn: He won the same award that Richard Siken won in 2004 for Crush last March. He also got engaged last summer, and as of December, is now the father of a beautiful little baby girl. I’m her godfather and soon, his best man. Sometimes, these things actually happen, and while seeing the above brings so much of the terrible, black water of that time rushing back into my head in such a visceral way, it also comes with this euphoric crest at the top of the wave, which is pride and joy for Eryn—who winded me with a tiny book of poetry, and who I’m pretty sure is about to do the same to everyone else—and a little solace in the moderately insane convictions we’re probably going to have more of as it all goes on.