On Drake as the Dorian Gray of our times

I’ve never felt any special affinity for the bad-boy hedonism of the hair-metal era, but there’s at least one thing I can say for those guys: They had a certain commitment. You never wondered how they felt about partying, getting messed up, getting laid. They were clearly for it. They were dedicated to it with the same unquestioning, unrelenting vigor others point toward god or country…

Most everything these enthusiastic cartoons have had to say, then and since, about reckless alcoholism, drug abuse, and compulsive systematic banging of every last possible groupie comes in the form of giddy, giggly locker-room stories. They’re idealists, some of the last true believers in a weird idea that had floated around for decades: that rock music could be used to escape all the moral and hygienic values of the working and middle classes– self-restraint, work ethic, humility, sexual decency– and live happily among baser pleasures.

…You can trace something similar through hip-hop and R&B. I never felt any special affinity for the really glittery, wealth-and-consumption obsessed end of mainstream hip-hop in the later 90s, either, but it tended to have the same sense of commitment, to an idea that feels much easier to swallow: that rap and capitalism had been used to escape the constraints of poverty, and live happily among all the comforts of material excess and economic power. For nearly two decades now, the colorful party-hard decadence mid-American kids used to want from L.A. rockers has been the colorful party-hard decadence they want from, say, Southern rappers. (You can almost imagine a stripper pole, somewhere around the Continental Divide, being cut into batons and symbolically passed between genres.) And as of 2012, we’ve even spent a few years clocking the emergence of something that works a lot more like an Ellis novel, music wherein a lifestyle of glamor and excess provokes sullenness, emptiness, loneliness, anhedonia, and spiritual/moral crises in everyone who gets a taste of them. If there’s anything that’s going to keep the Weeknd‘s name floating through music discussions far into the future, it’s the way that act has served as perfect shorthand for the same qualities you can see bits of in the worlds of Drake, or Kanye West, or Kid Cudi— or Lana Del Rey, orTwin Shadow, or scattered far and wide across the pop landscape.

It’s usually men, and it’s usually a performance of a kind of masculinity– the “deep,” dangerous, damaged guy who, in the right moment, comes off a little more intriguing and romantic than his cheerful hearty counterparts. You know the dimensions and signatures of this world already, don’t you? Life is easy, but life is hard. There are drugs everywhere– synthetic, medical, prescription-grade– and songs tell stories by cataloging exactly how much of them the speaker’s had, from moment to moment, usually somewhere in the vicinity of too much, too many, plus too much liquor, to the point of hallucinatory overload and frayed, chaotic emotions, as if those are the moments when life becomes real and worth dramatizing. The drugs aren’t described as much fun, not as something that creates new and exciting sensations– they’re things that numb sensation, often taken in a glassy-eyed and faintly pleasureless routine. A wide streak of anhedonia surrounds everything. Nothing’s exactly pleasurable. Sex is like the drugs, glamorous, dangerous, annoyingly empty, and transactional in a way that, implausibly, is somehow emotionally worse for the speaker than the women being spoken of. (Often the women turn out to be mercenary about it themselves, which offends some hidden idealism the singer suddenly develops.) The past is nostalgic, the site of some kind of purity that makes the present seem only more turbulent. The speaker’s devilish, cynical, and rapacious; he’s frozen and suffering. He’s dissolute. He’s like Dorian Gray writing songs about the portrait of Dorian Gray.

–Nitsuh Abebe, “Uncomfortably Numb: Eighties-style druggy hedonism and the songwriting vision of Frank Ocean,” (bolding mine)

The rest of the column includes a lot of (wonderful) Frank Ocean love, but I was taken by the description of ‘this sort of pulp-thriller take on the sad glamour and anhedonic emptiness of the high life’ in pop music lately. Why have these themes (re-) emerged and why does it have resonance with us?

I know very few people who are rich enough to truly enjoy a ‘high’ life, but really, there seems to be something in this glassy-eyed music that reflects contemporary pining. Is it our frustration with the synthetic when what we are yearning for is the authentic?

If so, there is nothing that embodies that more than emotionally laden yet flat lyrics atop autotuning and dubstep.

(hat tip to the everlovely Seth Grass, who in forwarding me this article, has introduced me to my new intellectual crush & writing inspiration, Nitsuh Abebe.

Nitsuh, you had me at the quote under your ‘about me’ on your tumblr:

“it might be too ‘high level’ for me, like writing that belongs in a book or magazine — not on the internet.”

I want that in my obituary.)

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