Hootie and the Blowfish and the End of History
On Twitter this week, it seemed everyone was sharing communiqués from GPT-3, the A.I. chatbot that can answer just about any question with extraordinary facility, as long as you don’t mind answers whose political assumptions are safely conditioned by a conventional libertarian-inflected liberalism.
Proving that human minds still have some modest edge over our near-future robot overlords, I spent more time thinking about a distinctive human-to-human exchange than any of the GPT-3 answers flooding my timeline:
Before my thoughts started turning over the political questions, there was the simple shock of recognition. I wasn’t a true Dave Matthews fanboy or anything like that, but as a white male child of the 1990s, I necessarily listened to three of these bands a lot (Blues Traveler probably less so) in my formative late teenage and early college years. And Bernstein’s right that it’s hard to formulate exactly what made them so distinctive or explain what happened to their vibe.
Maybe you could say something similar about the Lilith Fair era of female vocalists, a roughly contemporaneous analog. But I think the female vocalist vibe is slightly easier to distill than whatever exactly is going on in “August and Everything After” or “Cracked Rear View.” If I described Natalie Merchant of the “Ophelia” and “Motherland” era (two really good albums, incidentally) as doing mystical feminist folk singing, that would be reductive, certainly, but it would tell you something about her content. Whereas an equivalent-sounding descriptor like “mellow dudebro rock” tells you the “who” — who sings it, who likes it — but slightly less about the music’s “what.”
So is David Grossman’s formulation correct? Is Hootie the soundtrack of the uncomplicated phase of Francis Fukuyama’s end of history, the peak of liberal confidence and American power and post-ideological relaxation?
I’m not so sure, since I’m not sure there’s zero tension or spiritual disquiet in those kinds of songs. Shouldn’t a pure “it’s the end of ideological conflict, and I feel fine” work of art be a little bit less angsty, a little sunnier than Darius Rucker singing, “Let her cry, if the tears fall down like rain/Let her sing, if it eases all her pain”? Or Adam Duritz crooning mournfully, “It’s raining in Baltimore, baby/But everything else is the same”? If we’re being technical, isn’t the theme song from “Friends” — arguably the most Fukuyama-core work of popular art ever — or something from the boy-band and early Britney Spears era closer to the true music of the post-Cold War age?
Still, when I look back on this music, there’s something about Grossman’s analysis that rings true. It’s not joy at the end of history, exactly, that defines the Hootie-DMB-Counting Crows aesthetic, but maybe it’s what you might call a sense that ordinary life suffices (a key stabilizing sentiment for a liberal society). That you can have a rich human experience, full of joys and sorrows, without the extreme premodern or 20th-century stuff, war and God and utopia and all the rest. (And without racial division, too: The multiracial makeup of the Dave Matthews Band and Hootie and the Blowfish is also important here.) That you can be a fulfilled human person just through the highs and lows of normal-seeming suburban American life. That tropes of early-adult male heterosexual experience like “the yearning to be famous” or “the awesome girl who lets you down” or just “hanging out with your friends and feeling a little sorry for yourself” are all sufficient as grist for the strong feelings that make up an interesting life. And that when those feelings get you down, you can be depressed in a way that’s personal rather than existential, that’s just about you rather than about everything that’s wrong with life under late capitalism or whatever.
In which case, the subsequent negative shift in American culture shouldn’t be understood simply as a shift from joy to angst, happiness to unhappiness — though that’s clearly there, in song lyrics especially. It’s been a shift away from the sense that the average American life in both its joys and its sorrows supplies enough meaning to be worth embracing and celebrating. In its place is a sense that American normalcy in any form — whether that normal means capitalism or liberalism or secularism or heterosexuality or whiteness or something else — is inadequate or destructive or foredoomed and that even in their sorrows, the singers of the 1990s weren’t awake to just how bleak things really are.
Having stretched a bit to vindicate a link between Hootie and the end of history, let’s retreat to safer ground and close with a question better suited to my cultural interests: Namely, which 1990s movies count as Fukuyama-core? Not, interestingly, the best movies of the best late-modern year in movies, 1999. As I wrote in a column a few years ago, that year’s offerings actually anticipated all our present discontents:
The very best films of the ’90s, then, weren’t end-of-history films. Which movies were? The Clinton-era spate of teen romances and sex comedies, definitely — from “Clueless” to “Can’t Hardly Wait” to “American Pie” — pure celebrations of affluent suburban folkways, with carnality and romantic sweetness walking hand in hand. “Forrest Gump,” arguably — maybe a little bit too right wing but basically a celebration of steering your way blithely through ideological storms and coming out rich and blessed on the other side. “Good Will Hunting,” maybe — blue-collar genius starts out as a jaded semi-radical but goes through therapy and ultimately ditches class warfare and joins the meritocracy, albeit on his own distinctive terms, with his (future Trump-voting) best friend’s blessing. “Austin Powers,” definitely — a romp through a post-Cold War world in which the revolutions of the past have yielded an ideal synthesis, freedom and responsibility, a very groovy combination.
And finally, the most Fukuyama-core, 1990s movie of them all: “You’ve Got Mail,” in which anonymous online romance, rapacious corporate capitalism and a fast-gentrifying New York City provide the terrain for an old-fashioned meet-cute romance and cozy domestic bliss. Yes, the movie contains a self-critique, a Cassandra figure — Greg Kinnear’s Luddite boyfriend, railing against the techno-future. But Meg Ryan’s character ends up with Tom Hanks’s corporate capitalist, not Kinnear’s internet alarmist, and the spirit of her quirky old-fashioned bookstore is presented as living on inside the Hanks character’s Barnes & Noble-like behemoth, in a children’s department run by her former employee.
As a distillation of the hopeful aspects of the end of history — the best of the eccentric past lovingly preserved inside the consumerism of the present — it’s hard to beat that sequence, all packaged in a movie that remains one of the best examples of the silver age of romantic comedy. Freedom and responsibility, consumer capitalism and eccentricity, internet dating and real courtship … what a time it was.
Never such innocence again.
Wesley Morris on the twilight of the movie star.
Graeme Wood on Cormac McCarthy’s double feature.
Merve Emre against Roald Dahl.
Matthew Rose on Leo Strauss.
The secret lives of unwoke archaeologists.
The case against the case against Santa Claus.
This Week in Anti-Decadence
“Within a decade, ordinary people will have more capabilities than a C.I.A. agent does today. You’ll be able to listen in on a conversation in an apartment across the street using the sound vibrations off a chip bag. You’ll be able to replace your face and voice with those of someone else in real time, allowing anyone to socially engineer their way into anything. Bots will slide into your DMs and have long, engaging conversations with you until they sense the best moment to send their phishing links. Games like chess and poker will have to be played naked and in the presence of (currently illegal) RF signal blockers to guarantee no one’s cheating. Relationships will fall apart when the A.I. lets you know, via microexpressions, that he didn’t really mean it when he said he loved you. Copyright will be as obsolete as sodomy law, as thousands of new Taylor Swift albums come into being with a single click. Public comments on new regulations will overflow with millions of cogent and entirely unique submissions that the regulator must, by law, individually read and respond to. Death by kamikaze drone will surpass mass shootings as the best way to enact a lurid revenge. The courts, meanwhile, will be flooded with lawsuits because who needs to pay attorney fees when your phone can file an airtight motion for you?
The resulting miasma will be enough to make the stablest genius feel schizophrenic. All the while, your Vanguard ETF will be skyrocketing, while those prescient enough to capitalize on the moment will be filthy rich, living and working in settings designed to do what our government can’t.”
— Samuel Hammond, “Before the Flood: Ruminations on the Future of A.I.” (Dec. 6)
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Next Wednesday, Dec. 14, at 6:30 p.m., I’ll be moderating a panel at the Catholic University of America on the timely subject Catholicism and Nationalism: Are They Compatible? The event is free and open to the public. You can register here.