I Wanna Be a Poseur

I saw my first Dead show in 1985 — at SPAC, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. Hot summer night; a sprawling, grassy, tree lined field. Dropped off by a friend's father; his family had a summer house nearby where we'd spend the night. We'd driven up from our small, posh town on the Hudson River, about 20 miles north of Manhattan. The show was an incredible experience, this undulating party of dancing, pajama clad bearded men and women. Everything from the music to the clothes at a Dead show was always so soft, so cozy, even if not terribly clean. Everyone so very happy and so very high.

The shows were not just concerts. They were experiences. And this is important. A concert keeps everyone in the same position, eyes on the stage, the audience in the dark. It's a one-to-many relationship. But a Dead show was an experience. Sure, we were listening to the music. But there is an experience at Dead shows that exceeds the music; the band is the world's greatest bar band. People followed the Dead around for months at a time; sometimes, years. It was a moving community that would let you peruse the grounds before moving on.

Me, I'd see the Dead, I don't know, another 20 or 25 times over the next six years. But only when they were playing nearby. I had friends who'd haul up to Foxboro or down to DC. Not me. I saw them at the Garden, the Meadowlands (inside and out), the Vet in Philly.

I knew I was a tourist. While I had a certain affection for the crowd, I never felt like I belonged to the  Dead community. Nor did I want to. I wasn't hardcore. I didn't want to sleep in a tent every night in a parking lot and eat tuna out of a can and smell sweaty dudes' dreadlocks. I didn't want the promise of free love (which is an oxymoron, I know now). I loved my girlfriend and fucking her was plenty, was perfect, was all this skinny hebe needed — and all he'd ever need, frankly.

I don't want to paint a picture of long haired hippy bullies giving me a hard time. Shows were a very loving experience. I remember my last show, at JFK in Philly, summer of 1989. I went without tickets and without drugs and with my mad crush on my arm. Within minutes, we'd scored both and within an hour were experiencing great profundity. Usually, I hang back in crowds; I'd sit in the seats towards the back. This time, I was down on the floor amidst the waves of flesh. It was hot. I was in shorts — and I never, ever, wear shorts. During the half-time – Dead shows had long intermissions, these  brightly lit deranged experiences — I was sitting on a blanket on the ground with this ridiculously emphatic smile on my face. As zaftig tie dyed women passed m going here or there, they'd all spontaneously pat me on the head.

I had no problem with being called — or being — a poseur. I would have nothing wrong with aspiring to live a life I idealized, a more robust life, an extreme life (even if I didn't actually want that life). Sure, posing may be a sin but it's also a sign of desire.

I know other scenes have their issues of authenticity. I think of punk and gangster rap. It's always been a refrain in the popularized rap world: He's not real gangster. He grew up in Connecticut.

The notion of the poseur used to annoy me. Who the fuck are you to tell me I'm real or not?  But now I like it. It raises the stakes of taste. It says: Your taste in music will not save you. Wearing the tie dyed shirt ain't shit. It's how you live your life every day. It's not just how you are at the show; it's how you are, how you go, everywhere.  

I was in the Mission today (the "hip" San Francisco neighborhood) a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon. And the barrio — well, what was once the barrio — was filled with tourists — not from other cities but from other neighborhoods. They'd come to go to the hip cafes and restaurants for brunch (fucking San Franciscans fucking love fucking brunch).  And I realized that, today, all you have to do is buy the cool pants, go to the cool bar, and you're in! There is nothing more at stake. The Mission used to be the home of gangs and people without square jobs, people who wrote shitty graphic novels and choreographed exquisite dances. Now, everyone works for Google (or Apple or Genentech or...or...or...). 

For white middle class people, there is no way to be a poseur, anymore. What could we possibly pretend to be? A product manager at Google? What do skinny jeans signify? That I work for a software company? That I listen to Beach House? There is no posing anymore; there is no life to aspire to.

In the punk scene, in the Dead scene, there was something more than wearing a ripped coat and safety pins or tie dyes and dreadlocks. There was a fuck you to the square world. Punks squatted and avoided work. They lived on food stamps and transient, bullshit jobs. This may all be facade; the line between real and poseur may be a fantasy, an ideal.  But it's an ideal that is no longer possible, not for white middle classers. What is the lifestyle of so called indie music? What does poseur mean to James Blake (who I love, by the way)? What is the more that Coachella demands of people?

There's nothing to pretend to be. Lifestyle, rather than being the style with which you lead your life, has come to mean the style of clothes you wear, the style of restaurants you go to. Hep  — yes, the word is hep — youth culture has become pure trappings: it's duds and nothing but.

Yes, the concept of the poseur is bullshit. After all, what is a real lifestyle? Who gets to decide? Does the fact that you were born with money exclude you from this or that authenticity?

And yet the fact that poseur is a critique that can be levied declares that there is something more at stake than what you wear. And, today, there is no more; there is nothing greater at stake, no alternate life to lead. Today, I'd love to be be a poseur as it would give me something more — something outside the square world — to strive for. 


Jim H. said...

Today's youth's authenticity is the opposite of the authenticity you depict from the era of your Dead youth. It is all about being ironic.

My older boy teases my younger boy that he only listens to music in the basement because then he can be underground—but in an ironic way. They laugh and laugh. 'Cause the comment itself is itself ironic.

Authenticity itself is a conservative cultural value. One thinks of Hitler's Volk.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Of course authenticity is creepy. Which is why I found it interesting that I was nostalgic for it — or, better, for the poseur.

Because it's less about authenticity per se than being thorough: living the life. And that I love.

Alas, there is no "alternative" life style, anymore. Just as your boys know, underground just means being in the basement. We have no public avant-garde like Any Warhol or William Burroughs. Our art stars are big money makers. Our literary stars could not be more bourgeois (ie, J Franzen).

The Spectacle has usurped every way of being that is anti or non-commodified. They give us the look of independence; they give us DIY and "indie" music and big music festivals. But it's all in the name of commodity. There is no fuck you lurking anywhere.

Jim H. said...

Some of the outre artists of our day use spray paint and templates on bridge abutments and abandoned public spaces. Or at least they used to before Banksy went commercial, etc. His and his ilk's self-promotion is beginning to sound like Warhol's.

I wonder if a Burroughs could get a first novel past the agent gate-keepers of the publishing industry.

Authenticity now mostly refers to the immigrant experience: whether to assimilate or stay true. We, you and I, are part of our culture in all its commodificated Spectacle. If we don't participate in it, 15 minutes at a time, we aren't real.

Unknown said...

Poseurdom and authenticity are still very much a thing in the metal scene. Metal is also perhaps the most white middle class genre of music. Black metal and death metal fans especially have a sense of an authentic metal lifestyle. This isn't to say the fans are mean or even catty; metal concerts are perhaps the safest concerts I've ever been to. (Once I sneezed at a metal show and three huge, intimidating metalheads turned around and said "bless you").

I exist on the periphery of this; I enjoy metal but no more than any other genre. Perhaps I'm a poseur. However, I do have a sense of how to not be a poser:
1. Only wear shirts of bands you listen to. Metalheads start conversations based on what band shirt someone's wearing. If you don't know anything about the band on your shirt and someone starts talking to you, you'll look like a poser.
2. Having a general knowledge of the history. Especially in black metal. It's essential to know band politics and who killed who etc.
3. Battle Jackets. These are leather or jean jackets that fans sew as many band patches as they can on to. One could theoretically buy a battle jacket, but, like shirts, patches are a conversation starter so someone wearing a patch of a band they don't listen to is a poser and will get found out.
4. Keeping up to date on albums and having opinions about them. Metal is the new music of the philosophy student. There's even a niche academic field called Black Metal Theory.
5. If you listen to Nu Metal (Korn, Slipknot etc) you will be called a poser by fans of every other metal genre. For some reason metalheads just hate Nu Metal.

I'm not sure if you'll find any of this interesting, and I'm not sure how much metal represents an alternative lifestyle. Of course there are huge metal acts who sell out stadiums with tickets that cost $50+–Slayer, Megadeth, Metallica–, and black metal was biggest in the 90s, or so I've heard. But being metal is not just dressing metal; it's a knowledge and a way of life. There's an ideal: listen and think about as many albums as you can, go to all the shows you can, grow your hair out long (that's a commitment; I've tried) and that ideal is, in a sense, unattainable. But there is a clear line between sincerely trying to reach it and being a poser. I'm just not sure what significance the metal scene has today.

PFF said...

I really dug this post. I've had insecurities in the past and admittedly still today of being somewhat of a poseur. But you know what, i don't really care that much anymore. I feel like as I grow older and older i care less and less. It's a really new feeling but one i welcome with open arms.

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Taylor: Note that everything about being "real" metal is based on commodity — jackets, patches, shirts, music. Is there an ethos that exceeds the music? If you're "real" metal, do you have a square job? Do you live a square life?

@Yalei: Wise words, indeed. The critique of "poseur" is, of course, born of the accusers' insecurity.

dustygravel said...

I have a theory: with the disappearance of authenticity, in its correspondence of art and life, we have entered an age of infinite regress. We call this regression, hipster. To be Hip is not a bad thing, but without a claim to excellence, the system of counter cultural authenticity begins to die. The terms of its foundation become the terms of its destruction, and the terms of its endearment become terms of derision. Hens, today to be called a hipster, is nothing short of anathema! Even to utter this word is totally humiliating.
In the 50's a hipster was the vanguard of civilization, the fore runner of race integration and explorer of a brave new world, or so tell the great beats Ginsberg and Kerouac, but today we wonder dead end roads to wall street, and have obscene odes projected onto the "blank" screen of our skull. (thanx Zyzek)
Our pamphlets come whit an endorsement and a dotted line, and an e-mail prescription to someone else's cause, and of curse a minimum wage (G-d bless om).
I'll show you how to regain this lost "poster," and awaken the sleeping giant of old, with 2 simple questions.
What is your art? What is your life?
I am the underground, now and forever!

Daniel Coffeen said...

Dusty! This is beautiful.

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