Youth Culture I: Desire

What was traditional about traditional Western culture, and is it gone forever? Within the framework of this depressing question, I’ll be defending two narrower theses:

  • Youth culture is the culture of the motherless
  • Pop culture is the eclipse of meaning by triviality

My thoughts about youth culture emerged while planning the essay on marriage, For some people the problem marriage poses is about conflict resolution and for others, about romance, but for a community, marriage is an intergenerational agency problem. If you don’t know what an agency problem is, let me put it this way: marital institutions are about how parents control their children and how children react to influence their parents and preserve their autonomy. (And in turn communities control how parents control their children, as well as how the parents react to influence the community — but I think you get the idea.)

The upshot is that it is hard to think about marriage without thinking about the broader question of how parents come to have any control over their brats at all. The title of that series is Marriage, not Who She Baby Daddy Be. In the long run, if the ability of families to influence their children declines to nil we will continue to have “marital institutions” only in the very loose sense that insane asylums are said to be “mental institutions”. In the traditional sense, institutions embody a collection of roles, expectations, and relations; but progressivism normalizes the abnormal situation where an institution only manages deviants (deviants who refuse to recognize any obligation to play roles or meet expectations) and the chaos they create.

Pop Culture and Desire

Last week EvoX asked why musicians rank with actors (charismatic!) and athletes (fit!) as targets of “excessive female interest” — notably, romantic interest. Beware reverse causation: music executives groom (in all senses of the word) proto-stars who seem to have the natural charisma and physique to inspire lust, setting the stage for a massively profitable test-tube-perfect pop-music sensation.

(Have you noticed that everyone has started to refer to these celebrities as “performers” or — better yet — “artists”, rather than singers, guitarists, or (generic) musicians? The rebranding is appropriate: pop stars give dramatic and athletic performances for their adoring fans, the sound team pipes in some muzak over the spectacle, and everyone is happy.)

But! The phenomenon EvoX mentions is real and predates the convergence of the different modes of mass-media celebrity by millennia. So what explains the mystery — what trait are musicians’ admirers chasing after, that put a love of music under selection in our ancestral environment? The comments to the post did a pretty good job kicking around different hypotheses:

[Among] people in the normal intelligence range, say from about the bottom 25% to the top 75%, I bet musical ability, broadly speaking, correlates decently well with intelligence–smarter people can probably memorize more songs, are better at performing them, can come up with their own songs, etc.

More than that – if you hypothesize that good health, facial symmetry, general intelligence, reflex-arc speed, and physical fitness covary around an underlying factor that corresponds to something like “lack of deleterious mutations”, then musical ability is a very good match for the desirable factor: you need intelligence (to process the acoustic waves, and react/improvise/compose appropriately), stamina (to dance/play/practice) and reflexes in almost equal proportion.

Any one of those traits is subject to decreasing returns to scale. Athleticism is sexy, but is running for three hours 50% sexier than running for two? In large part, these traits are attractive not because they are so valuable for organisms in themselves, but because they are correlated to so many other valuable traits. Any particular correlate, however, may be a misleading guide to the “underlying factor,” especially if it is an outlier; worse, if sexual competition puts the trait under pressure it can quickly develop in directions that are not only unrelated to the whole complex of valuable traits, but are actually harmful in themselves.

This would explain how an apparently frivolous ability which depends on many different intercorrelated traits could be more attractive as a sign of genetic fitness than any one trait (or any one of the many useful abilities that depend on only one of the traits). And if musical talent confirms the apparent absence of any underlying deleterious mutations, that would be consistent with how it interacts with other traits. Musical virtuosity can make very “average” (normal-but-not-gorgeous) women enchanting but abnormal appearance ruins the effect, and I assume it’s roughly similar for how women perceive musical men.

We could stop here, and treat the mystery as resolved: for an organism looking for a fit mate, a little riff on the guitar could well be more informative than intelligence, size, or any of the other traits that could individually be subject to runaway selection and lose their correlation to the underlying good health of the mate. But I suggest we go further and layer two more considerations on top of the first:

  1. Why do girls fall for serial killers? Obviously there is some kind of feminine heuristic which uses celebrity (specifically: widespread recognition of face and name) as an index of power/status. This is a decent heuristic in small nomadic bands, and works surprisingly well even in our societies but falls apart at one end (see: serial killers).
  2. As EvoX observes, music makes a great shibboleth. It’s perfectly predictable that hominids would become highly attuned to differences in musical style and taste for the purposes of assigning political loyalties and other social meanings, just as we become highly attuned to accents. Seeking groups that are similar to you also serves what Darwinian Reactionary calls a stabilizing function; e.g. you need to be speaking the same language to know if he just said “Let’s go to the movies”, and you need to listen to the same music to know whether he’s playing a really sad song, or they all sound like that.

When you dissolve local communities, authority figures, local leaders and other luminaries fade into obscurity — leaving entertainers, the only celebrities left standing, to shine into the void.

When you stigmatize traditional identities, attempts to identify people of similar ethnê, class, education, language, and religion become low-status (and soon: impossible, as the members of each group lose the ability to find each other), so musical taste is one of the few remaining cultural kinds still permitted, and thus one of the few “stabilizing functions” people can rely on.

These two processes play off each other: as musical genres become increasingly salient cultural kinds, musical entertainment and musical subcultures become more important to making friends and bonding with them. This provides practical functions for musical talent, which in turn makes musical talent an entrée to rising status in a growing scene. This status and its perks draw ambitious young men into musical hobbies and, ultimately, into the music world, further solidifying the relevance of celebrity entertainers at the expense of all others and the significance of pop culture at the expense of all other identities.

(Tune in on Tuesday for youth culture and socialization.)

4 thoughts on “Youth Culture I: Desire

  1. I think you’ve pretty much covered everything and hit all the notes. 🙂
    Of course, on some level, are we perhaps over-thinking things? Music is pleasant; it stirs the emotions and uplifts the soul. Do we need more than that?

    But is it just me, or is music disappearing? (What is the correct word for fading from hearing?) It seems like there is much less music these days, and not just because people decided to download it via Napster instead of buy CDs at the store. Are young people these days just less into music? Or have the distribution channels broken down? Do people argue about social justice on Twitter instead of going to clubs where they’d listen to music and meet people? And is this, in turn, driving down marriage rates?


    1. Lots of things are pleasant, but determining why they are pleasant can be challenging. And furthermore, not all pleasant things are romantically desirable! I have a favorite ice cream shop, but I don’t think the girls who scoop it are cute (not simply in virtue of their ice-cream scooping, anyway). There are few things so pleasant as sleeping on freshly-ironed sheets, but who (other than Arnold Schwarzenegger) falls for the cleaning staff?

      As for young folks, I think they’re still very much into music, if my baby brother and his friends are any indication. We just don’t hear it as much because they all have headphones… Your ability to evaluate how much new music is being released will have a lot more to do with your social interactions than the actual output.

      A quick google found the # 40,000 singles/yr in 2000, 100k/yr in 2014: per _The Evolution and Equilibrium of Copyright in the Digital Age_. Even if those exact numbers are inaccurate the question is far more about the “distribution channels” (i.e., why don’t you hear the same music my brother does?) than total amount produced.


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