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Vital Cultural Activity Of Our Era Is Not Music But Rather Something I Still Participate In, Says Old Guy

Tyler Cowen via

“Food is the new music” is a good phrase to memorize for when you get too old to really go to a lot of concerts any more, because that shit happens very late at night.


To be honest I would have thought that in our vibrant modern meme-based economy, the “Food is the new music” meme would have already retired into history, supplanted by something more up-to-the-minute, like “Stephen Miller’s high school yearbook is the new Whole Earth Catalog,” or something. We lived the entire promulgation-to-backlash-to-forward-whiplash cultural cycle of the food/ music meme already four entire years ago. Get a new bad idea!

Alas, Tyler Cowen—pop-economist, Bloomberg View columnist, and a man clearly illiterate in the field of online pseudocultural idea-arguments—is now spouting this idea all over again for what I am sure he believes is the first time. Here is what it takes to become a national-level columnist, as a middle-aged man:

Step one: When I was into music, music was relevant.

Since the 1960s and ’70s, food has replaced music’s centrality to American culture. These are invariably somewhat subjective impressions, but I’d like to lay out my sense of how the social impact of music has fallen and the social role of food has risen.

In the earlier era, new albums were eagerly awaited and bought in the hundreds of thousands immediately upon their release. Diversity in the musical world was relatively low, as genres such as rap, heavy metal, techno and ambient either didn’t exist or weren’t well developed. It was also harder to access the music of the more distant past — no Spotify or YouTube — and thus people listened to the same common music more frequently.


Step two: Without meaning to, forcefully demonstrate the decline of my personal connection to current music.

Bob Dylan, the Beatles and various forms of hippie music shaped political debates, introduced many people to drugs or long hair, and were a touchstone for the age. With the possible exception of Kendrick Lamar, musicians today don’t have comparable ideological reach. Taylor Swift is a paradigm of the nonpolitical, intellectually generic pop star, and it was mostly a nonevent when Kanye West endorsed Donald Trump for president...

The rhythmic, propulsive and sometimes dissonant nature of cutting-edge music in the 1960s and ’70s often impelled us to get up and do something. Both black and white music were central to the civil-rights era and the protests against the Vietnam War, and Pete Seeger’s “We Shall Overcome” was known to millions of Americans. These days, streaming has replaced music ownership, and so music is less of a source of identity and social connection. Teenagers and 20-somethings signal their affiliations with social media, so music’s bonding function has diminished significantly, along with much of its political power. The big political struggles of the last 15 years, whether over the Iraq War or Obamacare, just weren’t that closely tied to music.


Oh god. I can’t get enough. Please, just another tiny taste.

Most of the top music from the 1990s, such as say Alanis Morissette, would sound current if released today, a sign of cultural stasis in what was once a highly socially charged and rapidly changing sector. In 1967, music from 20 or even 10 years earlier sounded quite different and indeed archaic.


YES. Thank you sir.

Step three: What am I as an upper middle-class professional really into now that I can pass off as a cultural touchstone on par with music so that I am not forced to feel ashamed of my own cultural mortality?

Restaurants are increasingly an organizing and revitalizing force in our cities, and eating out has continued to rise as a means of socializing. America’s educated professional class may be out of touch with sports and tired of discussing the weather, and so trading information about new or favorite restaurants, or recipes and ingredients, has become one of the new all-purpose topics of conversation. Food is a relatively gender-neutral topic, and furthermore immigrant newcomers can be immediately proud of what they know and have eaten.


Mmm... delicious, but you can add an extra dash of white guy-ness?

Anecdotally, I observe that the contemporary preoccupation with a particular kind of food fanciness and diversity has penetrated black communities less, and those are also the groups where music might in some cases remain politically important.


Related: Tyler Cowen’s Ethnic Dining Guide.

If you ask me a day spent laying out some Scott’s Turf Builder Lawn Food is the new mosh pit dancing, as well.

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About the author

Hamilton Nolan

Senior Writer.