From the Hip | Finding Social Conscience in Pop Culture


You may ask, “What does a New York supermodel, a rising New York pop idol and the Seattle beard band Fleet Foxes have in common? Fortunately for you, dear reader, you have discovered a font of wisdom that possesses the answers to such profound questions.

Sara Ziff, co-director of the 2009 documentary Picture Me: A Model's Diary, is the founder of the Model Alliance, a labor organization created to stop the exploitation of underage models and to address the professions’ poor wages, poor working conditions, and lack of health care benefits. After being discovered by a photographer on the street, Ziff dropped out of high school to pursue a modeling career. However, she eventually took a break from modeling to pursue an education and and, in 2011, earned a degree in political science from Columbia University—an Ivy League school.

Ziff is an actual student of Saul Alinsky’s writings and tries to live a life with a social conscience. As she points out in her interview by New York Magazine, it is easy to mock the idea of union representation for hot chicks, but they are indeed exploited. I want Sara to know that my union organizing experience is available to her and her union; I will not rest knowing that there is a smart, young model in distress and in need of my services.

Lana Del Rey is also a beautiful young girl who is suffering scathing criticism after a poor live performance on Saturday Night Live, and for her campy “drunk girl feminism.” To me, her voice is reminiscent of Fiona Apple or Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star—singers with a sexy, about-to-pass-out type of sound that is missing from today’s pop music.

I find Del Rey’s youthful troubles and overreach charming. While she’s not yet matured as an artist, her humanity inspires hope in me to see her grow, as she clearly possesses the vocal tools to express herself.

It can be noted at this juncture that I loved the Ellen Page movie Whip It (Roller derby chicks are awesome!) and feel almost certain that the news of Zooey Deschanel’s divorce from Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard has something to do with me. These facts combined with my previous observations point out that I may in fact be a dirty old man in the making.

As an additional side note: The second She and Him (Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward) album, while proving that Deschanel should remain focused on her reign as the current indie film sweetheart, and run—not walk—away from music, has in no way dampened my enthusiasm for her charms.

Too much information? Excuse me as I return to the more weighty issues at hand.

Fleet Foxes are the beard band whose album Helplessness Blues (2011) received much criticism along the lines of the female singer/songwriters previously discussed. Their unique indie folk /folk rock harmonies paint beautiful vocal landscapes. The Foxes, in my opinion, are one of the best examples of bands who are interested in earlier musical forms and styles but aren’t at “all retro.”

Gentle Giant was a prog rock band from the groovy ‘70s with similar harmonizing, but they were not a band of the social relevance I believe the Foxes to be. The band has described lyrically their generation as having all been taught to believe they are each so individually special yet still longing to find meaning as part of a collective. This album for me was the only major indie album in 2011 to have reached a larger audience in an accessible album and remain true to their core musical personality. In spite of the usual hipster moaning about the message of the album being self-conscious hypocrisy, I would say the album quite succinctly shows a generation coming to terms with themselves as they become adults in a chaotic and ever-changing world.

In an age of social, economic, and governmental instability, these young talents all represent the voices of progressive change that need to be heard and encouraged to flourish. Sadly, the forces of cultural reaction have done a much better job of filling the ether with their bile and venom than have the gentle, kind souls we need to hear.

The alternative today is the schmaltzy, syrupy sentimentality of the new country, which is about as important to culture as the sitcom Friends was. White escapism into self is becoming dangerous to the survival of the republic as we know it. I love classical and jazz as much as I am interested in indie rock, but today as a writer, I believe the cultural barometer that matters is the pop culture zeitgeist.

The internet generation is effective in short-term, low cost political combat (See the battle against SOPA.), but have yet to coalesce around long-term social strategies. Smile and bear the pain my friends. When I was a 20-something, union organizers weren’t models; your barricades and tent cities hold much more appeal than mine.

Solidarity and hotness—I am so jealous!