From cupcakes to private jets, how the quest for status drives culture
ELISE HU, HOST:
You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Elise Hu.
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HU: Culture - we're part of it, we spread it, and it means a lot of things to a lot of people.
W DAVID MARX: Culture is one of the most difficult and probably the worst word in the English language because it covers so many things.
HU: That's author W. David Marx. He made understanding culture - what it is, how it works and why it's so powerful - the central exploration of his latest book, "Status And Culture: How Our Desire For Social Rank Creates Taste, Identity, Art, Fashion And Constant Change." Well, y'all, we happen to be a show about popular culture, and we're pretty cool - at least we think we are. But how do things become cool? What drives that? And then, what makes them become uncool or go away?
MARX: I mean, the example that I would always go back to is gourmet cupcakes. Gourmet cupcakes start at, you know, Magnolia Bakery in the West Village - so in this very, very, you know, high-end New York neighborhood, and they become a part of West Village culture to the degree that, when "Sex And The City" needs to film a scene, they film a scene in front of Magnolia Bakery, with Carrie eating a gourmet cupcake.
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SARAH JESSICA PARKER: (As Carrie Bradshaw) What about Steve?
CYNTHIA NIXON: (As Miranda Hobbes) Oh, God. Right. I forgot about my boyfriend. Is that normal?
PARKER: (As Carrie Bradshaw) You're asking me?
MARX: So from there, the "Sex And The City" tours that go to New York City start flooding Magnolia Bakery. And Magnolia Bakery starts getting kind of famous among people outside of the West Village, and you get these huge influxes of people. Then, you have all these other businesses see that gourmet cupcakes are a, you know, high-status item. They start making gourmet cupcakes, making a lot of money, and suddenly the world is obsessed with gourmet cupcakes.
HU: People are lining up outside cupcake places.
MARX: But then the other really important part of this is that once gourmet cupcakes are for everybody, they can't be for the elite anymore. They don't mean West Village life. So what happens then is, obviously, people who are elite say, I hate gourmet cupcakes, and they need some sort of new dessert to eat that is exclusive to them. You get people around the world noticing, wait, gourmet cupcakes aren't what the elite are eating anymore. They're eating cronuts or whatever's next.
HU: Oh, right...
MARX: And therefore...
MARX: ...We're going to open a store that has cronuts...
MARX: ...Or churros...
HU: And then the cycle...
MARX: ...or whatever, and the cycle continues. So what's really important about this cycle is that, yes, it's the human dynamics of status, but it's also so tied into commercial culture in the sense that businesses are looking for what is an exclusive practice of high-status people because they know that the cachet of those things will become big business.
HU: Except now it's so out of reach because what high status people are doing are building their own rockets and going to space, for example.
MARX: But, you know, that is also intentional in the sense that if high-status people can't create their own unique culture just based off information or distribution, they have to focus on money. And then you start getting these things that, you know, normal people can't do.
I mean, I think what is incredible is even a lot of these very expensive things - the ability of status fakers to create the illusion that they're, you know, having these really expensive lifestyles without the money is also pretty incredible. I mean, private jets have become this real status symbol in the sense of - flying commercial is for the middle class. And if you're really, really rich, you fly private. And yet, you go onto Instagram, and there's all these people in private jets who clearly don't own private jets and have just gone to a parked private jet and taken their photo inside of it. And so then the idea of private jets becomes a little bit devalued and icky, and then we don't feel as good about it anymore.
HU: So on the flip side, David, though, some cultural pieces, we have to note, stay classic - right? - like a button-down shirt...
HU: ...Or The Beatles. How does something get to stay classic and transcend that trend cycle?
MARX: Almost everything goes back to some sort of object in which the status associations of the past somehow are so strong that they overpower whoever wears or participates in that thing now.
MARX: And so an Oxford button-down - you know, a green Oxford button-down - you think Miles Davis on the cover of an album. You don't think about some, you know, schlub you saw at the shopping mall in the same shirt. So for whatever reason, these things - because those associations with the past are so strong, they literally can exist forever as cool because...
HU: Because of overwhelming nostalgia.
MARX: Overwhelming nostalgia for very specifically high-status people. I mean, there's lots of things from the past that we have not revived...
MARX: ...And I'll give you a very clear example.
HU: Anything from the '70s.
MARX: Double-knit polyester leisure suits...
MARX: ...Were massively popular.
HU: We were thinking the same exact thing.
MARX: They were a huge part of the American tradition.
MARX: Exactly. So they're - you know, so these leisure suits were a huge part of American culture in the 1970s, but they were associated with lower-middle-class people. And so rugby shirts are a timeless item - football jerseys aren't. You know, so these things aren't accidental. They do really map to, you know, power and hierarchy and things like that. And so when people decide to say, OK, let's destroy traditions because traditions have these embedded power structures in them, they are not wrong, you know? Traditions are something we have to consider all the time because there's lots of biases that are embedded within them.
HU: And status is different than class?
MARX: Yeah. So let me define what I mean by status because it is also a term that is quite ambiguous, but also, it's a bit of a taboo. We just don't talk about status very often. And I think that comes from, you know, a real egalitarian spirit that we have. I mean, we want society to be - all men are created equal, that people are equal. People don't want to talk about - do I have more status than somebody else? And so, you know, status is your position within a social hierarchy. And why it matters - as your status goes up, you are treated better. You get all these social benefits. As your status goes down, you lose those benefits.
Most people have normal status, which means you walk down the street. People are courteous. But if you have high status, you know, suddenly you get all this extra stuff. If you walked into a restaurant and you had normal status, people say, great, how many are dining tonight? And they seat you at a table. If you have a low status, maybe they stall you in sitting there. Maybe they treat you with contempt. If you have high status, on the other hand, they may go out of their way to give you the best table. If you have super high status - if you're a celebrity - they may take your photo, put it on the wall. The chef comes out and says hello. Then certainly, you know, people with money in a capital society are - you know, tend to be at the top of the status hierarchy.
HU: But do cultural trends only come from people of high status? Because there's a lot of cultural trends that emerge from the bottom up, right? Like, a lot of fashion or slang or music starts from marginalized communities - black and queer culture, for instance.
MARX: Absolutely. And I don't think the trickle-down is gone. It's just - the form has changed. It's that people - especially what we would call the creative class or the professional class - started to get status by knowing conventions from minority cultures.
HU: Oh, totally.
MARX: So if you think about jazz - you know, the white community in the '50s - it was seen as very cool to know what the hip jazz club is or to know what the hip jazz records are, and they're getting status from that. And so from the '50s and '60s, you start getting much more complicated cultural flows because people at the top are using culture from communities considered to be low status as a way to, you know, signal they're in the know.
And so today, you know, yes, a lot of slang, fashion - everything starts from the bottom. But what I don't want people to confuse that with is that it doesn't go from the bottom to the middle to the top. It is a flow where people at the top take things at the bottom that they can use to signal their status and their knowledge. And then, from there, it kind of trickles down like normal.
HU: It's so vampiric, though.
MARX: I mean, we use the word cultural appropriation...
MARX: ...For a lot of this. You know, then there's a question of, you know, who benefits? Now, if we're in a much more complicated flow, where things from the bottom can float up and be cool, and people - especially the creators at the bottom - can move up because of that, you have more mobility, but there's still questions of, you know, who really prospers from that system.
HU: Coming up - why David thinks the internet is making everything seem a little less cool.
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HU: As we talk about the complications or complicating the flow of culture, then we have to talk about the internet...
HU: ...Right? Because the internet, in so many ways, has really flattened or made diffuse the notion of a mainstream or a monoculture. How do you see or interpret the internet's role in these cultural transfers or cultural flows that you sought to unpack?
MARX: So in thinking about how status creates culture and all these flows - really, the things we're used to in our head are very 20th-century models, where there is good information, there's mass media, but things move relatively slowly. For example, in the 1990s, dark denim - so wearing a really dark, unwashed denim started becoming very cool in the late '90s, but it was hard to acquire.
HU: Oh, it was? Interesting.
MARX: For a couple of years.
HU: Yeah. Why don't you talk me through denim because, I remember, when I worked at The Gap in the late '90s, I was, like, folding dark denim and trying to sell it. But that's super mainstream.
MARX: I remember the exact day I went into The Gap and I saw they had dark denim, and I said, wow, The Gap has dark denim now. But so The Gap probably started selling dark denim around '98, I believe. Before that, if you wanted a raw, vintage-looking denim, you know, some Japanese brands were making it and, you know, some smaller brands were making it, but it was quite hard to get. So if you were wearing this dark denim, you know, for a couple years, you could say to yourself, you know, I authentically love dark denim. It is me. Suddenly, The Gap is selling it everywhere. Everyone can acquire dark denim, and it no longer has that meaning. But with the internet now, the gap between you having some sort of exclusive practice and other people being able to copy you is almost zero. The information flow...
HU: It's within seconds, yeah.
MARX: Yeah, the information flow is immediate. Retailers around the world pop up to supply these things. Your ability to search for them and find them in obscure corners and get, you know, e-commerce to send it to you is almost immediate. So these fashion cycles were based on the idea that people could adopt things authentically and put them in their identities and feel like, OK, there's enough time in which I have this thing and you don't. And if you don't have a group of people exclusively doing a practice, that practice doesn't take on the symbolic value of being in that group exclusively.
And so, you know, at the moment, the barriers of inclusion and the barriers of production are so low in the sense of everybody can communicate their voice. Everybody can participate, and that is great. And there's probably as much a great culture being created now as there was, say, 20 years ago, but we relied on these kind of barriers of distribution of information to give things value - especially these status values - and that's all being depleted, and it's changing the way we feel about the culture that's resulting. And you could easily say, well, that status culture was bad, and it was exclusionary, and we shouldn't have had it in the first place. But I think our psychologies are just such that we feel like something is off. Something doesn't quite feel like how it was in the 1980s. If you think about "Back To The Future," it's a film from 1985, and the entire joke is that 1955 and 1985 were so completely different culturally...
MARX: ...That everything that Michael J. Fox does that's very '80s is alien to people in 1955, and that's basically the joke for the entire film. Whereas, if you watch episodes of "Friends," yes, it feels vaguely, you know, outmoded, and people's hairstyles are sometimes a little off. And the cell phones are gigantic, or they don't exist at all. But other than that, it's really close to today. And I think people feel a sense of disappointment or feel adrift not being able to anchor their experiences to these very specific cultural touchstones that we use to mark time.
HU: Just so that I can be clear - so you're saying that we have less distinctive cultural touchstones because the internet has kind of flattened things such that our expressions can be copied at mass much faster.
MARX: I think we live in a time now where everything is just for everyone immediately, but that kind of removes its value. And so, you know, the tension I'm describing here is also - things are more democratic. Things are more accessible to more people. But there was something about, you know, exclusion that people found really attractive, but I think we haven't quite found a way to have things that are cool that are for everyone.
HU: So you're saying, in a globalized internet, everything is a little bit less cool.
MARX: And I don't think I'm the only one saying that.
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HU: Up next, status for good - how we can use the idea of status to redefine what's cool and possibly shake up power structures.
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HU: OK. So are you saying that the internet basically makes it impossible for things to be as cool as they used to be?
MARX: The thing about the internet that was promised to us was this wonderland of long-tail content - that there was going to be all this different stuff that was available to us - that we were all going to be able to express our perfect identities through all this different music and clothing and books and all of these things that are now available. And I think what has happened instead is that you have all this culture, and none of it has any social value at all because other people don't know it. For a lot of people, they still want culture that can communicate to other people, and that is becoming a smaller and smaller set of things. And so if you're into Beyonce, then you know that other people will be able to talk to you about Beyonce. But if you're into a very obscure band, you could go around the room and find zero other people who listen to it, and it really feels boring. And so...
HU: Well, I'm glad you brought up Beyonce because isn't she a internet-age example of how there still is cool - there is still, like, mainstream cool, and it still exists in a way that feels timeless?
MARX: I mean, I think what is fascinating about that layer of, you know, megastars is the degree to which they have to be both kind of the avant garde for us in terms of pushing culture forward and also the big blockbusters. In the book, I talk about - we're in this age of omnivore culture, which means that you have to consume high culture and low culture equally. You should not judge, you know, a piece of classical music to be better than a piece of pop music.
MARX: This comes from, I think, a great place because pop music can be innovative - that some of the artists, including Beyonce, have been people who have pushed the culture forward. So that's great. But I think what's interesting about it is that, you know, so much of what we also called cool - if you go back to this idea - was this incredibly anti-mainstream - you know, virulently anti-mainstream attitudes among, especially, people in the creative and professional classes. They hated things that were on the pop radio, and they had their own culture. And by giving their more obscure culture so much time and energy and love, it gave some value to these things. And if we want to look back to the '70s and '80s and say, wow, there was punk rock and there was new wave, and all these cool things happening - why don't we have those now? - it is related to both the structure of the internet and also our sense that we shouldn't necessarily be judging things that are super popular as bad.
HU: Where do you come down on it? Because it sounds good to me. It sort of sounds aspirational to me when you say, you know, that we can exist high-low. Like, that you can both be a big fan of fine dining, but also get fast food and think that's just as great. It sounds great, but then what's your take on it?
MARX: I think it's extremely liberating to be able to enjoy high and low culture at the same time. My worry is simply that culture is this giant ecosystem - every piece of the culture is influencing other pieces of the culture. And when you start looking at the ecosystem, what you want is things to come up that challenge the conventions in really profound ways so that you move people's perception to be able to understand more things. Take hip-hop, for example. If music is all about melody and harmony, and then you have this incredibly rhythmic music come out that makes us pay attention to rhythm...
MARX: ...Suddenly we can judge music in a whole new way, which is that we can listen to music for melody and harmony, but we can also listen to music for rhythm. And so innovation is really important in art because it opens our minds to lots of different ways to perceive the world. And so what you don't want is to only give value to things that are the most popular because the things that are most popular tend to conform to the conventions that already exist. So what you need is some mechanism to promote things that are innovative and a little dangerous. And it used to be that you had this very exclusionary, cool system of people who were desperate for things that had innovation - that they could say, I hate mainstream culture because I like this thing instead, and that valued it. So if we're going to get rid of that, we do need something to boost things that are unpopular, but innovative.
HU: OK. Before we let you go, you've spent a lot of time better understanding these mechanisms and how status is so inextricably linked to culture, and vice versa. So now that you better understand it, and now that we better understand it after having this conversation, how could this help us drive more affirmative or positive cultural change? How do we actually put this to work, now that we understand this dynamic?
MARX: You know, the first thing, for me, is just if you show the rules of the competition - the way that you will be judged, what are the criteria...
MARX: ...That gives individuals a little more power in making decisions for themselves...
MARX: ...About how much status they want and all that. So that's - I think that's one thing. Second is that we should admit to ourselves that things that are high status are more desirable, and we can make certain behaviors more high status that are good for the planet. And I - you know, whatever you feel about Tesla - Tesla made electric cars cool. I don't remember, before Tesla, that people said, you know what? My desire is, one day, to have a really cool electric car. And so I think that is a principle that works really well - that if we can associate positive behaviors with high status and give them cachet, it's quite possible they diffuse through society more. That kind of keeps the system in place but uses it. The other is we have a choice about what should provide status or not, and society and history is the story of us changing what these criteria are. The political struggle is a struggle on what gets status and what doesn't.
HU: I love that. Knowledge is power. David, thank you so much.
MARX: Thank you so much for having me.
HU: Thanks again to W. David Marx, author of the book "Status And Culture: How Our Desire For Social Rank Creates Taste, Identity, Art, Fashion And Constant Change." This episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE was produced by Jessica Mendoza. It was edited by Jessica Placzek.
All right. We're back on Friday. I'm Elise Hu. We'll talk soon.
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