The New Mainstream

OK. Here’s the deal.

If you’re middle class, you’re not cool. Granted, a lot of people in the middle class don’t care if they’re cool. They have nice, safe nine to five jobs, they watch prime time TV, they own hybrid cars, and they are reasonably content. But they have to put up with coffee-drinking, beret-wearing hipsters sneering at them, and it’s not because they control the means of production. It’s because they aren’t cool.

There’s one group of bourgeois that desperately wants to be cool, though, and that’s the young people, the teenagers. Since they can’t look to Mom and Dad for their lessons in cool (God forbid!), where do they find their role models?

They look to the Street – to the raw edge of urban black culture. Our entertainment and fashion industries deliver it to them in the sanitized lifestyle mix we call hip hop. Nelson George, author of Hip Hop America notes, “We know rap music and hip hop have broken from their ghetto roots to assert a lasting influence on American clothing, magazine publishing, television, language, sexuality and social policy.” As a result, black youth culture is now the mainstream for middle-class, white youth.

If imitation is a form of flattery, the flattery is only going one way. Those who are authentically Street don’t aspire to be middle class. No, the Street aspires to be upper class. J-Z. Diddy. J-Lo. And when they can, they zealously adopt every available trapping of wealth and status: Cristal and Courvoisier in the wet bar, DG and Versace in the closet, Cadillac Escalade in the driveway, a 60″ plasma screen with an Xbox 360 in the crib.

Did that last one throw you? I thought you knew. Games are the new Gucci. Rappers and movie stars aspire to be game developers. It’s all messed up.

How did this happen?

Fundamentally, you have to blame Mark Andreessen of Netscape. In the world we all used to live in, Mark Andreessen would have lived a comfortable, safe, boring life, as a moderately well-paid computer programmer, or maybe a NASA rocket scientist, or something. Instead, he went and founded Netscape and made himself a multimillionaire. I can only assume he drove a Ferrari and dated a supermodel and drank Cristal while he was at it. Netscape inspired an entire generation of other nerdy people who might have gone onto safe, boring lives as rocket scientists to figure out ways to get rich instead.

The 1990s Dot Com Boom, in other words, ushered in an unprecedented era of wealth creation among young, technologically-savvy knowledge workers. Before Netscape, people who wanted to be wealthy thought about careers like lawyer, banker or doctor, or for the glamour-conscious, model, star or athlete. After Netscape, people who wanted to be rich had careers like “online pet food delivery platform developer.”

This rise of geek culture has been debated on Google, discussed on blogs and even has its own book. But let’s be clear. Being a geek isn’t cool in the sense that, say, Usher is cool. It’s cool in the sense that being a doctor is cool. It’s got status. It offers wealth and thereby the opportunity to purchase prestige.

Now, bankers, lawyers and similar boring, rich people like to spend their wealth on things like yachts, golf and Corinthian leather briefcases. “Subtle” has long been the watchword of the upper crust. But fabulously successful geeks really don’t give a damn about golf, yachts or briefcases of any type of leather. They aren’t particularly subtle. Nor do they know the difference between Merino Wool and Cashmere. They do know that 80″ plasma screens are really fricking awesome.

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Because of the long and glorious history of geek and gamer unity, it’s a safe bet that anyone who is an online pet food delivery platform developer plays video games. Many of them probably consider video games their favorite form of entertainment (perhaps a close second to Kevin Smith movies).

So what that means is that some of the wealthiest people in our society like to spend lavishly on games and tech. And that, in turn, means that games and tech have become aspirational goods on the Street.

Which leads to the current bizarre case: Games are now cool because middle class teenagers are emulating hip hop moguls who are adopting the trappings of wealth which are defined by Silicon Valley millionaires who like games and tech.

Watch any episode of MTV Cribs, and I guarantee that the mansion of every hip hop star and pro athlete has a big-screen TV and a top-of-the-line gaming system with loads of DVDs and games. Tune into any episode of Pimp My Ride and check out how many of the cars get “pimped” with gaming rigs in the trunk or the backseat. Buy the new Atari game by Mark Ecko and enjoy the soundtrack by Diddy. Ask yourself whether Marc Ecko and Diddy are getting involved in games purely for financial reasons, or because they think it’s cool.

What does it all mean? It means game over for the traditional Mainstream cool of rock, sports and beers. There’s a New Mainstream for America and it fuses hip hop and geek culture. Its music and fashion combined with games and tech. It’s aspirational and it’s extravagant and it’s techno-elite.

The New Mainstream is why technology is now a luxury good and style suddenly matters. It’s why Microsoft’s Xbox 360 looks like it was designed by Apple, and Nintendo’s Gameboy Micro looks like it was designed by Nokia. It’s why, today, it’s cool to own an Alienware computer with a stylized case and building your own PC from parts just means you’re broke. It’s why the Motorola Razr was such a huge success. It’s why you can expect Rockstar to release its own line of hip hop lifestyle clothing one of these days.

In the meantime, go buy a flatscreen HDTV and watch anime – subtitled, not dubbed. Download mash-ups on Kazaa and use them as the soundtrack on your Halo 2 machinima. Use your Xbox Music Mixer to DJ house parties. Look at porn on your PSP. Invite your buddies over to drink Baccardi and play Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

Be cool.

Max Steele is an enigma wrapped inside a riddle. When not actively being mysterious, he passes his time manipulating time and space to fit his plans for world domination.

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