One of the first and more memorable moments that I had a premonition of what being old would be like was when I came back to college in January 1992 after a holiday break. I was at a party and the customary Steve Miller Band songs were blasting, and then suddenly, with no fuss, Nirvana was playing. I felt instantly as if I had been completely exposed. I thought there was something special about being into a certain kind of music — and Nirvana in the summer of 1991 was very much that music. It was supposed to be a bulwark against being perceived as mediocre. Suddenly I saw that the distinctions I was investing myself in were always already unimaginative, insignificant — superficial distractions that had preoccupied me and protected me from pursuing some other kind of self-knowledge. The future didn’t promise escape but re-enclosure and surrender. The escape routes you learned were already traced on commercial maps. They led deeper into enemy territory. You wake up to discover that you are in fact enlisted in the enemy’s army.
Moreover, at that moment “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was playing, I saw instantly that the distinctions that made me in my mind who I was didn’t really belong to me, and they could be wiped away in an instant, by some frat bro playing a certain CD on his boombox. I realized I didn’t even know what could belong to me, in that sense. I had an intimation of that bitter-old-man insight that there is in fact no distinction to be found in consuming and projecting allegiance to those sorts of commercial products. I was lifted up for a moment to the bleak promontory from which I could see that all those cultural commodities are basically the same. It was terrifying, because from that perch one can see the higher one, from which all “individuals” are essentially the same mortal creatures, preoccupied with distinctions that are indistinguishable from the perspective of eternity.
Take pop culture writing. When people talk about the AV Club, they talk about a place where people can discuss the pop culture they love. Who could argue with that idea? But when I look at the actual AV Club, I just see row upon row of people who need to let everyone know that being a fan of Community marks you as a connoisseur while being a fan of Two and a Half Men makes you a chump. Even our purely subjective aesthetic choices are not allowed to be our own anymore. If tastes are subjective and people are allowed to make whatever choices they want in the media they consume, people can’t use those tastes to justify their self-conception as arty or hip or whatever. So what you get is a lot of people heaping derision on those who make different aesthetic choices. Nobody can leave other people alone anymore.