July 2014: it’s breakfast time at the Farmer’s Daughter, a boutique motel in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles. The decor is suggestive of some deconstructed Midwestern idyll, what with old farming implements nailed up against one exterior wall, yards of gingham hanging from assorted rails, and plenty of rough-hewn yet varnished wood. The establishment is constructed around an exterior courtyard, and as I take my seat, intent on caffeine and carbohydrate, the soft, fume-tangy morning air is pulverized by the reverberating bassline of Massive Attack’s 1995 single “Karmacoma.” It makes me think of the neon-furred nights I endured that year, when, my synapses misfiring in a slop of MDMA, I’d rear up to look blearily at the dawn.
I rear up and head over to reception for the usual useless parlaying: Would they please turn the music down? No, they would not, because they cannot comprehend why anyone wouldn’t want to eat their waffles to the accompaniment of loud trip-hop ... When I reassume my seat, looking frazzled and out of sorts, one of my sons bellows sympathy over the shingly sonic backwash, and I say: “Really, it’s OK. After all, it’s my generation that’s to blame for this bullshit culture.”
And we are, aren’t we, us fiftysomethings? We’re the pierced and tattooed, shorts-wearing, skunk-smoking, OxyContin-popping, neurotic dickheads who’ve presided over the commoditization of the counterculture; we’re the ones who took the avant-garde and turned it into a successful rearguard action by the flying columns of capitalism’s blitzkrieg; we’re the twats who sat there saying that there was no distinction between high and popular culture, and that adverts should be considered as an art form; we’re the idiots who scrumped the golden apples from the Tree of Jobs until our bellies swelled and we jetted slurry from our dickhead arseholes—slurry we claimed was “cultural criticism.”
So all I can do is sit there and reflect on the great world-girdling mass of mindless attitudinizing that passes for “hip” in the third millennium since the death of the great sandal-wearing hippie. In 2005 Charlie Brooker and Chris Morris’s satirical series Nathan Barley aired on British television; in it, they portrayed the nascent scene around Shoreditch and Hoxton in east London as a miserable gallimaufry of web-headed, tiny-bike-riding, moronic poseurs. Watching these programmes again nearly a decade on, I’m struck not only by the uncanny prescience of Brooker and Morris, but, far more disturbingly, by how nothing has changed. Changed, that is, qualitatively—if you walk down Brick Lane nowadays you see the same beards, low-cut T-shirts and fixed-wheel bikes; and if you eavesdrop on conversations you hear the same idiotic twittering about raves and virtual art forms; but quantitatively the picture has been utterly transformed: This quarter of the metropolis is positively haunching with dickheads—but then so is Manchester’s Northern Quarter, or Clifton in Bristol, or the West End of Glasgow. If you venture further afield you will find dickheads the world over—downtown Reykjavik, I discovered to my horror, is a phantasmagoria of frothy-coffee joints and vinyl record shops.
Comrade Stalin once observed that “Quantity has a quality all its own,” and the sheer quantity of dickheads now wandering bemusedly around the world represents, in my view, a big shift in cultural dynamics. In Los Angeles, arguably their Mecca, to be a dickhead is unremarkable; but Portlandia, the U.S. equivalent to Nathan Barley, posits the Oregonian city as a sort of time capsule of all that’s righteously hip. The theme tune is a song featuring the lyric: “The spirit of the Nineties is alive in Portland!” If only that were the only place it was alive—but the truth is that this seisdick shift is global. If you log on to YouTube and key in “Being a Dickhead’s Cool,” you’ll be subjected to two and a half minutes of satiric genius. Reuben Dangoor, who wrote and sings this ditty, doesn’t seem to have done much else with his life, but frankly he doesn’t need to. With lines such as “I remember when the kids at school would call us names/Now we’re taking over their estates” he has so effectively skewered the phenomenon that he can rest eternally on his twisted laurels.
The rousing chorus of the song—“I love my life as a dickhead/All my friends are dickheads too”—suggests to me why the dickhead is at one with the zeitgeist. By providing even the most woefully untalented with an outlet for their “creativity,” the web has massively enlarged the numbers who style themselves as “artistic,” as well as increased the duration of their futile aspiration. In the kidult dickhead milieu, it’s now quite possible to encounter fortysomethings with weird facial hair, wearing shorts and still resolutely believing that their career is about to take off.
And in a way I suppose they’re right, because the totalizing capability of dickheads + web = an assumed equivalence between all remotely creative forms of endeavor. Nowadays someone who sticks old agricultural implements on the wall of a Los Angeles motel regards himself as on a par with Michelangelo; moreover, since all their friends are dickheads, too, no one is about to disabuse them. Hell, on Planet Dickhead just turning up the trip-hop can be a work of unalloyed genius.