Friday, June 20, 2008

The New Frugalist

Although England has a reputation for heritage and retrospection, judging by the national daily papers it's pretty enthralled by fad and fancy too. When I was in the UK last week I tried to read a couple of papers a day, and they were filled with the usual blink-and-you-miss-it celebrity froth, pop-culture impulse and political nonsense.

One thing did catch my eye – the new Frugalism. I say “new” Frugalism because the idea has been talked about a long time before now, in the context of Victorian industrial economics. But according to the Independent, today's Frugalist is motivated by more complex concerns. This is a blend of economic imperatives, green values, and a desire for a simpler, less consumer-centric life. It seems to me that it's the economics that is really new – with oil pushing $140 a barrel, with global food shortages, and with globalization accelerating, Frugalism may simply be a new way of expressing a modest, middle-class discomfort in the wallet, while for others it's a more brutal slide into poverty. I also think it's an expression of anti-globalism, and a falling back on regionalism: when you can't afford to travel, or to ship things long distances, it encourages a natural set of parochial values.

Around the same time in the same newspaper I read an excellent article by Rupert Cornwell about the implications of the oil crisis on the American way of life. One thing that strikes visitors to the US is how much the car is king, and how a sprawling suburban life is fuelled by cheap gas and endless miles of highway. Car culture is real and engrained, and is central to everything from urban planning to entertainment. All this could crash pretty soon.

Frugalism may just be another fad. But it could also be the first wave of post-consumerism.

Monday, June 16, 2008


I've just got back from a week in England, mostly for work but also a couple of days of visiting family in London and Newcastle.
I arrived in London on a gorgeous sunny day, and the city shone. I took a long walk from the Edgware Road through Hyde Park and over to the West End and Soho to see Ralph Fiennes in God of Carnage, then walked down Shaftsbury Avenue, through Trafalgar Square and down Whitehall to the river (Flickr updates to follow). The whole city was alive, vibrant. I loved it.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Tuned Out

There was a time that I'd go listen to live music any chance I got -- these days, I rarely have the time or, I confess, the inclination. Sadly, this is more a reflection of my age than of the quality of music being played, but might also reflect the changing digital dynamics of the music biz.

I went to see the Raconteurs this week in Boston, a band dubbed oxymoronically an 'alternative supergroup'. An uneasy spotlight fell on Jack White, with the rest of the band playing second fiddle to his manic guitar. The Raconteurs new release has got a lot of press for the music, but just as much because it's a pressing on vinyl. For White, it's the tangibility of the object, in the sleeve, and the experience of playing a two-part story in music. White's music sensibilities hark back to the blues, punk, and an era when singles and albums formatted songs acoustically and physically. An album could hold about 30 minutes of music a side, a single maybe 7 minutes, and this condensed things. And albums tracks, the artwork, gave a new release an indentity that a CD or MP3 download can't get.

Before the Raconteurs, the last music I went to hear was Elvis Costello at a small club in Boston, where he played a long retrospective set interspersed with covers ranging from Bacharach to The Beatles. He's just released a new album, Momofuku, that is also on vinyl, but even the CD has a "side one and side two" listing of the tracks, which he recorded in a low-fi studio in a couple of weeks.

Costello and White are looking back for a lot of reasons, and I suspect one of them is a hankering for a time when music mattered, especially live music. The digital economics of the music industry are a mess, but it's also turned music into an solitary ibudded experience. It's a shame, because seeing White belt-out guitar solos, hearing Costello scream The Beatles' "Hey Bulldog", it's what it's all about.