September 3, 2018

RUSSELL | Culture’s Andrew Jackson

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For some bizarre reason, I’ve unintentionally committed to memory almost the entirety of an exchange on the first page of To Kill a Mockingbird. In it, Scout describes her brother Jem’s broken elbow, eventually noting that when it comes down to it, the real culprit to blame is Andrew Jackson, because without the War of 1812 their ancestors would’ve settled the family somewhere else entirely.

Her conclusion is absurd, but I think it stuck with me because our primal desire to pull back the lid and ask “why did this really happen” is a major aspect of our psyche, especially as children. It’s probably why origin stories do so well at the box office even though we walk into the theaters knowing exactly how they’ll end.

I began to ask my own “why did this really happen” recently, after thinking about a story I heard about a month ago. At the time I was standing in a cold showroom listening to a director at a shoe company talk about how the company’s sales of a certain shoe were on a consistent ascent largely because the Kardashians were seen wearing them. The rise was so pronounced that the company decided to halt all advertising for the shoe because they wanted to be known for more than just one style in one color.

Today, as I write this column, I’m wearing that shoe. I tell myself it’s not because of the Kardashians, but honestly, in an indirect Jem’s elbow sort of way, it probably is.

And that got me thinking — if I, a guy in upstate New York who couldn’t care less what Kylie Jenner wears to lunch, wore shoes because she did first, I wonder how many other unexpected influences I have. Five minutes into trying to make a list, I lost interest. What I did find interesting, however, were the connections between these influencers.

Somewhere along the way I decided to try to follow these connections as far up as they go and determine the person at the top of the cultural food chain in the world of young twenty-somethings. Now, here I am, in my apartment, knee deep in a can of worms, sleuthing my way to the kingpin of the youth world — the person with the most control over what I will wear and hear and eat and laugh about in the years to come. So I thought I’d bring you along for the ride.

Before I can find the top cultural influencer, we must first define culture, a word that is characteristically difficult to characterize. Most definitions mention art, specifically manifested in areas like fashion and music.

In American pop culture, however, fashion and music influencers are largely one in the same.

When I consider the biggest fashion movements of the past twenty years, a few major examples come to mind: skinny jeans, ripped jeans, high end streetwear and dad sneakers. A scroll through the historical accounts of these trends reveals that all found their way to the runway after major movements in music popularized them first.

For ripped jeans and skinny jeans, it was the punk revival. For streetwear, it was hip-hop. Dad sneakers have a more complicated history, but most accounts trace the story back to the return of shoes like the Adidas Stan Smith, which originally gained the bulk of it’s early traction from hip hop artists. See a trend? The world of music plays a critical role.

Even today’s major non-musician celebrity influencers tend to be in close proximity to the American music scene. After all, though each had their own unique rise to fame, it’s difficult to deny that some of fashion’s favorite celebrities — Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner and Selena Gomez — have been able to stay in the limelight long enough to become actual superstars at least partially because of their romantic involvement with musicians.

So, American youth culture’s most important influencer should be someone with great influence on the music industry. If you can influence the music that is popular, you can indirectly determine the styles that will be popular and soon establish the biggest cultural artifacts of our time.

“Music,” though, feels like too broad a term. In reality, not all genres are created equal. Currently, eight of the top 10 most popular songs on the Billboard top 100 are written by a hip-hop or R&B artist. According to Nielsen, Hip hop and R&B make up the country’s most popular music genre as of this year. The musicians with the most direct influence on fashion — people like Pharrell and Kanye West — are also, as expected, in this same genre.

In this case, the rabbit hole seems to lead to the curator of the Spotify playlist Rap Caviar, since, after all, this person has the most direct effect on who is played on the most popular playlist for the most popular genre on the most popular streaming service. And the artists picked will have the most influence on fashion because that’s just how the world of popular American music works.

This curator used to be Tuma Basa, a man without whom you probably wouldn’t have heard Bodak Yellow in some frat basement last semester. After Tuma Basa left Spotify earlier this year, however, there isn’t much information about who controls the playlist now.

So, the answer is as unsatisfying as it gets. Somewhere in New York City at the Spotify corporate office sits an unknown individual who will indirectly influence the music I listen to, the clothes I buy in five years, and the people I write about in last-minute Sun columns.

Whoever they are, this person has more control over the future of American youth culture than any other individual that comes to mind.

Let’s hope they quit playing Lil Yachty.

Paul Russell is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Russelling Features runs every other Friday this semester. He can be reached at prussell@cornellsun.com.