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Michael Bracewell: When Surface Was Depth: Death By Cappuccino And Other Reflections On Music And Culture In The 1990's


When Surface Was Depth: Death By Cappuccino And Other Reflections On Music And Culture In The 1990's

Author: Michael Bracewell
Publisher: Da Capo

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When Surface Was Depth darts through an impressive range of topics, but the most memorable proves to be the weather, which has an uncanny tendency to churn and gurgle whenever Michael Bracewell starts thinking about culture. As a professed enemy of debased signifiers, Bracewell would have been wise to skip the meteorological portents. But then, weather serves as well as anything to pad a messy essay collection that goes a long way toward blunting the edge of its pointed title. A noted British cultural critic and novelist, the author sizes up the '90s with a decidedly English bent, focusing on his homeland's postmodern identity crisis through the lens of Britpop, art, fashion, media, and generalized life-living. The book starts strong with a dizzying tally of phenomena (soccer, opera, cuisine, comedy, witchcraft) once celebrated as "the new rock 'n' roll" by the famously fickle English press. Sinking his claws into both sides of the perception-vs.-reality divide that governs most cultural reportage, Bracewell attributes a decade's worth of vacuous trends to a populace of snarky infidels whom he identifies with the Tom Wolfe-ism "culture-vulturing city slickers." From lager-swilling lads to preening celebrity art stars like Damien Hirst, England's cultural offerings of the '90s speak to nothing more than a shared "infantilist" pining for youth and a dimwitted attempt to excise retro trends from the complicated business of history. Save for a wholesale dismissal of rave culture and a bitter tone that makes him hard to agree with even when he's on the money, Bracewell initially has a point. As the book fans into a disjointed collection of jarringly gracious magazine profiles, though, that point gets meted out mostly through reverse reinforcement. Wandering beyond the confines of the '90s, When Surface Was Depth couples exposition with archival pieces on Buzzcocks co-founder Howard DeVoto, Morrissey, Quentin Crisp, Michael Caine, Nan Goldin, Alexander McQueen, Duran Duran, Malcolm McDowell, Patti Smith, Brian Eno, and various other cultural icons. Highlighting the reductive nature of the book's many hollow generalizations, some of the essays—particularly passages on teen-pop band Hanson and the retro resurrection of The Carpenters—dig into the kinds of complexities that make codifying a still-squirming decade such a tall order. Fair with individual essays but overstretched on the ideas employed to tie them together, Bracewell falls victim to an ostensibly bracing thesis that never strays far from conventional wisdom. He shows his impressive scholarly reach with striking essays on budding English "road" culture and management-theory business books. But when it comes to vital readings of current cultural drift, When Surface Was Depth offers little more than the musings of a critic who seems to have stopped caring the day punk died.