Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Why You Can't Do Fast Casual Dining Ironically

A few weeks ago, I walked into the Uptown Minneapolis Chipotle and was greeted by a sign announcing that no carnitas would be available. Luckily, my meat of choice at Chipotle is steak and I was there to try out Sofritas, the fast casual dining giant’s new vegan option. My Facebook news feed later informed me that Chipotle had pulled its pork option (look, a pun) from at least 400 of its locations upon discovering that one of its major pork suppliers had failed to comply with the chain’s animal welfare standards. Chipotle, it appears, is actually holding itself and its suppliers ethically accountable to the animals it depends on for profit.

 This information came to me at the height of my seemingly inexplicable obsession with the fast casual restaurant industry, particularly in its marketing and aesthetic practices: these places specifically position themselves in a realm between "fast food" and "casual dining," eschewing the table service of a casual family restaurant while promising higher quality, fresher cuisine than a typical fast food joint. The middlebrow result of these promises is what interested me. This phase doesn’t seem so inexplicable anymore, however; I think I’ve found the root of my fascination, which is that you can’t really do fast casual dining ironically. Something about how these companies market themselves commands the trust, rather than eyebrows raised hungrily tongue-in-cheek, of consumers, and when the chance to make a fast casual dining experience into a joke arises the company often delivers the punchline before we can.

What do I mean by “do fast casual dining ironically”? Think of spontaneous “Dude, what if we went to Arby’s right now?!?!?!!?” moments in your life. If there are none-- and there's no shame in that, considering the vast majority of people are probably more focused on eating for sustenance than eating to project an impression (I fall into both camps and, full disclaimer, really, really enjoy most of the bland American chains I mention throughout this article)--imagine a group of bored young adults stranded after bar close whose preferences have somehow shifted from “what is available for me to eat?” to “what would be the most ridiculous thing possible to eat right now?” The answer will almost never be a fast-casual dining establishment, at first for logistical purposes and then for the reason that it’s just not that funny to eat because the management is dead serious.

The first reason is about timing: while in any decently populated metro area in the U.S. you can find family-style chains like Denny’s or fast food drive-thrus open around the clock, the likes of Qdoba, Five Guys and Au Bon Pain are simply not open that late. If you’re not trekking out for refreshments at two a.m. (bar close in my current city of residence, Minneapolis), you can, of course, eat at a fast casual restaurant. But the likelihood of running to Panera Bread on your 40-minute lunch break in a burst of ironic motivation seems highly unlikely. Of course, now that I’ve said this, I expect everyone reading this article to announce to their coworkers around 12 p.m. tomorrow that it would be totally absurd to hit up Potbelly and spend a cool $8.50.

Neither does price of fast casual dining lend itself to ridiculous eating: while you’re not signing up for a gourmet meal by going out to Noodles and Company, you are sinking about $8-15 on your food when you could get the same amount for less than five bucks at the Taco Bell across the street. Actually, there probably isn’t a Taco Bell across the street from the Noodles and Company in question because throughout my “research” I’ve found that fast casual restaurants tend to cluster around each other the same way other similarly-priced institutions do. I think of some of my fondest memories: the road trips of my childhood and my family’s options at each stop being Bob Evans, Eat’n’Park or Steak’n’Shake (for a super fun challenge, look up the usual regional locations of these places to find out where my family used to travel in our white Honda Odyssey named Bill that I insisted was a “girl car.”) But I digress: a meal at Cosi requires more than pocket change and, therefore, less spontaneity and less potential for yuks than a trip through the Burger King drive-thru. 

But the price can’t be the only thing holding us back from making fast casual places the site of ironic joys. After all, pricier casual family dining chains such as Applebee’s and Perkins have served as a pilgrimage site for twenty-somethings looking to people-watch the poor slobs who frequent such joints (I’m allowed to say “poor slobs” because I used to go to Baker’s Square every week in high school to sincerely enjoy Free Pie Wednesday surrounded by octogenarians) or attend the world’s most unlikely “adult” venue. I’d suggest taking a look at artist Dorian Electra’s well-documented fascination with Applebee’s to understand the wondrous potential for the absurd in the world of family dining. Bennigan’s and Big Boy maintain Disney-levels of seriousness about the wholesome fun they offer to families, providing room for customers to make their own fun around these institutions. Chipotle senses its own comic possibilities and once offered its customers free food on the condition that they show up as silver-wrapped human burritos on Halloween. Again, fast casual is serious but not na├»ve: it can predict the end of the joke before we do.


In fact, in the fast casual dining I’ve “researched” (as in, ate at and asked my Chipotle and Noodles and Company employee friends about, my own food service industry experience being in a concession stand at a hockey rink) in the past few months there lies a sinisterly banal undertone: “eat less-processed, more-ethically-obtained food here!' they say. "Work at our company and make a career out of it! Sit back, relax and enjoy—we won’t rush you the way McDonald’s might.”

But what do we make, then, of the fact that Chipotle’s CEOs make more money than the vast majority of chief executives in the country’s largest 100 companies? What do we make of the sterility of the decor (which deserves a study to itself), the selectively chosen hip and friendly fonts, the Twitter campaigns and the buddy-buddy feel between management and customer that seems to pale when we realize these qualities necessarily fall under the backdrop of a corporate world dependent upon capitalism and hierarchy? My best answer is that if my interest mainly lies in how hard it is to eat “ironically” at a Chipotle, Fazoli’s or Culvers, perhaps what we really ought to delve into is just how the management at such places disallows the irony because it beats customers in their own race.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Mona Lisa's Got You All: Bradford Cox and the Death of the Author

"Using all the contrivances that he sets up between himself and what he writes, the writing subject cancels out the signs of his particular individuality."- Michel Foucault from "What is an Author"
"When you hear music, after it's over, it's gone, in the air. You can never capture it again."- Eric Dolphy 

Although Bradford Cox, the singer/guitarist of Deerhunter and sole member of Atlas Sound, makes hypnotic music that conveys an easy familiarity with the rock and roll tradition, he is notorious for being interminably opinionated and a difficult interviewee- this was satirized in a video where he gets psychoanalyzed. That video plays on the suspicion that his unfiltered thoughts, while always entertaining, could only be understood from a psychiatrist’s distance; similarly, his music sounds very vulnerable, not because his delivery is unapologetically nasal, voice-cracky, or out of tune, but because his voice, mixed low and drenched in reverb, constantly threatens to disappear into the wash of sound.

This dampening of the voice is related to his overall aesthetic:
 “If I could just put the stuff up there, and remove ego and name and possession from it, just to have immediacy...if there could just be a direct, like, route from my brain to instruments to the audience…”

Cox thinks his status as a creator impedes his ability to express himself. He laments that he has to preoccupy himself with presenting, packaging and distributing his music. Michel Foucault expresses comparable sentiments in his 1969 essay "What is an Author?"- which leaves its titular question open. "What is an Author" is Foucault's response to the 'death of the author', an event which used to dominate the French intellectual scene. For Foucault, recognizing the 'death of the author' meant recognizing that someone's biographical information, taste, and emotional proclivities were no longer useful criteria for analyzing a work. Rather than rendering authors anonymous, the 'death of the author' renders them irrelevant; discourse, even artistic discourse, operates according to its own rules- it hardly matters whose name is attached to what. The immediacy that Cox strives for is ultimately impossible because familiarity with a discourse- in this case, Cox's familiarity with rock music- doesn't allow one to mobilize discourse to be especially effective or expressive or descriptive; it instead exposes the artist to the irrelevance of their own human interiority to discursive practices. Foucault writes, "Discourse is not life, its time is not your time...". Cox's lyrics reflect this, for instance on "Disappearing Ink", where he seems to blame external forces for compelling him to write. The song is totally self-referring but can only be understood in terms of its 'unfolded exteriority'; the lyrics themselves make it clear that the circumstances they were written under are irrelevant:

I got a message/ Can you guess what it said?/ Drive alone/ Drive straight home/I did as instructed/ Closed my door and locked it//Sat and wrote a letter/ I described the weather/ And the scene/ Remembering/I forget tomorrow/ All sickness and sorrow/ Disappearing ink/ But the words still sting/ What was I thinking?/ What was I thinking?”

Many of his songs include similar intimations of the futility of human effort and the uselessness of curiosity (how many poverties were interrupted by learning how to read? he asks). Despite his seemingly pessimistic ‘message’, his music is still very popular- and deservedly so, given how oddly comforting it is. If Atlas Sound and Deerhunter were placed in genre confines, they would likely be labeled shoegaze or dream-pop; their music washes over you but never really sinks in...

The lyrics on "Agoraphobia" describe a dream about being locked in some kind of deprivation chamber:
"I had a dream/ No longer to be free/ I want only to see/ Four walls made of concrete…I'd lose my voice, I know/ But I've nothing left to sayNo echo in this space"

Implying that we are living in a world where our own pronouncements are already-ephemeral echoes, where the condition of our speaking is that we speak into an echo chamber, Cox advises that we do as he does- blather on. On "Nothing Ever Happened" he sings, “Focus on the depth that was never there/ nothing’s easy, nothing’s fair”.