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Tired of the Hype, But That's All There Is

Next month, Houston gets to be a cool kid. But only for a week.

Sometime around 1981, a Federal court declared that Topps could no longer monopolize baseball cards. Soon the market was flooded with competitors, each vying with the others with subsets upon sets of special issues, 3D and hologram cards, embossed packs and cheap-o commemorative coins.

Within a few years, you couldn't be sure if your rookie card was a rookie card anymore. You'd look on the back and see that Ken Griffey Jr. or Barry Bonds had played in a handful of Major League games the previous year and think you were in, but then you'd discover that Upper Deck or some such had issued some limited edition card years before, when those guys were still in school. They heard of those guys before you did, you see.

There was a glut in the market. You lost your bearings. Your 12-year-old ass could no longer be that guy who discovered this baseball player with his allowance — you were just a mook with a handful of worthless cardboard and a stick of stale pink gum. Comic Book Guy types who could afford the good stuff hoarded the cred and the kids were doomed to dorkdom.

And look what happened to baseball cards — sales are now a quarter of their peak, card shops are few and far between, and those that remain peddle more Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh! and Magic cards. A couple of years ago, Major League Baseball was reduced to launching a $7 million campaign to remind kids that baseball cards still exist.

"The baseball card industry lost its way because the manufacturers forgot that the communal aspect of collecting is what made it enjoyable," wrote Slate's Dave Jamieson in a 2006 article on the death of that hobby. "How can kids talk about baseball cards if they don't have any of the same ones?"

Granted, a love of music is more fundamental than collecting baseball cards, but there are some similarities. Today's music market is likewise glutted with bands and hype. Being a fan today is confusing, not the communal event it once was. Instead of turning each other on to bands at school and at parties, we each discover groups while alone at our computers. Few are into the same bands at any given time — there's a git in every crowd ready to mock you for being so December 2007.

Cred is all about proximity to cool, and in the eyes of the national scene, Houston and dozens of other cities like it just aren't there. Almost all of the anointed bands have come from a select few resolutely Blue State (or Canadian) cities: NYC, SF, L.A., Seattle, Austin, Minneapolis, Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Chicago and the like — hipster burgs Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger branded as "the Urban Archipelago." Even Dallas/Denton (home of Midlake) and Atlanta (Black Lips) are making strides toward attaining Urban Archipelago cred.

But Houston has never made it to the capital-B buzz-band hall of hype. And we are not alone — right there with us are cities like Phoenix, Tampa, San Antonio, Cincinnati and San Diego. Our colleges aren't as cool as the ones in those other cities. Neither are our industries. We aren't fashionably ­European-looking. We are the fat kid at the prom of cool cities.

And so our native seekers of cred move to Austin, New York, Chicago and L.A. Why? Because all the other cool kids are there.

And instead of working on crafting a regional sound here, everybody wants to either sound like they already live there or move. Wasik noted this death of regionalism in his article. Annuals are from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, like its kissing cousin Athens, Georgia, once a hotbed of jangly power-pop bands such as the db's and Let's Active. The Paisley tie Big Star/Byrds-worshipping scene was followed by Superchunk and the rise of other lo-fi bands such as Polvo and Archers of Loaf.

"Today in Chapel Hill, former members of Superchunk run Merge Records, arguably the nation's most influential indie label — but its bands hail from around the U.S., Canada, and even Europe," Wasik writes. "Annuals...summoned no more excitement in their own hometown than they did anywhere else."

And we might add, they sound like they could be from anywhere. Isn't the indie aesthetic supposed to break with homogenization? If not, shouldn't it?

Meanwhile, the entire universe of cred will soon pass through town, barely tapping its brakes on its way to Austin, Texas's island of cool. Very likely some of us will be able to answer a paraphrase of the question posed by Yeats at the end of his immortal poem: And what hyped band, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Austin to be born?

And are you ready to be sick of them yet?

john.lomax@houstonpress.com

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