roaring20s2
Illustration by the author 
Entertainment

Welcome to the New Roaring 20s

From rappers peddling crytpo to boxers fighting YouTubers, excess is the hallmark of the post-Trump era. Is it just covering up the same old inequalities?
June 23, 2021, 5:19pm

Leave it to Tyga to encapsulate the totality of 2021 in a single Tweet. On June 3, the Los Angeles rapper announced that he would be investing heavily in PAWGCoin, a jokey cryptocurrency project modeled on the recent DogeCoin boom with the ultimate goal of creating an NFT market for nudes. 

Usually, when a new digital asset launches, its creators issue a whitepaper explaining what the cryptocurrency is, how it works, and the ways in which it can be used. These things are generally written in academic language and contain a lot of math. PAWGCoin’s whitepaper, meanwhile, was more like a photo-heavy PowerPoint presentation—one that offered very little in the way of technical information, plans for how the money raised by the sale of PAWGCoin would be used to bring the project into reality, or basically any evidence that PAWGCoin’s creators weren’t running a bald-faced scam. 

“Our team will close partnerships with the highest level of talent, create the dopest viral media content, and throw the most exclusive private events,” the whitepaper proclaimed, adding that the private events would be held at PAWGCoin’s palatial Los Angeles headquarters (which may or may not exist), and also be used as fodder for said dope viral media content. Elsewhere, the whitepaper announced, “WE MAKE CRAZY PROMISES, BUT WE ALWAYS FUCKING DELIVER!!!” (To the project’s credit, its logo—a pink peach emoji wearing a thong—is quite memorable.)

If you can point to a more of-the-moment thing than an obviously sketchy cryptocurrency attempting to simultaneously rip off DogeCoin and OnlyFans while throwing in some empty promises about NFT markets and quasi-Hype Houses for good measure, I will film a video of myself eating my own shoe and put it on the Blockchain. But then again, maybe this is just par for the course at a moment where everything feels fresh and new and the decade contains the number two, prompting pundits to herald the arrival of the “New Roaring 20s.” 

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Coronavirus cases are down, meme stocks and crypto markets are up. It has been nearly two fiscal quarters since Donald Trump left the White House, the sun is out, and I, personally, am ready to party. There is an exuberance in the air, as though we’ve emerged from a year spent getting poorer and sadder, alone, ready to get richer and happier, together—not through organizing and collective action, but by getting so irrationally excited about some random bullshit that it magically becomes worth money.

Seemingly every day, new millionaires are minted in strange ways—through selling their rare childhood Pokemon cards, landing high-profile deals with venture-backed creator economy platforms, creating and trading NFTs, betting the farm on a single unlikely stock, or investing heavily on (or in) Coinbase. Within this exciting new world of abundance—in which a genuine and hard-earned feeling of renewal is augmented by a sense that there’s money out there for the taking, as long as you know where to look—there have been a few very public winners but mostly anonymous losers, and a perhaps even greater cohort of those whose participation in these cutting-edge economies simply allows them to scrape by. We wanted Bernie Sanders and Medicare for All. We got Joe Biden, historically high home values, and a LinkTree in our bios. 

“Today, the power Covid had over our lives is shrinking and the power we have over our lives is growing,” David Brooks, the New York Times columnist and professional cornball, told Boston University’s Class of 2021 last month during a commencement speech last month in which he threatened to attend a Cardi B concert before actually invoking the phrase “Roaring 20s.” "The image that comes to my mind is recess," he said. 

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On the surface, the Roaring 20s boosters have a point. It really does feel as if we’re stepping outside for the first time in months, only to discover that the tectonic plates have shifted below our feet, resulting in strange new formulations all around. In the introduction to his 1968 book The System of Objects, the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard (sorry) theorized that technological evolution functions like language, with a seeming tendency to act of its own accord. The more activity occurring within a space (say, automobile R&D or the world of Pokemon card trading), the higher the likelihood that the objects within it will reach a state of “functional incoherence.” Their meaning evolves as if of their own free will, sending out frenzied and chaotic signals in the process. 

In the case of the specific cultural turn we're living through right now, we get something like this: mass unemployment causes us to scrounge around the house for shit that might be worth money, leading to Pokemon card prices skyrocketing, leading to the rapper Logic dropping $183,000 on a holographic Charizard. Months later, this culminates in  Logan Paul wearing his own holographic, first-edition Charizard on a big-ass chain as he enters the ring to fight Floyd Mayweather in a $49.99 pay-per-view boxing exhibition. (Not to be out-zeitgeisted, Money Mayweather wore a hat with the OnlyFans logo on it. He also likened his humongous payday for the event to "legalized bankrobbery.")

So are we due for a Roaring 20s redux, with semi-legal weed in place of prohibition, people who are really into the word “aesthetic” instead of flappers, and TikTok as an online analog to Weimar Germany’s cabarets? Yes, but only if you accept that the 1920s kind of sucked. 

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In her book The Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s, historian Lynn Dumenil writes that “the aura of wealth” that defined the decade “obscured a highly skewed distribution of income that placed the bulk of the country’s assets in the hands of the few.” She adds that nonetheless, "the 1920s were marked by a sense of prosperity and a get-rich-quick mentality, evident not only in the stock market but also in giddy land booms in Florida and Los Angeles that reflected prosperous Americans’ sense of a new era of unlimited material progress.” Which, like, have you looked at home values lately? Sheesh! 

And though the world was no longer dealing with the tumult of the previous decade—World War I, the Spanish Flu epidemic, and the Bolshevik takeover in Russia—it’s not like the day-to-day economic reality of most Americans was that different. Instead, as Dumenil notes, the 1920s were “distinguished by Americans’ growing consciousness of change, a perception that a yawning gulf separated them from the world of only a decade before.” (Italics mine.) 

Just as the “Roaring 20s” referred more to a collective perception of the decade than a genuine shift in the way people lived, one could argue that the cultural giddiness playing out today is merely the frenetic culmination of a number of long-gestating processes. 

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For years, the collapse of work and play has been pushed down our Millennial throats. We’ve been told that we could find meaning in our copywriting gig by wearing Everlane sweatpants to the office and finishing off the day with a company-provided IPA in exchange for being constantly available to read through a marketing deck even when we’re out of town, taking some of our unlimited (and therefore actually non-existent) vacation days. Combine this with the decade-plus we’ve spent on social media, commodifying our leisure time and hobbies while providing free content for goat-slaughtering billionaires, and it’s no wonder that now, as COVID-19 lifts and our Trump-anxiety subsides, it’s NFTs and OnlyFans all the way down. 

At the very least, the idea that we can game our way to the top offers an alternative vision of the future to the one promised by the ever-expanding gig economy, which seems to remind us at every turn that our bodies and our time are the sole products we have to offer, worth only as much as the invisible hand says they are. But as these new modes of paper-chasing become normalized, the small number of success stories they yield serve to obscure the ways in which they simply put a futuristic sheen on the same old inequalities. (Did you know, by the way, that only ten percent of content creators on OnlyFans make more than $1,000 a month?)

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Today’s dominant narrative is that everything is sort of a grift, and that you can make money doing literally whatever as long as you buy in early and get out before the bubble bursts. And predictably, this Silicon Valley mindset has started making its way into pop culture—perhaps most noticeably in hip-hop, where it naturally provides plenty of fodder for all sorts of lyrical stunting. For example, on the song “Sorry Not Sorry,” from DJ Khaled’s new record Khaled Khaled, Nas raps, “Winner in life, fuck a coin toss / I’m coin-based, basically cryptocurrency Scarface.” 

It’s a particularly grating example of what Pitchfork’s Alphonse Pierre termed “Venture Capitalist Raps”, and it’s one with teeth: Queensbridge’s finest was an early investor in the crypto trading platform Coinbase, which went public in April, debuting at $250 per share. Analysts estimate that Nas’s initial investment of $100,000 to $500,000 is now worth anywhere from $40 to $200 million in Coinbase stock. It makes sense that Nas seemingly half-assed his verse on the track. If I had that much money, I wouldn’t be trying nearly as hard as I am to make this piece good.

It’s exciting to invest in speculative assets or participate in largely unregulated markets because anything could happen. You could make a million dollars off DogeCoin because Elon Musk tweets about it, or you could buy too many shares of the $2 billion New Jersey hoagie store on margin and end up owing Robinhood hundreds of thousands of dollars once everybody who isn’t you decides to sell their shares. All of this, of course, is not necessarily good, and in fact it can be very bad in mind-bogglingly chaotic ways, which I will illustrate by invoking a pair of white rappers, neither of whom is Chet Haze

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In April, Eminem took his rightful place among the ranks of Grimes, Steve Aoki, and Lil Pump by adding his name to the list of celebrities selling NFTs. Like most celebrity musician NFT drops, Em’s collection included some exorbitantly priced GIFs set to a few seconds of original music. But it also contained an item that I found genuinely interesting: an original Eminem beat, two minutes long, titled “Stan’s Revenge” and available to the public for $100,000. 

Given that the NFT format is essentially a fancy way to assign ownership of a digital asset, the move gestured toward a future in which online beat marketplaces, which have contributed to such hits as Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” and Desiigner’s “Panda,” use NFTs to assign and track the digital rights associated with instrumentals. This, like other music-focused projects in the NFT space, is an interesting example of how artists might leverage blockchain technology to provide some automated governance to the space, such as by ensuring royalties for producers of breakout hits. 

Or at least that’s what we could have talked about, had the beat been purchased by literally anyone other than Tom MacDonald, the turgid Canadian MC who has risen to prominence by taking the undercooked platitudes of the Intellectual Dark Web and filtering them into songs with titles like “Fake Woke,” “Cancelled,” and “Snowflakes.” At times, MacDonald can feel like an unstoppable force of reactionary dumbness: Despite his monosyllabic flow and stadium-rock choruses, his “the most rebellious thing you can possibly do is follow the rules” schtick has gotten him air time on Fox News, a shout-out from Ben Shapiro, and a Twitter follow from Donald Trump, Jr

After dropping $100,000 on the instrumental on the Nifty Gateway marketplace, he used it as the backdrop for a song called “Dear Slim,” uploading the video (itself an homage to Em’s “Stan” clip) to YouTube with the words “PRODUCED BY EMINEM” smack-dab in the title. “I offend an awful lot with topics / Commenting on race and politics / I’m pretty awesome,” MacDonald raps on the track, later adding: “I really hope when I bought [the beat that Eminem] wasn’t angry.” 

The casual, self-aware intricacy of “I’m Back,” this ain’t, but that’s not the point. The point is that Tom MacDonald bought an Eminem beat on the open market and used it to make a song that really fucking sucks, and there’s nothing that any of us, even Eminem, can do about it. Despite being about as edgy as a literal sphere, “Dear Slim” is an absolutely goddamn insane song, in the sense that it’s insane that the thing exists at all. It is wholly and alarmingly a product of the 2021 mindset, in which money, virality, and the spectacle of publicly gaming the system end up becoming stand-ins for actual value. 

Then again, that’s the new Roaring 20s for you. Everyone’s making money, and anything is possible. But is that necessarily a good thing?