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The Holding Court Issue


Riffing is like mutual masturbation. It is essentially the small talk of anyone who, at some point in their adolescence, learned how to throw dice about their thing, whatever that may be, music or movies or whatever, instead of having regular...

Illustration by Penelope Gazin

Not to be so high drama about it, but my life changed in July of 2011. That was when the Wugazi album, a then-clever mashup (that word is like being visited by waves and waves of the coldest fremdschämen!) of Fugazi and Wu-Tang called 13 Chambers (get it?) came out. I definitely cared about the album, and about Doomtree, the collective that put it together; in the abstract and in the particular this is exactly the kind of dense and sweet internet-treat thing that I want and want to talk about. Also, this was like six months after the Swedish band jj’s Kills mixtape was released, and it felt like there was real flow—like psychology researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow” of a perfect cohesion of ideas and labor, not like rap flow—to be found in mashups (AAAAAHH!) sometimes. So. So whatever. I’m at an office, not mine, talking to my friend Chris about Wugazi. I stop midsentence, my uneven smile-dimples collapsing. The moment was so whole and complete that I might as well have been framed there in the room by two vectors of fading green-orange sunlight, that day’s and my dumb youth’s martini shot, as I saw the conversation we were about to have like a long, familiar tunnel, and I turned around and walked away, done with riffing forever. Riffing is something like mutual masturbation (coincidentally, saying “riffing is like mutual masturbation” could make a cool riff). It is essentially the small talk of anyone who, at some point in their adolescence, learned how to throw dice about their thing, whatever that may be, music or movies or whatever, instead of having regular conversations. Social, jokey, and jockey, peer-on-peer riffing is the casual and ongoing assertion of opinion, specifically for some specific think-scene, which might be between two people, or a silky thread of smooth talk between a zillion strangers on the internet, endlessly one-upping. Its first and most important requirement is that there only be a finite number of people who are invested in getting it and who can relentlessly evolve a given riff-thing. Riffing has a real purpose. Yes, it’s fun to have the best joke; it’s fun to be joke-bested, unless your ego is disgusting; it’s fun to exchange these kinds of intellectual Eskimo kisses with my friend Chris. But, most often, the purpose of riffing—spinning these one-offs, one-liners, one-notes—is the assertion itself, rather than any insight behind what is being riffed on. Riffs are about what is suggested, rather than what is said. Riffs never really achieve the dynamic of true criticism or conversation, and instead move ever inward, toward this low, gaping interest in both giving a little self-aggrandizing, but maybe entertaining, demonstration (about what you know, what you read, what you saw, who you are) and getting noticed for it. Riffing is, by necessity, about distance and being at least one step removed: familiarity without challenge. And, not to be so high drama about it, riffing is more of a boyish thing to do: the currency of a certain stripe of guy is always going to be shared, external, measurable interests, and being better at them. Completist and competitive, riffing is the language of so many friendships, obviously girls included, especially girls-among-guys, or girls immersed in the kind of culture that is only a half-generation removed from a social order of dominating maleness, even if it no longer feels that way all the time. Choosing not to participate, because you already know what you think and don’t care what your Chris proxies have to say (mean/fair) or participating with the fulsomeness of someone who cares so, so much, feels like a revolutionary choice within the world’s respective shit-talking communities. It was soon after I walked away—so fucking rude!—from my friend that I realized it was because I didn’t want to spend any more time as the kind of person whose social value has to do with ephemera, with sanctioned humor, as processed and refined as white sugar, and knowing about something because it is new. I also noticed, then, how rarely people say in those same peer-spheres something like “I’m wrong.” Not “I was wrong,” an a posteriori apology, but “I’m wrong,” or “I don’t know,” or “I’m not interested,” instead of laying down some trope about a band. Apart from that last thing, which can serve as a jocular power move on the riffing circuit, it is this refusal of vulnerability that makes riffing such a sinister friend-force; crafting all those looping nuggets, ready to be tossed out and traded, monotonous and tidy, relieves us of the pain and responsibility of the complexity of modern life, even in these casual, quick moments, and of thinking harder (and weirder, and slower) and then subjecting our friends to our bigger, wronger, and ultimately—I promise, I hope—better ideas. This is all so far removed from the internet’s influence, exemplified by the fact that people were riffing the same way when DOS was still a going concern (riffed!). But maybe it gets worse, with a riffer’s and the internet’s age and ensuing confidence. Last year, the writer Emily Gould tweeted, “For a long time as a younger person I mistook conversations for pop quizzes about my knowledge of various topics. Sorry about this everyone.” Girl, don’t be. Everybody does it. More of Kate’s Li’l Thinks can be found at

Previously - The End of High-Low