For some time, Negra Modelo has been my go-to beer. The shelves are stuffed with variety, but much like metal, most of it straight-up fails by being too proficient.
The big box American beers fail by being perfect products: essentially alcohol-added beer-flavored soda, they please the 90% who are unthinking about what they consume other than noticing that “other people are doing it,” therefore are susceptible to advertising. Then there are about ten thousand IPAs who are unique and well-crafted according to what the committee of people who decide what is important in their profession agree is important, but have one-dimensional taste at a cost higher than that is worth. In the middle is a dwindling number of beers that are drinkable, affordable and for lack of a better term “pleasant” or flavorful enough in an order of flavors that communicates a pleasant drinking experience.
Negra Modelo sits at the price point where an economist would consider it an optimum price/performance ratio, given the ability to exclude most of the rest of the beer aisle for failing to have the three traits listed above. Its dark beer flavor is tempered by notes of caramel and honey, and with its new packaging, it seems to have lost some of the bilious composty flavor that it once had — a taste somewhere between over-ripe squash and nutritional yeast — and instead comes across with a solid, elegant simplicity and cleaner, crisper taste. Whether this is just the distributors managing to avoid leaving the beer in shipping containers in the sun for two weeks, or an improvement in the Negra Modelo process that coincides with the new branding, no one can tell, but the results speak for themselves.
The tragedy of the American beer aisle reminds me of what happened to heavy metal: we are suffering from abundance, but worse, the A-students are now running the game instead of the C-students. To be an A-student, you have to distill the process of learning into a linear activity that involves many small details which are not correlated; to be a C-student, you get the “gist” and then bullshit your way from there. The C-students understand life; the A-students understand how to appear competent to a group of people, which is to say they are masters of the surface, and of no depth. Metal and beer are now made by A-students. The A-student MBAs make the big box American beers by cutting costs to what their polls say are the concerns of 90% of their audience, like politicians or dealers in drugs not yet synthesized. The A-student art students make hipster IPAs that are unique and in themselves, by the standards of the arty beer community, “unique” but they have not assembled the flavors into a single whole; again, it is a list of detail.
In the same way, post-1995 underground metal is now in the grip of A-students of both economics and art. The economics students go over their charts and decide that the punk format is the most cost-effective form for the 90%, and so they make death metal and black metal flavored punk music that can re-exploit old tried and true song templates for new generations. This way, they both invest almost nothing in its creation — an insincere throwaway like politicians who talk about equality or beer makers who target the everyman — and rely on time-tested formulas, like corporate committees who refuse to take risks or politicians who insist on hammering on about the same issues that have always made people feel safe because they are invariant. The A-students make perfect products: the production is excellent, the musicianship good, and the list of details — musical tropes, like licks but on the level of riff paired to drum technique, and parts of songs like one would use when assembling a pop album, such as a catchy chorus, a spacy transition, an emotional turnaround or a charging verse — consists of bits that are executed near-perfectly, but not assembled into any order that communicates anything resembling meaning.
Society is its own worst enemy. People are blockheads who insist, in order to justify their own cleverness, that they can do better by subdividing every task and then agreeing on what the parts should be, thus forgetting the whole because it reminds them of higher meaning, like the untouchable wisdom of nature or the possibility of gods or even the chance that all is totally meaningless and “random” in the universe. They then formalize these parts through education, certification and industry committee, and because they all agree and people keep buying them, insist they have achieved victory. Instead what they have done is import Soviet-level conditions into the American capitalist model of plenty. They can do this because the human blockhead is the only thing that is universal among humans.
In the case of the local beer aisle, I find myself stranded in the midst of toxic plenty. They ruined Heinken and Newcastle Brown by turning them into subtly-disguised versions of the American soft drink beer, so now these are not worth the money, but 90% of the people out there have not gotten the message so keep buying them and will continue to do so for decades until their favorite celebrity mentions that they have been drinking sugar water. Then, they will rationalize their losses, justify themselves as intelligent for having made bad choices, and come up with some clever new reason — think of monkeys breaking into the equipment used by scientists researching them, looking for food or shiny objects — why they are switching to the new hip brand. That brand will be a beer that today is good, but has just been purchased by some smart A-student MBA, who will figure out that if he cuts corners to raise margins, he can sell sugar water to idiots at the same price but at a much lower cost to him, enabling a huge take-home product.
That will destroy the brand over time, of course, but what does he care? At that point, he will be promoted to a new position, where he cuts corners on cars, or satellites, or maybe even medical gear. And the struggle for anything of quality to remain will go on, until the last few intelligent C-students finally throw in the towel, and then it will be nothing but eternal darkness forever in the beer aisle and heavy metal catalogs.