He remembers denim, leather and a crossfire of baked potato and filet mignon.
It was the end of the ’70s — more than three decades before he would open Le Diplomate, that gleaming new French bistro on 14th Street NW — and restaurateur Stephen Starr was running a cabaret in Philadelphia called Stars. That night, with punk rock antiheroes the Ramones gracing his stage, rowdy fans sent the entrees sailing across his dining room. “I knew that was the end of mixing music with food,” says Starr today. “But now it seems to have come full circle.”
When that circle started to close is tough to say, exactly — somewhere between the cataclysmic birth of Napster and our sudden, universal hankering for pork belly.
Over the past decade, we’ve seen the rise of the foodie class and decline of the record industry. Are the two related? When did we start talking about new food trucks instead of new bands? When did the line outside El Centro D.F. taqueria get longer than the line outside the Black Cat? Is $8 a reasonable price for an order of duck fat french fries just because we can stream our music for free on Spotify?
We’ll have 11 or so hours to gnaw on these questions during Saturday’s Sweetlife Festival at Merriweather Post Pavilion, the fourth annual mega-concert thrown by Sweetgreen, a D.C.-born chain of salad restaurants. The day-long event features music from 22 acts, including Phoenix, Kendrick Lamar and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, plus noshables from dozens of vendors, including DGS Delicatessen, Luke’s Lobster and chef JoséAndrés’s Pepe food truck.
And while Sweetlife is being marketed as a music-and-food-festival-in-that-order, next weekend’s Great GoogaMooga festival in Brooklyn reverses the billing — evidence that food culture isn’t linking arms with rock-and-roll so much as replacing it.
That’s because today’s gastronomical adventures provide the thrills that rock-and-roll used to. New restaurants appeal to our sense of discovery. Our diets can reflect our identities, our politics. For fans of thrash metal and/or live octopus sashimi, food is a way to sate cravings for the maximal, visceral and extreme.
And above all, unlike music, food provides a sensual pleasure that can’t be transmitted digitally. We can’t download a banh mi.
“Cuisine exists in a cultural realm where people can engage in status displays,” says Kyle Rees, communications manager at the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington. “And status items are things that aren’t easily obtained. So if everyone can get music, it loses that value. . . . And the millennial generation, they’re willing to drop the better part of their already low salaries on new food experiences.”
We all remember when video killed the radio star, but if we’re trying to establish that ramen shops are killing the record biz, the numbers are a little blurry.
According to analysis of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent consumer expenditure survey, the amount of annual income that Americans younger than 25 spent dining out increased nearly 26 percent between 2000 and 2011. For ages 25 to 34, the increase was nearly 20 percent. (That’s without adjusting for inflation.)
As for the record industry, it has spent the 21st century in a protracted sequence of death spasms. In 2000, in the fleeting moments before online file sharing would run rampant, album sales stood at more than 785 million units, according to Nielsen SoundScan. In 2012, that number had dropped to less than half at 316 million.
Although it remains tricky to directly connect those two arcs, it still feels like cuisine is stealing music’s role in helping young people forge and declare an identity.
“Food is not just sustenance anymore,” says California food writer Zach Brooks. “It can offer a point of view. It can be super political in a time when music seems to be getting less and less political. What you eat says a lot about what you believe in, whether it’s sustainable farming or GMOs.”
Brooks so ardently believes that food is the new rock, he created a podcast called “Food Is the New Rock” a couple of years back. His first guest was Jonathan Gold, now the Los Angeles Times food critic whose trailblazing gastro-curiosity echoes work he once did as a music journalist, penning profiles of Slayer and N.W.A. “Today, when I write about eating pig uterus tacos, [readers] aren’t disgusted by it, they’re intrigued by it,” says Gold, whose sterling criticism won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007.
“A lot of what we used to associate with music — it being an indicator of tribalism — I think we’re seeing that more in food these days, instead,” Gold says.”If you’re vegan, or a conscious omnivore, or nose-to-tail person, or a gluten-free person — those people get together and self-identify.”
Meantime, many players in today’s burgeoning cuisine culture — chefs, critics, restaurateurs, bloggers — can self-identify as “former music people.” Gold and Starr are just two big names in the mass exodus from rockland to foodland, a migration that has done plenty to help chisel a phrase into our collective marble: “Chefs are the new rock stars.”
And yeah, in 2013, the chefs sport tattoos by the armful while the rock musicians wear boat shoes, but the change in uniform signals a deeper shift.
In American culture, “there’s always been that sort of glamorization of the working class,” says Gold. “The rock guys tried to ride that for a really long time. . . . But no matter how glamorous it is, no matter how much you pay for dinner, chefs are still doing things with their hands. . . . In a time when guitar solos are incredibly uncool, somebody has to be doing something that has a physical manifestation to it, right?”
In addition to fetishizing that physicality, food also provides a sense of regional pride that the culture-flattening properties of the digital era have practically vaporized in music. And that feels particularly prevalent here in the District, where many young Washingtonians tut-tut the local music scene while siphoning off their paychecks on the latest gourmet doughnut.
Locally, the line between food and music continues to dissolve. Eric Hilton is known foremost as a founding member of the electronic music duo Thievery Corporation, but in the past two years, Thievery has released one album while Hilton has helped open five D.C. restaurants. Erik Bruner-Yang used to play in Virginia indie band Pash — today he’s chef and owner of Toki Underground, the beloved H Street NE ramen eatery where Brian Weitz, of experimental pop group Animal Collective, is an investor. The Fojol Bros., a popular street food operation whose employees serve Indian dishes while wearing humiliating costumes, have marketed their business the way a rock band might, earning the attention that plenty of local musicians would die for.
And therein lies the bitter subtext of Sweetlife. Saturday’s gathering includes more than 20 regional food and drink vendors but only two local acts. The foodies may not have killed rock-and-roll, but they’re quietly burying it, in Washington and everywhere else.
The Sweetlife Festival takes place at Merriweather Post Pavilion on Saturday at noon.