Genrecore: The Smooth Hell at the End of Music

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I came of age during our slow glide out of cultural biodegradation. Filesharing dredged up an entire seafloor’s worth of cultural objects in a quick gallop of years. I could finally find TAD’s Inhaler or Melvins’ Gluey Porch Treatments, records that I couldn’t find in hardcopy anywhere, but which I read about in rock histories and encyclopedias. Simultaneously, “poptimism” overthrew “rockism,” a shift in critical music values that valorized anew musicians and genres (80’s pop, boy bands, etc.) previously scorned as “phony” or “inauthentic.” Nothing need perish, be forgotten, un- or underappreciated. The era of cultural total recall opened a rift through which things could reappear, but never disappear. My first cultural memory of these two tendencies weaving together comes from an episode of Gilmore Girls, in which Rory attempts to write about how file-sharing was changing music. This leads her to a dork’s room where he’s obsessively downloading rare yacht rock live albums. “Have you heard the new Interpol record?” he asks her. “It sounds like Joy Division mugging Tom Waits in an alley.”

Hardware caught up to the glut: iPods. Since you could fit your whole music library onto your iPod, more or less, everyone became a music collector, curator, organizer, scavenger. Two culturally definitive love scenes from the era center around both the “cool collector” persona the technology abetted and the portability it afforded: the waiting room scene between Natalie Portman and Zach Braff in Garden State when she “changes his life” by letting him listen to “New Slang” by The Shins (2004); Pam and Jim in The Office listening to “Smile” by Travis on Jim’s iPod in the second season (2005). A new private, social experience became available: a soundtrack for your own life, for any moment (with greater variety than previous portable hardware offered). Early personal blogging platforms catered to this: livejournal and its ilk offered bloggers a window to enter the “soundtrack” for the posts. And, of course, if there’s a soundtrack to your life, you’re the star of your own show—an emergent cultural teleology with its own repercussions that I won’t get into here.

 

We were lucky—an endless buffet of options, the music industry in shambles, no gods, no managers, a new, insurgent media class of tastemakers moved in to stake out the new turf—and we knew it. Steve Albini, who infamously lifted the veil on how major labels screwed small bands over during the alternative boom during the 1990s, in a 1993 Baffler essay titled, “The Problem With Music,” declared, “ the internet solved the music problem ” in 2014 talk of the same title. “Imagine a great hall of fetishes where whatever you felt like fucking or being fucked by however often your tastes might change, no matter what hardware or harnesses were required, you could open the gates and have at it on a comfy mattress at any time of day,” he invited. “That’s what the internet has become for music fans.” And it was better for musicians too: more access to fans without the suits back at corporate telling you how to part your hair and then making off with all your money. Thanks, Spotify!

There’s an understandable credulity here: Albini imagined the marketing terrain of the 1990s survives. It does not. The internet, especially since the dawn of social media, has brought its own problems. Narrative, personality, and atmosphere make for the trinity of marketing today—a relatable/likeable (and non-aspirational) story of the brand, the brand’s “personality” and “public” behavior on social media, and the aura that the two former elements, when combined with the product itself, make for. Take, for example,  Starbucks, which now needs more than just Howard Schultz’s mythology to keep its marketing department effective. It must be like someone you know, a friend, an acquaintance. And what do your friends do? They listen to music. So now Starbucks needs its own playlist. But who’s going to provide that? Spotify. And this means some bands are going to experience increased visibility because Starbucks has made them part of its branded playlist for people who read the phrase “Starbucks branded playlist” and say, “Hey, that’s for me.” So much the better for the brand—er, the band.

 

But back in Albini’s day, Starbucks would have had to get permission, some sort of licensing deal would have been struck with the band or whoever owned the rights to the song. Spotify doesn’t need that. So, if you’re a musician, Lockheed Martin’s “Highflying Hijinx” playlist can feature your music and you wouldn’t even know it. Spotify simply puts you on the playlist and collects the paycheck from Academi or whichever corporate entity solicited Spotify for access to its millions and millions of users. Liz Pelly calls this “ the automation of selling out. ” If the iPod made its owners cool, “crate digging” music collectors, then Spotify gave the same gift to brands. After all, the glut can’t stay the glut forever. Or rather it can, but it needs some editorializing. And that’s part of what Spotify offers companies and consumers alike: we have the playlists you crave. And it’s not just for brands. Spotify works around the option paralysis built into its library of Babel by algorithmically sorting and compiling music recommendations for you. But in order for these playlists to remain lucrative, they can’t push you too hard. Thus the game has its own incentives: if you want to make money, don’t make anything challenging. Make it “chill,” unobtrusive. Pelly writes:

“Spotify loves ‘chill’ playlists: they’re the purest distillation of its ambition to turn all music into emotional wallpaper. They’re also tied to what its algorithm manipulates best: mood and affect. Note how the generically designed, nearly stock photo images attached to these playlists rely on the selfsame clickbait- tactics of content farms, which are famous for attacking a reader’s basest human moods and instincts. Only here the goal is to fit music snugly into an emotional regulation capsule optimized for maximum clicks.”

 

This incentivizes the creation of more music that sounds like other music. Or music that fits neatly into specific genres, can be easily hoovered up and sorted into various playlists. The effect is something I call “genrecore,” a phenomenon I’ve noticed in punk for a while, that now appears ubiquitous as a result of various platforms algorithmic needs. Genrecore can be summed up in the following formulation: better and worse iterations of familiar musical themes. Mathier mathcore to twitch to, trappier trap beats to flex to, etc. More of what you like with more of more of what you like thrown in there with it.

Genrecore simultaneously cancels and confirms two avant-garde tendencies: on the one hand, it cancels the “traumatic interventionism” of avant-gardism, meant to expose or legislate a Truth; on the other hand, it confirms the production of what Boris Groys calls “ weak universal ” forms. The avant-garde’s project, as Groys sees it, meant to discover the visual forms beneath every other visual form. Think Malevich’s Black Square, which reduces “the image to a pure relationship between image and frame, between contemplated object and field of contemplation, between one and zero. In fact, we cannot escape the black square—whatever image we see is simultaneously the black square.” What the avant-gardists did for abstract shapes, the streaming services have done for musical genres. The weak universal of “chill” or “beast mode” or “moody autumn.” Genrecore even pulls from Duchamp’s “ready-made” strategy by using already existing music for its ends. Spotify aims to reduce musical expression into categorized, redundant playlists it can package for corporations looking to expand their cultural cache and for listeners who don’t want to sort through an endless trove of music to figure out what they want to listen to. This strategy increases their profitability and helps subscribers overcome the overwhelm we’ve come to expect from our vertiginous exposure to millions of choices.

 

But whereas Groys sees the paradoxes and difficulties in who can be considered an artist versus who can be considered a spectator, music in the age of streaming services exemplifies a broader cultural aesthetic, one Byung-Chul Han describes as “smoothness.” Smoothness is Brazilian waxes, touchscreens, the facades of all those blocky apartment complexes realtors vomit up as sign and signifier of gentrification. “What is smooth does not injure, ” Han writes. “Nor does it offer any resistance. It is looking for Like. The smooth deletes its Against. Any form of negativity is removed.” Works of art represent “obstacles to communication,” and must, therefore, be stripped of their difficulty. Implicit in smoothness is repetition, sameness, or what Han calls “the inferno of the same.”

Anyone who’s worked in retail where Spotify or Pandora supply the music has experienced this hell: a long, eight-hour blur of undifferentiated songs made flat (or smooth) by their placement beside each other. Diversity without Difference. Welcome to the cereal aisle of music consumption, where there’s no specific “sound” to genrecore, because anything can become genrecore once it’s uploaded into the streaming world.

To make things worse, Spotify understands exactly what it’s doing and as it strives to replace record labels, it now has its own record label, which so far pushes moody Billy Eilish knock-offs—a genre Pelly calls “streambait.” They’re there for brevity, click ability, repeatability, money. As we gaze into the algorithm it gazes back into us. While the human hand removes itself from the music experience, it reasserts itself downstream, altered cast in the likeness of its own digital creation. And so there’s a shift from individual artists or bands of musicians to genre itself. Frankly, it doesn’t totally matter who makes the music, just whether or not the music can be assimilated into Spotify’s playlist buffet. Eileen Myles pointed out that the transition from modernism to post-modernism can be summed up in a change of question: from “could a child do this?” to “whose child did this?” Neither seem to matter anymore—so where are we now?

But so what? Haven’t labels always catered to the lowest common denominator? Isn’t that what pop music is all about? Sameness sells and genres are largely a marketing tool anyway. Old story, new characters.

There’s truth to all that, but the consequences of genrecore loom large. First, there’s an increasing disposability in music, and thus fandom; second, music ceases to be social and becomes something solipsistic; third, we now live in a world where there’s novelty without newness.

A few years ago, Patton Oswalt wrote a prescient feature for GQ on a phenomenon he called the “weak otaku.” Otaku, of course, translates from the Japanese to something like geek or fanboy. Oswalt points out that the gate kept cultural output from his youth was now broadly accessible, that people didn’t have to “work” to find something anymore, and so fidelity to and depth of appreciation for cultural works writ large has thinned or weakened. By the close of the piece, Oswalt welcomes a kind of cultural acceleration of references that congeal in something like Ready Player One . But anyone who has suffered the book or experienced the film recognize there’s no hope to be had here: it’s a gyre of references that reward the audience for catching them. They signal nothing beyond that. You’re given a dopamine hit for being a good consumer.

It is that cynical.

The weak otaku phenomenon belongs to music now too. The torrent of musical output drowns listeners, no doubt. The “Spotify solution,” or the “YouTube recommends solution,” or what have you, streamlines the process for you. But without some kind of work, without some demand on the listener to seek for something, to aspire towards some kind of new, authentic engagement with music, the default position is kinda liking that thing you heard on your For Fans of Sufjan Stevens playlist that you thumbs-upped but can’t quite remember—anyway, you thought it had a good melody.

If fandom has atrophied, certainly artists are hurting. And if music is more disposable, then it’s harder to stick around and make a living at it.

As mentioned above, the playlists are tailored to your liking. Whether Spotify, Pandora, or YouTube, the idea behind the algorithms is to show you what you like for you—though YouTube’s algorithm seems convinced you might also want to talk reactionary politics for a spin regardless of your other interests. The problem here is that listening to music becomes solipsistic and self-referential, yet another quality of the smooth hells Han describes. I’m never surprised by, nor upset by anything recommended to me, as I’ve said. I “like” what’s on offer. I don’t love it—love being an authentic, life-altering experience to have with any art. Instead, it’s like I bear witness to a bizarre sonic expression of a self-portrait, but reflected in a Jeff Koons photo. Or, perhaps more apt, a portrait of me painted by the Google DeepDream AI that makes everything it generates like a psychedelic dog collage, because, well, dog photos are the most common thing stored on the entered. Portrait of the listener made out of dogs.

 

What do we make of a world of novelty without newness? How has capitalism failed so handily at delivering one of its main objects? The response to this, in almost every avenue of American cultural, has been nostalgia. Remember that thing? Remember that other thing? Oh, man, but what about this thing? Remember that? More and more, it seems that making everything broadly available to everyone at all times made all of us look backward.

What else could we possibly have to say now that everything, even the dead, incessantly speak all at once? And for how long can we possibly listen? Forever?

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I Can’t Remember; I’ll Remember

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The diligent leaf-blower guy my apartment complex hired does some serious work near my ground floor bedroom window every other morning. And once I’m up, I’m up. Usually an hour or more before my partner, too. So, I spend most mornings staring at the ceiling or reading the news or switching off between the two. Recently, I was flipping through the News app and saw an article about how Benji and Joel Madden, the twins behind pop-punk band Good Charlotte, make for such dutiful and loving husbands to their celebrity wives. I live in L.A. now, having spent the vast majority of my life in flyover country (suburban Illinois, rural Vermont, North Florida, New Mexico), and reading celebrity news feels sobering. When you’re in line at some cafe with Leonardo Di Caprio at his most wizened, being famous looks like a wretched lot with some mansions thrown in. I’ll take anonymity, thanks. Plus, the whole industry of fame is a cynical crock of shit and incredibly fucking boring. You can’t live here and feel differently about it. So, really, this article was about guys who were in their twenties and in the public eye and who’ve passed the breach of their youth to find themselves as happily married as anyone can expect to be. Hardly news. Also, who gives a shit about Good Charlotte anymore?

But this happened during the “I can’t fall back asleep” part of my morning, so I snatched my headphones from the nightstand and decided to watch the video for Good Charlotte’s “The Little Things.” It’s the typical suburban American fair: some white high school where kids have their own cars and no one feels like they fit in and hey here’s the lead singer taking to the school’s PA system to sing the truth into the ears of the student body at-large, a truth every adult figure featured in the video wants to suppress even if the song sounds as controversial as lining up for a class walk to the drinking fountain. (Even Deftones have a video like this. It’s a genre unto itself.) It could have very well been shot in my hometown.

Sometimes the insight that you arrived on the scene after the party and just before the fall of the empire comes on strong and sometimes that sometimes is at eight in the morning on a Monday with the leafblower guy going to absolute town on the shrubs outside your window. What a trough of shit was sold to my entire generation our whole lives–especially when we were kids, I thought to myself. Good Charlotte sounds genetically engineered for otherwise responsible, normal kids with divorced parents to feel rebellious to. It’s musical tourism for kids who want to hedge their bets about being “an individual.” But I kept watching Good Charlotte videos thinking about the death of the avant-garde and the taming of adversarial aesthetics by corporate hegemons until I stumble on a video entitled DO TEENS KNOW 2000s POP PUNK.

The gravediggers of the American psyche throw up videos like this all the time–a kind of low-rent dopamine hit for people who want to minimally disturb what Sartre noticed was a tendency to objectify and be objectified by others. “Oh wow, others feel a way about a thing I also know about?” Well, I’m one of those people, so I clicked.

The viewing experience disturbed me.

I work with teenagers now, so Gen Z no longer shocks or surprises me in the ways it’s different from my Millenial generation. I think what surprised me was listening to Newfound Glory, Yellowcard, Green Day, and a few others and thinking, “Yeah, if I were these kids I would not be able to tell the difference either.” In fact, I was singing along to a lot of these songs with my partner the other day and it didn’t dawn on me then; I’m truly a product of my time.

But the thing that really weirded me out was how familiar these kids were with the music I grew up with. I wasn’t really a pop-punk kid. I was definitely an insufferable record store dweeb who spent hours organizing his iTunes library. But you couldn’t help but hear mainstream music because the big record labels had yet to die and radio was still present as a corporate organ in everyday life. One kid says, “Man, I’ve definitely heard this song at Target.” I don’t remember what song he was referring to, but I had to stifle a laugh. Pop punk sounding like Target music and Death Cab for Cutie turning out to be the new adult contemporary are contemporary twists of fate that the snobby, sixteen year old me couldn’t even cook up. It’s beyond even a Don Delillo dystopian pre-imagining.

But so many of these kids knew these songs and artists. Some of them even had experiences with them, had been molded by them. I had this feeling at Warped Tour when I covered it for Invisible Oranges last year. Nothing fucking dies anymore. Yesterday is always inserting itself into today in a way I find disorienting and bleak. I think it was Baudrillard that pointed out that because computers can’t forget anything, they really can’t remember anything either. The point is that in order for there to be some kind of development or moving forward there has to be a toggling between presence and absence, specifically presence and absence in your view of the past. Mark Fisher brings this up in the opening of Capitalist Realism when he glosses T.S. Eliot/Harold Bloom:

The new defines itself in response to what is already established; at the same time, the established has to reconfigure itself in response to the new. Eliot’s claim was that the exhaustion of the future does not even leave us with a past. Tradition counts for nothing when it is no longer contested and modified. A culture that is merely preserved is no culture at all […] No cultural object can retain its power when there are no longer new eyes to see it.

Fisher’s pointing to a stagnation in Western culture (perhaps global culture as well, but I’m too ignorant of the rest of the world to say such a thing). We are, in his words, “incapable of creating surprises.” A lot of this, to my mind, has to do with the perpetual presence of everything that came before us. Film critic Nick Pinkerton said something like this on an episode of The Red Scare podcast a few weeks ago. That he can’t point to a time before now where so much of the past shows up in the present. What’s surprising when you have a kind of cultural Total Recall? What’s new when everything happens all the time forever in front of you? The answer: nothing. There’s no newness just claustrophobia, and endless accumulation of trinkets and detritus from the junk heap that makes for the majority of America’s cultural contribution to world history. Everyone is a librarian in Borges’ Library of Babel, which contains every possible permutation of every book–both Joyce’s Ulysses and Ulysses with a “g” tacked onto every word and so on and so on ad infinitum. Except instead of Ulysses it’s Spawn and Battle Toads. 

Couple this with the entertainment industry’s algorithm death roll: flooding old brands with new money until they drown in a glut of cash saturation. Pinkerton also brought up how absolutely chummy Star Wars fanboys were that Disney now stewards the brand. Like me, he could give a fuck about Star Wars, but Jesus, at least you could point to George Lucas and say “That guy did that,” instead of the Zerg Overmind that helms whatever boardroom groupthinking the next undead, unscrupulously amiable and uninteresting reboot into existence.

Yesterday, while I was listening to that podcast episode, I was driving down Ocean Avenue, the eponymous street of the Yellowcard song featured in the DO TEENS KNOW video. I think of that song every time I drive down it. Here’s what I didn’t know when that song came out: how insanely wealthy you have to be to live in that part of Santa Monica. You have to be the kind of marketing exec who has done shit like design the 360 marketing campaign for Yellowcard’s big break. So, I rewatched the “Ocean Ave” video and I couldn’t help but notice the lead singer’s pink tie and I thought about how new wave came back around when I was growing up and new wave was all about skinny ties and matching suits and making yourself more palatable than punk. What’s really changed since Reagan? Not much.

I decided to watch one of Good Charlotte’s latest videos. The premise is that they disappeared in the desert for years to find themselves and came back to an empty world wherein they’re the last band ever. The video concept plays on the “how things have changed” shtick their song centers around. MTV was better way back when rappers didn’t sing, rockers didn’t DJ, or w/e. The chorus is about drinking a forty as if no one does that shit anymore. And in a way, Joel and Benji are right. Those things are, or at least appear to be, different. And it’s an incredible self-own, a confession of their own impotence and irrelevance. “Who we are doesn’t exist anymore.” But then I think about how divorced everything feels from temporality now and the eternal present/undying past that lets things like Ready Player One and Good Charlotte persist and how bizarre it is for the dudes from Good Charlotte to whinge about how tame things are now. As if they were these bleeding edge artists ever at all as if they had anything remarkable to say in their heyday beyond, “Wow dude my dad walked out on me and that kinda sucked bro lmao get those hearts going I’m just out here in Anaheim with my homies.”

The thing I really can’t shake is how the title to a Bright Eyes song, whatever the song’s content, sums up so much of being alive now: “We are nowhere, and it’s now.”

Shake the Sheets

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I bought Ted Leo’s Shake the Sheets a few months after its release–which would have been early 2005. I picked it up at Val’s Halla Records in Oak Park. This was the original location that smelled like Marlboros, dog piss, and dust, right off the Green Line. I spent hours there after school, usually Friday nights, talking to the two guys on staff, James and Shane. Shane was a big goth guy with a penchant for Steely Dane. His hair always looked like a bomb went off in his face and he chain-smoked all the time. James was the token gangly punk dude who was in a band called Blasted Diplomats. And it was James who got me into all kinds of bands. He was my second access point to the punk canon.

Anyway, when Shake the Sheets came out I had no idea who Ted Leo was. I was moping around the shop with what little money I had from my weekend job at Gem Comics. James recommended I pick up the album. James was a human library of music info and a lot of it centered around rock’s underground history. But at this time, poptimism, the reframing of pop music history from the perspective that pop music was serious and should be appreciated as such, was gaining steam. Rockism, the old guard’s view that rock was the lens through which pop music history should be viewed, was dying out. Goodbye Lester Bangs, hello Pitchfork.

It didn’t dawn on me that this was happening. Rockism was how I implicitly viewed the word without knowing it thanks to music journalists/historians like Mike Azzerad. I bring this up because I got a hold of a large portion of my CD collection from high school and I’ve been listening to this record a lot lately. These were the last few years when indie cred might have actually existed. But it was in its twilight. It was also Bush’s second term, and that’s all over this record.

I put Shake the Sheets on recently to see what it was like to listen to something that was, for me, totemic of the Bush era now that Trump’s president. We were at war. The administration had a startling carte blanche to do whatever it wanted and that was confounding for almost everyone around me. Weren’t protests supposed to end a war? What kind of contract had we with the state anymore? Why didn’t it matter that everyone knew Operation Iraqi Freedom was a crock of shit propped up on grandstanding and lies? And who elected this dumbass–twice?

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But Really It Was Like That

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I work at a bookstore. I try to stay as far away from the kids’ section as possible. Not because I have anything against children’s books, but because it is an organizational nightmare. Despite my efforts, I often have to shelve there. I found a book written in the 1950s, maybe, by some curmudgeon. I can’t remember the title. It praised the boredom of childhood. Boredom, the argument went, is the impetus for all that is creative and independent in children. Unsupervised kids find a way. On some level, my parents concurred. Their parenting style boils down to what my mother terms “loving neglect.”

I don’t disagree with the premise. Staring at the wall and milling around empty cul-de-sacs looking for something to do was instructive. It prepared me to be a writer, a dubious profession that entails a disproportionate loafing/writing ratio. And it taught me how to notice. My childhood was not overscheduled like many of my friends’ lives. I didn’t have a crisis of parental absence in college.

Yet the drawbacks are clear. My mother grew up in Detroit where neighborhoods were cohesive social units, even if they were fraught. My father grew up in Georgia where the same was true even if neighbors and schoolmates lived farther away. Some of this was true for me. We lived two doors down from Washington Park, something I’m grateful for. My childhood best friend, Evan, lived behind me. I was not isolated, is what I mean. There were block parties.

Still. American suburbia is a disconnected space. There was never a sense that we did indeed live in a community. Suburbia is also non-evental. I believe these things are related. In her essay, “The Importance of Being Iceland,” Eileen Myles writes, “Really, if you travel here outside the interesting American cities and ignore all the natural beauty of our country you’ll see that America is rapidly becoming this place which is nothing…” There is, I confess, little natural beauty to acknowledge or ignore in suburban Illinois. There is a quality of sameness. In Zizek’s Welcome to the Desert of the Real, a collection of essays about 9/11 and its aftermath, he draws an interesting parallel between Cuba and the post-industrial West, of which, I would argue, American suburbia is the symbol par excellence. While, in Cuba, time seems unmoved because they repair and rebuild what they already have, time also seems unmoved in the post-industrial west because of the obsessive process of making everything anew. “In Cuba, revolutionary mobilization conceals social stasis; in the developed West, frantic social activity conceals the basic sameness of global capitalism, the absence of the Event…” Anyone who came of age in the sweet-spot of post-Glass-Steagal repeal and pre-2008 financial meltdown can easily recognize this. Safety and peace in America are defined solely as an absence of threat and an absence of conflict, respectively. Suburbia was meant to be the safest and most peaceful place in the world. In such an anesthetized and antiseptic milieu, what did it mean for things to happen?

Safety and peace in America are defined solely as an absence of threat and an absence of conflict, respectively. Suburbia was meant to be the safest and most peaceful place in the world. This concealed much more than a “sameness of global capitalism.” In such an anesthetized and antiseptic milieu, what did it mean for things to happen? I’ll spend more time developing the problems of “eventalism,” concealment, and disconnection in suburbia, or “The Suburban Question,” as I call it. I plan on giving it its own series as I do more research. The question, for now, is small. And maybe, at first, silly. What does any of this have to do with Mirah’s album you think it’s like this, but really it’s like this?

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The Molony Files #1

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I was president of the arts and letters club in high school. Club IDEA–Ignatians Determined to Express Art. Mostly it involved a variety of dejected kids of varying social capability screwing around with art supplies after school. The most serious thing we did was a cringe-inducing gallery showing coupled with a live performance. My thing was slam poetry, then in its heyday. I loved music more than anything but had zero chops. I hated and envied every guy I met that could actually sing or play an instrument. The live performances were the only time my writing could ever hold a candle to what music did. Otherwise, it was just me sitting alone in my room doing this dumb thing that didn’t make girls like you. There’s a Wells Tower story where someone describes himself as “a bumblebee trying to fuck a marble.” That feeling has always marked my relationship with the written word. Now, it’s the difficulty of it that sets my teeth on edge. Back then it was the privacy of the whole endeavor. For me, Club IDEA was rife with all the pettiness and exhilaration endemic to adolescent desire.

Every club had an adult “chaperone.” If you were club leadership, you had to meet with the chaperone if you wanted to get anything done. It’s hard to imagine anyone kinder or more supportive than Ms. Futerer, our chaperone, in the Development Office. Once I was elected president, I had to make my way up to the offices behind the fourth-floor library. Here’s a photo of that, by the way, because it’s bananas to think that this is where I went to high school.

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Tom Molony’s office abutted Ms. Futerer’s. I had to walk passed his desk to get to hers. After my first meeting up there, I saw a messenger bag with a familiar logo on it.

“Is that  an Alternative Tentacles bag?”

He turned and cocked his head, “You like punk?”

“That’s a Social Distortion jacket.”

“Can you be here this same time tomorrow?”

“I have this period free.”

***

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Sucks to Be You

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The internet was still pretty new when I was a kid. AOL sent you CDs in the mail. Livejournal had just come out. Myspace hadn’t happened yet. In fact, when I was in junior high you had to have an invitation code for livejournal. That wasn’t the case for deadjournal. I had one of those for maybe a year, then livejournal opened up its gates. Sites like Pitchfork were also in their nascency, though in a few years indie music sites became a kind of cottage industry.

This is all to say that finding new music was a different experience. Maybe more direct than it is now. I don’t know if that’s bad or good. But there was something, looking back now, I cherished about the experience of discovering new stuff.

I spent a lot of time pouring through rock encyclopedias, pulling out weird looking CDs at Borders and used CD stores wedged into anonymous strip malls, and trying to find other kids who looked like they were into similar stuff. This third one was really important. If you looked normal, you probably were normal and into Top 40. But if you had plaid bondage pants and a mohawk, then like-minded people found you and you found them.

That’s how I found out about Rock Hard Video. I floated between the metalheads, the punks, and the indie/emo/posthardcore kids. I was hanging out with the metalheads, probably watching gore movies at this kid Dan’s place, when I heard about RHV. We’d pile into Dan’s basement and watch stuff like Black Christmas, Bad Taste, Dead Alive!, the silent film version of Nosferatu someone found in a bargain bin that had a bunch of Type O Negative tracks dubbed over it.

Rock Hard Video was hosted by a blue collar Chicago dude named Mark Mensching. He played metal videos, popular and obscure, foreign and domestic, for an hour or two on Saturday nights on Channel 18. In between, he’d run these goofy segments called Mark’s Stupid Death Files (which was later named Sucks To Be You), Word of the Day, and fake/real request phone calls.

He actually makes a Wayne’s World joke in that Stupid Death Files video.

I loved this show. I didn’t always like the music, but the fact that I got exposed to so much through it was enough. I first heard Danzig, Type O Negative, and Children of Bodom there. But I also liked how it was this secret thing no one else knew about. No other kids at school, since I went to Catholic school while most of my friends went to public school, watched it.

Though, at some point, I did stop watching. Maybe this was around when I got really into indie rock, and then underground hip-hop, and then hardcore punk. I don’t know, it’s all a hellish blur of shifting wardrobes and musical obsessions. I think Mark stopped airing the show during my first year of college–2008 maybe.

This show is still a secret in a lot of ways. Not only was it local, I’m not really in touch with anybody from that scene. Last year, when I moved out west, Dan reached out to me. He and I played in a shitty metal band called Grimoire. For a while, after high school, he was a men’s fashion model. Every once in a while I’d see photos of him from Korea or Germany floating around. Because he’d been one of my heavy metal reject friends, and because we all saw ourselves as broken weirdos, it had never occurred to me how handsome he is. Now, he lives over in Colorado Springs with his wife and kid. He works construction and still has that dry wit that I always loved.

A few years ago, during one of my college summers, I bumped into Tim and Janes. I think it was Janes that introduced me to all of them. Wilder Park had local bands play during the summer. I started talking to Janes because she looked punk and I immediately had a crush on her. And she knew everyone in the scene. This guy Ben Plott’s band played the night we met. That was how I first heard the song “Sweet Leaf” by Black Sabbath. I remember watching this kid with really long blond hair headbang his brains out to it. His name was Bryan and he ended up playing lead guitar in Grimoire.

Tim was really into shit like Nile and Cannibal Corpse. In eighth grade, I did a shadow day at the local public high school. I ended up ditching the person I was supposed to follow to hang out with Dan and Tim. In their computer class, Tim kept showing me brutal clips from European gore movies. He liked the look on my face. I remember some dude screaming as a woman cut his stomach open and scarfed down his bowels. Another clip of someone being held down by their neck while someone else plucked out his eyeballs with a No. 2 pencil. The clip that made me laugh was a compilation of people blowing up sheep with RPGs.

I think Tim was wearing a Nile shirt when I bumped into him and Janes at the Starbucks in downtown Elmhurst. They were smoking and shooting the breeze. I remember it was awkward. Tim was painting houses, Janes still lived at her parents.

“I live to get drunk,” she half-joked. Then she flipped open her pack of cigarettes, “Jesus, this might be another two pack day.”

“How’s college?” Tim wanted to know.

“In Vermont,” was about the best I could do.

I turned around and saw the Walgreen’s where we all used to hang out and get older kids to buy us smokes. One time, I saw kids pass out razor blades so they could start cutting themselves right then and there. That was on the other side of that Walgreen’s in this small alley.

Did I say anything else? Did they? I wonder where they are now. I wonder why it felt impossible to reach back across time and remember what it was like to spend almost every day of an aimless summer together.

That whole era is hermetically sealed, now, and eclipsed with what came–though it couldn’t have come fast enough for us then, and has inexplicably become simply how it is–hurtling towards us.

I don’t know anyone who has ever been prepared for that.

So long, see you tomorrow.

 

Introduction

A few days ago I was feeling blue. I put on some old punk records from when I was in high school to cheer myself up.

My online presence, especially on twitter and facebook, is mostly memes and shitposting. I had a smoke out on the balcony of where I live now and thought maybe I ought to put something else out there.

So, for a few hours, I posted nothing but youtube links to half-forgotten Chicago punk songs and albums that built the world up around me when I was milling around Elmhurst, Illinois as a teenager.

I don’t really know what I expected. Part of me felt embarrassed; it felt self-indulgent for a whole host of reasons. But a fair amount of people responded and told me I should do stuff like that more often. Taking a look at how little fun a lot of my daily life is (fun is not the most important thing and is not the same as fulfillment), and how much fun I had writing those posts, I decided to reboot this blog. That’s why it has a horrible url; a few years ago I wanted to start a political blog. Then I moved to New Mexico, started grad school, and now get paid to write stuff like that every so often.

The project of this blog is not nostalgia. I don’t wistfully wish I was back in high school. Those were not good years. Being a kid is terrible and I don’t trust anyone who says otherwise. But I am interested in things that slip through the cracks and how often that can happen to one’s own life.

This is a way to remember. This is about having an account of oneself. And this will mostly be about music. I remember Jeff Tweedy said that he wanted Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to sound like that space in between your favorite records. I’d like this blog to be that, but for memory and song.

I will post bi-weekly.