Thursday, April 18, 2019

Playlist for the Dead World

No one is united

There are a few other blogs out there that post about how music affects how they write. Some post what goes through their head when typing out an action scene or maybe what might play in the movie version of their work. This can be fun for some, but that's not quite how I picture music when it goes through my brain, or when I write.

That isn't to say music isn't fun, one of my favorite bands is the Stray Cats, after all. But because of the strange situations I found myself in during my life my views on it began to change.

When I was a younger dumber kid I used to travel at least three hours a day and all I had was my CD player and at one point, regrettably, an iPod (that's a long story I will not go into) to keep me company as I walked, rode both buses, and took the good old underground transit to get to my destination. About all I was missing was a ride on a train and plane to complete the set. Nonetheless it was a very isolating experience riding alone in a crowd through the city.

But what music helped me do was pull me out of my comfort zone as someone trying to ignore the world around me. Trapped in a moving cell it gave me little choice but to pay attention. I hated the world, didn't like my life situation, wasn't fond of people, and was a general edgelord moron. Eventually, in what seemed like pure chance at the time, music did change my life. It opened a crack and allowed me to face some of the worst aspects of my situation and the modern world and finally made me grow up.

This isn't the goofy teenager in high school trying to listen to the coolest and toughest music I could to stand out, or the boy who mimicked the radio and really wanted to fit in. I began to understand just how powerful music could be in a way that matters.

And I'll be upfront about it: my music of choice was never really metal. I know there are a lot of metalheads who come by here, and I do admit that I like some myself, but it's never been my music of choice. For one, the satanism was embarrassing for me even back as an agnostic. It was either pathetic Boomer-ish "I hate you, Dad!" slop or hipster-style irony which is even more cringe-worthy. Of course not all metal is like that but the other issue I have is that the music is constantly loud and the instrument variety is lacking outside of the occasional keyboard. My issue with listening to most metal albums is that I get bored rather fast.

That's just my very peculiar taste talking. It can be very invigorating to listen to.

There are a few bands that did directly affect in that being trapped alone on a moving prison cell full of bodies and dealing with some heavy stuff in my life allowed me time to think. And no, political songs didn't do it for me. Neither did rant songs about religion or specific issues that align with a political party ticket. If Jello Biafra's voice didn't make me want to smash my head against the bus window his try-hard lyrics would. Milo Auckerman did what he did with a better voice and lyrics that hit a lot closer to home. You can relate to others by still being yourself and not having to force a viewpoint down the listener's throat. Message fiction can exist in music, too.

Case in point, one of the first songs that really affected me, and I think many people a generation older than me was this one.

Are you satisfied?

It's not a love song. It's not about drugs. It's not even really a rant. It's Paul Westerberg talking about his life without giving any details about it. This was released back in the '80s long before I heard it and back at a time when most people thought the world was looking up and getting better. But he says something different.

I didn't know much about the band when I heard that album, which is still one of my favorites. I didn't know that Westerberg is a Catholic*, that Bob Stinson had a drug problem and OD'd only a decade later, or that the band was a staunchly traditionalist rock band that hated MTV, music videos, and even CDs. I didn't know that the band was ignored by radio because of their abrasive sound and uncomfortable lyrics that cut deep in ways pop listeners didn't like at the time. They did this without shoving anything down the listener's throat.

"Are you satisfied?" is a lyric that hits lot harder than "Are you experienced?" but one is a lot more uncomfortable for radio to advertise than the other is. It is not an easy song to listen to if your insides are a mess. Something not there on the surface amidst the glam of a better era.

To be sure, I only think rock music does this. Rap is either party music or political rants and tired whining about the streets. Metal is either loud triumphant declarations or lame satanism. Jazz is meant for you focus purely on the sound, same as Classical. Modern pop music is fluff meant to empower the listener with lies about being special in a world where drinking yourself to death and being a slut amidst a sea of hedonists is a way to find meaning. Rock music can engage in all those as well, but you don't see many groups that try to find a bit more to life beyond the surface. Few take advantage of what they have.

Marshall McLuhan called rock the music of the city with its loud and distracting sounds, and that's how it represents modernism so well. When modernism has been such a failure it is up to rock musicians to portray it as it is. And some do it, and do it quite well.

Is it someone who looks down from above? With a view of the rain

Urge Overkill was another band that had that sort of affect on me. During my music hipster phase I consumed much terrible junk that I was told was great but actually wasn't at all. Amidst that torrential downpour of mediocrity I stumbled across UO right in the middle of it.

Their history is strange. They started themselves as a hipster indie band that was an ironic goof on the excesses of '70s rock. As a result their first two albums are pretty much trash with few highlights. A bunch of noise, winking, and posturing. But eventually their desire to be real and genuine pushed them forward out of the indie scene (and pissing off a lot of people who deserved it, like Steve Albini) and forming a proper sound. Their first major label album, Saturation, was a genuine rock n roll record with clever lyrics that had no problem skewering excess and hedonism. It did this while still providing plenty of pop hooks. The song Positive Bleeding, for instance, is about being so liberal and free that you can choose when you want to bleed and die and how wondrous that fact is. Nonetheless, the album is still their most popular and quite excellent.

However, it was their second major label release (and for many years, their last album) Exit the Dragon that really did a number on me.

After the success of Saturation in the early 90s when alternative rock was at its commercial and quality peak, the band fell victim to its own success. They became what they were originally parodying. Drug problems, drinking into blackouts, and crushing depression nearly killed them all. Now they understood exactly what they were making fun of and it wasn't as funny as they thought.

What happened was that they put out Exit the Dragon in 1995 right at the end of the alternative explosion, really signalling the end of the genre. The album is completely unlike anything they did before. It starts with the first track acknowledging the existence of evil and ends with the final track about death and ascending to the afterlife. The album is a journey through rock bottom and clawing out and reaching at the other-side at the end and finding hope in what comes next. This is not something Nirvana or their peers could ever write. I enjoyed the album so much I even wrote a post on it a few years ago.

But the album is not very comfortable, despite its sound being their most accessible, both of which contribute it not being as liked by their hardcore fans. There are a few jokes here such as Need Some Air poking fun at the writer's own paranoia and crushing fear of the modern world, but there are no more parodies. There's no satire. Evil exists and it wants to kill you. Until you accept that you will never escape the pits of despair or a world that cares nothing for you. That isn't the kind of rebellion the record companies approved of.

At the same time I discovered the second (and best) Violent Femmes album, Hallowed Ground. While the band was mostly a jokey bunch of wiseguys having fun writing songs about girls and teenage stuff, their second album is about death by sin and choking pressure of the evil of the world. It was nothing like anything else they ever did before or since. Outside of one track being about girls (which honestly does not fit here) there is nothing that the band is known for. And yet it is their most powerful work without question.

I was so glad when I died

Of course because of this unpleasantness, the album is routinely ignored. The above song is never even included in any of their compilations despite being their best track. There is a bit of a pattern with the music in this post.

It was Kurt Cobain who made "darker" music more acceptable, though he did so the John W. Campbell way of stripping out the Gothic, the soul of the rage against the modern age and replacing it with a hollow facsimile of what came before. In this case he took out the justified anger, the rich sounds, and unique song writing of a deeper tradition, and replaced it with his bleak hopelessness, sick fetishes, and generic pop punk sound. He made rage corporately approved. It's no coincidence that every band inspired by them is garbage. Cobain made for a good pet rebel in making others think he stood for something righteous. That's what the labels wanted you to think and they cashed in big on you being unsatisfied.

And, if you noticed, they never sold you the cure.

That was the early '90s when record companies tried to cash-in on the fall of the modern world by slapping a flannel dressing on it, throwing in some generic rage, and manufacturing nihilism for the youth without the cure for a decade. Soul Asylum even wrote a song about it. Chart topper, of course.

This post isn't about those bands. This is about those who weren't content with just sneering and rolling in the sty as if it didn't affect them. After the '80s there were a few groups that managed to strike at something outside the acceptable target zone. If it wasn't about killing yourself through hopelessness it was about killing yourself through hedonism or blaming certain political or religious groups for their troubles thereby missing the mark. There was no hope of escape from this self-fulfilling trap. But a handful did break the mold.

Newer bands of the '90s such as Blur or the Hives managed to write songs that went a bit beyond the typical pleasure-seeker or misery porn tropes. The former helped jump Britpop as a reaction to the slimy pit of rock music at the time, though that eventually went full hedonist in response by decade's end. The latter aided in kickstarting the garage rock revival a decade later though label interference prevented them in really putting out as much as they could have. As a result I don't think either band really had as much success as they could have (though the former was very popular in their native land) with Blur's most famous piece being known as the "Woo Hoo" song.

It was almost a parody of what they were.

This isn't to say fast paced fun songs can't give similar experiences beyond throwaway thrills. For instance I was into Green Day before they became a political mouthpiece, though most of the "punk" movement lost their way at the time, as well. We were all miserable and searching for hope. Then when political parties exchanged the world was just fine again! Everything was all better! Funny how that worked. All you need for inner peace is to vote the right way. So simple!

Once these bands betrayed their rage as being from a political party and religious group instead of a sign of the times I instantly lost respect in them. They missed the forest for the leaves. They were posing. The songs that reach far past political party lines to strike at the heart of the issue to unite groups are the most powerful. You are more than what you vote for or against. A slogan is a sentence, not a way of life. I thought these bands knew this.

Those who reached for more could still do it within the bounds of a fast-paced pop nugget.

Anyway, I ain't got no place else to go

I'm choking on the silence and I want to scream out

Say something. Say something else.

She was still awake

Doomsday visions of commies and queers

Can't control the state I'm in: go back in line and repeat it again

If any of that sounds depressing to you it's because it should. This is supposed to be the Blues: where Rock came from. A way to deal with the grime of a world soaked in sin by a cathartic expression of noise. This is what made the music click so well with an audience who understood things aren't as they were meant to be.

The world is a mess and things as they are remain utterly hopeless. It will never satisfy or be good enough. It's a wasteland. Things are bad and they're getting worse. Those who create a career playing a secular music style will have to face the fact that there is nothing waiting at the next bus stop and eventually you will run out of gas stranded in a desert with people you don't know. Perhaps being trapped in such a unique situation allows us the grace of understanding it in a way our thick skulls would allow it to sink in.

None of these bands are saying any of those messages are good things. In fact, they all agree that things are terrible. This is the most honest way to portray a purely material existence. For a rock band they are tasked with singing and writing songs about the world around them and connecting with us in the audience. Were they honest they would either have to sing songs about sex and drugs and pretend that is all to live for or they would have to face the fact that none of that really means anything at the end of the day. You're going to need something more, or you're going to begin looking at nooses to wear.

Raging against suicide culture is the most moral thing to do. That might be why those bands all helped me through tough times while those like Cobain and his ilk in the corporate approved pack only made me sicker. It was also probably why no bands with that more honest message were ever given any radio play, and never will.

I think you can trace this to pop culture's treatment of rock music itself. While mergers and payola ultimately killed rock in the mid to late '90s I think there was more to it. The '70s was filled with fun music about hot girls and having a blast with the guys, but by the '90s Gen X was out into the world they and were being too honest with the state of things. They didn't want to sing songs about the wonders of heroin or whisky or whores when the world was burning down around them and no one appeared to notice the flames. As someone in Gen Y who saw things getting worse and worse and didn't see any hope, I related to what they were putting down. Perhaps a bit too much.

Then when Nu Metal and Bubblegum pop filled the airwaves as if plastering over unsightly holes in the drywall with trash like N*Sync trying to put the genie back in the bottle most of us finally lost the last shred of hope. This really was a dead end. The record labels pounced and purged the bad thinkers and that is why gangsta crap and build-a-bear pop straight out of 1998 is still all the mainstream labels put out to this day. They want you locked in a cage with despair and hedonism. Can't let pesky truth get in the door.

Now rock music is a memory, pop music has remained unchanged since 1998, and the industry is still trying to pass out sugar-coated cockroaches and garbage to an audience that has long since walked away.

As I write this I do remember the attitude of music fans being rather dour throughout the '00s. To this day I have never met anyone who didn't grow up in that miserable time ever seeing that decade as anything good. Especially in regards to music. Most of my music choices during that time came from the '80s and '90s with a few choice pre-Beatles bands for good measure. Did audiences tune out because music stopped being honest and began being used as social brainwashing instead? A perusal of your average pop "hit" these days would easily answer that question.

Go to sleep, wake up, have fun, then go to sleep again. Work sucks, right? Well maybe that one night stand will fix that itch. But don't worry because the weekend is just ahead and you can have all the junk you can jam into your body then. Don't think about it and just keep smiling.

This isn't a way to say that fun music does not have its place. It absolutely does. Music from before the British Invasion did this quite well. There's nothing wrong with escapism at all, but the pop music of today isn't escapism. It's delusion. A way to paint over the cracks while glorifying what caused them in the first place and encouraging deeper fractures. It isn't meant to raise anyone, but to keep them down and asleep at the wheel. It is music for a dying society.

True escapism in music is from those who aim for higher things. Raging against death is noble, but so is celebrating life. And life is about more than going through the motions in order to be able to afford a coffin when you're dead. The love of true romance, of better days, and of the big questions, is worth your time. That is what pop music does best, and hasn't in decades. Might be hard to get across with the same group of corporate-approved songwriters for every single song and from singers who are completely without original thought or ambitions.

I can give you examples of exciting, lighter music meant to lift the audience. There is plenty of it, even if it doesn't feel like it these days. There is a way to be honest and uplifting without having to rage at the way things are. But no one knows how to do it these days.

Something calls to me, I know

Will I not pass the test?

I think I know some things we never outgrow

This is where we're coming from, and we're not the only ones

This was a bizarre post meant to highlight how music can affect writers in ways beyond plot or character ideas, but in how it can shake you awake and inspire in whole other unexpected ways. I've been big into music since I was a kid, and although the candy-coated Boomer stuff of the mid-'60s and early-'70s has long since fallen out of favor with me I am amazed at how powerful music can still be.

Inspiration is not an easily quantifiable thing. I don't listen to a song and get inspired to write a story. I listen to a song and it gets me down a mental track that allows me to have inspiration. Though I suppose this works with any piece of art. As it should be. Art is a conversation, after all. We're all speaking to each other here, no one is in a void. No matter how much the record companies wish it were so: no one listens to music to indulge their vices--they do it to connect with others.

We aren't a bunch of strangers alone in a crowd hoping to just get through the day so we can get to the next one. We watch shows and movies about others struggling to get through far worse than what we do. We listen to music hoping to be inspired to greater heights beyond these. We hope and we dream to escape the wasteland.

Who knows what sounds we're dying to hear that we just can't yet imagine? There's much more to experience. It's going to be grand, and satisfying.

Now it's time to fill up all the cracks inside of me

*Interview here. I recommend reading it for a glance at what Rock was at the time, and how some music critics were. For instance, the '90s music critic hatred of hot blooded rock n roll is alive and well with the dismissal of their very influential early albums as "unexceptional" only in recent years to rate them up there with their classics. Nonetheless it is a good interview that touches on good questions and subjects.

Relevant excerpt:

Do you think growing up Catholic affected your songwriting at all?
I suppose it did, because it affected my life. It affects my way of thinking and everything. I mean, I’m still a religious person. I believe in God, although I never sit down to write “God” songs. I have my belief, and my faith, and I keep it private. But I try to live right and treat people fairly, so I suppose that comes through in the music.

I had a feeling most of the later and post-Cobain punk, rock, and grunge acts were missing something he had. Not one of them could write about social decay like he has then turn around and write a cheeky track about a cute cashier or a love song someone he saw once on a sky-way. None of them can make a bright and big hard rocking song like this:

I think big once in a while

Full lyrics for this one, because they're needed:

Yeah, kid, it's a-really hip 
With plenty of flash and you know it 
Yeah, dad, you're rocking real bad 
Don't break your neck when you fall down laughing 
Donna, wanna, Donna 

Yeah, I know I look like hell 
I smoke and I drink and I'm feeling swell 
Yeah, I hear you think it's hip 
But Rock don't give a single shit 

Yeah, man, it's a-hip, you know what I'm saying 
It's a-hip, you know what I'm saying, and I hear it
My heart aches, it's a-looking for a lolly
Looking for a dolly, can't you hear it? 
Wanna be something, wanna be anything!

Yeah, I know I feel this way 
But I ain't gonna never change 
Yeah, I hear, I think, I know 
Rock don't give a shit, you know 

You're my favorite thing 
You're my favorite thing 
Bar nothing! 

I think big once in a while

And without that love Rock is dead.

For now.

1 comment:

  1. Loved this post. I found it when searching some Violent Femmes info for a project. I too LOVE Hallowed Ground. There are some deep connections between the self-titled debut and Hallowed and the following album. The depth of pain is very clear but unknown in the first album and stated as existential dread (sin/suffering) in Hallowed, while it gains some life and bitterness in Blind. I love the juxtapositions and strangeness of the Femmes' catalog personally.