The Village Voice ran the Siren Music Festival — an annual, free, sweaty day of music on Coney Island — for 10 years. This year, they’ve renamed it the 4Knots Music Festival and moved it from Brooklyn to Manhattan’s South Street Seaport. It’s still free and, chances are, still sweaty. Black Angles and Titus Andronicus headline the show, with five other acts. Mr. Dream is a Brooklyn trio that plays the kind of music that will get you through the heat. Their songs are short, fast, and prickly, calling to mind Steve Albini’s lean and noisy production work of the ’90s. The band’s drummer, Nick Sylvester, is also the founding writer of this column. He often used the space to discuss the details of recording with musicians and producers, so I thought it would be appropriate to turn some of those questions back on him, singer/bassist Matt Morello and singer/guitarist Adam Moerder (also a writer who’s written for Pitchfork and the New Yorker). We discussed their use of space, their decision-making process, deciding what stays and what goes. Trash Hit, the debut album they released in March, provoked a lot of these questions because, at times, you almost forget there are decisions being made — the record has a naturalistic and spontaneous feel, as though it simply popped out fully-formed, recorded in real-time. It has the uncanny ability to sound both unsteady and completely self-assured.
Riff City: The first thing I hear on Trash Hit is space, but more like holding your breath space. It’s very tense space. How much of writing and recording for Mr. Dream is taking away or throwing away stuff?
Nick Sylvester: That’s awesome to hear you’re hearing that, the space. Part of it is we’re a three-piece and don’t do much more than broad strokes. We like the sound of “broad strokes,” which means space is a huge consideration — too much, too little, the difference between a chorus that “breathes” and one that, I don’t know, just sounds kinda thin. So a riff either works for us or it doesn’t. We rarely take anything away in our songs, or make it work. We usually just trash the whole idea and move onto the next.
As for recording, I really love the sound of space in records — headroom, I mean, really just when a mix isn’t super cooked. Something like PJ Harvey’s Rid Of Me gets so much of its creep and energy from the dynamic range. The microphones are picking up more of the room at first, and the instruments sound different when the volume jumps. The aesthetic is more inhale-exhale than quiet-loud. A lot of Rare Book Room records have that same quality: Talk Normal’s Sugarland, Sightings’ Arrived In Gold. Anyway, we like records that sound like that.
Adam Moerder: As a three-piece, we were initially concerned with filling out space, so we played barreling punk songs that involved all three of us playing fortissimo during pretty much every beat of every measure. That gets old fast, so fortunately by the time we started working on Trash Hit we were getting a better handle on how to use space, i.e., understanding how it can become a secret weapon instead of this thing that’d expose us as an inadequate band.
RC: As far as using ideas or trashing them — you’ve got such a clear idea of what Mr. Dream is and isn’t. Does that make is easier or harder to be spontaneous?
NS: There are no hard fast rules about what Mr. Dream is or isn’t, at least musically. Nothing is preordained, as far as I know. I tend to trust the moments when all three of us really love an idea, as to whether or not it’s a good one. There’s no vote or anything. To Trash Or Not To Trash happens in a very spontaneous way when we’re playing something for the first time. We never know what we’re gonna like until we like it, if that makes sense. That said, my hope is we’ll be a microhouse revival band by album four.
AM: Ironically, some early versions of my personal favorites from Trash Hit were almost scrapped because we worried they were outside our wheelhouse. Then they became part of our wheelhouse. So I may sometimes feel like I have this idea of what Mr. Dream is and what it sounds like, but that archetype is constantly challenged, usually for the better.
RC: I wonder if any part of the above could be part of how long you all have thought and written about music. Everyone’s their own worst critic, right? It seems like that background would make it impossible to finish anything.
Matt Morello: It’s funny, despite being the non-former-critic in the band, I feel like I probably have the hardest time finishing stuff. Which to me makes sense, since Nick and Adam were only critics (as opposed to people with opinions about music, which is everyone) by virtue of having written, edited, finished, and published a lot of work, to say nothing of all the work they probably junked. So I think we actually benefit from their experience with craft and process, to say nothing of all the time spent listening to stuff and trying to tell other people how it made them feel and why.
I guess people get hung up on the idea that critics are always judging and ranking and, well, criticizing, in the negative sense of pointing out flaws. Leaving aside all the actual annoying bullshit many critics and critical publications engage in — and I mean, let’s not even get started — there’s also lots of insecurity about taste that leads to a “who the fuck does this guy think he is” attitude toward critics. They’re snobs, haters, whatever. And it’s the same question for any musician or artist, you know, “Who the fuck does this guy think he is? What is this weird ego adventure? Why does he think he has anything to say?” Though mostly you ask yourself that about yourself.
I’d guess the answer for most artists and critics is that, when it’s good, it’s really, really exciting. So while we throw stuff out pretty quickly if it doesn’t work, maybe even too quickly sometimes, we also get really, really excited when something does work, and that excitement kind of drives the whole thing forward.
RC: You guys talk a lot about being out of touch with new bands and not listening to new music as much as you used to. How do you think that’ll work now that you’re on festival bills? Doesn’t that make backstage conversation awkward?
MM: Guess we’ll see. We all spent some time in literature seminars in college, so I think we can hold our own when it comes to talking about things we’re not prepared to discuss.
AM: When in doubt, talk about gear. I’ve been in 20-minute conversations backstage that started with a simple “How do you get that distortion?” and spiraled out from there.
RC: You weren’t hearing the kind of music you wanted to hear, so you decided to make it yourself. Does the same apply to Brooklyn?
NS: All three of us have obsessive stan-like tendencies when it comes to bands we love, so recording and putting together bills have taken this to a new level. I recorded a 7” for Sleepies that came out this past April, and my friend Matt LeMay and I just did one with Matty Fasano, who is like a grittier James Blake. Playing bills with White Suns and Yvette, let alone being in a situation where they actually reply to your personal emails, is a big-time thrill.
RC: Nick, this is an interview for a column you started, which I’m guessing feels a little strange. I noticed you asked Escort about their equipment philosophy, and there were those interviews with Chris Zane, Jared Ellison. Were those interview questions part of teaching yourself recording?
NS: Not strange at all! I interviewed people like Chris Zane and Tom Krell (How To Dress Well) about process because I wanted to tell another side of their records. I knew from recording and playing in Mr. Dream that there are a billion decisions that go into a song, and I wanted to show people how some of that stuff worked. Some of my favorite interviews are the ones with Paul McCartney about process, like when he talks about what kinds of lyrics he uses in tonic chords versus what kinds of lyrics he uses on top of dominant chords, or how he came up with the bVI-bVII-I tag for “P.S. I Love You,” and so on. This is what musicians are thinking about when they work on songs, not “does this record adequately convey a sense of the suburbs?”
Of course I wish these interviews could have taught me how to record, or how to write songs, or really anything like that, but you only learn to record by recording, making a shitload of mistakes, A/B-ing your mixes with songs you admire — very hands-on and time-intensive and usually frustrating.
RC: You’re playing a festival put on by your former employer.
NS: I know this sounds flip, but the Voice has only ever been really good to me. At worst they were fair, during all the unpleasantness. I had a bonehead idea, I executed it badly, and for whatever reason they still tried to figure out a way to keep me on staff — the management and many of the editors at the time. Since then, the publication has only ever been supportive of Mr. Dream. Maybe at 4Knots they’re gonna put me in a dunk tank that I don’t know about, or thunderdome me, Mike Lacey, and a plate of sliders, but no, I didn’t have a Mike Jones moment or anything. We’re just thrilled to be playing such a huge festival with so many great bands.
RC: Did you all go to the pre-4Knots Siren Festivals? Have those memories worked into conversations about how you’ll shape your set?
MM: The only Siren Fest I ever went to was in 2003. I was living in New Haven that summer and I’d recently “taken a break” with a girl I’d been dating for two years, so it was kind of this proof-of-agency solo mission to New York. I think it was my first time ever in Brooklyn. It was hot and there were a ton of people, and I waited in line at Nathan’s for a really long time because that seemed to be an important thing to do. I don’t think I knew about the boardwalk, though I had a sense there was some kind of beach on the other side of the stages. The only bands I remember seeing were Ted Leo and Modest Mouse, though I must have seen a couple others. I think Ted’s voice was busted but I remember him putting on a really good, energetic show. Modest Mouse played for what felt like an eternity after a day standing in the sun with a backpack by myself, especially since I only knew Lonesome Crowded West and they were hardly playing anything from it. It didn’t occur to me to leave early, because who leaves a concert early?…
The only other big outdoor music festival I’ve been to was Pitchfork Fest a couple years ago, and it confirmed some of those old Siren feelings, namely that my favorite thing in that situation is a really loud rock band that plays the hell out of a set that doesn’t go on too long. Fortunately, this is how we play every show.
RC: And there’s the most important festival bill question: Will you be the kind of band that takes off their shirts for outdoor shows?
MM: I think any of us is prepared to play without a shirt if that’s what the show calls for, definitely. But you can’t know that kind of thing in advance, it has to happen in the moment. You don’t really want that to be a thing. Look at what happened to D’Angelo — that guy is still waiting to have a normal, non-godlike torso so that doesn’t have to be a thing anymore and he can just be one of the greatest geniuses in music. I would hate to see that happen to Adam.
Mr. Dream’s “Trash Hit” video:
1. This will be the last you hear from me for a while. I will always be grateful to Thirteen.org for letting me write this column. It’s become difficult to keep at it though. I don’t process enough new music to opine on a weekly basis. Of that new music, I haven’t been listening with anything resembling bigger picture, worthwhile copy-generating type ears. This space deserves a critic who actually made it through the Big Boi album.
2. All this became apparent to me a month ago, after the Kanye West album leaked. It was a Tuesday morning, and I had nothing to post for Wednesday. It occurred to me, maybe I should attempt to write about West’s “epic” and “ambitious” and 10.0-rated album — what so many critics considered to be not just the year’s best, but a real pop music landmark. It occurred to me I should probably have an opinion about this record.
3. Then it occurred to me that I didn’t like the Kanye West album. That I might be the only writer I know who didn’t like the Kanye West album; that I could potentially “put a bullet in” the Kanye West album, or show how the Kanye West album existed as the vessel by which Kanye West intended to collect critical praise for 2010′s Kanye West As Performance Art piece; that Kanye West could have put out anything that week, and critics would have praised it, because albums are the locus for assessing an artists’ “art”; that very few music writers have the bureaucratic acumen to place a “review” of an artist’s performance art; that as albums become the symbolic product of Music Celebrities, they become mere ciphers in themselves. The ideas shot out my fingers like lightning bolts. I had puns in spades.
4. Except I had only listened to the Kanye West album maybe eight or nine times tops. Not as much time with the record as I would have liked, but there was this issue of a deadline. (I don’t know how I wrote about music every day five years ago. Or rather, I do know. My process involved a lot of snakes and bucket hats.) I had Something To Say about Kanye West though. What mattered was that I had listened to the album enough to have Something To Say.
5. Then, for whatever reason, probably procrastination, I decided to walk around my neighborhood listening to the album one more time. It was only in motion, that ninth or tenth spin, that the record opened up for me and began making sense. I began liking it a lot. One could reasonably argue it’s the second- or third-best Kanye album of all time. Not my favorite album in 2010, but it’s quite good.
6. Despite that! Despite coming to the realization that, when I wasn’t converting sound into copy, I actually found the Kanye West album pleasurable, I attempted to write a negative piece. It was remarkably easy to write. I played the combo role of Guy Who Likes Kanye West As Performance Art 2010 and Guy Who Hates The Kanye West Album. So much of the pre-existing press about The Kanye West Album was how good it was in spite of Kanye West As Performance Art 2010. The lane was open. My internal monologue ran something like this: Even if I like the album, I still take issue with the way the album’s goodness felt like a foregone conclusion — for reviewers, the least noteworthy thing about the album. This album’s stock move is mediocrity delivered with conviction. To call it “excessive,” meanwhile, would be missing the point. It is excessive by design. This is Kanye being “ambitious.” How do we know? Because Kanye told us that’s what it was months ago. The vocoder solo at the end of “Runaway” is this album’s Rorschach test.
7. Sidenote: I am still waiting for some kind underpaid soul to make the distinction between Kanye West the excellent hip-hop producer, and Kanye West the just average writer of vocal melodies. I would attempt to write this piece myself if I knew I could be paid at a rate higher than whatever some 14-year-old makes working his first job at White Castle. This is not the reality of any music writer’s situation though. A piece like this would mostly serve Kanye West, and people who want to make music like Kanye West, and to a much smaller extent, people who are interested in the tics of West’s music. Not anyone else, at least immediately. It would start from the premise that Kanye West can, in fact, get much higher. It would start from the premise of wanting good music to be better music. Music in this piece would not serve as mere fodder for Ideas Inspired By Music. It would be technical as fuck. There would be no “takeaway.”
8. Instead you get something called “cultural criticism.” And cultural criticism on the internet is mostly a parlor game. It can’t afford to be anything else. It is entertainment for smart people with day jobs. A lot of that entertainment? Pretty entertaining. The ideas it produces are often meaningful on their own. There are Good Guys doing good things. Most of it is noise though — digital artifacts from the conversion of sound to text.
9. But right now I feel like I’m not one of the Good Guys. I’m dangerously close to becoming another noisemaker. Another person on the internet who writes about music he hasn’t fully processed — not even “about” music but “in the vicinity of” music. I am in grave danger of being slightly more full of shit than everyone else. My best idea about music this year is to stop having ideas about music. As for Kanye, I am glad I didn’t pull that trigger.
10. No one speck of noise does an artist in; rather it’s the slow, suffocating accumulation. Apples and mangos, but cf. M.I.A.’s MAYA LP. In the spirit of year-end listmaking, many critics have attempted to give this thing a reappraisal. Great critics actually. Brandon Stosuy, Zach Baron, Sean Fennessey, Rob Harvilla. These are the Good Guys. Friends whose work I take seriously. For context: If Kanye’s year was a p.r. coup, M.I.A.’s was non-stop calamity. These critics contend that her numerous p.r. catastrophes colored her album’s reception; that there existed a herd mentality among other critics, who took the opportunity of MAYA to rate M.I.A. and not her music; that the non-stop internet coverage and counter-coverage of said p.r. catastrophes made it impossible for people to approach the album on strictly musical terms; that, as these malformed opinions proliferated, most people couldn’t even hear the album. Six months later, listening to the album with fresh ears, they only want to make one point: Maybe MAYA wasn’t as bad as we thought it was.
11. These reappraisals come from the greatest possible place — wanting to explain misunderstood music. They encourage us to reassess the musical merits, the sounds and gestures themselves — to take advantage of the fact that, six months later, the storm of noise has passed and it’s a lot easier to hear the thing itself.
12. It’s tricky though. In defending M.I.A. this past year, the Good Guys inadvertently helped propagate the noise, too. The noise is impervious to cancellation. This is also M.I.A.’s worst record by far: some great songs, but half-baked and unfocused for the most part. Which makes me worry that the worst p.r. snafu M.I.A. could suffer yet would be for us to suggest that MAYA is anything but beneath her. This is the woman who gave us Arular and Kala. She can get much higher.
13. I drag you through the best of my RSS and Twitter feeds to ask a rhetorical question: If it was going to take six months for the noise to pass, and if the album’s music could withstand the noise anyway, we probably should have just waited to weigh in. Right? We probably should have sat this one out, at least at first.
14. But that’s unfeasible. We are all working for somebody. We are in the business of creating at least a little bit of noise. To my knowledge, there is only one legitimate critic in the game who can get away with waiting six months after an album’s release before putting finger to keyboard. Bob Christgau is all signal power; tellingly, his column is buried deep in the social entertainment subdomain of msn.com.
15. Which makes a piece like this — the kind of piece I write when I don’t have anything to say — the noisiest of all the noise. Can’t condone it. The best thing I can do right now is just shut up. Hence the farewell. Public safety slogans, at least underground, suggest, “If you see something, say something.” On the internet? Maybe don’t.
DFA Records, the West Village-based label of LCD Soundsystem, the Juan Maclean, Hot Chip and others, has a complicated romance with vintage synthesizers and analog equipment. Denizens of the label’s bunker studio believe that the old stuff just sounds better than the digital counterparts. Tracking down the right vintage gear is worth the price point. That said, there is the issue of maintenance and repair. Parts are scarce, and aside from a few Angelfire/Geocities-type websites, schematics are often non-existent. Many people who knew how to fix these things have already passed away. With any antique repair, you are risking destruction of the thing itself.
When I needed new reeds in my Wurlitzer, a friend of mine at DFA recommended I use the label’s “guy.” (“Having a guy” is, I’ve found, something producers like to brag about.) Jared Ellison was introduced to me as the “New Gavin,” a reference to Gavin Russom, the modular synth wonk who performs as Crystal Ark and tours with LCD Soundsystem. Compared to the wizard-like Russom, with his long hair and beard and deep stare, Ellison is very normal-looking. He is trim, clean-cut, punctual. Clear-frame glasses, Adidas Samba sneakers (I forgot to ask whether these were vintage), and a pointy right ear are the only hints of possible eccentricity. He is 22 years old.
Last Friday, I spent the afternoon with Ellison in his small closet-like workspace at DFA. It had the feel of an unfinished basement: cold grey lighting, cement floor and walls, some basic wooden shelving and a small table where Ellison performs his operations. The room was cluttered with rack gear, disemboweled synthesizers, effects pedals, keyboards, and drum machines, though from the plastic drawers and well-labeled cardboard boxes, I sense there is an organizing principle. On the agenda today was not a repair but a modification: A popular electronic act had asked Ellison to retrofit their Korg MS-20 synthesizer with a MIDI controller.
Ellison grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts. His passion for electronics, I learned, was bred in the bone. “My grandfather was in the Signal Corps, in World War II,” he said. “Radar and radio. They were the communications department in the Army. He was also a ham radio hobbyist, which is what these guys did when they came back from war. War and ham radio. All the people who were building synthesizers, a lot of those people were involved in the war.”
Ellison tried to tell me about his grandfather climbing a tree, wrapping wire around an oatmeal container, wrapping more wire around the tree, wrapping even more wire around another oatmeal container — all this apparently to create a battery-less AM radio — but I didn’t quite follow. “You also need this special galena crystal that you order in a magazine,” he added.
In high school, while his classmates were buying cars, Ellison spent a summer job’s worth of money on a Tascam reel-to-reel eight-track. “I came back to school and I was like, ‘Yo! I got this sick eight-track!’ People were like, ‘Yeah, I don’t know what that is.’” A stint at guitar camp helped him realize he didn’t want to go to music school, so he moved to New York to study Architecture History at NYU.
“They have a good but bizarre music tech program,” Ellison said. (What’s bred in the bone…) He took a class with API founder Saul Walker, who designed the first 12-track recording console. He worked at WNYU radio station, where he engineered live recordings for Kurt Vile, Marnie Stern, Bruno Wizard from the Homosexuals (“he cursed on the air live, which is bad”), Zola Jesus, and Jandek. Helping out the DJ Tim Sweeney one night was how Ellison met Gavin Russom, who was a guest on Sweeney’s Beats in Space program. Russom turned Ellison on to Electronotes, a must-read electronics newsletter from the ’70s available only in mimeograph, and introduced him to Ears, the world-famous New York-based repair shop run by Jeff Blenkinsopp, who took Ellison on as an intern.
When Sweeney saw him fixing a turntable at the radio station, he put Ellison in touch with James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem. “James was like, ‘Oh, yeah? You can fix things? You can fix turntables? You can do synthesizers? You like synthesizers? Alright! Here’s your office. Here’s your computer. Coffee machine’s upstairs.’” Everything happened naturally but, Ellison insists, accidentally. He was still just a senior in college.
At DFA, he began fixing Bozaks, the heavy rackmount, rotary-style mixers preferred by the label’s DJs, and moved onto more complex repairs: keyboards, synthesizers, d/a converters, drum machines. One pressing repair was on an Eventide Harmonizer. This is the processor that helped create the wooshing snare sound all over David Bowie’s Low LP; Murphy wanted to create similar drum sounds for his latest album, This Is Happening.
I was excited to see Ellison at work. He pulled out a Korg MS-20, which is shaped not unlike a sewing machine, from an unassuming suitcase, and placed it on his workbench. The MS-20 is a portable modular synthesizer, and has appeared on Aphex Twin and Daft Punk records, among others. Ellison unscrewed the casing, then pulled apart the two sides — which made me flinch, as if he was splitting apart a person’s sternum. He explained the various parts of the circuit, the difference between current and voltage. As best he could, he told me how he planned to install the MIDI controller — which wires would interface with the keyboard, and where the input slots would peek out from the back. “A lot of what I do here is drilling holes in really expensive things,” he said.
It would be unfair to say he’s made breathless by well-designed circuit boards, so let’s say Ellison deeply admires the craftsmanship: how resistors line up perfectly, how wires coil around constituent parts in neat, maze-like ways. Thin plastics, cheap pots, surface-mount constructions, in contrast, made him grow silent with a melancholy I can’t quite describe.
Before I left him to finish up his work, I asked Ellison if circuit designers ever leave secret messages for other circuit designers, or for whoever might peek inside their machines. A few came to mind immediately. Sequential Circuits keyboards, he said, often have Sanskrit written on the boards, or mandalas, “or some kind of Bodhisattva.” New York’s Electro-Harmonix, who build popular effects pedals, “have a cryptic message about the band Pussy Galore.”
“What is it,” I asked.
“‘Listen to Pussy Galore.’”
Today I begin a project I’ve been meaning to for a while: relistening to albums I reviewed years ago, and reevaluating my opinions. It’ll be an occasional thing, or a mini-series, I can’t decide. What pushed me off the diving board here was a screening of Jackass 3D this past Sunday. A good friend of mine had brought his friend, who is a Pitchfork videographer, to the theater, and after a handshake this was the first thing he said to me: Two years ago, Pitchfork.tv was in the middle of shooting a performance of L.A. lo-fi artist Ariel Pink, when Pink launched into a rant, roughly: “So who the fuck is Nick Sylvester? And why would you let him compare my debut album to ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic?” I had given the record, 2004′s The Doldrums LP, a 5.0; this is considered a low rating.
Pink has become more popular in the last six years, and his new album, Before Today, received a handsome 9.0 review courtesy Mark Richardson this past June. That Pink would have brought up my review of his debut years later implies, to me, that he thought I had somehow delayed his ascent. The nature of his music hasn’t changed much in six years, he might add, only crystallized. This coming Saturday, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti co-headlines Webster Hall.
So here I am. Reviewing the review, I see I couldn’t decide whether Pink was genius or if, by calling him genius, I was only saying that I was genius for establishing a framework to call him genius. Apparently I split the difference: 5.0 out of 10.0. The elements of Pink’s music — throwaway AM radio melodies; hissy, reverb-laden productions that simulated the decay of recorded artifacts; the recording as fragment, hinting at what it could be; a reappraisal of New Age — were far more enjoyable to mull over, I remember, than the album was to listen to. I thought these elements were born of poverty, or in service of persona, or both. Ariel Pink, as I thought, was a “crazy” guy, singing “normal” songs.
Not many people liked this record, I recall, but I would have been in good company — Simon Reynolds’, Mike Powell’s — were I to sign off. Pink’s record set off fantastic ideas about music and sound and how it is heard and composed. But the physical act of listening to Pink’s music left me nauseous. Looking at the original draft of the review I sent the site’s editor, on October 25, 2004 at 12:19 a.m., my last line had read like this: “I really don’t know if this is something I can slap a number on just yet.” The line was cut because, I was told, the site doesn’t like “fretting publically over the score stuff.” Sic.
I re-listened to Pink’s debut yesterday a few times. I hear decisions in a way I admit I didn’t at first, and I hear evidence of Pink asking himself the same question every recording artist asks himself in one way or another: How can I make the banal seem surprising again? There’s mouth percussion instead of drums. The bass is mushy and unarticulated, functioning more like a spread of sound than an instrument. Pink’s vocals are awash in all kinds of reverb, and his voice itself has a theatrical ‘sad’ crooner vibe to it, as if Pink is one of Nathanael West’s grotesques in The Day Of The Locust. There is strong hiss throughout the recording. It is dusty, mid-forward, woozy stuff, as if “rescued” from damaged cassette tapes. All these decisions work together to resituate Pink’s melodies, which are bright like commercial jingles that, in his songs, sound uneasy and melancholic. Therein lies the romantic quality of The Doldrums that, I think, excites Pink the most. These are complete songs for the most part, but fragment-like in the way he leaves his recordings unpolished, in the double distance he simulates between (a) the song and the disintegrated recording, then (b) the recording and the listener. The songs are echoes of grander times; these melodies, before they were put to work for some new kind of soap, were once beautiful and affecting. There was a time we didn’t just shake them off.
None of this means I enjoy listening to Pink’s music. The music still strikes me as cold and clinical and conceptual, indirect and dispassionate. There is an emotional distance in Pink’s music — even the more masterfully recorded, widely praised Before Today — that leaves me unsatisfied. His music communicates less as sound-music music (Sound Music), and more as set-of-ideas-about-music music (Idea Music). The balance might be 20% to 80%, let’s say, with the necessary wiggle room given the fact that this distinction is pretty arbitrary. Either way: Without a theory to go with it, I can’t hear Pink’s song.
And again, I don’t remember many other people hearing Pink’s song either. But in the last six years, since Pink came on the radar courtesy Animal Collective’s Paw Tracks label, a Theory has been developed. Building off ideas that Simon Reynolds threw out there originally, Britain’s The Wire called this kind of lo-fi music Hypnagogic Pop. The paragraph before the last one I submit as evidence of the vocabulary and ‘hip’ Theory that critics are using to make sense of a lot of popular lo-fi recording outfits. Both The Wire and Pitchfork credit Pink as the Velvet Underground influence for this movement of young artists who make music “refracted through the memory of a memory,” that “draws its powers from 1980s pop culture,” but is at heart ahistorical stuff because it is so self-absorbed: the way I remember it, or my memory of the Ducktales theme song, which is just as good as your memory of how the theme song went, and so on. And since most people I imagine are encountering Hypnagogic Pop songs via blogs and other recommendation sites on the internet, download links alongside Variations Of The Theory and sometimes Video Interpretations Of The Theory…
Well now! I will resist the temptation to ask, if only rhetorically, how much music has been created since then as performance of The Theory, now that it’s become The Way We Talk About This Kind Of Music. Especially because “half-remembered memory” is such a personal, inalienable right the hypnagogic pop artist exercises, there is technically no wrong way to make h-pop. You cannot fail. The signifier of memory, in this music, is its imperfection, the relative haziness and lack of directness in the music. As long as the h-pop or chillwave critic can discern elements of “memory” or “nostalgia” or “hazy, reverb-laden vibe” or “half-sung melodies refracted through the quarter-remembered chopper blades of the opening sequence of Airwolf as I fell asleep in my basement,” no worries, we’ll take it from here. We have replaced the word “derivative,” which is negative, with “nostalgic,” which connotes nothing.
So instead I will ask whether hypnagogic pop is a rare triumph of music critics over musicians, meaning this: Is it even possible to make hypnagogic pop that is more interesting than (or as groundbreaking as) The Theory about hypnagogic pop? Will half-remembered Airwolf music ever be as good as the phrase “half-remembered Airwolf music”? How long till The Wire cuts a Theory for Mountain Dew Green Label?
When I first encountered Pink — or really any ‘difficult’ Mostly Idea Music type artist — I admit there is pleasure in figuring out what a song or an artist is “about.” What the artist wants to get across, etc. It can feel like an alley-oop, the way the Artist throws up the Idea Music ball and I, the Critic, slam it into the…hoop? (I don’t watch basketball; this is my hypnagogic take on the sport.) It is possible that other people — not critics — have similarly positive and completely satisfying experiences in sublimating music they don’t like via frameworks that allow them to understand how they could like it, until they have, in fact, “solved” said record like a math problem. I also think it’s possible that some people just like Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti and his disciples on simple “like the way this sounds” levels, without even entertaining the Idea Music side. So maybe the best question is: Unless you’re Pink, if you are knowingly making anything that resembles hypnagogic pop, in 2010, aren’t you kinda getting played?
There is a song on Pink’s new record called “Round And Round.” It is considered his best song maybe because it’s his most direct; the sound-music element of “Round and Round” has higher footing with the set-of-ideas-about-music element, yet everything anyone has ever written about Pink still applies. He’s at his best — and I said the same thing about Animal Collective years ago — when he takes his ideas about music for granted and just writes Ariel Pink songs. There is nothing that “Round And Round” is “about,” so much as it is “about” “Round And Round.” Nothing but net. He doesn’t need the hoopla.
The death of hypnagogic pop music, chill wave, fork gaze, whatever we’re calling it, is suddenly easy to fathom. Ariel Pink’s Before Today is maybe the most realized manifestation of all things h-pop. With “Round And Round,” the music has come close to realizing The H-Pop Theory, sans the H-Pop Theorists, which makes the ongoing promotion of it seem somewhat…unsatisfying. What are all these kids doing? Oh, the whole nostalgic-memory-half-remembered-throwaway pop thing? Been there! Derivative of being nostalgic! Whatever!
(Let’s quickly pass over the fact that the signifiers of hypnagogic pop are elements in thousands of great songs that preceded the term — songs that didn’t need the Theory in order for you to understand them. You’re encouraged to check out these two compilations. You’re also encouraged to listen to Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest.)
Brian Eno. Last week, Warp Records released Eno’s Small Craft On A Milk Sea. There exists a short promotional video in which Eno is interviewed by Dick Flash of Pork Magazine, a fictional music critic from the UK. In attempting to ask Eno about his process, Flash ends up talking more about Eno’s music than Eno himself ever gets a chance to. His ambient works, Flash tells Eno, are a “notional micro-climate, a place more than an event.” The critic figured out Eno a long time ago, in other words. We know what Eno is about. Does this makes Eno’s new album less pleasurable to listen to?
“Small Craft on a Milk Sea sits surprisingly comfortably alongside the records from Eno’s ambient and experimental golden era,” Pitchfork’s Mark Pytlik wrote last week. “Others might argue that fit is a little too comfortable.” Eno you old coot! The nerve of this guy, giving us no “new music as set-of-ideas music,” just plain old boring “music as ambient-and-experimental-golden-era music.” I mean what am I supposed to do with this shit — just enjoy it?! 7.4!
This past Friday the Diplomats, a group of Harlem-from rappers who had their heyday in the mid-00s before submitting to a kind of quiet entropy, announced their plans for a reunion concert. Cam’Ron, Jim Jones, Juelz Santana, and Freekey-Zekey appeared together on Hot 97′s Angie Martinez Show, and explained their return with classic Dipset tautologic. “Just for you to see us here together, obviously it was nothing that we couldn’t all put to the side and get over, cause if not, we wouldn’t be here today,” Juelz said. Money, they insist, is not the reason they’re back. Cam and Jones’ “Toast,” which disses Kanye West over his own “Runaway” beat, got its fair share of radio play this past weekend; I may or may not have just watched the “We Fly High” video on Youtube. The concert happens November 26, the day after Thanksgiving. Will you be there?
I moved to New York in 2004, right around when Cam’Ron’s Purple Haze came out. You either thought this album was a joke or a game-changer, and for better or worse, my first friends in the city were people who thought the latter. An entire social life was built out of visiting downtown “mix huts,” collecting Diplomat mixtapes like they were Pokemon, hoping for a new Cam couplet as you fought your way through eighty minutes of poorly mixed audio, radio interview snippets, and the hack emcees Cam kept in the wings: J.R. Writer, Hell Rell, Juelz Santana, Max B, 40 Cal, Un Kasa, et al. (Patience like this reached its zenith as we all sat through the “movie” Killa Season in its entirety.)
There was something fun — that’s really it, just fun — about rooting for the little guys. We charted the progress of J.R. Writer, found that one good Hell Rell song. 40 Cal got his due. I was editing the tracks section of Pitchfork.com, a music recommendation Web site, and this was where we shared our findings in meticulously unkempt, highly allusive, usually bad prose. Over time I admit my ears became attuned to the quality of “promise” more than they should have — not listening to the song itself but dreaming of the new, improved next song the rapper would put together afterward.
Not that I am apologizing for my clique, or for *my* clique, for our enthusiasm. We covered a lot of different kinds of music in the section; I know we missed a lot too. People — listeners, musicians, critics — complained about the crack-rap myopia. But it was what it was. Since then Pitchfork Tracks has transformed into Forkcast, though instead of mostly bad young mixtape rappers, the section celebrates limp lo-fi rock and a mostly bad young synthesizer music known as chillwave. Altered Zones, Pitchfork’s new sister site, is a playground for exactly the kind of “fun” in listening to eager musicians slowly figure out what they’re about. The writing, if we’re being generous, is a performance of the sound. Five years ago, under similar fire, I’m sure I used that same exact sentence as my defense. Fun stuff but not for everybody.
All’s to say, I wonder what hand I had in Dipset’s first death. Surely not much of one, but overexposure was part of the problem, “crown their cradle” as a Spin editor once put it, right into my review of the Arctic Monkeys’ debut. Maybe if he had more time to themselves, away from the microscope, Hell Rell could have delivered on the promise of “Hell Is Home (Rukmix).” In retrospect, probably not, but I do think our ridiculously high expectations for Dipset — and subsequent impatience with Dipset for not meeting those expectations in a timely manner — had something to do with something. J.R. Writer was a tough sell for anyone whose mouth wasn’t already up to the Dipset fire hydrant.
But this isn’t about “my hand in Dipset’s death,” or even really “Dipset’s death,” so much as it is about whether delight in “watching young musicians figure out what they’re about” has eroded rock critics’ ability to assess the overall goodness of new music qua music. Riff City favorite Wavves are a solid recent example: an act celebrated mostly for being slightly less shitty than when they first started.
We hear a lot about listeners wanting new blood, young blood, etc., but I suspect (and just know in certain cases) that new musicians have started to play into that idea too: putting half-baked, half-finished tracks into inboxes, trying out every which fictitious sounding micro-genre, hoping something falls “in the zone,” so to speak. If it works, they get some time to figure out what they’re actually doing, a sense of critical investment (“Seaashellzz’s new track makes good on the promise of…”), at the very least an opening slot at Death By Audio. They make music the internet critics recommend, precisely because it’s the kind of music the internet critics recommend. And you were angry at us for what again?
If there’s a reason I haven’t written about Kanye West and his recent online triumphs, maybe it’s the feeling that, in the process, I’d somehow be getting played. These triumphs, after all, are in the field of Getting People To Talk About Kanye West. Week after week, he has maintained the spectacle of himself: an eminently retweetable Twitter feed; the blog-baiting novelty collaborations with international pop star Justin Bieber and mere internet pop star Bon Iver too; his well-timed apology to Taylor Swift; the revelation, presumably with his silent nod, that West keeps a blue-blooded Yale undergrad in his inner circle, Cassius Clay, who provides him with fashion tips — news which hit just in time for Fashion Week.
Maybe there are people working with him on these kinds of stunts, but I get the sense that Kanye is generating the lot of these ideas. I imagine he likes being in control of every aspect of the production, the medium being the message and so on. Online he is a wise fool, first playing into people’s perceptions of “Kanye West,” then off those very perceptions, sending himself up, pulling back his own veil, bringing back the caps lock. Despite many attempts, Kanye West is incapable of being parodied, largely because Kanye West has already figured out a way to be a parody of Kanye West. He can and will and has sublimated all bad press about “Kanye West” into plot points for a much larger storyline that we don’t know about. Got Played?
So let’s talk about “GOOD Fridays.” Punning off his label name and, maybe, a certain controversial Rolling Stone cover, West will deliver a new free track on his Web site every Friday until Christmas. Sometimes West tweets about the tracks leading up to the big day. He also hints at the collaborators weeks in advance, which means West scores both anticipatory blog coverage — theories about what the track might possibly sound like I mean Bon Iver? Will this be anything but a disaster? and so on — and Official Blogger Takes when the internet finally hears the tracks, decides whether they “lived up” to the hype that the bloggers themselves helped create, etc. Keep in mind also that these tracks are released on Fridays, the end of the news cycle, so if it’s a dud, no stench will linger. The song will have already done its ‘work’ for West before it was released anyway, and goes gently into the weekend. Come Sunday, West will rise again.
There have been six “GOOD Friday” tracks so far; all of them are, in fact, pretty good. Lower expectations (the implication, truth or not, is that West only has a week), excellent equipment (one glance at Kanye’s racks and we’d realize he’s not just buying YSL suits), friends who themselves could use a promotional push, and of course West himself, who even if he lacked songwriting ability he could compensate with Kanye-ness — all these conditions mean that we’re not going to get anything that ever sounds bad, and likely will be better than most rap songs released this year anyway. The songs vary in mood and mode too, from the aggressive boast of “Monster” to the neo-soul number “Lord Lord Lord,” showcasing the variety Kanye’s abilities in the process.
Point being, the full-time job of being the celebrity personality “Kanye West” has not impeded his full-time job of being the forward-thinking hip-hop producer Kanye West. A humility is implicit here: West remains open to new ideas and new ways to do things, he works his ass off, he constantly wants to improve himself in every regard, from shoe selection to Twitter swag to the lyrics and vocal performances of his newest songs. There are apparently these short films he’s working on too. No joke.
As for my other foot dropping? It bums me out that even the most significant mountain-moving type pop artists like Kanye West have to be “good at Twitter” in order to put a dent in the zeitgeist. That his music — very little music anymore, not even the best stuff — can’t do the kind of heavy lifting that movies and video games and television can without this extra-song-and-dance. It bums me out that Kanye West, who is Kanye West, has 1.2 million Twitter followers, while Ashton Kutcher, who is Ashton Kutcher, has 5.9. It bums me out that music is so devalued at this point that Kanye West — one of the greats — is giving away his entire album a track at a time here because albums are basically just “promotional materials” for “artist brands.” It bums me out because I like albums, not artists — so also it bums me out that Kanye West, who knows how good these songs are (he tells us so), week after week raises the expectations of what “free new music” sounds like, glossing over the fact that it took a lot of major label money and quality studios for Kanye to develop this sound. Rome is burning, so… It bums me out that he’s contributing to the speed with which we are willingly consuming “free new music,” which is to say all new music, which rarely gets more than a second or third listen because there’s always some new Great Kanye West track to get to. It bums me out that Kanye West, in order to be “Kanye West,” is devaluing Kanye West’s Music.
You’d be right to ask what else he can do. It’s a tough spot. “Nowadays rappers, they like bloggers,” is what Swizz Beatz says on “Lord Lord Lord,” which came out this past Saturday. The line would be more accurate if all bloggers started from the position of being top-notch writers and were now forced to blog to stay relevant. But even still, the idea of “keeping a pulse” on the internet is a real thing both rappers and bloggers worry about. Slowly the work itself becomes secondary, less ambitious; slowly people become “really proud of their tweets.” Is it really too risky at this point to just check out for a year? It might be. You can’t die, otherwise we will do nothing in memory of you.
This thing is the number one song on iTunes, number three on Billboard, and number one in the overpriced Korean grocery market in my neighborhood. Katy Perry, who sings, is on the cover of Rolling Stone, wearing what I guess is a bra and looking like a bustier version of the 1960s. She makes headlines in my world for wacky hair pieces she wore or didn’t wear, for off-hand comments she made on Twitter, for banal (and for that matter all the more unusual) developments in her love life with the actor Russell Brand.
Other people care about Katy Perry right now, or at least the concept of Katy Perry, the promise of a Pop Star We Can All Get Behind. In that way, “Teenage Dream” is not unlike the last pregnant woman in the movie Children Of Men. She is, maybe, if things work out, our common cause. The World Cup is over! We’re now counting on Katy Perry, heart-shaped face of the music industry, to deliver us something to enjoy alongside people who are vastly different from ourselves.
“Teenage Dream,” like most pop numbers, is built to be immediately pleasurable. It is a focused dose of proven tropes and themes and sounds, mutated just enough so that, with any luck, the general public is not bored or distracted by the recognition of those tropes. With any luck, the recognition is pleasurable, too: The deployment of a specific sound or rhythm carries a kind of comfort for the listener. If it starts this way, or if it has this beat, the song will probably win me over. People hear the opening guitar riff of “Teenage Dream,” connected it with Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” and the double recognition — they liked that guitar riff, and they liked that they liked that guitar riff — goes a long way for just two bars of music. Perry hasn’t even started singing.
I worry I am among the population of people who suffer from a kind of pop music anhedonia — an inability to experience the intended pleasure of perfect, precise pop songs like “Teenage Dream.” One might argue it’s my job to at least try. So this is my thought-by-thought attempt to understand and overcome all inhibitions, to see how many steps removed from the sound itself it takes me to find something to like about the most popular song in America. In order:
1. Not feeling this. Didn’t like the Kelly Clarkson song that started this way either.
2. My friends all like this, and probably liked the Kelly Clarkson song. Whatever, it’s an intro. I can imagine the possibility of other people liking such a thing as a held-back beat/guitar downstroke opening. History has proven this move a winner. See also: The Strokes’ “Last Nite.”
3. The same people who wrote the Kelly Clarkson song (“Since U Been Gone”) are the same people who wrote this one. Dr. Luke and Max Martin. Can I blame the producers for cannibalizing themselves, sticking to what works? This is what all major pop producers do — develop a signature bag of tricks. The up-the-scale synth riff on “California Gurls” that Luke, Martin, and Benny Blanco used for Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok” just a few months ago. The “Eurogate” supersaw fruity loop that Tricky Stewart uses for “Circle The Drain” and “Who Am I Living For?” — both songs on this very album. Choruses coming in around :53 or :54 on almost half the songs. Confer romantic comedies, detective novels, everything.
4. I don’t like the song, but admire the process of making it. I admire the subtle changes to tropes that make people like pop songs. I admire the way, for instance, that the main guitar riff is mixed here: wide stereo panning, two monophonic lines played together as opposed to one guitar playing two notes at once, lots of attack a/k/a “string action.” Similar line to “Since U Been Gone” but played and produced very differently.
5. Is this another way of saying I am appreciating a kind of manipulation? Am I in the control room now, talking about what “people” will like about the song, or why “people” won’t like the song unless X or Y happens? What makes these people different from “me” exactly?
6. Maybe “people” don’t “see” the structures of the songs. Consider the production team who call themselves The Matrix. They create the web of numbers that comprise what we believe to be the seamless, unconstructed “reality” of the song we are hearing.
7. But my friends, my critic-friends, they see the structures. Critics are not unaware of the tropes. And my favorite critics like this song. They are not being manipulated, but they also experience an immediate pleasure. First and foremost they like Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” not Dr. Luke and Max Martin’s precise machine. Or they are willfully being manipulated.
8. How can they like this song? Katy Perry’s voice is a cipher. All delivery and character in the vocal track is lost through an extreme, unflattering compression, as if the producers were trying to reduce her voice to the melody’s notes on the staff paper. It is rote execution. Anybody could be singing this song.
9. It is impossible, at least right here right now, to think of Kate Perry’s “Teenage Dream” without conflating it with the knowledge of who Kate Perry “is.” Her voice is a cipher precisely so that “people” will fill it up with what they know about Perry courtesy the media and Perry PR. This is the Katy Perry who is singing “Teenage Dream.” Problem solved.
10. Taking stock here. I don’t like this song, but do appreciate the work and process that went into making it. I don’t like Katy Perry’s voice, which has no character, but I do like this “voice is a deliberate cipher” type idea I have developed. I admire the overall cultural product that is “Katy Perry,” a complex of music and persona.
11. Isn’t this the same thing as saying I admire the song for being an advertisement for Katy Perry? And isn’t the build-out of this idea something more frightening and propagandistic, the way Stockhausen worried about martial beats, the way Adorno worried about Tin Pan Alley, the way a government can manipulate via culture?
12. Ann Powers at the LA Times thinks it’s Katy Perry’s “brutally effective advertisement for a self” — worth three out of four stars.
13. Is there anything more patronizing a critic can do than reward an artist for her “brutally effective advertisement”?
14. Pop music is what people like and listen to. Even as a recreational rock critic, I have an obligation to report on this kind of music, which exists to sell both itself and the artist’s greater brand, and to find some entry point into it. If I want to eat, I have to find a way to make this music interesting to me.
15. So now I am not in the realm of liking the song; or the construction of the song; or the thought process behind the construction of the song; or the way in which the song mediates between the artist and the general public; or my understanding of any of these topics, since actually they depress the hell out of me.
To be clear, now I am in the realm of appreciating other people’s appreciations of the song. This is where I start to get behind Katy Perry: e.g. Ryan Dombal’s excellent piece in the Voice, about the construction of celebrity, about the negative approach involved in carving out one’s niche in the world of celebrity: I’m not “this,” I’m not “that,” I’m not “the other,” until slowly she became what she was, i.e. a “human being.”
16. This is a song about inhibitions melting away, feeling (if only for a few minutes) like a teenager, acting irrationally, which is to say following the heart as it’s commonly called, not the brain. “Teenage Dream” not “Teenage Reality,” etc. I guess I take a small amount of pleasure in the irony of my failure.
I don’t read much rock criticism except the stuff my friends write, but for whatever reason I was curious to see reviews of The Suburbs, the new album by Montreal indie rock band Arcade Fire. If I’m being upfront, this album impresses the hell out of me. I wanted to see what paid professionals thought of the album’s bigger curve balls: the extra ninth beat in the verses of “Modern Man”; the Suicide-like moves on post-punk number “Month Of May,” complete with tape delay and Vega yelp and disoriented drum sounds; in general, how Win Butler has become a better vocalist with every album, less reliant on the affected vibrato of Funeral, less ‘on’ the mic too. The album is full of specific decisions, off-kilter reference points, subtle gestures in the production, all in service of one question: How can I, the musician, make this melody sound familiar but surprising? What do I need to scoff up a bit to make this thing work?
From one paid professional, I learned about The Suburbs’ “impressively fervent majesty.” Another paid professional wrote: “In their dictionary, ‘suburbs’ is nowhere near ‘subtlety’.” A paid professional at a music recommendation website got a few toes wet, reporting that in “We Come To Wait,” “staccato, minor-key piano chords evoke anxiety.” What I learned from the reviews, which were mostly very positive, was that The Suburbs recalls songs by Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young — probably the similarities in subject matter and Butler’s voice and the acoustic guitar strumming. The album is 16 songs long with an hour runtime, which of course means it is ambitious. The band must be attempting to make a grand statement about suburb life; yet somehow this is also “their most straightforward work to date.”
More than liking this album — and I’m not saying they don’t derive actual physical pleasure from listening — the paid professionals seem to like what the album signifies. The themes and reference points and present-day contexts have lined up like planets in a solar system. The reviews wrote themselves.
There are a few people not digging Arcade Fire, this album, whatever, as much as I or others do. Rob Harvilla at the Voice wishes the band was funnier, which is one way to say he thinks Butler is a corny dude. (I think the chorus of “Rococo” is sardonic and hilarious, on the right side of “humor in music,” but whatever.) On the flip is Bob Christgau, who likes The Suburbs fine but misses when Butler was more urgent and explicit about his politics, when we knew who the they were. Either way. There are situations when lyrics are deal-breakers. Even in the most rah-rah reviews of The Suburbs, critics were more than happy to hang dry Butler’s words, as if negativity and specificity in this regard gave weight to their otherwise nebulous praise.
Which is the issue here: The most prominent paid professionals will not give me reasons why they like these songs as compositions, productions, performances — anything other than as signifiers of various contexts that sit well with them. No explanation of mechanics, how the songs surprise in new ways, but delight in the old ones. Maybe that makes me the last boy scout — wanting to talk about these things, to geek out about the different kinds of knots the band had to tie, so to speak. Songs like the Hold Steady’s, where lyrics are heavier in the balance, seem to get these people more quickly out of their tents. Maybe good lyrics are easier to dance about.
Do I want record reviews to read like the Tape-Op messageboards? Not exactly, but here’s where we stand if professional writings about one of the year’s best pop albums indicate anything: Rock criticism as ‘criticism of music’ remains a non-fiction fan-fiction enterprise. It is a flaccid, indecisive farce — neither informed nor informative nor entertaining — when the only thing it can say about the song “Deep Blue” is that it “doesn’t develop its Kasparov vs. IBM metaphor into more than an afterthought.” No mention anywhere of the genius move it was to nick the intro of Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” for a song about technological alienation, a song that never makes its way to the beach.
Call it the Context of All Context: From paid professional rock critics, we are getting some vague apprehension of an album’s place in a genre and its most superficial sounds-like similarities. If we’re lucky, we are treated to some new-crit flight of fancy in which the critic shows how the album resonates in the larger world and vice versa, or probably something about gender issues. Or maybe, if we’re really lucky, the critic completely and deliberately misunderstands an artist’s intent in such a way that it doesn’t so much explicate the music as it does give us new context altogether. A stunt review — an acknowledgment of rock criticism’s failure as music criticism — at least has the decency to entertain, though good luck finding someone to pay you for one of those. Cue staccato minor-key chords.
The music festival known as the Gathering of the Juggalos took place in Cave-in-Rock, Illinois this past weekend. You might have heard about this otherwise non-event because Tila Tequila, a celebrity who is famous for being a celebrity, was pelted with rocks, water bottles filled with urine, a bag of chicken tenderloin, and even human feces during her rap performance. Tequila persevered at first but the show was cut short. Security guards escorted her offstage, her face covered in blood, her breasts still exposed from a last-ditch attempt at pacifying the crowd.
The Village Voice‘s Camille Dodero, a fantastic journalist and a friend of mine, was there in person and reported out the whole thing, down to how the attack appears to have been premeditated on Juggalo message boards. “Everybody that comes — they know where they’re going and they know who they’re performing for,” said Violent J, a member of the Insane Clown Posse, at a public forum afterwards. He said he felt bad for Tequila, and wished the Juggalos “wouldn’t throw the shit, man.” In a different situation Shaggy 2 Dope, the other ICP rapper, joked, “I’ll throw my dick at her.” Tequila intends to sue the festival organizers.
The Juggalos are devotees of the Insane Clown Posse, a manic-depressive “horrorcore” rap troupe from Michigan that, like Camus’s Meursault, proudly refers to itself as “the most hated band in the world.” Both the band and the fans are a marginalized slash self-marginalizing populace, which is canny and preemptive. It’s a way to elude criticism from the mainstream, i.e. people who are not Juggalos. The mainstream never understood Juggalos in the first place, which is why there are Juggalos in the second place, and so on.
Despite the particulars, the Gathering is your standard outdoor drugs-tits-tents debauchery type deal, with a sidestage repertoire not unlike ones at Woodstocks and Bonnaroos and Phish concerts. I receive a now yearly email from a friend who insists the Gathering is due for a “full-on New Yorker-style” treatment — ”the Juggalos are our country’s last viable subculture” — but I don’t see deeper meaning here. Like any bacchanalia, the Gathering is a psychic exhaust pipe, a break from self-awareness, a last stand on the world’s complete indifference to you. At best this festival, now eleven years in, has the added charm of being the only place and time where Juggalos believe they enjoy complete acceptance. You hear the cheer “Fa-Mi-Ly” a lot at this thing apparently — right up there with “Show Your Tits.”
Insane Clown Posse, whose fans decode their every move and lyric in search of messianic messages and truths to live by, are always the Gathering’s main headliner. Subsidiary bands on ICP’s label Psychopathic Records provide the necessary ramp-up to the big event, and since the third Gathering, festival organizers have invited musical acts and comedians just outside the Juggalo sweet spot to perform, too: forgotten rappers like Coolio, Bushwick Bill, Killah Priest, Ice-T, and Vanilla Ice. Many of them work out fine; others just don’t. At the height of his popularity, the emotive white Southern rapper Bubba Sparxxx was booed off the stage so memorably that there is now an unofficial Bubba Sparxxx Award, given to the artist who just can’t handle the abuse.
The Juggalos turned it into a game, in other words: heckling, booing, throwing things at the guest artists, trying to get them to break. There is an element of role reversal — the bullied are now the bullies — but again, there’s this self-preservational aspect, too. Nobody forced the artist to appear on stage. The artist knew upfront he was about to sit in a snake pit. Why is he surprised he got bit?
(The festival pays well, I’m told: a lesser-known New York comedian was supposedly given $5000 for his appearance this year, so you can imagine what the bigger snake-pit acts like Lil Kim or Tom Green pulled.)
For musicians and comedians who believe their art has some kind of transcendental appeal that can reach even the darkest, most compromised corners of humanity, an invite to the Gathering is an interesting dare. I’m reminded of a very important scene in the movie Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, when Pee-Wee is at a private biker bar and knocks over a long row of motorcycles outside. The bikers intend to kill him for this mistake. Before that they grant Pee-Wee one last request. Pee-Wee queues up the jukebox, assembles himself on top of a table, and when the song comes on, he does that goofy dance he does. The bikers’ anger melts away. All is forgiven. They are so moved they even let him borrow one of their motorcycles to continue on his journey. (The song Pee-Wee played was the instrumental rock tune “Tequila,” by one-hit wonder the Champs.)
So I can see why Tila Tequila might have thought she had a fighting chance at this thing. Leading up to the Gathering, she was not exactly well loved. When her fiance Casey Johnson died from diabetes complications this past January, the gossip world didn’t take well to Tequila’s stunt-like grieving — twittering constantly, keeping the spotlight on herself at all costs. The petite Singaporean-born 28-year-old is a very modern celebrity, in that her most notable achievement is that she became a celebrity. She peaked with a two-season stint as host of her own reality show, but the world was done being kind with her after that. When she took the Gathering gig, maybe she was in fact “down with the Juggalos,” a camaraderie shared in both feeling hated.
And yet just as clearly, here was a woman who represented the complete opposite path that any self-respectingly self-pitying Juggalo would take. Far from sticking to her guns as an outcast, a reject, Tequila disavowed herself completely, to the point of being a cipher. She rapped, she acted. She modeled, she was your whatever you want. She wanted to be loved in a way that no Juggalo ever wants to be loved. Scorn for her made more sense than for any other Gathering guest act prior. The justification would be twisted (or “twiztid”), but still, Tequila was a Judas figure. How dare she turn her back on the rest of us losers?
Granted, I don’t think any of that was going through the heads of these rock-throwing dread-and-circus hooligans. The ignobile vulgus doesn’t have the best track record, especially when on PCP. And yet every side of this ordeal walks away with exactly what they wanted in the first place. Tequila has undergone a biblical amount of hatred. The fame whore was publicly stoned. This is real pain, and beyond the immediate bump in public interest, she now has something the public might validly point to as a jumpoff for real, transportive artmaking. She has sublimated herself, or at least has made herself seem sympathetic, which is not a bad spot for her. Tequila accepted the Juggalo dare and, with the right producer and ghostwriter and PR blitz, might catch that second wind she needs.
And beyond the taste of blood, the Juggalos enjoy a renewed sense of their misfitry — reveling in the public’s distaste for more or less everything about them. Which strongly ties into the walkaway for the journalists who covered the event, or who are processing it from afar, or who hope next year they can convince an editor that there is a real David Foster Wallace type story to tell here.
Because usually there is no story to tell here, or not one that’s remotely objective. There is a funny story, one that involves recounting the absurd goings-on in a cold and effectively detached manner, letting these people explain themselves, i.e. letting them make fools of themselves. There is the Attempt To Sympathize story for the Gathering, wherein one tries hard to understand Juggalos from their point of view but ultimately can’t because he can never shake the very ‘objective’ reason for wanting to write the piece in the first place, which is strong evidence, even before arriving on site, that the emperor/clown prince wears no clothes. There is the Contrarian Case for this story, building off of Jonah Weiner’s argument that ICP is more self-aware than we give them credit, more deliberately funny, though in the case of the Gathering, I suspect that would involve a complicated crab walk along the mobius strip of new criticism. No observation comes without equal consequence to the observed — but there are exceptions, and Juggalos might be one of them. This subculture is a black hole that, if it is to continue existing, must devour all our attempts at trying to understand it. Including this one.
Brooklyn author Jennifer Egan had a story called “Ask Me If I Care” in the New Yorker this past March. It’s about, among other things, a group of teenagers making their way through the Bay Area punk scene in the late ’70s/early ’80s. Two of the characters are in a fictional act called the Flaming Dildos, who play a disastrous show-turned-brawl later in the story. Egan has some brilliant asides in here (“When does a fake Mohawk become a real Mohawk?”), but that’s something we expect from good fiction. The reason I wanted to talk to her was a feeling I got when reading that story, namely that Egan might be better than every music critic ever at describing both how music is made and what listening to music feels like.
Her new novel, A Visit From The Goon Squad, isn’t “rock and roll fiction,” but many of her characters have intense relationships with music and the industry, and one of them, Bennie Salazar, is an aging record executive. Last week, Egan and I talked on the phone about the research she did, the difficulty of working music into fiction, and her own musical history.
Riff City: In the second story, you write, “Bennie is listening for muddiness, the sense of actual musicians playing actual instruments in an actual room.” What kind of research did you do to write the character?
Jennifer Egan: I spent a lot of time on the phone with a guy named Chuck Zwicky. He’s a producer/mixer, as I understand it. He had to explain things as basic as the difference between analog and digital. I think I knew intuitively what I was going for, what it was that Bennie was so dissatisfied with. I knew that the industry was having lots of problems with piracy, et cetera, as a result of digitization. But the actual technology I didn’t have enough nuts and bolts to write about.
I did a fair amount of reading as well. One was Jacob Slichter’s book So You Wanna Be A Rock and Rock Star. He’s from Semisonic. It’s the story of what it feels like to be lifted out of obscurity with a mega hit — their song “Closing Time” was ubiquitous — and, in a way, to be dashed down from that height back into a struggling band.
As with most topics that I take on, my research was a combination of interactions with people, really reporting, combined with reading. I feel like the combination works so well. The reporting, the talking to people, and the seeing stuff is what brings it to life. All of the book stuff just supplements it.
RC: One of the gripes people can have about music writing is when the writer just lists band names as reference points rather than describing the music itself. But you somehow make both approaches work — the lists of bands, the parts when you go in and describe the music.
JE: As far as describing the music, I didn’t have a rule with myself about when to do that. I do most things very instinctively, and often will question them later and need to have an answer to satisfy the question, but won’t come at it from a theoretical standpoint. I think there were periods in “The Gold Cure”, which was probably the most researched story in there — it’s about a record producer at work, so I have to know what I’m talking about — I think there may have been moments when my research showed its face too much. This is a common trap fiction writers fall into. I was eager to display my knowledge and it got a little cross-eyed with detail. It has to be flushed away. The time to describe music it seemd to me was when the quality and the texture mattered a lot to the character whose mind we were in. That’s always the reason to expand on something in fiction.
In writing about Bennie, who feels this urgency about the industry’s decline, and is really on the warpath in a certain way, writing about the experience of his listening to music seemed really important. There was a moment that I struggled with for years of working on this book, when he first starts to listen to the Stop/Go sisters, and he has this ecstatic reaction to just hearing the music happen. Finding the words to describe that moment was really hard. Writing about music must have some of the same problems of writing about wine. The earthy undertones, the barnyard finish or whatever it is. Come on? Can’t you think of something better? But it’s actually hard. I wanted to capture what the excitement of listening to any music was for Bennie. That was tough. It’s a tall order.
“Hearing the music get made, that was the thing. People and instruments and beaten looking equipment aligning into a single structure of sound, flexible and live.”
That was the sentence that almost killed me. But a sentence that does more for some reason came effortlessly, and that was the feeling of Bennie listening to this music:
“These sensations met with a faculty deeper in Bennie than judgment or even pleasure; they communed directly with his body, whose shivering bursting reply made him dizzy.”
That happened instantaneously. But that other sentence, summing up what it’s like to watch or to listen to a band start to play, that was so hard. I did struggle with this stuff.
RC: One of your chapters is written in Power Point slides, about the history of pauses in rock songs.
JE: That Power Point chapter was extremely hard to do. I cannot overplay the technical difficulties of trying to make that work. There was a point when I had some of it, but I didn’t really have an arc that worked, and I was really running out of time, I had already sold the book. How can I make this thing work? And then my husband put on this new CD he had gotten from a group called Let’s Go Sailing. It’s a song called “Sideways”. Now there’s no pause in the song. Thematically it is literally no overlap with that chapter. But I listened to that song and I thought, that’s what I’m going for. There was this feeling that I had from the song that made me think that I could make the story work if I could capture that feeling, which I still can’t name.
If I’m walking, it’s really helpful if I’m struggling with something, I’ll just walk and walk and walk. Somehow being in physical motion let’s my mind move a little more freely instead of just turning circles. I copied “Sideways” onto my iPod, I put it on repeat and, I’m not kidding you, for like five hours I walked around Brooklyn listening to that one song. It’s not like I cracked the chapter in that period but it was a critical part of the process.
RC: You grew up in the Bay Area of course, but walk me through your musical history, the different bands you’ve liked over time.
JE: I went to hear the Dead Kennedys all the time. I remember Jello Biafra vividly. Eye Protection, a guy in my high school was in the band. The Sleepers I knew the producer. Flipper, a friend of mine dated the bassist. I say this as someone who was a complete non-entity in that world. I was invisible. But I did have these connections to it. In a way, I tried to use the bands that felt close to me. There was just sort of an integrity to that. I wanted to invoke them. I wanted to invoke that moment as I remembered it.
I was a gigantic Who freak. If I could pick one band that I loved more than any other in my life, it was The Who. I recognized that the Stones had a greater range and had more excellent songs, but there was just no substitute for the way I felt about the Who.
Nothing I’m going to say is going to seem surprising or sharply defining as a point of view. I was pretty much in the mainstream. Except in general my taste is toward a little bit harder stuff. I don’t like things that are really soft. One group my husband and I really bicker on is Belle and Sebastian. I just find them too soft. It’s like a big fluffy pillow that I just get lost in.
RC: What is it about the window between ages 12 and 18, do you think, that makes people so susceptible to music, and why do you think people kind of close themselves off after that?
JE: So much of my experience as a teenager was trying to imagine what sort of life I was going to have. I think I grabbed onto music that helped me answer that question. What the answer was, I could not tell you. What answer did Iggy Pop have for me? But when I listen to those songs, like “Lust for Life” or “The Passenger”, I would think I’m going to grow up and have an interesting life. That’s sort of what it was about.
At that point in our lives we have no personal experience to go on in terms of how we’re going to function out in the world. We’re just flailing around in high school, fighting with our parents, struggling with acne and eating disorders. The music seems to come like a signal from a spaceship to tell us that, from this faraway perspective, it’s all gonna be okay — or to narrate our misery and unease.
I think that once we exit from that particular window and get jobs and start to put down roots, our identity is never hanging in the balance in that way again. Then we’re looking for music often the way people are looking for art to match their couch. Fitting into a structure we’ve already created.
My son, who is nine, is wild for Eminem. When I first listened to Eminem I hated him. I really hated his message. My son would listen to this and storm around with a frown on his face grumbling Eminem lyrics to himself, and I thought, God, can someone just get rid of this guy? He’s ruining our family life.
But then my son said I was not considering his greatness carefully enough. And I started listening to his — really, his acrobatics. I became really interested in him. He’s pretty amazing. His message is limited but his technique is incredible.
RC: I like that your son pushed you on this one.
He’s been reading biographies of Eminem. I still feel it. I know what he’s going through, I remember it so vividly. He said — he lifted up a finger and he said, “Mom, there’s a lot in these books that’s counter to what you think about Eminem.” We now walk down the street with one ear bud in each of our ears, listening to Eminem, holding hands. This is meaningful to him. If it’s meaningful to him, it’s meaningful to me. I guess I’m depriving him of the rebellious experience we all crave, but he seems to really want to share it with me. I’m grateful. There’s this thing that Eminem does with the word “coroner” and “corner” in his song “3AM” that takes my breath away.