Lester Bangs in the Post-Indie Apocalypse

Like any other critic, you try to avoid reading other critics for fear of influence in opinion, but it’s important to get a diet of reading a wide variety of opinions in order to get a view of every perspective on an album or a song or a movie that you’ve never considered before. It’s why I think there ought to be a music website where there’s a roundtable review of every album, rather than a letter grade or collection of shiny bullshits conferred by just one person who works there, who then gets to have his individual opinion become the branded statement of the publication. Still, there are other critics, elders of state, who are considered mandatory reading to improve your writing skills and ideas on how to form essays, and it goes without saying that Lester Bangs is one of the vital essayists on the subject of rock and roll. Every so often, I go on jags where the only thing I ever want to read is his collection of essays, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, which was published posthumously.

In my most recent dip through the book (and I recommend it, of course), I’ve realized that there’s an element to music criticism that is perhaps overlooked by many critics nowadays, with the exception of the good folks over at A.V. Club, who take things with a more academic slant even when they’re at their most irreverent, is the concept of an artist’s image as representing a place and time. It’s a relatively simple consideration that’s perhaps lost to time due to the constraints of political correctness in criticism, as well as the fact that there is just so many new bands and current acts out there, that keeping track of what every artist says as they brand themselves seems to be an impossible task. And rarely do any of them get the spotlight shined upon them and questioned ‘what do you say about us?’ Sure, the big names of the dance-pop world often do — you could probably find countless essays and blogs on Lady Gaga as the product of the ‘be anything you want to be, and let no one else define you’ ethos of Generation Y, or Ke$ha being representative of the honesty of trashiness-by-way-of-reality television — but there’s not a lot being said about the bands who are producing what we may consider art. It’s a perspective that gives us the archetypes of ‘Dad Rock,’ Butt-rock,’ ‘Machismo-rock,’ etc., but those bands and their images say nothing of the society, because we know that’s how they market themselves. We know it’s calculated, because it’s designed to sell, unlike in the 70’s when David Bowie and Iggy Pop could dress how they did (or didn’t) and take chances with that sort of thing because no matter what it sold.

And perhaps in the wild west of indie world, it may be too much to try and say something of each individual band because in the wake of post-Punk, everyone is in a band that could give a damn about anything but producing an product bordering on art. It’s a nihilism that suggests that, finally, the dream of being a rock star has been homogenized and streamlined where you can simply label yourself as a dude who makes records for people to listen to as a profession.

And that’s the scary thing about the bands who still put in the effort of appearances nowadays is that it’s reduced to a gimmick that separates the curious from the mentally infirm who have no real taste but for the top whatever at any time. And it sort of speaks to the qualities I mentioned in my post about the White Stripes’ B-sides “Red Bowling Ball Ruth” and “Hand Springs” as representative of a brand of high-contrast Americana.

After the Jump: the clothes make the band.

Besides a few bands out there, who are probably more comfortable labeling themselves as local celebrities or simply let the chips lay where they may, there are few bands who communicate through visual mediums as being anything more than simply a collection of guys and gals who get together and play some tunes for you. Nickleback achieves this, as does Linkin Park, Maroon 5, or anyone who puts in a minimum effort in presenting themselves as a group with a unified vision. There isn’t anything to any of these bands other than Nickleback and Linkin Park’s non-threatening otherness by way of streamline dirtclods in your hair and spike necklaces or what have you, any more than Maroon 5 wants you to enjoy them and, similarly enough, not feel threatened by them or their music. Despite the international superstardom, I don’t think there’s anything that U2 wants to communicate to you other than your ability to trust them with your ears for just a moment of your time.

No, when I think about it, there are maybe two bands who dress in a way as to befit a particular message, and both do so to similar effects and goals. On the one hand, there is black, white, and streaks of silver to be found in the Phoenix, AZ’s very own the Love Me Nots; and on the other, there’s Sweden’s international sensations, the Hives, who also don themselves primarily in black and white. Both bands offer up records based in traditional rock and roll, with little deviation from formulas: blues riffs, solos kept to bare minimum, thundering beats, and vocalists who walk that fine line between being completely in control and potentially unhinged. It doesn’t get any more cut-and-dry with how a rock band presents themselves, and both bands succeed in a kind of cool glamour that elevates them slightly above the audience, even when their songs are as approachable on common topics as any other in the world. They get their hearts broken, and they break hearts just like us. They cheat, steal, and sin, and they’ve been cheated on, robbed, and crossed enough times to make their shit as universal as possible. But there is a difference, and that is that in their style of dress and adherence to strict colors, you never once forget that, after all, These are entertainers, and they are nothing like you and I. They lead by example, and much like the duality of their aesthetic, you’re either with ’em or against ’em.

But it’s an aesthetic choice that commands no respect nowadays, because of how traditional it may be. It’s not even ironically traditional to a point where it’s so radically different from what’s most common that it breaks from the confines of cult fandom. Both the Love Me Nots and the Hives have tremendous International followers, but they’re not exactly on the front cover of any magazine nowadays (and if they are, it’s probably over in Europe). And it’s not like the Internet has given us American fans a barrier to cross to know where the bands we love are truly appreciated in towns entirely different from our own, but there are barriers. Beyond the language ones, I’m also talking about just how difficult it is to cross blog after blog, from so many different countries, many of whom are talking about bands with the same names but different members doing entirely different kinds of music. Or, God forbid, that band has an unsearchable name.

It’s a kind of game bands are playing nowadays, and I realized this covering the Northside Festival this year. It’s truly amazing that every band can play to the expectations of audiences, and seem so willing to get lost in the din of difference of genre, and that includes how they outfit themselves. Rather than stand out as original crafters of their own material, a lot of what was happening at Northside was relatively interchangeable, and it seemed to appease the expectations of an indifferent, record-buying public who would be uncomfortable with anything less than a psych-leaning indie band to wear anything other than fashionable vintage threads adorned in, fuck, something like hats made of balloon doggies or some precious shit like that. But it doesn’t do anything for them other than create one tiny image to stand out in our minds to say that we were there at such-and-such a venue, and we remember, oh yeah, the lead singer who had a balloon doggie for a hat. The music was okay.

One band in particular that I saw represented this fairly well, actually, and that was Brooklyn’s own Foster Care at Union Pool. I went into the show blind, knowing nothing about them, about anyone of the other bands that night. But there, in the midst of all this hatred toward the indie-loving festival scene for “Williamsburg Bands,” here was a haven of hardcore. Traditional, straight-up, mosh-pitting, beer cans flying, water-spitting, hardcore. Fast, loud, and brutal (and, amazingly, of all the fucking shows I see at Union Pool, this was the first one where the sound was actually mixed to an appropriate, decent level, where you can hear everything just fine). Lead singer Chris Teenager eventually wound up shirtless (dressed in some thrift store deal that he actually came off kind of Mod in), the drummer wore some leather, and bassist and lead ring master Jesse “Martinez” Crawford (in a Bukkake Boys t-shirt) shouted to the crowd, often incoherently, often appropriate to not-a-fucking thing: “Long live Johnny Ramone,” to which somebody booed. All of his mandatory festival thank-yous was delivered in ‘blahs,’ before eventually, calling it the “Warped Side Festival n’ shit, whatever.” And, for the most part, the show could have been blended in with any other damn hardcore show in time, from the 1980’s til now. The most memorable thing was Teenager eventually running into the pit on Crawford’s shoulders, still, amazingly, playing his bass.  But there came this weird moment where some other guy booed Crawford when he drank from a bottle of SmartWater, and taunted him for minutes with ‘Smart Water! Fuckin’ Smart Water, you pussy fag!’ I suppose I took away the idea that an image is something to be maintained, right down to what water and what beer you drink on stage, and while that’s incredibly sad, there’s something to be said about keeping your audience happy. But it’s also sad in how there’s a demand to give in to these worthless peons who could give a damn what band you’re in, as long as you ain’t indie.

The terrible thing is that it works for some people. Rather than offer terrific performances or relatively impressive stage antics, these small touches get bands by if the goal is simply to generate awareness. It’s kind of like modern commercial fishing: Rather than using the best bait to get the best fish, just cast out a giant net and hope that as many fish as possible stay within that net. But those small touches do not stray far from the particular image of X band being little more than just some guys who got together — just the way you do with you and your friends. Hell, if you wanted to, you probably could just hop on stage and join the band at any time, and that’d be okay if you got the talent to keep up.

But what I’m lamenting here is that loss of swagger that comes in clothing and being in a fucking band. I’m not saying I would ever want to see a band that envision themselves as demigods, the kind of swagger that comes from 80’s hair metal, which takes such advantage about the idea of rock music as escapism that it couldn’t help itself to be so pointlessly excessive, nor do I wish to keep the trend borne the early indie bands of the 1990’s that lacks the sort of focus of image that is necessary to keep a great band in mind.  A band has to stand for something; it can’t try to win over everybody. That’s the sort of mindset that makes it possible for the John Mayers and Wayne Coynes of the world to run loose and commit wanton acts of wishy-washy douchery in our streets — a mindset where middling, mediocre rock and pop can impress so many by being so warm in their presentation, no matter how hard or weird they get on stage.

It’s a wonder what rock is going to look like even three years from now, when we’re in this point of utter listlessness. A band doesn’t even have to make it big nowadays, so long as it makes it to a small local label to give them enough work. I guess that’s part of that sick, fetishization of the new Brooklyn, and the ideals of a community. But what happens when an inward-looking community keeps running into these outward looking opportunities like the Northside Festival, more concerned with generating a general image of a scene than helping actual, honest-to-goodness bands with something to say/promote who are completely indifferent to being in a commune like Williamsburg? What’s a band to do but hope they can keep up their fan count on Facebook, play a bigger stage (like opening for the Greenhornes or the Black Lips at Webster Hall is the best you can hope for), for the next couple years until this year’s second-slot holder breaks up?

You keep wearing your tight pants and thrift shop threads, and you keep your day job. That’s what.

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