Music is None of my Business

MINOMB2: Music Sucks Today if You Suck

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I’ve gone on record multiple times saying how great music is today. I’m entirely convinced of this because of how, on an almost daily basis, I discover a new piece of music that convinces me so. I’m also convinced of this because, while I am a self-proclaimed music dork, I have no way to gauge whether I’m privy to more or less of to what any other person who enjoys digging for new music may be privy. I am not a special snowflake, and there are plenty of people who’ve probably heard some song that would surpass Erasure’s “A Little Respect” as my favorite pop song of all time in a heartbeat if I were to hear it, but may never get around to it. Let that idea sink in.

But anyway, what was it that inspired me to sit down and cough out those particular words about a subject I enjoy speaking about onstage and on the internet? Recently, my friend Victor handed me a CD from 1998 of two episodes of Joe’s Blue Plate Special, an “independently produced radio program that highlights the best, unsigned independent artists in the country and features revealing interviews with the best-known indie acts worldwide” (according to the liner notes). It was, for lack of a better term, a vestige of the times. The two most noteworthy artists on the CD were Atari Teenage Riot and the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, though a handful of unlistenable-to-boring-to-decent tracks lined each 1/2-hour program. I hate to say it, but with the benefit of hindsight, bands like The Ghost of Tony Gold and Anything’s Good did not constitute the “best of” any stratum of indie rock at the time. The former, as far as I can tell, only released one single, and the latter’s claim to fame was beating Weezer in a battle of the bands immediately before Rivers and Co. got signed, cornered Spike Jonze, and blew the hell up.

I threw the CD in my car’s player en route to Victor’s house recently, and when I got there, I mentioned I was listening to the CD and it gave me an epiphany. As much as we like to romanticize the 90’s (or 80’s, or whichever decade in which we came of age), each decade of popular music had some strange element of fucked up to it. I could be wrong, but the 1990’s was the first decade since the 1960’s where the music industry (still strong at the time) convinced us that YOUR BAND could totally make it! I’m sure that The Ghost of Tony Gold and Anything’s Good had better (or at least more interesting) songs than these, but they were still playing for the pop charts. In due course, each band’s most innocuous, catchy, inoffensive single made it onto this compilation. This is understandishable; if you score a stand-up set on Conan, you’re going to tell jokes that can appeal to the widest audience. BUT at least the comic will try their best to show off what they’re all about, because they may never get another opportunity.

Teenage Tyler thought “Speed” by Atari Teenage Riot was the baddest shit ever. Granted, 32-year-old Tyler still does occasionally work out to it and throw it on when THE (NON-THEISTIC) POWER seizes control of his body. [/3rd person]. But when I finally got a chance to watch Alec Empire and co. shout anti-capitalist slogans over digital hardcore beats live when they reunited in 2009, their performance of that song just felt perfunctory and out of place. It was strange that a radical group like ATR even had chart success in the United States (though the Butthole Surfers had a massive hit single that year, so stranger things had happened). Then again, the Surfers DID harbor serious commercial ambitions, even if they were fucking psychotic.

Regardless, “Speed” is still the best song on this college radio sampler, which is mildly unfortunate. They introduced a song by Breck Alan called “She Eats with Her Fingers,” celebrating what a road dog he was. It’s somewhat depressing thinking about those people who burn themselves out on the road for years, no hit singles or record deals come of it, and they hang it up. I suppose not every individual who goes through those motions can become successful; it just stings that those are the only stories we get to hear. Where is Breck Alan today? Time to google and find out. I found Jayne Sachs’ website, which made me feel great knowing that she never really stopped playing the music that she loved. I remember finding a CD from 2000 by a dude who used to date my baby sitter back in the early 90’s, quickly discovering that he had “hung it up” shortly thereafter. I imagine that he misses it, but then again, maybe he’s glad that he quit. As Ben Snakepit once wrote in his daily diary comic, the 7″ dollar bin represents the failed dreams of young white men. But most people dream differently. Take recently resurrected (career-wise) singer/songwriters who had insurmountably long gaps between records, like Vashti Bunyan and Sixto Rodriguez. I actually found a cut-out copy of the former’s Lookaftering at McKay’s recently and finally listened to it; it’s delightful.

These are the things that wander through my head when I’m driving. The state of Tennessee should really revoke my license. JUST KIDDING PLEASE DON’T I LIVE IN A CITY THAT HAS A BUS SYSTEM THAT STOPS RUNNING AT 11:15 PLEASE GOD I’M NOT SERIOUS.

Back to that radio-program CD. The most interesting part on either episode was the host’s interview with Steve Perry, the lead singer of the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies who became momentarily famous enough to combat the mulleted crustachio of Journey. Perry remarked how little leeway bands like his had with the crowds who were obsessed with this trend, had learned to swing dance, and got really upset when the music wasn’t perfectly formulaic for their night out. He (accurately) predicted that this would kill the music. I remember how much my Mom absolutely loved the 1997-1998 swing revival. I thought it was stupid, even though I could tell (somehow) at that age that the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies had something ‘more’ to them than a gimmick. The Squirrel Nut Zippers, too. Neither of those bands really did it for me, though. It wasn’t because I was skeptical of the trend or anything, I just wasn’t really into their singles on the radio. They seemed overly simplistic and were horribly overplayed. Also, my Mom bought the Big Bad Voodoo Daddy CD and one of those Brian Setzer Orchestra abortions that are collecting dust somewhere in her basement now (that dude annoyed the fuck out of me when he was Built for Speed, and he slipped right back into making me want to stab my eardrums with a #2 pencil when he rode the coattails of the Swing revival back to mainstream success, daddy-o. Before I hit “enter,” I want to say that I’m aware (now) that the Squirrel Nut Zippers were an irony-free (imagine that) hot jazz combo from Heaven Jr. (some of you refer to it as “Chapel Hill, NC”) who were in the right place at the right time when the bowl cuts and sweater vests were throwing their milk money at anything with trombones. When I started college in 2001, my friend Andrew defended them mercilessly. All these years later, it seems kind of silly that he even needed to defend a band like that. But those were the times we lived in.

Today, there are still plenty of bands watering themselves to shit over the pop charts. There are still Hollywood “bro-bands” (I may have coined that term in this context) who get added to bills with bands they clearly don’t know and bring their legions of temporarily-loyal fans with them from pay-to-play venue to pay-to-play venue. There are so many bands who aren’t going to be remembered despite the errant 7″ dug out of a dollar bin. The only difference is that the “pop charts” mean anything anymore. A band’s impact and success is somewhat measurable (downloads and Youtube/Spotify plays), but rather than the idea that your snotty, distorted grunge band could become huge, it is now so that bands don’t need to rely on the industry to make it so. There are so goddamn many bands, and so many of them are putting out music in a manner which seems geared to getting anyone’s attention. The $$$$s follow, somehow. This is the perverse joy of being a music fan in our time; there may be more barriers to success, but there are so few barriers between your music and some unsuspecting schmo’s ears.

Moral here: Let yourself be that schmo, and get your ass off of your couch. Don’t let yourself suck because you labor under the delusion that music sucks.

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