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Let’s Talk Rock

With Seth Sanders

A Cosmic Battle for Insanely Low Stakes

Hilarious that rock criticism started with critics noticing things bands wouldn’t notice about themselves (ineptitude, accidental references, supernatural side-effects, mind-boggling stupidity) and ended (as it does every day, coughing up thin blood) continually reiterating the stuff that their PR is made of (Nirvana and “rawness,” Urge and posing, Trux and “Glam” or exile, U2 and “innovation”). If you got the press pack, you could write the articles and reviews yourself. The next time you think about anything you like, try to imagine if there could be anything more to it than what it says about itself. There’s nothing more helpless than someone trapped in a room where all the objects are marked with the correct names, and no fact raises more doubt about signification than the fact that that’s basically how we live.

At the beginning, the very idea of doing rock “criticism” in the same way as one did “theatre criticism” and “literary criticism” was so fucking silly that you couldn’t help but appreciate and enjoy the fact that you were doing something totally inappropriate, miscegenated, ill-precedented etc. But the idea that it’s really worth having deadly serious opinions about, taking sides as if for the future of something, really strikes me as sad today. If it can surprise you and do something more or less than catch your attention and toy with it for 4 minutes, then wonderful! Groove on it, respond to it, get pissed, take a new pose in the mirror before you go to work—cool! Is that a reason to treat the shit as if it matters? What matters is what allegiances you make as you walk into Tower Records. “Uh, what kind of music do I like?” You forgot because it doesn’t matter. Contrary to what newspaper writers need to have us believe, the decision has no consequences. The particular little wall of CDs toward which you proceed lets you join a huge, ill-defined, and almost totally meaningless group. I got a Lee Perry comp rather than the new Trux because I thought all my friends would already have Cats and Dogs (but they actually all spent their money on drugs or vacations instead of CD players), and bypassed the new U2 because I can hear it on the radio and the Classical section because I didn’t feel like sitting in a chair concentrating on Magnus Lindberg.

It’s not just entertainment. A song, an idea, a story or a friend can start you on a mental revolution. But not once the song is part of your canon of what’s hip: then, by definition, it couldn’t really be new to you. Nobody can tell you what will provoke or change you, except for the people who want to grow you into some mold just like them. That’s why I’m not going to rehash examples or prescribe programs. You can think of them yourself. You’d better. Obviously enough, music doesn’t mean anything in particular. That’s the freedom part. You are, as the philosopher insisted, out there on your own. You make your own rules, and usually they look a lot like everybody else’s rules. And I guess they’d have to if you wanted to play all their games with them. You fucking sellout. If it doesn’t automatically mean anything and you get to make up what it means, then conversely, it usually means something fairly stupid. I like love. I love love. I hate hate hate. I love hating. I don’t wanna see you again. I’ve got to see you again. Sure, great, whatever. It’s got a beat but you probably don’t want to dance to it. Ultimately, issues of a band selling out, major or indie label, matter not one whit. Every time you go to something with your usual set of expectations, dull your nerves, settle in, get down with the program, you’re selling out. No political program is going to jerk you off and no band is going to do it for you. If there’s bad entertainment and you don’t make or find something yourself, you get the fun you deserve.

Escape From Desert Island Discs!

In a very generous review of my fanzine, A Nest of Ninnies, Chicago writer Ben Kim made one criticism that I want to address, because it is really a criticism of the whole fanzine genre. Describing the aesthetic of the “zine,” he termed it “insular and self-congratulatory” (while also praising it as “expansive,” leading me to imagine myself as a small but militaristic island such as WWII Japan). Now, he is basically correct, although I might prefer to use a phrase such as “selectively fastidious” to describe my worldview: I think that only three or four of my friends will even get most of the jokes, and you’d have to have exactly my slice of experience to get all of them. But this is deliberate: the hope is that I make the unknown sound interesting enough to explore. I expect that one or two people might actually become interested in the Avestas and Zoroastrianism, and that nine or ten might check out Hijo-Kaidan or Monster Magnet. Yes, you might react already, what an outré and eclectic mix, how amusing. Not at all. This is what I consider a problem: mainstream and “alternative” culture are really surprisingly rigorous and narrow. When I try to at least get a taste of more than one time in history and one type of music, I find myself at the edge of the world, so to speak. Anything more than the Chicago Tribune, MTV, and, for the hip, the Ajax records mail-order catalog, are considered remote and airy realms, the domain of experts and obsessives (really the same thing). Even the people who fashion the material that those “in the know” consume have this anxiety about themselves, as you can glean from reading an underground comic such as Eightball where a pathetic, longhaired character harangues the protagonist with meaningless band names until he escapes to the bathroom. Knowing too much is embarassing.

But the amount that is normal to know, experience, and think about is, I think, a little suspect. We are a literate city, and one that is absolutely awash in information of all sorts, whether it be the bulging racks of Reggae at Tower Records and the Jazz that can be heard surging forth from clubs and radios, or the long shelves of bookstores and libraries that seem to recede into unglimpsed distances. Yet people quickly find odd little niches, they settle into some taste or style that has been presented to them, and there they stay. It’s never for any real reason, it just seems to happen, like AIDS or advances in telecommunications. I choose those similes because they, too, seem to be in the air, just happening, but their courses were largely determined by human action. When we are teenagers seems to be the only time when we buy or make our own rules for what is normal; it’s just as possible the rest of our lives, and indeed, the making can only really bear fruit when it’s done with a critical, adult mind. But what ends up happening is a peculiar wrong-end-of-a-telescope effect, whereby the actually incredibly narrow confines of music, ideas, and history that you chew over every day, brought to you by news and TV, seem to surround you as if they were the size of the whole world, and the rest of human culture since the dawn of civilization seems like some weird special interest.

It’s the other way around.