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The Name-Caller

It’s the end of summer and the air is getting slightly sharper, slightly more articulate. The annual Minnesota State Fair just rolled into town—a colossal affair of farm animals, live music, fireworks, exhibits, fried cheese curds, corndogs, carnival rides and games, etc. There’s one very popular game called “Dump Bozo in the water.” Here’s how it works; a guy wearing a cheap clown costume sits on a collapsible board above a vat of water, and fair-goers pay money to throw balls at a small red dot; if they hit that dot the board collapses—Bozo gets dumped in the water.

To make it more enticing the clown shouts insults at the ball-throwers, pisses them off more and more, taunts them with personal barbs that usually come dangerously close to going too far, close to the nerve of a person’s real fear. He’s a professional name-caller, instantly assessing a person’s physical features and gestures, locating their potential weakness, their soft spot, poking fun at it, highlighting it with ridicule and exaggeration, like a verbal caricaturist. He’s got insults for everyone: fat people, short people, juveniles, senior citizens, tough guys, blondes, drunks, red-necks, hippies, yuppies, jocks, geeks, snobs, jar-heads, metal-heads, rappers, punks, whatever. He’s an impromptu artist: in a blink he can make a parody of you and hurl it back at you.

He’d condemned him with a name.

The other day I was standing there among the many gathered to experience the Bozo experience. A guy in his early twenties stepped forward, paid two bills for five balls. Bozo eyed him up and down, silently gathered information, ammunition, then let loose on him: “Hey, you grungy, long-haired freak! Where’d you get those ripped-up clothes anyway? Out back in a dumpster? I bet you don’t even know how to throw that ball. Hey you Nirvana-reject, I’m talking to you!”

Bozo released a prolonged cackle that trailed off into something like a smoker’s hack. He’d gotten that guy where he lived and he knew it. He’d condemned him with a name. He’d stuck him with an identity, buried him in a category. In a split-second that guy had become a parody of the “grunge” look, a Nirvana-reject.

This says something about Nirvana, who’ve been deemed, whether they like it or not, one of the foremost icons of “grunge.” Their unparalleled commercial success unquestionably changed their public status from obscure indie-rock uglies to high-profile top-40 darlings; and it all happened so fast, so very frighteningly fast. Subsequently there’s been a flood of “grunge” bands into the pop music scene and a worldwide “grunge” movement (clothing, attitude, etc.), spawned more by corporate-controlled advertising and media than by grungy youth.

Inevitably, though, the bigger fall harder. The whole “grunge” thing has become so big and widespread and lucrative (without the organic and artistic growth needed for authenticity and humanity) that it’s already over-used, stale, a cliché, a gaudy and smelly parody of its former self. Thus we have Bozo berating a young man for his “grunge” motif, for being a silly and cheap imitation of the original (a Nirvana-reject).

Thus even Nirvana, that original seed, has become something else. Whether they like it or not, they’ve been transformed too, hyped beyond repair, churned through the cultural grinder. Nirvana has become a Nirvana-reject. The band members are probably not much different as people, and even as a rock band they’re probably working in roughly the same musical territory as in their days of obscurity. But their position in the public eye, their cultural context, has changed wholesale: they’ve become enormously famous, enormously popular rock stars. Nirvana has been implicated in the crime because, if for no other reason, their last album went number one with a bullet.

Not only was Nirvana a “grunge” rock band (already I speak posthumously), more broadly their music was (before the hit record Nevermind) alternative rock, or indie rock, or progressive rock, or whatever it’s called. So their corporate rock success-story has many folks running through the streets crying the death of alternative and/or indie and/or progressive rock. Nirvana finally erased the line, they say. The corporate world finally got smart and launched an all-out appropriation of the underground scene. Now, they say, all rock is, or soon will be, corporate rock. It’s even in the news: last week a local paper ran a back-to-school “what’s in/out” list claiming that “alternative rock” is “out.”

But names are deceptive. It’s more accurate to say that corporate record-labels are expanding their territory because they can make money doing so. They’ve colonized some of the rock that several years ago might’ve been considered alternative/indie/progressive. This is called capitalism. But this doesn’t mean fewer good bands are around. It means the whole rock industry is growing and the margins are getting pushed farther out. There’s still plenty of rock not ready for prime time. There’s still plenty of worthwhile, genuine, innovative, provocative, evocative rock music being made outside the corporate empire. It just hasn’t been named yet. It hasn’t yet become a parody of itself. And Bozo hasn’t yet found a way to use it against us.

There are bands making music never heard before, giving complex and intelligent new forms to songs. There are bands advancing the sound of guitars and the interplay between guitars, rethinking and reconstructing rhythm from beginning to end. There are bands adding new textures to vocals, singing words that render the world real, illuminate experience, conjure human emotion, express the absurdities and beauties of living lives at this particular time and space.

To be named a cliché can be fatal.

Here, for the sake of specificity, are some names that haven’t yet become trite: Wingtip Sloat, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, Dog Faced Hermans, New Radiant Storm King, The Palace Brothers, Circus Lupus, Trumans Water, Trenchmouth, The Grifters, John Spencer Blues Explosion, Polvo, King Kong, Pitchblende. These are some that matter, and numerous others are out there: bands that are creating, right now, imaginative and lasting music in the face of accelerating cultural turnover, in the face of the corporate cliché-maker.

I’m thinking about Bozo again. The casual observer might consider him a victim, a caged derelict wearing ridiculous make-up, getting dumped in water then climbing back up for more abuse. But it’s Bozo who’s inflicting the real damage, and the many entertainment-starved fair-goers stepping forward to play the game are his victims. He’s the name-caller, after all, and these days names can hurt more than sticks and stones. To be named a cliché can be fatal.

I never saw Bozo show signs of weakness. Even climbing out of the water he seemed unharmed, confident, the controller of the game. Sometimes, between insults, he’d scan the audience and mouth a kind of mantra into the microphone: “High and dry. High and dry. I’m high and dry. High and dry.” As if he were the pure one, perched just above—and looking down on—the laughable world of the crowd.