Mess Me Up

By Steven Strange

Rock n roll is all about having fun. For a lot of people that statement is as given as saying that sex feels good or that Fat Wreck bands suck more dick than Mike Cynic on a two-day bender. Like, duh, of course (italics) rock n roll is supposed to be fun. Who wants to subject oneself to an emo singer prattling on about his difficulty coping with the existential malaise he faces as a member of an impersonal and uncaring society (i.e. he can't get laid) or to a hardcore singer taking five minutes to introduce a minute long song about the Very Important Issue of how the local co-op is selling cookies with - gasp (italics) - sugar in them and trying to pass them off as vegan? Certainly not this record geek. Most attempts to infuse rock n roll with "serious issues" such as politics, social protest, chronicles of individual oppression, or what have you, usually end up falling flatter than uber-skank Paris Hilton's chest, and with good reason - once rock n roll tries too hard to "make a difference" it turns into the rants of a street preacher spouting off on a soapbox set to power chords and a 4/4 beat - which isn't exactly my idea of a good time. It's like Ben Weasel so succinctly said, "politics are fucking boring." That's why for years "social relevance" in music has been anathema to both myself and, I'm sure, most of you out there in TB-land. Because if rock n roll is essentially a visceral and exciting form of music, why bog down that energy with a bunch of extraneous sentiments? All of those squares pushing their largely interchangeable, always dull social agendas are just a bunch of uptight fanatics who wouldn't know a good time if it snuck up and bit them on the ass. Unlike those suckers, we (italics) know what a good time is all about - we (italics) know that rock n roll is all about having fun.

Except, the world isn't very fun anymore.

I'm a firm believer that if someone wants to read about politics, they should go read a political website (or newspaper, book, magazine, or blog) so I'll save you the play by play on how our world, and in particular, our country have entered into a precarious era that makes the relative calm and stability of the 90's seem like a distant, halcyon dream. That's the era I came of age in, and I'm well aware that it was far from idyllic. However, I'll take the manufactured slacker culture of the 90's over the 00's equally manufactured "patriotism," and the war machine it enables, any day of the week. For example, the biggest problem most kids in my generation had to deal with was the fundamental existential question of what to do with their boring life. College or the night shift at the video store? In sharp contrast to this, kids coming of age in the post-911 world face the ever-present specter of being drafted into an already understaffed army that is losing troops on an almost daily basis. While Bush claims he won't reinstate the draft, does anyone actually think that an already taxed to the limit volunteer army can afford the price in casualties "staying the course" in Iraq will incur? With a large percentage of the armed services extended in Iraq, we're only another "liberation" away from the draft becoming a necessity. I hear GW has issued warnings to Iran and North Korea that they could be next if they don't shape up. Guess what post-graduation options that leaves for a fifteen year old today: Fallujah or Pyongyang? Sure makes working at Blockbuster seem like a bright future.

Some might say I'm being an alarmist. To them I say, turn on your TV and watch the corporate nightly news for a week straight and then tell me that things are just hunky dory in the world today. I watch the nightly news a few times a week while eating diner, and what emanates from the idiot box never ceases to depress me: suicide bombings occurring with such alarming frequency that they all start to blend together into a single disgusting mass of carnage and wasted human life, a Commander in Chief who justifies this as the price of "freedom on the march," and an increasingly complacent media who fails to question why a President whose lies have caused us to become entangled in the Iraqi quagmire, and is therefore partially responsible for the incalculable pain it has caused, has not been impeached whereas a Democrat like Clinton was not only impeached, but also publicly vilified, for lying about a blowjob. You tell me which one is worse. Yet to ask such questions in the current political atmosphere is to relegate oneself to the outer fringes of an increasingly complacent, if not outright complicit (ala Fox News), corporate media power structure. This media hegemony has resulted in a silencing of dissenting voices, and when combined with the post-911 nationalistic daydream that many have yet to wake up from, it adds up to a docile and manageable citizenry. Its almost as though a large part of the country has fallen under some red, white, and blue spell that is blinding them to the fact that our country is needlessly (italics) heading down the path to a future that makes the turmoil of Vietnam and the 60's look like a Disney cartoon.

And that's where we come in. While I'm all in favor of rock n roll, and by extension rock zines and message boards, existing primarily as forms of entertainment, I can't say I'm not shocked, and somewhat disappointed, at how little our little underground scene is reflecting the world that we live in. I'm not talking about Dead Kennedys sloganeering or hardcore didactics here. I outgrew that stuff before I was old enough to get a drivers license and it would be awful if garage/rock/pop/punk bands started to inject their songs with that particular brand of banality. What I'm talking about is making music that reflects the spirit of the time. Nowadays, the vast majority of "our" bands aren't doing this. A quick look at some of the best records that came out this year bears this out: the Lids, Reigning Sound, Ponys, Real Losers, Fatals, Slowmotions, Blank Its, BBQ, and Feelers all put out great records this year, but by and large they're all sonically traditional records full of songs about having fun (or not having fun in the Ponys case). There's nothing wrong with that. The Lids and Reigning Sound LPs are constantly jockeying for position as my favorite album of the year, and right now BBQ, Slowmotions, and Blank Its are in heated competition for the coveted "single of the year" prize (which is really saying something this year). I'll make no bones about it; for the most part I'm a rock traditionalist who enjoys catchy songs, a driving beat, and cliché (or archetypal) lyrics about girls, frustration, jubilation, boredom, anger, and being a punk rock loser. All of which is great and all, but when I listen to a lot of my favorite records these days I can't help but get the feeling that I'm just burying my head in the sand the same as all of those soccer moms with yellow ribbons on the back of their SUVs. Obviously writing a song about the evils of war, let alone listing to one, isn't going to end the war. However, listening to nothing but fun, escapist music doesn't seem to acknowledge the all too grim reality we're living in.

A couple of days ago I was listing to a tape I made of a bunch of 70's punk rock and was floored by how much better some of those songs captured the zeitgeist of 2004 than contemporary records do. Listing to the Weirdos sing lines like "United Nations and NATO won't do it too/it's just the red, white, and blue" and "foreign aid from the land of the free/but don't blame me" its hard not to imagine John Denney as writing under some sort of precognitive intuition. Even the Pack, those pimp fighting, pleather pants wearing misanthropes from Germany who have become the pinnacle of collecterscum cool, sound like they were writing their lyrics while looking into a crystal ball. When I listen to lyrics like, "my neighbor/he's talking about freedom/human rights and justice/but he's a terrorist" from their song "Terrorist," I can't help but let out a bitter laugh at the irony of a German band from the 70's being more in touch with my feelings on living in post-911/Patriot Act America than anything contemporaneous I've heard. The funny thing is, the world those bands were complaining about seems like a cakewalk compared to today. Which begs the question, where is the comparable sentiment in 2004? Why has dissent fallen out of fashion as a lyrical topic?

I can't profess to have the complete answer, but I'm pretty sure the proliferation of politico hardcore bands in the 80s must have something to do with it. After hearing/seeing a zillion uninspired bands ineloquently railing against everything from cops, the system, to (the hardcorites favorite muse) Regan, one starts to equate the idea (italics) of lyrics expressing dissent with the puerile manner in which they are executed. In contrast to this is rock n roll/garage, where the lyrics seldom matter and juvenility is all part of the package. Years of stereotypes as to what a hardcore band should write about and what is appropriate subject matter for a garage band have had a self-perpetuating effect. Few bands think outside of the lyrical box that their subgenre has constructed for itself, and the result is the continuation of stock themes that are largely devoid of meaning.

Once again, there's nothing wrong with this, as it's an inevitable part of making music within the parameters of a given scene. Personally, I'm not really a lyrics guy. I think about lyrics largely the same way I think about basslines; usually I don't pay them any mind, but occasionally really good ones come along and add an extra dimension to a song. Pardon me for going emo on you, but personally I think music is all about emotion. Every good song should make you feel something; whether it's happy (as most rock does), melancholy, romantic, scared, touched, or angry. Given the state of the world today, I've been feeling the latter quite a bit more than I used to.

Yet to listen to most of the records I've bought recently, it seems like I must be the only one. While there's a plethora of great music being made right now, much more than there was a few years ago in fact, the vast majority of it sounds interchangeable with records from 1998. Based on records by bands like the Black Lips and Catholic Boys one could almost get the impression that we weren't living in an increasingly theocratic and undemocratic country where half of the population supports a megalomaniacal President who appears to be hell bent on brining about Armageddon in the Middle East. I don't mean to single out those bands since I think both of them sound great the way they are. There's always room for bands that write lyrics without any social criticism; in fact the majority of music is probably better off without it. However, when hardly anybody seems the least bit upset about the way the world is going right now I have to wonder just what the fuck is going on. Doesn't anybody else care about the fact that we're living under a far-right Republican hegemony and being spoon-fed sanitized news about the disaster unfolding in Iraq by a neutered corporate media? Doesn't this make anyone else at least a little nervous and upset?

Of course it does. It must. Anyone who doesn't feel some outrage towards the direction our country has drifted post-911 is either not paying attention or is the kind of myopic, nationalistic tool that Karl Rove and company where able to manipulate so effectively this past November. Based on conversations I've had, I know of more than a couple of "our" bands that feel upset about these things, but for some reason most of them haven't incorporated this sentiment into their music. Maybe they feel self-conscious about trying to write a "political song" or maybe they just think music and politics are best kept separate. There are some current bands, however, that have shown that it is possible to incorporate a sense of today's precarious world into their music without coming across as heavy-handed or sloganeering. The Lost Sounds' "And You Dance" and the Clorox Girls' "Vietnam" immediately come to mind, the later for its direct comparison of the current war to the catastrophic, and ultimately pointless, war that has come to demarcate the late 60's era more than anything else, and the former for basically expressing the same sentiment I've spent almost four pages on in a few succinct lines:

"You're at the discotheque having fun/while your brothers are firing guns/killing everything in their path/but not you just drink and laugh!"

This from the guy who once wrote a song called "Puke On You." Times change after all, and so do people. Sometimes, that is.

Of course, just because the world is going to shit doesn't mean that people shouldn't be at the discotheque having fun, or at the bars and rock clubs for that matter. Life is short, and no matter how bad things get people should always try to squeeze as much enjoyment out of it as they can. The problem lies in people who ignore the problems facing us all today in favor of having a good time. There's a thin line between being entertained and head-in-the-sand escapism. Like I said, rock n roll is all about having fun, but sometimes there comes a need to acknowledge reality. And for a lot of people, the reality they are faced with today is grim to say the least. I'm not going to whine about how it's the responsibility of bands to act as "voices our generation" or any such Rolling Stone nonsense, but at the same time it would be nice to at least have a sense that the people making the music I spend so much of my life listening to are not just cognizant of, but also care about, the state of the world in 2004.

Because it's not very fun feeling like I'm the only one that's pissed.

Steven Strange
1115 Paul Parkway #102
Minneapolis, MN 55434