Wednesday, January 19, 2011

American Grungefiti aka Remembrance of Gruntrucks Past

When I was younger, I thought of my mom's brothers as kindred spirits of Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, and Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider. In these grown-up late nights full of hopelessness and anger, I consider their recent fandom of Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and Rush Limbaugh, and I sometimes think of them as the guys at the end of the movie, the rednecks in the pickup truck who shoot Fonda and Hopper to death on the side of the road. Memory and nostalgia are a funny thing, and so are the stories you hold onto because you want them to be true. The fact is, my uncles are none of these things, mostly. Is there really much difference between sanctimonious fame whore Sarah Palin playing "Sarah Palin" on TV, and much better human being Peter Fonda playing a sanctimonious hippie in "Easy Rider"? Both are fictional characters whose iconography we use to put a brand on a part of our public identity.
I liked to think of myself in high school as a cynical, rebellious, mysterious, misunderstood outsider who would one day show all those rednecks, jocks, and unrequited loves how special I was. I didn't realize how fundamentally ordinary those feelings were until I had some distance from those years. I was not special, at least not in that way. Lonely teenagers who like rock music are a dime a dozen and were a nickel a baker's dozen in the grunge era (statistic courtesy U.S. News and World Report's "Special Grunge Issue" of February 1992). I believed my story then, and that's fine. It got me through some shitty years that mostly just led to other shitty years, but what can you do? Complain? I started high school in September 1991, the month and year DGC released Nirvana's Nevermind. (Honestly, school started in late August, but sometimes you have to lie to tell the truth.) It set the tone for my next four years.
I've been thinking about 1990s music and my relationship with it after reading a series in the Onion A.V. Club recommended to me by a friend. This series, called "Whatever Happened to Alternative Nation?" and written by Steven Hyden, eerily parallels much of my 1990s relationship to music. I'll get into all that soon, but I probably need to get into something else first.
If you're one of the five people who reads my blogs and/or follows me on Twitter (what a pathetic opening to a sentence), then you probably need an explanation. You? Recommending some articles on the Onion A.V. Club site? But you hate those people. I don't hate those people. I just hate the way they write. It wasn't always that way. I used to read The Onion's website in its entirety every week from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s. I was also a fan of the A.V. Club, back when it was one well-researched, in-depth lengthy interview with an interesting person per week and a selection of decent book, film, and music reviews. As time went by and my life got busier, I stopped reading the A.V. Club and just skimmed The Onion. I didn't have a problem with the two sites, I just got out of the habit. In the mid-2000s, stuck in another miserable, dreary, boring job that used none of my skills and regularly stripped me of my dignity and self-respect, I discovered that the A.V. Club's local coverage was expanding to my city. This interesting factoid became a possible life-changer when the A.V. Club advertised a city editor position. I filled out the application and the writing samples and prayed to Satan, Elvis, Jesus, Baby Jesus, and Ted Knight to get me an interview. It worked. I survived the brutal culling and became one of seven people interviewed for the position.
My excitement, hopes, and dreams evaporated about thirty seconds into the interview, which took place in the lobby of a fancy hotel. I was interviewed by A.V. Club editor/writer Josh Modell, who also writes for Spin. He was a nice guy, we had a good email rapport, but the face-to-face interview just did not work. At all. I think I was the fourth or fifth person interviewed, and I felt like the decision had already been made. The interview was brief and perfunctory, I felt awkward trying to make a case for myself in a crowded hotel lobby, and I blew a couple of important questions disguised as small talk when I completely spaced on the last band I'd seen live, good local bands, and a decent restaurant near the hotel. I left feeling bad, though Modell said he'd follow up with a phone interview in a week. He didn't. He did write me a nice email a few weeks later letting me down gently, though, and promising to give my information to the guy who got the job so I could do some freelance work. In a ridiculous bit of irony, the guy who got the city editor job was a guy I pissed off several years ago when I made fun of his "electroclash" band and invited strangers to punch him in the face on this very blog. Was it my belated comeuppance for saying mean things about a stranger in a public forum? Probably, but fuck it, the guy sucks, he's a rude prick, a hack writer, and his shitty band irritated me by playing music in my general direction while I was waiting for Oneida to play.
So here we are. Of course, my history with the A.V. Club makes my criticisms of its product highly suspect. I know this. It could be misconstrued as the sour-grapes face-saving of a sad, bitter, tiny-spirited man. Here's the thing, though. After my extreme disappointment at not getting the job left me, I started reading the A.V. Club again. I had some immediate visceral reactions to its redesign, new focus, and new writing style. These were, in rough order: How do you find anything on this damn site? What's with all the stupid lists? Why are they writing like this? Wow, I really should have checked out the site before applying. I thought it had the same format as it did in 1999. I'm glad I didn't get this job. I'm glad they didn't hire me. I had no business even applying for this job. I didn't do my research and I screwed up the interview. Why is there so much content and yet not much content at all? Why do these people all write like each other?
Here are some specific problems I have with the A.V. Club and its house style. Just to get this out of the way and never bring the guy up again, the aforementioned city editor, recently promoted to the national A.V. Club, who doesn't like me or my comments about his former band very much, is a bad writer. He uses too many cliches and affects a smug tone that suggests he feels superior to his subject matter and his audience. Every sentence is a chance to drip more snark on something, even the stuff he purports to like. There is a failure to truly engage with the subject matter, the audience, and the dirty business of life itself. Everything is fodder for detached, hipster scorn. I know the word hipster gets thrown around so much now it barely has any meaning, but I feel it's appropriate here.
My problems with the rest of A.V. Club, while granting it a certain entertainment value and admitting that it's a fun site to visit when you need to kill ten minutes:
The meaningless Inventory lists. I like lists a lot, but most of these lists are just content for content's sake, so free of meaning and substance they act as little more than a laundry list of pop culture consumption. This has the effect of making everything the same, making everything just product for generating more content which creates a desire for more product to create more content. It has a deadening effect, a numbing of honest response, a junk-food gorge approach to cultural comment and criticism.
The faux-serious debates about shit that does not fucking matter at all. Read this and see if you can find anything worth saving. I couldn't.
The destructive way they write about meaningful art, music, literature, etc. in the exact same tone they write about pop culture trash, junk, and mediocrity. This is a fine line for me to walk. I find lots of artistic beauty and wild, throbbing, beating life in drive-in exploitation pictures, horror movies, pop music, profanity and obscenity, and lowbrow humor. But I make a case for it in my own awkward, personal way. And maybe that's all the A.V. Club is doing, too. I just can't relate, though, to a style that treats Don Quixote, Carl Dreyer, the Now That's What I Call Music series, and Snooki's ghost-written supermarket book as if they're all part of the same continuum and uses such a uniform house style to express it. Everything's disposable/of earth-shattering importance with these writers.
Content, content, content. So much content.
Examples of the house writing style that annoys me so much:
"When I interviewed B.J. Novak a while back I was a little surprised when he said watching Pulp Fiction made him want to be a writer. It was sweet and guileless and not at all hip. The hip response would be a lofty dissertation on how a triple-feature of Preston Sturges or Billy Wilder masterpieces instilled in him a fierce love for the written word. Then I realized that Tarantino made me want to be a writer as well. Pop-culture legend contends that only a few people saw The Sex Pistols play live in their early days or picked up Big Star’s debut when it first came out, but that everyone who did formed a band. But the Sex Pistols and Big Star were cult sensations. Tarantino, in sharp contrast, was a cult filmmaker who conquered the mainstream. He did more than that: He made the mainstream his bitch." -- Nathan Rabin, My Year of Flops Grindhouse review.
I could keep going, but I either made my point or didn't by now, and I can just keep making it or not making it.
Anyway, despite these criticisms, I'm really enjoying Steven Hyden's series about '90s alternative rock. Hyden's writing here comes across as more personal and thoughtful and more connected to actual human experience and emotion than the 12 people writing in one irritating voice style the A.V. Club has been driving into the ditch lately. I want to write about the parallels between Hyden's '90s experiences and mine, and I will do that in future posts. I plan on writing about my relationship with music at different times in my life, not just the '90s, but my reaction to Hyden's series of articles is a good place to start.
To get this thing started, here is every favorite band/artist I ever had:
Age 6: John Cafferty & the Beaver Brown Band (for their Eddie & the Cruisers soundtrack)
6-7: Michael Jackson
7-11: Van Halen
11-13: Guns N' Roses
13-14: Fishbone
14-18: Nirvana
18-21: Trying out many contenders, including Pavement, Guided By Voices, Neil Young, Dinosaur Jr, The Who, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Elvis Costello & The Attractions, The Afghan Whigs, Minutemen, The Stooges, and so on
21-23: Guided By Voices
24-present: Guided By Voices, Neil Young (tie)
Who will be next? Mantovani? Sufjan Stevens? The Capital Steps? No, I'm good. I think my favorites are locked in for life.

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