Behind the Lyrics to “Comfort in the Noise”

“Wait a second—are you quoting your own lyrics?”

Yes, call me a narcissist or an egomaniac of the first degree, but I am guilty of this supposed faux pas. I quote my lyrics because writing them is a form of catharsis; I put a great deal of reflection into my lyrics, and sometimes struggle to understand what my subconscious is trying tell me. The process of composing helps me wrap my thoughts around large, unwieldy topics and align my feelings on a variety of issues.

Lyrics can often be obtuse—many of my favorite artists write quite cryptic words, and I’ve taken a great deal of influence from this style. Sometimes in obscuring an issue we can better measure our comprehension. I’m a huge fan of science fiction because when it’s done well, stories and characters serve as allegories that allow us to reconsider what we think we know and feel. In an age that feels a bit too literal and surface-friendly for my taste, this is very refreshing and necessary.

But sometimes we need to read about a film or a book after we finish it. Art can be too dense on a first or second take to properly comprehend. We know that something moved us, but we need some help in clarifying what exactly it was. When it comes to pop music, this is why the site Genius has been such a big hit.

Pop lyrics tend to get short shrift, and frankly I give them short shrift – I rarely pay attention to lyrics in pop music, and have found on many times that understanding the lyrics will actually diminish my gratification. (By contrast, many songs that have thoughtful, analytical lyrics tend to bore me on a musical level. Yeah, I’m a picky customer.)

So I’m not postulating that my lyrics are earth-shattering and will be remembered as fondly as Shakespeare’s sonnets, but inviting you to take a peak behind the curtain to see what inspired me. As we close out this VERY LONG YEAR and Libel moves onto bold, new material, I want to share how writing our 2016 album “Comfort in the Noise” helped me come to terms with the world around me as well as my aging self. I think you might relate to a good deal of it.

On the Album Title, “Comfort in the Noise”

We played around with a few ideas for the title:

  • “Targeting the LCD” (as in “lowest common denominator”) to complement our previous LP’s cheeky title, “Music For Car Commercials.” The conventional wisdom of today suggests the best way to make money in entertainment is to pander to the lowest common denominator.
  • “Calculated Misery,” a reference to how airlines determine how tortuous to make coach seating so you will upgrade. It seemed also a funny way to describe the process of making “sad bastard” music – how much planning goes into writing songs to bring you down. (Though we finished this long before Adele released her album “25,” I was amused at the behind-the-scenes stories about the songwriting – because she was now far more content in life, she really had to mine the pain and anguish that made “21” a huge hit.) Emotional manipulation isn’t limited to three-hankie movies.
  • “Help Is on the Way” is the refrain from closing track “Elevator Button.” Years ago, I took a photograph with the perfect Instagram filter of a “Help Is on the Way” button in an elevator, and the image has stuck with me. The idea of being trapped in a small metal box with a blinking light telling you that help will arrive imminently reminded me of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” itself a study of existentialism. Help is never arriving, it’s always on the way. We live our lives expecting that promised land is around the corner, but do we ever find it?

However, because “Comfort in the Noise” is one of catchiest refrains on the album— “By now you know you know there’s comfort in the noise” from “Dead Air”—it earned the title spot. The phrase seemed to align with a central goal of mine in writing music: to find solid ground in our media-centric, hyper-distracted, chaotic yet rigid world.

At the same time, I believe this album is a bit noisier than previous efforts (with great thanks to new recruit Justin Gonzales and his penchant for crazy sounds), and I imagine anyone who enjoys Libel (and many of our post-hardcore and shoegaze influences) finds a great deal of comfort in noise.

“Migration Patterns”

We managed to get a few articles written about this one. Not just a description of gentrification (“Raze the tenements to make space / For luxury condos”; “Discount stores on every block / Replaced by yoga studios and cheese shops”), Migration Patterns also conveys the callousness of the gentrifiers (“A new playground for the young and moneyed”) and their half-hearted sympathy for the locals sent into exodus (“Our hearts go out to those displaced / It’s a disgrace / You don’t know how bad we feel).

As someone who moved into a freshly renovated (and super cheap—for my income level, anyway) apartment in Bushwick and then watched as rents rapidly ascended, lifelong residents bailed and the bars and restaurants that signal “urban renewal” moved in, I wanted to bring across both the ridiculous nature of gentrification as well as my disgust at my participation.

Race is casually referenced off the bat – “A great pale shadow casts down on the east” – because I wanted to focus on the class issues. However, musically I wanted to joke on white appropriation of black culture with a beat inspired by Washington, DC’s homegrown go-go style and the sing-song “rap” sections (which I intended to sound as white as possible).

But as the song notes towards the end, gentrification is a symptom of a much larger problem – wealth inequality and cost of living that’s raced ahead of wages and income for most of the population. This has led to an ugly cycle – before I was gentrifying Bushwick I was gentrifying Williamsburg. So is the ending refrain of “Pack it up / Move on down the line” a tactless taunt to rooted residents forced out by gentrification or a rallying cry for the next round?

“Not Invited”

“Word ain’t always as good as bond” sums it up well. “Not Invited” focuses on the prevalence of cronyism and how connections are more worthwhile than skill and talent (“Charm will only get you so far”), particularly in the arts. We may try to dismiss such claims by citing that “je ne sais quoi,” but the real question is, “Who do you know? / Who validates your ticket?”

“Simulacra”

A companion piece to older Libel track “Simulation,” “Simulacra” is a meditation on Jean Baudrillard’s “Simulacra and Simulation” and even directly quotes the text (“No reference, circumference / Only eminence grise”).

A rather obtuse piece referencing and even further obtuse piece, the basic idea is that symbols (simulacra) of ideas and beliefs have actually become more important than the ideas themselves. For example, one could argue the cross no longer represents Jesus’ preaching but Christianity, which is essentially the cross itself.

The the mask hides nothing—what we’re left with is the hyper-real. “What’s realer than real is not real at all / What’s realer than real’s nothing more than a façade.” But the song itself suggests that such a realization “will tear you asunder / So turn the lights off and leave the mask on.”

I’ve found Baudrillard fascinating for a long time—yes, since I saw “The Matrix” many years ago. His ideas are abstract, but quite fun to ponder and make for wonderful songwriting inspiration. Also referenced in this song: the sample is from David Cronenberg’s “Videodrome,” and the chorus line “Images are treacherous, it’s said” is a nod to Rene Magritte. (The Jaguar Club had a riff on this as well.)

“Dead Air”

This song serves dual purposes—both to mock the pandering idiocy of modern media, and note its addictive nature. The title itself sneers at 24-7 programing and content, where “Being informed has never been more subjective / Why pay for knowledge when entertainment’s so cheap?” The second verse takes on the pointlessness of horse-race politics (which fills up a lot of media dead air), noting the “Rules laid out by the suckers paying the rent”—that would be the corporations and aristocrats funding the programming and ultimately the politicians.

The bridge—or really the second chorus—makes the song personal by noting that there’s “comfort in the noise.” We’ve gotten so used to—even reliant—on this barrage of blathering that “silence is merely devastating.” Repeating the motif of turning it on and off that first appeared in “Not Invited,” a second refrain in the buildup suggests we’ve lost control over the beast and become dependent—“once you turn it on, it’s always staying on.” Modern media is not junk food, but an addictive drug.

“Hats Off”

This straightforward song (in both music and lyrics) suggests that the social mediascape has awakened our inner self-righteous trolls, and they have run rampant to little effect other than making us all look like a bunch of assholes. But rather than lecturing on the death of discourse, the chorus uses the most pithy of snark—“Hats off to you, mighty dragon slayer”—to admit that I’m part of the problem. The acrimony festering on the Internet is seeping into all parts of life, to everyone’s chagrin.

“Bygones”

Hey boys and girls—do you like economics? “Bygones” is inspired by the austerity practices that have left huge swaths of the world’s population struggling in the wake of the Great Recession. (“And if you find our methods callow / We offer the choice to spit or swallow.”)

But it’s really focused on conservative and business-minded types that push such policies along with “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” sloganeering aimed at those lazy, no-good poors. Of course, those some bloviators fail to see the advantages (ahem, privilege) that allowed them to rise high enough to condescend. Too many people (and nations) have bought into this bullshit at great cost to themselves.

Conservative economists preach a strict doctrine—“What’s written right can’t be wrong”—and write off failures as bygones, always finding some impractical or erroneous excuse for why their policies have tripped up… Or simply made the rich richer while smothering everyone else.

“Preoccupied”

During the infamous Occupy Wall Street protests, I actually was working on Wall St. as an editor for Jim “Mad Money” Cramer. While I had my issues with the Occupied movement—namely its anarchic approach to organization when strong leadership could have pushed real change—I agreed with most of the principles.

So I was disturbed by what held me back from being a part of the protests: fear of losing the comfort of my job, my career. Not being able to pay off my debts or fund my musical projects. Survival was more important than standing up for what I believed. I hated myself for sitting on the sidelines and “bracing for the moment’s end.”

“Preoccupied” traces the rise of the Occupy movement while criticizing myself and people like me for being too meek to answer the call—“Enlightenment is knocking but the door’s been bolted shut / Inside we sit with our heads between our knees.”

“Frivolous”

In pop music, the majority of lyrics concern with the most basic of relationship tenets: I want you, I love you, I miss you, I’m sad because we’re not together anymore, you broke my heart.

How many ways can you rephrase the same old sentiments? Why not explore more interesting territory in relationships, such as the power plays involving sex? Each partner yearns for control in a relationship, and the simplest move can exploit the other’s attraction. It’s easy to lose yourself (and control) in lust.

So yes, “Frivolous” is a sex jam about partners vying for overarching control in a relationship via sexual maneuvers. And in the climatic section (see what I did there?), the two realize they are even; they’re both conqueror and conquered at the same time within their passion. Is the foreplay that leads here itself frivolous? It’s not clear.

“Arrogance of Youth”

“Mediocrity rises up.” Pretty much my general complaint about pop culture and a lot of art in general. You could argue this is a worldwide phenomenon that applies to workplaces, politics (though the election of Trump points to an immense dissatisfaction with mediocrity), etc., as illuminated by concepts like the Peter Principle, but for this song, let’s stick with pop culture. The bland and safe are celebrated by the masses and their creators financially rewarded.

On one hand this song is a lament about the cultural status quo, the consensus and the “popular canon,” something I’ve poked fun at since “We Sustain” (2009!). But on the other, it’s about growing up.

When people complain about “millennial traits” like selfishness and delusions of grandeur, I typically reply, “That just sounds like the arrogance of youth.” Thinking that because you’re fresh and untainted by the world, your ideas and output must be brilliant. You know better than everyone because you know nothing.

I feel like many of us 30-somethings have been through (and/or possibly are still going through) the process of recognizing that maybe we don’t what’s best for the world… Maybe we barely know what’s best for ourselves. That questioning yourself and your beliefs is not a negative thing; it’s essential for progressing.

In the end, the melody returns to the opening riff. The lyrics suggest that mediocrity has already flooded the valley and “the crops are done spoiled.” Am I saying that there’s no point in trying to change the humdrum cultural landscape? No, I think I’m saying (and definitely trying to sell myself on the idea) that there’s no point in caring.

“Elevator Button”

Oy, the song no one wants to play, me included because the lyrics depress the hell out of me. “Elevator Button” is an appropriately melancholic ditty about the dystopian now: waiting for the train to take me to work and holding back all my anxieties about the future (“Circumventing heart attacks”); feeling helpless about economic concerns (“Capitalism has run amok”) that make me feel I’m caught in stasis.

And we return to would-be album title: “Help Is on the Way.” One day it will all get better. When? Uh… Where exactly is that Godot fellow we’re supposed to meet? The elevator even makes an intriguing analogy because it’s constantly traveling up and down, caught in its own cycle.

After a foray into escapism (“I gotta disengage”), I return to the opening lines but add the statement: “There’s gotta be something more.” When I wrote the line, I swore I was repeating myself. Eventually I realized I was referencing the old Alphabetical Order track, “Dress Up/Dress Down,” a song that critiqued how identities are bought and sold.

It’s a little weird thinking about “Elevator Button” Post-Trump because instead of feeling stuck in a cycle, I’m dreading how the cycle will be shook up. If anything, I feel more powerless now (which is what happens when you empower authoritarians). So at least there’s fodder for more lyrics and discussions to come…

Back in the Saddle With Hats Off

Hola amigos – Been a while since I rapped at ya, but life’s been quite busy. Besides the toils of the day job (which includes visiting such horrid locales as San Diego), I was on tour with The Jaguar Club. Yeah, yeah – I’m a guitarist, I get around. The JC had several dates in England – including the very fun Rockaway Beach Festival in Bognor Regis – followed by a US stint with Idlewild from Scotland. We played a lot of amazing shows to big crowds, and we’re eagerly working on new material currently. Here’s a sample of our live sound.

But what about Libel, Gavin? That’s what everyone’s here to talk about!

Yes, we took our own sweet time putting together a full-length follow-up to “Music for Car Commercials,” but it really is THIS CLOSE to done – we’re evaluating the masters right now, but I wanted to share a solid track: Hats Off, my ode to how the Internet and social media have facilitated our transformation into a global pack of trolls. 140 characters of self-righteous banter brought no one to their knees.

Oh yeah, the new album – “Comfort in the Noise” – blends dual guitar pyrotechnics, a skin-tight rhythm section and many of my favorite lyrical themes: gentrification (“Migration Patterns”), the arbitrary nature of fame (“Not Invited”), media as a drug (“Dead Air”), arrogance of youth (“Arrogance of Youth”) and even austerity-based economic policies (no, I’m not kidding – “Bygones”). We’re shooting for an early 2016 release, though would be open to any record label interest. Expect another beautiful album cover and music video from talented illustrator and animator Michela Buttignol (no pressure, honey-bun!).

We’re also returning to the stage: Friday, Dec 4 at Matchless in North Brooklyn (Williamsburg). Facebook invite here. We hope to see you there, singing along to “Hats Off” (ahem, the lyrics are on Soundcloud…).

 

Jon Stewart ‘Eviscerated’ My Boss, Jim Cramer

I was a copy editor at TheStreet.com in 2009, and one of my main responsibilities was transforming Jim Cramer’s hastily thrown together emails (usually in all caps and sentence fragments) into readable blog posts. I was in the office when Santelli gave his infamous tirade that somehow launched the Tea Party – yes, CNBC was always blasting in our newsroom. As he was ranting, my colleagues and I stared at each other in disbelief. “Is he really saying that?”

Dread built up in the office before Cramer’s appearance on The Daily Show​. “This is not going to go well,” was the unspoken sentiment. The Daily Show’s CNBC coverage had been brutal, but Jon Stewart echoed a lot of feelings we all had about the network and financial journalism in general. Especially me – I had moved to New York less than a year before thinking digital financial journalism was my best next move.

But lo, I soon felt quite crappy about the content I was contributing to – especially as the realities of the bad behavior that led to the financial crisis sunk in. I had to explain to an opinion writer why quoting Gordon Gecko’s “Greed is good” speech was not a good idea and edit a series on investing in private prisons. And yes, a few times I had the horror of editing Lenny Dykstra’s Nails on the Numbers newsletter. I had no idea who Dykstra was before I started working at TheStreet, but holy shit – I don’t think what was in those writings was of human origin, let alone in English.

I did not watch the “evisceration” when it originally aired, but at the office the next day. Wow. Ow. I wasn’t the only one covertly watching the clips over and over, trying to balance my glee at seeing Cramer forced to atone on television for all of CNBC’s sins with my fear that I was about to be unemployed.

Cramer rallied the troops but our editor’s desk around 11. We learned that TheStreet.com’s CEO has resigned and there were other executive shifts coming. You see, Cramer’s appearance had coincided with TheStreet’s stock taking a serious dive and an earning’s miss. Yes, for some odd reason, TheStreet was a public company. Cramer himself looked defeated, worn down; but he always appeared different in-person compared to TV. The few times I chatted with him, he was quite reserved, but seemed more tired than anything else. On this day, he gave a short, weak speech that definitely didn’t fire up the troops, but he must have known nothing would in the face of what was coming.

If I remember right, 21 people were laid off that day across several departments, including editorial, including the guy that had trained me a few months before. I kind of knew I wasn’t going to get the ax because I didn’t make enough money and had impressive output. However, I didn’t last that much longer at TheStreet. A few months later I misunderstood a cue from my editor and made a stupid mistake in one of Cramer’s blog posts that circled in a CNBC colleague – it led to my swift termination. It was a blessing in disguise – I had been offered my a gig as editor at a digital advertising blog and was able to start after a two-week tour with The Jaguar Club​. (Before, my editor said I’d was too valuable to lose for two weeks and was going to stick me with a laptop and a wifi card for the road.)

Seeing clips of the Cramer interview now make me squirm; I can’t help thinking, “That guy was my boss… at that moment!” When I was fired, my economist father said he was relieved he didn’t have to hide from his friends anymore that I worked for that idiot on television. I don’t think Cramer is dumb, but he is caught up in a ridiculous system in which he tries to make the grim, obtuse and often unfair world of finance entertaining for the masses.

The Cramer interview also cemented in my mind what an important figure Jon Stewart has been over the past 17 years. While many great pieces of journalism and documentary film-making have appeared in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis (“Inside Job” is a hard watch but a must-see), nobody quite hit the nail on the head like Stew-beef.

I’m very sorry to see him leave The Daily Show, but I think he’s done a great job and deserves a break. It’s a good moment for fresh blood – and you have to admit, it’s generous that he’s handing his replacement the comedy opportunity of a lifetime with the 2016 election. I remember when Jon Stewart took over the Daily Show thinking, “This guy again? Don’t they give him a TV show that fails like every other year?” I had no idea what The Daily Show would become; I don’t think any of us saw it coming; and I thank him for everything.

And whenever I see Jim Cramer on TV… Now I just smile and shake my head. Sell, sell, sell…

The Only Article to Read About Taylor Swift and Spotify

When I heard Taylor Swift pulled her music from Spotify, I thought, “That was smart.” Because of her popularity, millions of people will (have?) paid $10 or so to own the album (especially if they can’t have it on-demand, which is the thrill of a streaming music subscription).

This article by Steve Cooper of Spirit Animal is right – the Spotify exodus was a business decision and carried no opinions on the platform itself. Of course, that isn’t a sexy news narrative that can spurn countless think pieces and cable news panels. I haven’t really read any other pieces on Swift’s move because from the headlines and abstracts, I could figure out that they were following the “Swift vs. Spotify” narrative. However, the title “Spotify Is Not the Enemy” grabbed me because I hold the same opinion. Spotify is a fantastic resource for a band like Libel. Cooper’s article is the only one on this topic worth reading: a very smart dissection of the contemporary music industry.

The game (business?) has changed radically, and those of us without corporate marketing armies (or just “battalions” for the indies) are trying to figure out how to play. I don’t care if you download LIBEL albums; I mainly use Spotify to listen to music because I’ve long thought cloud-based services would be the future of media. Yes, I prefer access to ownership when it comes to media. (My DVD collection is not impressive – you won’t find anything produced in the last 10 years. Also, I don’t know if I have a DVD player anymore…)

Save your hard drive space, listen to us on Spotify! We don’t really sell our music anyway – we’d probably make more money if you stream the shit out of our albums. As we continue to languish in obscurity, exposure is far more valuable than friends tossing out $10. Also, many of you are kind enough to see us play live – I think we can offer our recordings in exchange.

Cooper is right – Spotify’s crappy payouts are a symptom of a larger illness. The cure? Not sure. As I’ve said in other blog posts and interviews, the album title “Music For Car Commercials” is a lament that the best option for music creators to make money, potentially have a career with original tunes, is licensing. I hope that doesn’t stay the case forever, not just because my favorite review of the album suggested none of those songs would ever be in a car commercial – and that was a (huge) compliment. (At the same time, do you think Hum in 1995 would have ever dreamed that “Stars” would be used to sell… Cadillacs? Still blows my mind, though it’s not as funny as “Lust for Life” advertising cruises.)

The (Further) Decline of MySpace, Homogeneity of Music Sites and Return of Record Labels as Curators

A friend casually brought up that forgotten relic MySpace and I found my curiosity piqued. What was going on with that dusty social network that once was the bastion for my band The Alphabetical Order? I’d covered MySpace’s dark decline and eventual selling from News Corp (a bit to Justin Timberlake… yawn) on digital media blog Adotas, but since switching over to digital-publisher focused AdMonsters, I lost interest. I did tune in for the big relaunch and updated the Libel page a bit just in case, but then never again…

So I headed over to see what the beast had become and… It was sad. The homepage was a combination of clickbait featuring “celebrity” musicians (“What would Drake and Rhianna’s Tindr profiles look like?”), sponsored posts for TV shows and movies, and PR-esque posts inviting me to check out this or that “up and coming” artist. I almost missed the days of wall-to-wall punch the monkey ads.

But then I realized that MySpace looks like every other popular media I see these days. They all have a similar format: some kind of click-bait piece about a corporate-built superstar, a bunch of sponsored content (as I write on AdMonsters, it’s a better form of driving revenue than the loathsome banner ad) and articles on some bands you’ve never heard of that had a PR connection and can be easily roped into some manufactured trend. It’s boring and predictable – similar to the rise of the BuzzFeed clones, the glut of digital media publishers grasping for eyeballs to drive advertiser revenue (after the intermediary ad technology firms take their cut) has encouraged the most depressing homogeneity.

I’ve mentioned this before – the great age of music blogs is over. I don’t mean that sarcastically – I found out about many of my favorite bands in the aughts via blogs… And MySpace. The digital media is no longer a source for new and notable sounds (at least not in the dying genre known as rock – I have no understanding of hiphop and electronic music) – they can no longer be trusted as curators.

Should we move to the algorithms of Pandora, Spotify and such? Well, stop me if you’ve had this happen to you, but whenever I use algorithmically-powered music suggestion services, I tend to get music from a bunch of bands I already listen to. That’s fine in some case, but not very useful when searching for something different. And I’ll mention that Pandora actually rejected Libel’s “Music For Car Commercials” with no reason given. Did it not sound professional enough? I can’t imagine what else didn’t make the cut then.

No, record labels have found a 10th life as the new curators. If someone besides the artist is willing to put some funding behind a release, it’s a mark of quality. (However, many little record players are pay to play – basically they stamp their name on and take a cut.) There’s a real chance for a revival of 80s-style “indie” record labels: fans trusted the content coming out from Dischord and SST back in the day. We saw a brief resurgence in the aughts, but many major labels hid behind their indie imprints to push out “marketable products.” And I’ll argue that when a few real indies got too big, they became shadows of their former selves. (Dischord keeps releasing side projects of previously signed bands.)

Because distribution is no longer a factor in the digital age (unless you’re printing vinyl for collectors), record labels really are just curated groups of artists. For a great example of this, check out our friend Johnny Leather’s label, Mecca Lecca. Record labels could once again become an alternative music fan’s greatest resource.

Critic Bait

Those last two words rolled through my mind when I first read about Perfect Pussy. Well, no, when I first heard the name – I could feel the nervous titillations pulsing through the Internet music community (no one remembers Nashville Pussy?). In fact, “pussy” seems to be the new “bear,” which is the new “wolf,” which is the new “crystal” when it comes to Brooklyn buzz band names. We’re thinking about renaming ourselves “Crystal Bear Wolf Pussy” – it’s like search engine optimization for music critics.

Do I have anything against Perfect Pussy? Well, after ravings about them overtook the sites various music cognoscenti vomit all over, I was thoroughly underwhelmed when I listened to their EP. It’s a good thing they didn’t give the songs real titles (just roman numerals), because I couldn’t tell any of them apart. Basically, it’s driving post-hardcore with a female screamer, awash in ultra lo-fi. Streaming the “full-length” (which is 23 minutes… That’s ridiculous, this isn’t 1963), there’s more differentiation in the songs and the production on the guitars and drums is better, but the singer is still incomprehensible and monotone. Apparently her lyrics are very revelatory, but I can’t understand them because they’re slathered in distortion. I imagined their live shows were energetic, but I’ve read some tepid reviews.

When I read the vinyl would have drops of the singer’s blood, I nearly laughed aloud. In the digital age of click-hunting, these guys are critic bait to the T. But at the same time, I find the antics dull, the same way I found Lady GaGa’s schtick to be an echo of Marilyn Manson. To his credit, I thought he took the theatrics of Alice Cooper and David Bowie to a darker place with biting social commentary. (The critics’ harsh turn on GaGa stems from a possible subconscious realization that they were hoodwinked – average songwriter with good voice and high-budget production values passed herself off as something more. They bought into it, but somehow ARTPOP lifted the veil that I could always see through…) With PP and some other “riotous” hip bands of late, I feel The Butthole Surfers in the 80s, except the current round of shockers don’t have anything on the insanity Gibby Haynes and crew brought to the table 30 years prior.

Granted I’m old and boring; I don’t feel the need for chaos and havoc that fueled 80s punk and art rock. During a milquetoast social period, that was a perfect escape from a world where even the outlandish seems commoditized (i.e., commercial new wave). That may sound like a decent analog for the state of American culture 2014 (on commoditization: replace new wave with “hipster” or or even the over-the-top persona of Kanye West – I do believe he has a fashion line or two), but what’s different in the Great Recession is the lack of stability. In the 80s, the middle class was strong and upward mobility seemed achievable, even ordinary. Punk anger at Reagan and society stemmed a great deal from the conformity and blind acceptance of the masses – if they were doing well, why ask too many questions?

Enter 2014, where anxiety and uncertainty run rampant, the middle class is being squeezed out of existence, drowning in debt is an overwhelming threat and the social safety net seems chock full of holes. Our government is basically being held hostage by a small faction of radicals, and when it does do something good, incompetence mucks up the works. One response would be anger and yelling, but it doesn’t seem right here. Punk was a reaction to willful ignorant bliss in the 80s, but we’re definitely not blissful now. Instead, we’re trying to rid our minds of the fear, helplessness and insecurity that haunts us with every step. Of the fact the future looks grim, and it’s not clear what any of us can do about it when we’re scrambling year to year.

Music of an era becomes poignant when imbued with the underlying societal emotion of the time and place – this made sense with the anger of punk and hardcore in the 80s, with the disillusionment of grunge in the 90s. You could argue the 00s celebrated the democratization of media via the Internet, which is why a great deal of indie was positive and carried a theme of unity. But now is the time of anxiety. Not pithy, self-anxiety, but enormous, overwhelming anxiety.

But I don’t think our current batch of self-anointed critics care, because they too are caught up in the anxiety and unable to see past it. No, the critics and their publications are struggling to bring in funding via advertising, desperate for clicks and audience. Where does that leave Perfect Pussy? Well, they have a “shocking” name and a sound that calls back to another age. It’s a watered down version of something that was powerful and even scary in the past (some of the Butthole Surfers antics still freak me out). The simplest way to garner clicks? Equal parts shock value and nostalgia – I do believe that’s the Buzzfeed mantra.

Earlier this year there was a contentious Daily Beast article claiming that music writing has turned into lifestyle reporting; I agreed with a lot of it. Especially in the mainstream, music is advertised and sold as an accessory because artists are products with extensive lines in different areas. But the “indie” world (whatever that means now) is not immune to this. To pick on the most notable punching bag (even though I believe its influence has waned), I see Pitchfork reviews as the equivalent of J. Peterman catalog descriptions. There’s little music, but lifestyle accessories – it goes along well with these other items already in your wardrobe.

What’s frustrating is Perfect Pussy is sold to us as an alternative band, but they feel like focus-group-tested, press-approved, cookie-cutter alternative – retro post-hardcore with added “shock” value. Already labeled, easy to file. It feels as manufactured as pop music – it’s a lifestyle accessory for the early-20-something “rebel.”

I’m actually sorry to pick on one band in particular. Perfect Pussy seems like it has talent, but it’s been caught up in the lame machinery of the contemporary music industry – the critics are basically PR flacks now. Was the band consciously trying to be critic bait? To some extent, aren’t we all trying to lure in critics with our marketing? Perhaps I’m just jealous because they did a better job baiting the hook. At the same time, their buzz has quickly calmed down following the release of their album (though I bet it will jump up later this year when music writers throw it on their “100 best albums of 2014” lists). I’d like to take that as a sign of the growing irrelevance of critics.

Unfortunately, that irrelevance has kind of made record labels the curators of music – more on that some other time. I guess we celebrated the democratization of media a little early…

Scientific Evidence of the Descent of Pop Music!

I enjoyed this Smithsonian blog with scientific evidence that popular music has gotten worse, but actually I think the report it quotes says something different: pop music has become louder and dumber.

A report from the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute of the Spanish National Research Council in Barcelona dissected popular music between 1955 to the present via three categories: timbral (tone quality), pitch and loudness. It found timbral variety and pitch content have both decreased while loudness has jumped. Basically, for a long time pop music has become more homogenous in sound (possibly because a few dudes are copying themselves over and over to produce the hits) and simpler on a melodic level, while pumping up the volume – probably in an attempt to cover the deficiencies in the above two departments.

This corroborates my theory that music means less to contemporary listeners on an aesthetic level. Since audio technology has basically enabled all of us to have soundtracks, we treat it like background music and don’t mind getting served more of the same. Of course, I just posited that the music criticism/promotion machine encourages a strict genre narrative regimen, so the lack of engagement with samey-samey music may not be the listener’s fault. In addition, I suggested elsewhere that popular music has become dumber because the people trying to sell it to us don’t have high opinions of our intelligence.