As you all know, I’m a man of science. As such, I constantly seek to refine my understanding of bad music and share my findings with you. Lately I’ve spent many delirious nights half-awake, feverishly pondering the deep structures of badness in music. In all this nightmarish meditation, I’ve hit upon a bold new formulation which will surely revolutionize the way the world thinks of crappy music. Of course, I’m not going to share it with you, because you’d steal it and sell it to the legitimate press. I’ll just pitch you one of my lesser ideas instead, in order to keep the satisfied glaze over your dull eyes for another two weeks.
Here’s my mediocre idea: rock and roll has a very difficult time managing to be any good because every style and subgenre of rock is inherently awful. Friendless music nerds love nothing more than endlessly subcategorizing their record collections until they’re absolutely sure that no two albums inhabit the same subgenre; no matter how broad or specific one chooses to get, one will find that there’s simply no style of rock music that’s anything but unlistenable garbage.
The more I think about the project of cataloguing and systematically disparaging each of these subgenres, the more I realize that it’s an impossible task due to the approximately eight trillion subgenres that music nerds have come up with. In the interest of this not taking more hours to write than I’m willing to invest, I’ll just hit some of the highlights.
Grunge, Northern Exposure style.Do you know why so many twenty- and thirty-somethings nowadays yearn for the era when grunge ruled America? It’s because back then it was fashionable to be a loser. You could roll out of bed in yesterday’s clothes, tell your dad to go fuck himself, and head to the coffee joint to peer at your stubbly reflection in some thrillingly disheveled girl’s glasses. It was like being a hippie, except you didn’t have to care about anything (except maybe AIDS or abortion, and even then, only when it was pragmatically necessary to care). It was like being a punk, but you didn’t have to worry about being uncool, because everybody was a loser. The music was specially engineered to sound good when listened to from big green bong water-stained couches with ripped upholstery. You didn’t have to worry too much when your hero died of a heroin overdose, because the Pacific Northwest was a bottomless reservoir of untapped indie talent, and somebody even more rugged would step up to fill your hero’s army boots.
Nadir: The band names. Mudhoney, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden… probably the worst band-naming period in history, with the possible exception of the post-grunge scene (Hoobastank has them all beat).
A traditional "punk" haircut.Punk, of course, is much more than a style of music. This is beneficial, considering how little punk has to offer as music. While it started as an attempt to resuscitate rock’s corpse by way of loud, fast, simple songs, it now encompasses pretty much anything that involves the adorable irreverence of youth and/or no talent. In terms of outlets for confused kids to trick themselves into feeling like they’re a part of something, I guess it beats Christian youth groups: the fashion is slightly better, and at least the guitars aren’t acoustic. It’s cute to see kids make elaborate justifications to turn staying out late, drinking, fighting, and fucking into symbols of honorable virtue and emotional purity.
Nadir: Any time a critic or documentary filmmaker asks someone to define punk. Through all the stammering, it will always turn into a ridiculous quasi-spiritual speech about community and passion.
Ian Curtis demonstrating the vitality of post-punk.If the term “post-punk” sounds stupid and nondescript to you, you’re on the right track. It’s tough to describe just what post-punk is. Maybe UK punks realized that they were having too much fun and should concentrate harder on spreading their half-understood notions of Marxism through music. Maybe they thought punk music wasn’t abrasive enough, so they felt the need to add some dorky dub basslines and clattering drums. Perhaps it was a pity-based humanitarian effort to create a style of music so ridiculous that not even poor Mark E. Smith would be laughed out of it. However it came to be, post-punk still holds some sort of imaginary relevance to a certain type of guy in cuffed jeans, and quite a few new bands seem to be enthralled by the style’s endless possibilities for intellectual posturing; be sure to read the latest issue of NME if you’re in the mood to read lazy critics mistake Art Brut or Selfish Cunt’s tedious, affected nihilism for cleverness.
Nadir: I once saw a Bauhaus video in which Peter Murphy walked up to a coffin on the stage and threw it open. Light spilled out of it, and he pulled a cape up over his face as if to protect his eyes. Now that’s comedy.
American Indie Rock
Well, first of all, I’d better head the “but indie’s not a genre!” nerds off at the pass: shut up, you. Don’t pretend not to know exactly what I’m talking about when I say “indie rock.” It means white kids with guitars playing slapdash lo-fi pop songs about spatulas. You know, Sebadoh, Guided by Voices, Pavement, et al. Sure, there are plenty of musical approaches within the American indie rock scene (some bands sound like broken vacuum cleaners trying to suck up The Beach Boys and some sound like broken vacuum cleaners trying to suck up The Kinks), but they’re all just differently-textured turds in the same befouled milkshake. There are a thousand indie labels churning out the same clamorous bullshit, and ten thousand indie bands stabbing at their guitar pickups with screwdrivers to get them to make that perfect irritating hum. There are a million brain-dead hipsters trying to one-up each other with their advance knowledge of the latest group of shaggy unemployables to get signed to Sex Blister Records by virtue of their super-ironic Casiotone sound and their unimpeachable haircuts.
Nadir: Impossible to determine. No matter how bad the lo-fi crap I’ve heard is, there’s bound to be something out there that’s even crappier and lo’er-fi.
Between this and post-punk, I think I’ve come up with a new rule: basically, adding “post” to a style of music just means “with all the fun taken out of it.” Post-rock is all the stuff that gets shuffled off into its own little category so that people with an interest in actual rock music don’t have to worry about it. Post-rock records ought to come with warning labels so that music fans don’t accidentally buy them. God forbid anybody looking for a good time should ever accidentally buy a Godspeed You Black Emperor record. It would be disastrous. Or, suppose somebody who wanted to dance accidentally picked up Talk Talk’s “Laughing Stock” instead of one of their earlier sane records; the flailing of limbs which might result in trying to keep up with the weirdy-beardy syncopation and floppy guitars could put the listener in danger of serious dislocations.
Nadir: Never has there been a duller record than Mogwai’s “Young Team.” And yeah, I’ve heard classical music.
I refuse to believe that modern hardcore fans actually enjoy music on any level. I think they like the idea of music, but I don’t think they like music. They like guitars and concerts and bands and tight pants, but music is really just not involved in any part of the process. They’ve cut out the middleman and headed straight for the part with ringing ears and drinking and getting laid. Some of them lately have even gone so far as to cut out the parts about drinking and getting laid, too. I can’t tell whether it’s genius or madness, honestly.
Nadir: It honestly bewilders me.
Emo Phillips, originator of Emo.I swear, there is no musical term more abused than “Emo.” Not that Emo doesn’t deserve all the abuse anyone can throw at it and more, but people just seem to get it wrong when it comes to Emo. I’ve had people e-mailing me and calling things like Coldplay and Evanescence “Emo” when they have about as much to do with Emo as Ludacris has to do with polka. Look, kids: Emo isn’t just anything whiny or shitty or emotional. Emo is a whiny, shitty, emotional thing all its own. Believe it or not, it’s an offshoot of hardcore with a history too tedious to relate in a snappy paragraph. It ranges from simply lame (The Get Up Kids, Braid) to frighteningly unworthy of human consumption (Cap’n Jazz, Rites of Spring). Mistakenly calling something like The Smiths Emo isn’t just a music-nerd faux pas, it degrades the power of an extremely disgusting word. It just makes me want to say “no, you don’t understand. You haven’t heard Emo. It’s much worse than you think. Be afraid.”
Nadir: Emo is its own nadir.
A famed Britpop dandy.British people, heartbroken by the fact that they were too effete to make Grunge, had to come up with an equally iconic style of music in the nineties as a matter of national pride. Out of this necessity was born Britpop, which allowed English musicians to be as square and effeminate as they wanted while still doing enormous amounts of cocaine. It didn’t make much of an impact in America, aside from our brief national flirtation with tolerating Oasis (as it turns out, not a good idea), but the UK is still just as menaced by its shadow as America is by the shadow of Grunge. Britpop was something of a cultural phenomenon in the UK, unfairly and mistakenly convincing a generation of youths that it was cool to be English. Bands like Suede, Blur, and Pulp gayed up the country for a few years and then petered out, making room for even lamer bands like Coldplay and Travis. Stylistically, Britpop was pretty much just guitar pop with exaggerated English accents (uh, no, not like Green Day).
Nadir: Brett Anderson’s voice being recorded so that people might listen to it. I shudder at the thought.
Shoegaze is, of course, named for the musicians’ tendency to stare at their shoes while performing. Some might say it’s because the complex nature of the guitar style required the musicians to constantly fiddle around with countless foot pedals, but I’d like to submit that they just didn’t want to look their audience in the eyes due to the overwhelming shame of the music they were producing. A more accurate name for the style would be “cacophonous din” or “the sound of two bands playing at once, underwater.” I do own a copy of Ride’s “Going Blank Again,” though. I turn the speakers to the floor and use it to scare raccoons out from under my house.
Nadir: Kevin Shields got really fat, and I never get tired of pointing it out.
Wow, all that writing and I still haven’t even scratched the surface of all the crazy types of music you idiots listen to. Maybe if a bunch of you write in and say “well I listen to gnome rock and you didn’t cover that” or “but what about snappercore?” I’ll write another one of these guides. Otherwise, I’ll just sit back and bask in the brilliant warmth of my own superiority. If you have questions or comments or ridiculous complaints, you can direct them to [email protected] and I’ll print your letters out and tack them to my wall and throw darts at them while the girl you had a crush on in high school tenderly massages my shoulders.
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