I strongly strongly strongly advise anyone who has followed this blog for the past four years to block their noon to one hour on Saturday to ask Skye Sweetnam questions. I might be there misself.
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Sunday, July 05, 2009
2000 was the year that I "got into" movies. I was in tenth grade, had a lot of free time and insomnia on my hands, and my local videostore, which did not hire me to work there (sob) had a special where you could rent 7 Movies for 7 Dollars for 7 Days. I would say I nearly put them outta business, except that I'm guessing VHS copies of Dick Tracy, Five Easy Pieces, Citizen Ruth, Citizen Kane, Dark Cirty, All the King's Men, and Double Indemnity weren't their top sellers. DVDs were out but not hugely popular just yet (IIRC we didn't get a DVD player until 2001) and it never occurred to me to be appalled at pan-and-scan editing.
Anyway, much of this year was devoted to figuring out (1) how to date Girls and (2) how many movies I can watch in a row before they blur together into general incoherence (the answer is four, I think). This marked the first separation of my Personal Life and Intellectual Life, sectioning off areas of my brain for trivia and "homework" and leaving the rest to reality. The impetus for the movie binge itself was almost purely intellectual -- I began obsessively memorizing trivia from a huge movie guide that my parents owned, trying to figure out how the guide's tastes matched with my own. Similarly to my experience with music, my tastes in movies started to blossom only after I started to forcibly move away from initial crutches; there was real empowerment in disagreeing with the guide's 5-star distinctions, and also strange pleasures in noting that a high-ranked movie was not otherwise critically acclaimed, and thus agreeing with the guide still flew in the face of conventional wisdom.
Thing is, my whole conception of conventional wisdom was based on the guide. So what was really happening was a complex web of associations that could only be possible through over-reliance on a single source (which admittedly had multiple authors, but also had a "house tone"). The same thing would happen to my music tastes as I used the All Music Guide to develop that initial web. The webs were, on the whole, good starting points, but the downside of creating them in the first place was the kind of insulation that could lead to some serious pretension, as I then expected others to understand the particular web I was in. There's a parallel here, I think, to the general boom in online networking of independent music taste -- the insularity is similar, but the net catches more fish. There just weren't as many places to insulate yourself online in 2000, so the insulation, for better or worse (in some ways it was better -- it was easier to pull away from it when confronted with a new perspective -- in some ways worse -- it led to a lot of bizarre "conventional wisdom" that simply wasn't conventional in any meaningful way) was also isolation.
As for music, it wasn't a major force yet. I was experimenting with Napster and, I think, Audiogalaxy (oh, Audiogalaxy...), making mixes in the same ad hoc way I used to when I would compile random songs and albums onto cassette tapes as a kid (I had more than one combination "Weird" Al Yankovic and semi-obscure Metallica tape), divided into utility either randomly (Dave #1, Dave #2, etc.) or by genre. The only one I can remember off the top of my head is the "Drive Fast" mix (funny since I couldn't drive yet), which had everything from Metallica covering "So What" to Cream to "Devil Went Down to Georgia." A hodgepodge of stuff my friends listened to, stuff my siblings listened to, and stuff that had just kind of filtered into my brain naturally from the world via osmosis. What I remember most from these mixes are the strange digital artifact "blooooop blurrrpp" sound that could happen in the middle of a song, so that unless you'd listened to the whole thing it might have digital gunk all over it. I thought that Radiohead's "Optimistic" (the only Radiohead song I downloaded or knew aside from "Creep") actually had this sound added in intentionally, and the real version still sounds somewhat strange when I listen to it.
Not having capital-T Taste was a good glimpse into what being a more measured critic would be like -- essentially, the idea that, as a critic, you listen to whatever comes your way and evaluate it at least with an open mind (not without a set of prejudices and preferences, per se, but with as close to a blank slate and sympathy for context as you can muster). I could listen to Anti-Flag or NOFX and rock out with some friends, knowing that the power in the music was in the social experience of singing along but not in the words themselves -- ironically, "You've gotta die gotta die gotta die for your government, die for your country that's SHIT" was a slogan that only my least institution-antagonistic friends, who would go on to actually enlist in the military and work in government, actually liked. My sisters listened to a lot of stuff -- mainstream country, DC club music and go-go, adult-contempo pop. We might do an impromptu step routine in the kitchen or blare "Uh-huh...OK...whazzup...SHUT UP" out of the kitchen speakers in the afternoons. My brother listened to Metallica and Alice in Chains in his room in the basement. My friends liked jammier stuff. My then-girlfriend mostly listened to pop, fairly indiscriminately, and I think of "Drops of Jupiter" and "Oops! ...I Did It Again" and "Blue (Da Ba Dee)" and "Aaron's Party" when I think of 2000 with her.
So one point here is that I think that "unschooled" music tastes tend toward omnivorousness by default, because it's so hard to feel passionately about so much (I still feel this way about certain fine arts; it's very difficult for me to love or hate paintings, for instance). I certainly had my pet favorites -- Rage Against the Machine, Nine Inch Nails, and the Offspring were holdovers from middle school, Metallica was a longstanding staple -- but I didn't feel strongly about much. I just kind of listened, taking in music where I found it, understanding when I liked it even if it didn't seem "for me," when I disliked it though not on principle (genuinely liked "Blue," genuinely disliked Coldplay's "Yellow," genuinely loved Fuel's "Hemorrhage in My Hands," just picking what felt like huge singles at random -- IIRC none of these even appeared on the Poptimists charts for 2000 but they were totally defining for me in a way). What hatred I had was mostly received and abstract -- I empathized, I think, with Slim Shady calling out boybands, but I didn't really have any strong opinion one way or another about them myself. I think I understood that they weren't trying to woo me, but I didn't really care about the teenyboppers they were wooing, and even by 2000 the boyband craze seemed to have peaked. But I remember watching and really liking the 2ge+her movie on MTV, for both its parody and the actual pop hooks it wasn't afraid to embrace.
If there was a defining figure in my music life at this time it was Eminem -- I listened to a dubbed tape of The Marshall Mathers LP obsessively, especially while mowing the lawn. I memorized most of it, though today I can only remember the entirety of "Real Slim Shady." What appealed to me about Eminem was somewhat ambiguous, though -- I don't think I empathized with his attitude, since I was a generally happy kid with no real authority issues (good student, relatively obedient son); I don't think I empathized with any of his social baggage, either. He said there were a million people just like him, who walked talked and acted like him, just didn't give a fuck like him, and there may have been, but I was a devoted fan and I definitely wasn't one of them. Honestly I just liked having something that was fast and heavy and smart, good for wordplay and emulating funny nasal voices and indulging in almost Tourrette's-like outbursts for the sheer joy of cursing or yelling (from "Who Knew": "f___ s___ ass b___ c___ shooby-de-doo-wop, skibbedy-be-bop, a-Christopher Reeves"). It was in many ways the logical extension of singing along to Offspring's "Bad Habit" when I was younger: "DRIVERS ARE RUDE! SUCH ATTITUDE! WHEN I SHOW MY PIECE, COMPLAINTS CEASE!"
As I look over the Poptimists lists, especially the Top 40, there are very few songs I recognize that I can remember feeling too passionately about. There's "Party Up," which was an absolutely massive single -- I remember hearing it on Saturday Night Live before hearing it much on the radio, and the performance was riveting (I usually skipped or ignored the music performances), in the way that DMX seemed to be making a special effort to include me in his aggression. Other hip-hop I enjoyed more abstractly -- when I went through a brief G-funk phase in fourth grade I didn't identify with Dr. Dre or Warren G (related more to Coolio a few years later), but in 2000 DMX and Ludacris and even some of the comeback Dre stuff struck a relatable nerve -- party rap kept some of hip-hop's hardness but got rid of some of its baggage for a safely middle class white dork, too; the hard-to-cheesy spectrum probably went something like Mystikal<--->Wyclef f. the Rock, with OutKast somewhere in the middle (at school Stankonia was probably the biggest album of that year outside of Eminem). "The Bad Touch" (just missed the Poptimists 40) was the best novelty single of the year, and I enjoyed memorizing it -- it still holds up. Other stuff was enjoyable but came and went, existing in my current mind as stronger songs than nostalgia fodder, though this obviously a bit random: Kelis, Destiny's Child, Nelly, Jay-Z, Sisqo, Mystikal, Pink, ODB f. Kelis -- all songs I can place in various settings and memories (Nelly for driving somewhere on the weekend; Kelis in the basement, staring at her crazy hair in the video; "Oops!" for silly bedroom dance numbers between my ex and her little sister; Destiny's Child everywhere.)
Oddly, I have a certain nostalgia for this period in my life, precisely because the music's stakes were so low. I'm glad that I had my music phase -- I know people who put their obsessions elsewhere and have never really dealt with music as anything but a broad social force in their lives, and I probably could have gone the same route myself -- but at the same time there was something nice about not having to think about it so much, to just let pop culture wash over you and enjoy it at your leisure. It is, after all, at least in part a leisure activity, and I've found that as I've come to think and write about music more it's been much harder to insert myself into the stream of culture and see where the tides take me. Total passivity is an obvious myth, of course, but there is a distinct difference between the way I listened then and the way I listen now, and it has something to do with what I do with my brain storage. I like to think that turning on the "music as homework" switch in 2001 (actually it was more like one of those rusty levers that Dr. Frankenstein cranks down before the flash of lightning and "IT'S ALIVE!") has had a major impact on all other parts of my brain -- that being more consciously thoughtful about music has made me more consciously thoughtful about culture at large (and I think it has -- more on that as the decade progresses), but at the same time I wonder what else I might have done with all that space. From the limited understanding I have of how brains actually work, this is a stupid way to think about one's brain, of course, but sometimes I'm exhausted with obsession, a sense of obligation to engage and absorb and analyze that I'm pretty sure I didn't have (at least not in regard to music) when I was fifteen going on sixteen. But maybe Taylor Swift is right: "when you're fifteen, feeling like there's nothing to figure out, well, count to ten, take it in -- this is life before you know who you're gonna be."