Cultural Strip-Mining for an Exhausted Age
It was the summer of 1989. My dad’s turn, mercifully brief, had come around again in the custody bargain, so I was sent off to the suburbs of Tempe, Arizona, where he had moved with his strange German wife to work as the comms director for Republican governor Evan Mecham. Old Gov would be impeached within a few more months, effectively ending dad’s career as a GOP insider, thank God, and allowing him to come out late in life as the libre penseur he always was. But at the time he still stood, for me, as a symbol of conservative stodginess, and I was not at all happy about this joint-custody arrangement, which in any case, at the age of seventeen, I felt I had already outgrown. There was a spare bedroom, but the stepmother had reserved it entirely for her collection of horrid Venetian carnival masks and Betty Boop memorabilia, so I slept on the living-room couch and counted the days. Not at all far from where we dwelled, little Emma Stone was practicing for her role as an infant in a Yorgos Lanthimos film thirty-four years later.
At some point during the stay, a strange desire overtook me to “connect” with my father, and I worked up the courage to give him an audio-cassette I had recently made, using a multitrack mixer to blend several sources into an audio collage, most of which had been acquired in the used-vinyl sections of various Sacramento thrift-shops: Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker squealing like pigs about the wages of sin on top of painfully saccharine Muzak, 1950s atomic-defense preparation overlain with 1970s square-dance lessons intended for junior-high PE classes, Wendy Carlos’s pioneering 1968 electronic album Switched-On Bach, corporate promotional records advertising styrofoam or polyester or valium with intercalated scratching of the speeches of Spiro T. Agnew, and so on. Somehow, after all these years, a single Maxell audio-cassette has made its way to Paris with me in one of the small number of boxes I had shipped over. It might be the very same tape, but I don’t have a cassette player and I have not been able to find out. Si par hasard tu habites à Paris et pour une raison ou une autre tu as gardé ta cassettophone de l’âge de pierre, fais-moi signe et si tu es d’accord je passerai chez toi pour enfin résoudre la question.
I would like to boast that I had made this tape in emulation of the great composers of musique concrète. But it was only in the next decade that I discovered Pierre Schaeffer, Pierre Henry, et al., while in the late 1980s my primary inspiration was Negativland, a Church of the SubGenius-affiliated Bay Area outfit that engaged in delightful acts of pre-Adbusters “culture-jamming” on a local cable-radio station, which in the years before the internet, some of you might yet remember, was a popular outlet for people who wanted to put themselves in front of at least a small audience and really just “do whatever”. Negativland would become most well-known for numerous copyright violations; for “punking” The Edge by telephone (“The Edge” 😂); for leaking a recording of radio announcer Casey Kasem swearing like a madman and generally revealing how deeply he hated his job as he screwed up an outtake introducing U2 and said something like “they’re from fucking England or wherever who gives a shit”; for inspiring a murder in Colorado with some farce of theirs about hidden “Helter Skelter” messages in their recordings; and so on.
Tons of fun. But I had been an adept before all this negative publicity, listening loyally to their cable-radio show out of Concord since as early as 1986, and instinctively moving, myself, towards a life of what I thought was going to be non-stop creative output using audio, among other things, as one of my media. I was pretty good at it. Most of the stuff was made to be unlistenable, but I also recall some moments of real beauty, including for example a perfect mix of the vocal track of Sinatra’s rendition of “Night and Day” with the “bonus beats” from a twelve-inch of NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton”. I would happily listen to that right now.
I took a long, long, break from such endeavors, as the record shows, though in some peculiar way, with this here Hinternet project, even though I trade in words now and not sounds, I feel as if I’m finally back.
Anyhow my dad comes home from a press-conference at the capitol in Phoenix one day and tells me he listened to the tape during his commute. “That was great!” he said, and I was speechless. And then he added: “It reminded me of that new Billy Joel song. You know the one, where he describes all these historical events and then sings about how they’re not our fault?” Fuck! I thought. I’m over here making sound art and all my dad has to say about it is that it sounds like fucking Billy Joel?! The undisputed King of Dorks?! “We Didn’t Start the Fire”?! That song fucking sucks, man! This is hopeless. “Connection” is impossible.
Fast-forward 34.5 years, as if life itself were a tape, and you will find me at Planet Fitness in Fair Oaks, California, where I’m visiting my mom for Christmas at the end of 2023 AD. Something comes up on the video jukebox that makes my ears twitch. It’s not Billy Joel, but it is that same cursèd song, now updated to include events that transpired after the original 1989 recording. I check the screens and I see that it is by some group called Fall Out Boy, whose name I’ve seen around over the years, but to whom I’d never given a millisecond of my attention.
It’s terrible. I mean terrible not in the way Billy Joel is terrible, but terrible in a way I could not possibly have seen coming back then. I think about my dad, and how infinitely touching it is that he had done his best to find a common point of reference for discussing that ridiculous bit of juvenilia I had offered him. Too late to tell him thanks, at least by any ordinary worldly means. And I think of Billy Joel, too, and it seems to me now that that song of his was, at least by comparison to this derivative product, this pollution, this flatlining of the human spirit, some sort of small masterpiece.
What is the difference, between Billy Joel’s original and Fall Out Boy’s updated version? I am going to explain it to you, and once I have done so I think we will have come some significant way towards a clear understanding of what is so greatly dispiriting in twenty-first-century mass culture.