I like Demerol. It makes me depressed.
Actually, I’m almost always depressed. I like Demerol, and Seconal and morphine, because for a few hours I know the source of the sadness; little special effect, comes and goes. It seems poignant and identifiable. That’s the flip side of getting wasted; far from being out of control, pills provide a dream of control. That dream is one of the crucial things I use music for. I can put a song on, feel real sad, and then the song ends. And I’m intact, and can spin the song again, or not. Symbolic control over the the order of feeling. It’s great.
My ace depressant this season is Six By Seven, a Brit bunch who’ve listened to too much Velvet Underground and just the right amount of Black Box Recorder and a lot of David Bowie’s German version of “Heroes,” which they re-create on their EP England & a Broken Radio. The song is about oceanic melancholy. Bowie’s deutschephonic take seemed also to embrace Sprockets-style pretension. Six By Seven’s—neither ironic nor romantic—seems more about the European Union, about pop’s radio-wave dispersion and the collapse of territory.
The remarkable song on that EP, now on the wider-ranging new album The Closer You Get, breaks down territory more radically. Over gently funereal drumming and a wash of indistinct guitar floats a dreamy falsetto. But it’s not a good dream. The voice sounds utterly certain and utterly unmoored as it unravels territory into 10 slippery, complex categories: “On a TV screen. In a magazine. In a crazy game. In complete and utter vain. For the industry. For the family. In a European field. Picking apples from a tree. In an aeroplane escaping from the rain. Lying next to you in the quiet of the night.”
That’s the whole song. It takes a few minutes. The guitars get bigger and bigger without ever attacking, a strategy borrowed from VU’s “Heroin” but with no “rushing on my run,” no release. No place different from any other place, the most romantic equal to the most alienated, each as unfixed as “in a European field.” It’s a paradox about the collapse of territory and the attempt to make an order: The song’s called “10 Places to Die,” as if a list can make mortality manageable. Hey, I know that depression. It’s creepy and aimless and true. Then it ends and you play it again.
On is “a cross between Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, and a pony,” according to my friend Darcey. Well, that might be a little organic, given that Shifting Skin is as bleepy as Sega Genesis. So maybe On is like all that and Sonic the Hedgehog. Sonic the very, very depressed Hedgehog.
Video games are the new guitars. Inelectro-dance, Atari-style F/X signify like ironic lo-fi, digital and “futuristic” yet crappy and inexpensive. For hip-hop’s current cheapskate superproducers, it’s all that and ultrademocratic: Run-DMC said the DJ could be a band; Manny Fresh says the Game Boy can be a band, too. But gamez are more than digicoustic accoutrements for the funkoisie; for kids, they’re rock’n’roll itself.
Or maybe they’re sex, or they replace sex in the holy trinity with drugs and rock’n’roll. They’re certainly as insanely popular, as much a focus of obsessive investment. But sex involves complex negotiations with another person, compromise and surrender. Drugs and rock, on the other hand, are places for kids to act out the aforementioned symbolic control over the order of things—a scheme into which video games slot as sweetly as cartridge into console.
On is closer to electro than hip-hop: Ken Andrews, late of Failure and all of On, pals around with Depeche Mode and Meat Beat Manifesto, and maybe should be filed with remixical postgrunge like God Lives Underwater. But, a combination of everything and still strangely slight, On is practically a category unto itself: a bubblicious bummer that doesn’t draw the line between gamers’ noises and gamers’ fantasies. “C’mon collapse now,” he says in the song of that title, as if the critters on his screen should just drop at his command. But they resist him, so he cranks up the bloop-loops and blinks out of that scenario. Song over. In the next level he’s gonna “slingshot around your star, you’ll stretch like gravity too far.” In the next level, words fly out of mouths like birds, fall to earth and dissolve.
The bummer part is that every song knows it’s a game, a drowsy dream of control, and that an impossibly difficult real life is hiding just beyond the monitor. And that you can’t get there from here. Call it gamers’ melancholia, a new sadness for the 21st century. “Is there something you can tell me that could make me hear the call?” he asks. But whomever he’s talking to can’t penetrate his fog, can’t wake him up into life: “Everything I’ve heard you spill is sleepier than Seconal.” The games are the drugs are the songs here, and then you play them again.