Watching the shockingly good indie-teenager new-Kids flick Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, locals will delight in the movie’s elaborately rendered NYC indie-rock geography. This love letter to our downtown, in fact, provides the weirdly poignant hook for the slightly older contingent of us who like music, but hate Juno. In search of a band known as ‘Where’s Fluffy’—the joke being that half the fun of seeing WF is finding WF, not to mention evading red herrings like ‘Are You Randy,’ a Har Mar-esque stunt rapper who delights in clearing rooms full of WF fans—Nick and Norah proceed, via yellow Yugo, from Arlene’s Grocery to the Bowery Ballroom to the Mercury Lounge to Union Pool (renamed ‘Brooklyn Pool,’ probably to cut down on the exposition) and then back to Manhattan in order to finally end up at an unnamed guerrilla venue, where they, spoiler alert, find Fluffy and then hold hands.
Critics, college radio DJs, and long-suffering NYC residents will recognize this headlong dash into the quickening indie-rock evening as being part of a slightly different lycanthropic ritual, the CMJ Music Marathon. In the same way that the writers of Nick and Norah figured that the usual Bowery Presents/our-band-is-gonna-make-it-thanks-to-Bowery Presents scene sorta sucks—hence a sideplot parody of a biz-sucking aspiring musician and the admirable downplaying of the fact that Nick just happens to play in an awesome gay pigfuck band called the Jerk Offs—veteran visitors to CMJ have long since learned to turn it into the real life version of the N&N‘s Where’s Waldo routine.
On the backs of these worthless CMJ badges should have been a scavenger hunt checklist: Find Devendra Banhart. Clap your hands at the Clap Your Hands show. Counsel a Suicide Girl. See four bands whose names include the word “wolf.” Euthanize Laura Veirs. Punch Devendra Banhart. Grand prize? A tour of the Matador mail room.
So the concept here, as I understand it, is to choose a completely arbitrary source of info—some blog, some free rag, some drunk friend of yours—and avail yourself of The Best Band in the City That No One’s Ever Heard Of, Including You. Such Forward Russian roulette has its charms, I suppose, but if the cookie crumbles poorly you might find yourself standing in a blacklit LES bar (Midway) at 8:30 p.m. watching a band actually named the Muggabears, whose singer-guitarist is wearing a trash bag and playing like it.
So then won’t bother to tell you how I wisely abandoned my personal CMJ checklist about 36 hours into the proceedings—you try finding a Planned Parenthood rep to accompany you to see the Coathangers. Also won’t mention that I accomplished personal CMJ goals #3 (“See a drummer who looks like he smells”—thanks, Mr. Bearded Bongoist at Piano’s), #6 (“Hit a show that’s rumored to be shut down by the cops”—good ol’ illegal Silent Barn never fails), and #10 (“Find A Place to Bury Strangers”—the Bongo-Slapper’s beard would hide a dead body just fine) all by Thursday morning. Bonus late-breaking just-for-fun achievement: “Be a naysayer about Yeasayer.” Done: they’re the Rusted Root it’s okay to like.
The short answer as to why writers do this is still two answers long. One, CMJ has been ravaged re: its original mission—to break bands and network networkers, back when the Internet didn’t exist and people had to write each other letters or meet in person in order to hatch the plots that make bands like Black Kids ‘famous’—that covering it, or even attending it, can leave you staggered at the pointlessness of the exercise, hence the made-up but still deadly serious missions. Two, and this gets deep inside baseball, the actual experience of covering CMJ, if done properly from the perspective of a NYC-based publication—i.e., this is taking place in our backyard, on our watch; it is therefore our job to witness every insignificant act/showcase/soundcheck that takes place within a five mile radius of 36 Cooper Square—is so unflaggingly wretched and exhausting that by the end, the self-made promise to track down and then euthanize Laura Veirs is virtually the only rationale still keeping you on your feet. At least Nick had Norah.
In other words, the quest is everything. So although CMJ may almost certainly be comically priced, at heart purposeless and, looking towards this year’s schedule, artistically underwhelming, none of this structurally precludes the festival from providing the one service it can still cough up, on a good day anyway: putting on two equally interesting shows at more or less the same time, but at different venues. It’s the feeling of being in motion again. Welcome to a very long week.