What We Do Is Secret: Your Guide to the Post-Whatever
Rock & Roll Quarterly, Fall, 1988
OVER A DECADE ago, the punk movement tried to harness all the discontent in rock into an explosion, and failed. Instead, it institutionalized the edge. The marginal music of today is any number of second thoughts removed from punk’s initial headlong impulse. The audience for it mainly consists of kids to whom 1977 and all that is somebody else’s distant past.
What most limits bands now is that whatever they do, it can’t ever be entirely new. The punk era’s improvised network of small clubs, indie labels, and college radio has become a sort of permanent infrastructure, like Taiwan or the folk circuit. That makes for one kind of predictability, but the real gridlock is in the concepts. The current scene comes up with all sorts of moves, but all of them end up as just one more convolution of a radicalism that’s become a genre, dealing in extremes that have become constants.
Punk, reacting against the ’60s, actually tried to extend them, by reclaiming rock itself as an insurrectionary force. What’s happened instead is that the scene has become the repository for a set of concepts — “subversion,” “rebellion,” “counterculture,” “underground,” even “youth” — that no longer plausibly apply to rock or pop culture in general. The link between those formulas is that they all depend on a certain dynamic of opposition. They don’t make any sense when they get abstracted — isolated as values for their own sake. In pop, ideas usually get downgraded to being avant-garde only after they’ve stopped having any popular currency. By now, the scene’s insistence that rock matters can’t register as anything more than an anachronism.
Rock and roll’s assimilation into the cultural norm was inevitable, but one side effect of the Reagan era has been that popular culture in general is also now establishment culture. You can’t associate pop with any sort of disenfranchisement when its headquarters is the White House. It’s grown increasingly difficult to pretend that rock now functions in this society any differently than movies or TV or Broadway do. That hardly means that the form’s sewed up, but even at its most earnest or bravura or plain clever — Springsteen or Prince or Madonna — it’s mature showbiz, and that’s all. If one characteristic of the ’80s has been the inability of any alternative to Reaganism to build up any get-go, that’s partly because the places where we traditionally look for expressions of opposition have all been absorbed — not coopted; don’t be silly — into the status quo. John Cougar Mellencamp may have thought that the White House had misunderstood “Pink Houses” when they wanted to use it as a Reagan campaign jingle. In some ways they knew better than he did.
But the Reagan homogenization has left those who still identify with rock-as-rebellion curiously bereft. Even they know that their rebellion isn’t going anywhere — their music isn’t ever going to reach an audience any larger than the one it has now. Punk conceived of itself as speaking to a mass audience: it meant to incite the millions. Hardcore signaled the end of that daydream — it self-destructed from the paradox of being militant about resignation. Hardcore was punk’s first total dead end, and therefore noteworthy: the dead end as milestone.
In almost every way, the scene has been stuck ever since then. What’s curious is that the audience, which listens to this music like it was the blues, seems willing to accept that. But the bands aren’t. They keep on trying to come up with new formal solutions to what’s basically a problem of content — as if finding more complicated ways of offending or disturbing or challenging will somehow get them around the fact that the very ideas of offensiveness, disturbance, and challenge have grown corny. Too many of them keep flailing away at a brick wall as if sheer dint of effort and restatement will turn it back into the open door it used to at least seem. The most interesting bands flail away too, but more as though there weren’t any important differences between open doors and closed ones, because mattering doesn’t matter.
Which bring us, more or less, to Sonic Youth.
They formed in ’81, in other words at just about the minute it became obvious that all the most revelatory possibilities in their kind of music had been pretty thoroughly exhausted. There may never have been another band that’s stayed together for so long while remaining fundamentally confused about what it is they want their music to do, and made a style out of the confusion. I also just love the fuck out of them, but you probably knew that. They answer my question — “Why on earth would anybody still be trying to milk something out of an attitude/sound so obviously hackneyed, used up, etc., etc.” — with a better one: “What on earth are we supposed to be doing instead?”
Sonic Youth aren’t the only ones, of course. Over the past few years, a whole slew of bands have been crawling up in search of a First Principle like so many chiggers. Some of what they share is formal — no-swing rhythms used either to make spaces for stray noise, or else front and center as the noise itself. Other links are historical: the hardcore scene as an example to be rued, rethought, or ignored, and more generally punk itself as (unwanted) tradition and legacy. But what connects them most is that they’re all defined by the absurdity of trying to make an insurrection out of legacy — of contriving rebel rock at all at this late stage of the game.
I still think that Sonic Youth stands apart, because they’ve gone the furthest toward redefining the post-everything impasse so that it’s not constraining. Also because they’re just plain better — which is interesting, because in this context, that never used to be a deciding criterion. But let’s look at the impasse first.
PUSSY GALORE was originally based in D.C., where the dropout option of choice among affluent white kids has never been “I wanna be black,” but to become imitation white trash. The location also meant that they germinated under the sway of the most high-minded ascetic the hardcore scene ever produced — Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye, whose idealism impelled him to winnow false values from the hardcore ethic until, to his apparently quite genuine despair, the integrity he was left with consisted of nothing. but strictures. (One late communique, from an ’86 letter in Boston’s Forced Exposure: “I suspect we’re all fooling each other.”)
The austerity’s what the men and women in PG reacted against. With “Fuck Ian MacKaye” as an early slogan, they set about turning the music back into irresponsible crap again. The image their records call to mind is a kid shuffling around with his pants down sloppy around his ankles — which pretty much sums up not only their sound but the band’s subject matter, theme, and concept of Nirvana.
Musically, they’re really good. And that’s very funny, because their records really sound lousy. So far as chops go, Jon Spencer may be even more of a primitive than he wants to be, which is saying a lot. What PG assert is the right to be not just punk-amateurish but pointless — mulching the most available collective-unconscious roots riffs into a sometimes dawdling, sometimes hectic lurch, eschewing conventional rock drumming for garbage-can clanks and bangs. When you hear the stumblebum vocals on a Pussy Galore tune that don’t match up with the tempos for shit, or slabs of my-first-guitar noise going nowhere in all directions, chopped together, or left dangling, you’re hearing a sound that knows it can’t mean what it once did but can’t find anything else to mean.
What you notice especially with PG, since they like clutter but revile subtlety, is how indiscriminate post-everything punk is about its sources. Elvis, Black Sabbath at their ‘lude-rock worst, the Dead, TV themes, and punk’s own earlier noise/beat aggro formulations all get strung out/along with equal affectlessness, not as “Let’s-reclaim-rock-by-fucking-with-it,” but, “We’re fucked up, and all this junk’s already here anyway, and so what?”
The “so what?” is — as always — the best thing about this stuff. Its emergence suggests a long-overdue acceptance of marginality. After so much ideologically correct self-denial, “so what?” allows recombinations and rediscoveries ranging from any number of grungy splatter bands getting back into the stately delights of ’60s slow-burn guitar baroque to, at the benign-poppy end, Jad Fair carrying adolescent swoon-mooniness to heights of mewling delirium Gordon Gano never dreamed of.
The scene’s predictably at its worst when it doesn’t accept marginality — that is, when it tries to represent what by now can only be a more or less oddball preference as if it’s still, or anyway ought to be, a cultural imperative. That “ought to,” after all, is the real, old folkie fallacy: asserting that this is the authentic sound of youth rebellion is as spurious as insisting that folk music is the true music of the people.
Pussy Galore indulge this. They also dramatize its contradictions, maybe more than they mean to. They cancel themselves out. PG used to be famous for their rude vocabulary — their championing of it enshrined on their Groovy Hate Fuck LP, with examples like “Teen Pussy Power” and “Cunt Tease” shouldering aside more familiar hardcore-style plainspeech, e.g., “Kill Yourself.” I heard PG’s-fuck-fuck liturgy as a great rip on the lowest-of-the-low indignities of teenage sexuality — namely, how much, when sex is mostly just the words, you gotta howl them. But also as a typically snarled up punk actingout of longing/envy/frustration at Big Daddy ’60s (punk brought Freud into rock and roll like nobody’s business), mimicking the let-it-all-hang-out of sexual liberation with a fury that undermined it as anything but rhetoric: a joke that resented being a joke. It wanted to be a revolution.
The band expanded its purview (past “fuck,” I mean), and made its garbled call to an already-fucked new counterculture a whole lot harder to miss, on Pussy Galore, Right Now! Here, the collapse of youth revolt into revolting youth makes for just about irresistible post-everything noise; on “New Breed,” while the band pumps out its rattletrap shorthand for one of those classic garage-rock misunderstandings of a blues progression, verses of scurrilous-sounding gibberish got capped by Spencer’s slurred, self-satisfied declaration, “That’s what the new breed say.”
PG’s music still keeps faith with the belief in rock as the music of youth rebellion that their wreckage of it acknowledges, and perversely celebrates, as terminally lame. Bottoming out in the dregs of rock and roll, obsessed by the awareness that their most subversive feelings only make sense as burlesques, the most compelling clatter they make evokes not the nonexistent abyss they’d probably all race each other to jump into, but simply the refutation of their own reason for being. (New board game: let’s play Find-the-Edge.) Where Pussy Galore end up is parodying subversiveness itself — which would be no problem for them or their audience if either was just in it for the yocks. And they aren’t.
One fallacy that PG are hardly immune to — and it’s how a lot of post-everything saves itself from sounding outright posthumous — is a mystification of rock, and/or youth, that would probably send Johnny Rotten crawling off in search of a grave to turn over in. The Cramps were the first punk-era band to explicitly cater to this hyperbolic version of alienation, hallowing their rockabilly primitivism as innately primal, and teen culture as the welling-up of eternal forces persecuted by society. Now, not only does the same sort of rhetoric keep surfacing as a defense of marginality, but the shock/shlock routines that both spoofed and reinforced the Cramps’ dumbest pretensions are being updated, to the same end but with no discernible improvement, by several post-everything bands, notably Madison’s Killdozer — although Killdozer’s music, clanky guitar drone that sounds spacy and hostile at once, deserves better.
It’s a way of making the music seem more forbidden than it actually is: if we can’t be popular, we’ll be cabalistic. (Old Germs album title: What We Do ls Secret.) A sort of midnight-movie Jacobinism is the de rigueur tone in the current fanzines. “Seems like there’s some sort of conspiracy out there against real rock and roll,” one zealot wrote in Forced Exposure a while back — although Conflict‘s Gerard Cosloy, whose ‘zine is usually more sensible if no less absolutist, did snort at that one in his next issue. The yahooing only ended up raising a more serious problem — as far as this stuff does still have something to say to the larger culture so obliviously swaddling it, it’s reactionary.
From the moment Joey Ramone first held up the “Gabba Gabba Hey” sign, one theme of Stateside punk was a reinvention of white culture as a minority culture. Which had the advantage, mainly, of being mind-blowing — any notion that unlikely was bound to open up new connections, metaphorical leaps, and risks. Even so, the punk hunt for a white way of being downtrodden has turned out like a lot of visionary jolts — great wakeup call, lousy habit. Especially now that its partisans aren’t breaking out but digging in.
Punks were rightly wary of the me-tooism in white hipsters’ borrowings from black and other minority cultures. The point was to find something belonging only to them. But what you hear instead by now, in something like the deliberately immobile clanking of Big Black’s Songs About Fucking LP, is a sound whose only point is the exclusion of other cultures’ music. Such know-nothingism hardly puts boosters as much at odds as they suppose with Reaganism, which among other things has been the WASP establishment’s last slab at preserving its cultural dominance. Reagan himself has also derived his style from the code and emblems of white hipster cool. The man asking “whaddya got?” is now the voice of authority. Many of us who used to find our own alienation expressed in that code have grown alienated from the code itself.
Calling that attitude radical has cut the scene off from every alternative to Reaganism — alternatives that have also, ironically, achieved a lot more pop authority than punk ever did. Hip hop is so much in the swim of things that it can supply the beats for McDonald’s commercials and still sound like fighting words on the airwaves — where its provocativeness has the added benefit of reaching people who are actually provoked by it.
Big Black was the brainchild of Steve Albini, frequent ‘zine polemicist and one-man scene think tank. As a polemicist on vinyl, he scored brilliantly at least once, on Big Black’s reworking of Kraftwerk’s “The Model” backed with Cheap Trick’s “He’s a Whore.” Not only did you hear the two as white-roots brothers-in-arms; you heard both as adumbrations of the Sex Pistols. But once he declared “this is our music,” he apparently couldn’t find anything much for said music to express.
Albini isn’t stupid, but doing it cleverly only makes you more aware of just how ad hominem his whole agenda is. Among other things, Songs About Fucking has to rank as one of the great misnomers of all time; the end of punk’s old antisex jitters has been more than welcome, but sex, like youth, is purely a rhetorical quantity. (I know a shoe fetishist who cried because he had no shoes, until he saw a foot fetishist who had no feet.) At least the rhetoricians in Pussy Galore also revel in infantilism for its own sake; the worst thing about Albini is that even his wee-wee is ideological. I got pretty heavily into the yawn-stifling stage once I heard the name of his new project: Rapeman.
Post-everything splinters rock in search of a form that can contain unimaginable antipodes of urgency and knowingness, at once acknowledging that everything’s lame and plowing the shards into a new charge. But in these wised-up times, even in cultural circles less convoluted than the one Pussy Galore chase their tails in, too much knowingness might flat-out preclude subversion — even when subversion’s the goal. And that’s still nothing compared to how burned-out post-everything looks when knowingness is the goal. Redd Kross are like a PG-rated version of PG, which means they mostly don’t sound the least bit like them. They really rock, applying a seemingly inexhaustible battery of Ramones formalisms to revitalize Woodstock-era shlock the same way their predecessors revitalized Herman’s Hermits. The difference is that this time it stays shlock, and it’s meant to; the themes that fester in PG’s graffiti — how to relate to a future that’s become a past, and that you’ve already seen through anyway — get smoothed out, slicked up, played for simpers. And that really does sound like the end of the line.
And isn’t, quite. Noodling around the scene, somewhere past the “so what?,” are intimations of what inevitably has to come after post-everything — artlessness, or innocence. There’s Dinosaur Jr. — whose music has more than a few points of similarity with Redd Kross. But while formally aware and resourceful, they aren’t formally self-conscious; they’re just trusting the sound to communicate whatever they want it to. Beyond that, there’s Seattle’s Soundgarden — who came out of this scene without even noticing how terminal it was, and set about reinventing a post-everything metal as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Soundgarden may even qualify as genuine music-of-youth; Led Zep ripped to shreds is the formal move, but they’re so earnest they’re like Grand Funk with talent.
But even the fucked-up stuff has more going for it than you’d expect. Sure it’s in crisis; it wears itself out obsessing over bankrupt ideas when it isn’t just being truculent about them. And that makes its contortions real involving — like watching Houdini going into the river, inside a safe and six pairs of handcuffs, and trying to figure out how to breathe down there. But past that, there’s the unavoidable truth that all this jammed-up slop, no matter how hung up on over-convoluted formal problems it seems from the sidelines, is to its fans simply descriptive of their own real-life crisis. To them it doesn’t sound theoretical at all. It’s not impossible that this music could someday achieve some kind of equanimity, most likely by abandoning its fixation on progress and settling down to being, if not rock and roll as anybody knew it, then some bizarre sort of terminal postrock blues. But even if it just goes on grabbing for more nowhere — well, hey, welcome to the wacky world of high culture. Where were you al the end of the century?
IN SOME ways, I feel more affinity with these bands than I do with Sonic Youth. The other post-everythings work off of attitudes that I think of as more or less indigenous — that is, mainly deriving from rock, with few if any precedents further afield, and mainly relating to the audience rock invented. SY unmistakably partake of an artier avant-garde tendency that I always instinctively, usually pejoratively label as European — even though I know that as a pretension it can be as home-grown as those great sad sacks the Doors, and can also feed into music as great as that of those European sons the Velvets.
And yet what screws up so many other post-everything bands is wrestling with the illusion that their chosen form, or anyway their slant on it, can be indigenous to anybody but themselves. By contrast, because SY evoke a more highfalutin’ genealogy even when they’re indulging their Madonna and Iggy fixations, everything they do sounds perfectly natural — even down-home. Maybe they could be described as the most unpretentious pretentious band in the world.
Which didn’t stop them from seeming, at the outset, like the most limiting sort of avant-garde band. Being on the cusp between the last of the no-wave scene and the frankly snobbish downtown hybrids that replaced it gave SY — guitarist/vocalist Thurston Moore, guitarist Lee Ranaldo, bassist/vocalist Kim Gordon, and Bob Bert (now of Pussy Galore, and replaced in SY by Steve Shelley) on drums — a raft of suspect associations. Glenn Branca and Lydia Lunch — my. They weren’t coming to rock from the outside as Branca did, but they did sound as if they related to the form almost as abstractly. And while they weren’t ever the pain in the ass that Lydia found so many innovative ways of being, they did sound almost as taken with the arty angst that caterwauls about alienation just because it’s so cool. The combination can be deadly, and it’s still what you hear on SY’s ’83 Kill Yr Idols EP: cut-and-dried howls of impeccably discordant anguish.
I can’t explain exactly why it’s different now, because the band’s music hasn’t changed drastically since then. Their signature remains guitar buildups and convergences that choke in frustration before they can ever become rave-ups. But it’s got something to do with SY gaining enough self-assurance to be uncertain. Over time, their own ambivalence about using those same old signifiers for alienation made their music heartfelt. They stayed avant-garde, but without the fatal signature of avant-gardism: that slowly-I-turned framing noise, audible in everybody from the Swans to Henry Rollins, which continually announces that you’ve never heard such sinister and terrible truths before. On SY’s later records, when the band thrashes around with one more of Moore’s stymied impulses toward violence, or Gordon yowls or murmurs her way through another of her Nico-ish self-as-object dissociations, they know it’s not news. It’s mundane — they’re weary.
From another angle, that means that SY relate to avant-gardism as if it were the frowsy pop junk of their formative years — which of course for them, as for so many of us, is exactly what it is. The more clashing and disjunct a song of theirs is, the more they play it as if it were snaggly, scruffy garage-rock. Their saturation in the most forbidding noise goes so deep that all difficulty dissolves, replaced on one hand by matter-of-factness, and on the other by an almost goofy romanticism — boy, how they love being in this band. And at the same time, they’re willing now to express their affinities with more familiar, less forbidding noise. Covering the Ramones on the B-side of their recent “Master = Dik” 12-inch showed just how at ease they’ve become — it was the scene’s first-ever acknowledgment of punk as its oldies music.
SY comes at you all in pieces, and maybe they have to. The scattered effect is partly due to the LP format seeming vaguely ill-suited to their sensibility. Of their last three albums, only last year’s Sister — preceded by Bad Moon Rising in ’85, and Evol (love backwards, also evolve cut short: their best title) a year later — doesn’t feel incomplete. They’ve never put out any official vinyl that matches the amazing live double-LP bootleg This Time, The Last Time, and Here’s to the Next Time — which melts down the distinctions between avant-gardism and pure rock fury to the benefit of both, and also gives you continuum like you’d never believe.
On one level, SY’s outlook is dauntingly narrow. But on another, what’s most striking about them is that their work amounts to a virtual summation, and recapitulation, and reaffirmation, of all the concerns that have obsessed the self-conscious fringe of rock since well before 1977. Here, once again, not exalted but simply dealt with, are all those old dualities of anomie and self-dramatization, hostility and longing, that search for one kind of insanity as a means of staving off another. Here also, jumbled as attic brica-brac, is the whole formal tool kit of put-ons, assaultive ironies, cross-references, crossed-circuits, and short-circuits instantly inherited by anyone who decides that rock is everything and inadequate simultaneously.
So who should they remind you of? Darned if I know, but after playing This Time and Live ’69 back-to-back one night, this scene’s equivalent of Dylan comparisons — “to be avoided whenever humanly possible,” Christgau used to say — became impossible to avoid. Still, I don’t particularly mean the Velvets-as-music, much less the Velvets-as-pinnacle. When the influence does show up in Sonic Youth’s sound, it’s unmistakably derivative, because it’s a tradition now — so many of their songs shudder, stutter, and veer off from turning into the last two minutes of “Sister Ray.” Almost as often as they veer off from turning into each other — and as usual, the band knows it. The link I mean is the act of making a kind of music so unfashionable that the unfashionability becomes freedom. It’s so far removed from anyone else’s moment that it can’t do anything but create one for itself.
What SY ultimately do with the tradition is to make it, of all things, wholesome. Which sounds strange, I know, but consider their voices first off. No matter how artily outre or chaotically near-psychotic or fierce their songs get, the people singing them sound steadfast, almost artless; not in a way that contradicts their material; but one that affirms their loyalty to it — as if the dopiest thing they could do would be to exaggerate its abnormality, make it sound more unprecedented than it actually is. When Moore sings the line “We’re gonna kill all the California girls,” in “Expressway to Yr. Skull” (a great move on Evol, a great song on This Time), he neither simply plays the Mansonism straight, nor tips it as a crazy put-on. He does both, but he’s wistful.
The band’s latest record, Daydream Nation, both extends this synthesis and makes it more explicit than you’d expect. The album’s a tidy compendium of SY’s familiar obsessions and equally familiar double takes on those obsessions, along with more relaxed acknowledgments of (i.e., borrowings from) the efforts of their companion bands out there in the post-everything nothingness than you’d have thought them capable of. The oddest thing, though, is that with no loss in astringency they now sound almost … poppy: the guitars head straight into that vortex of brittle drone where punk, HM, Branca, and the Surfaris all become utterly, unutterably indistinguishable, while even Gordon’s my-voice-chopping-against-the-beat dirges now sound as if they have actual hooks, even if the real hook is that voice’s suddenly reassuring familiarity. I’m not sure they were even trying to be accommodating, but there’s no way for them to be difficult anymore. Here’s a slogan for the ’90s: in the future, everyone will be ahead of their time for 15 minutes.
Which is a kind of answer to the post-everything predicament — most likely not a final one, but certainly the one that makes the most sense right now. This form really is used up, that’s all. There aren’t going to be any more discoveries along this line, and neither is there much point in playing all manner of formal games to try to make what’s now old sound new, or what’s now familiar sound forbidden. But even if revelation is out of the question, this music can still go on speaking to its minority audience like the tradition it is, just as mature showbiz speaks to the majority — as a constant if not an upheaval, and as a dialogue instead of a challenge. And if nothing else, as our old friend art for art’s sake — even if that ends up as the biggest difference between it and rock and roll. ♦