Monday, November 21, 2011

When they kick down your front door, how you gonna come? /
With your hands on your head or on the trigger of your gun?

Longtime readers of this blog know that I'm poor. Before I went back to school in 2007 I spent much of the previous decade shuffling around a handful of low-paying, dead-end jobs, getting some degree of satisfaction from working part time as a freelance writer but generally dissatisfied with the shape and direction of my life. In hindsight it's obvious that I had no one to blame for this state of affairs but myself - I made a few precipitous decisions in my early twenties that had great, far-reaching unpleasant consequences. Usually this is the part where someone says, "I made some mistakes but I don't regret anything!" That's bullshit: although I have learned to regard my past with something resembling a sanguine wistfulness (for the necessity of my own fragile mental health, if nothing else), that doesn't mean I don't live every day with a sensation of definite regret hovering somewhere in the vicinity of my conscious thoughts.

That's not a bad thing. Regret is a strong motivating force. Everyone makes mistakes: it is how you react to these mistakes that defines your character.

Being poor tends to clarify and focus your thoughts. I actually read a really great article about this recently in the most unlikely of places: posted a funny list earlier this year of the "5 Things Nobody Tells You About Being Poor." Oddly enough for a humor site like, this is actually one of the best, most astute and completely unvarnished examination of working poverty in America that I've ever seen. One of the reasons it's such an effective article is that it doesn't flinch from showing just how "funny" so many of the daily humiliations of the Poverty Grind actually are. Being poor means your life is essentially a long string of ironic Catch-22s, one after another forever and ever. You get some money from a tax refund? Guess what, your car needs a new timing belt. You want to go back to school? Guess what, the only way to qualify for substantive student aid is to live far below the poverty line. Gallows humor comes with the territory.

So you go back to school and work hard. Even though everything else in the world appears to be crumbling, you still wholeheartedly embrace the belief that education and hard work will allow you to rise up from poverty and to enjoy the fruits of a moderate middle-class life - the fruits of which amount, in this case, to simply living a comfortable life that doesn't require the constant counting of pennies in order to be able to eat lunch. Because we all know that there's no such thing as social mobility anymore. If you're born poor you're likely to remain poor, and if you're born rich it is almost impossible to not remain rich. Growing up we were never destitute in terms of complete abject poverty, but I think it's fair to characterize my upbringing as definitively poor, in money if not in spirit. There were fat times and lean times. We never went without essentials and we always had food to eat, but despite what the Heritage Foundation might want you to believe, being poor in America doesn't mean being perpetually hungry (although that can be a part of it - I've been hungry in my time), and it doesn't mean not owning a color TV. It does mean having to constantly scramble, and knowing full well at all moments that if your next paycheck (or pension check or SSI Disability check) doesn't materialize for whatever reason, you are screwed in a very real, concrete, and non-abstract fashion. I always like to say: some days you get the spider, and some days the spider gets you.

As might be expected from the above, being poor also means being frightened all the time. Being poor means that the police aren't your friends. I've often wondered what it must be like to live a life without constant fear of the police as a real and valid threat. I should mention that I'm perhaps the most law abiding person I know. I feel guilty about going even just two or three miles over the speed limit on the freeway - even when everyone around me is going 10-15 miles above - not just because I'm deathly afraid of getting a ticket I can't pay and having my preciously low car insurance rate raised, but because I've been in severe car accidents and I don't want to die behind the wheel of an eight-year-old Subaru station wagon. I don't declare deductions on my taxes above the bare-bones household deduction, in the interest of keeping my tax profile as simple and unobtrusive as possible. I know from firsthand family experience that once you fall under the government's purview, it's almost impossible to extricate yourself without falling into a bureaucratic sinkhole of the kind that the phrase "Kafka-esque" was specifically designed to describe. Being poor means living in constant fear of falling on the wrong side of the government: we don't get to have lawyers on retainer or even lawyers, period.

If the system was working properly, education would be the means by which individuals could lift themselves out of lowered circumstances through hard work and perseverance. As it stands, university education has become the bare-minimum prerequisite for most people to be able to qualify for middle class jobs and incomes, and those very same university educations that are necessary in order to produce an economically productive citizenry carry with them the near-certainty of prohibitive debt. You need to go to school in order to be qualified for the jobs that will enable you to pay off the student loans you accrued in order to pay for school. Setting aside the more intangible cultural consequences of forcing the large majority of college graduates to view university education as glorified job-training, there is the basic fact that any institution responsible for saddling society's most potentially productive demographic with immense debt right out of the starting gate will act as a monstrous drag on economic growth for the foreseeable future.

Spiraling debt is one of the symptoms of a capitalist system in terminal decline. Governments, companies, and people are (often literally) mortgaging present circumstances on future dividends - ignorant or in denial of the fact that the negative effects of debt are compounded with time. If capitalism was able to function the way it "should," the way the economic apologists on the faculties of almost every major public and private university in the United States would have us believe, reasonable debt levels would be easily erased by periodic upturns. In reality, contemporary debt levels across all levels of society are untenable and simply cannot be repaid. As we have seen in Greece (and France and Italy and England, et al.), countrywide austerity programs necessarily inflict unacceptable collateral injuries across society. On the most basic level, governments establish legitimacy through the maintenance of order. As soon as recognized social protections begin to fall away, society erupts from the bottom up. Law enforcement practices become harsher and more repressive as income disparity rises - by necessity, since economic disparity creates unrest. There is no amount of police repression capable of suppressing dissent in a representational democracy. Every attempt to suppress dissent creates an environment of harsher repression which in turns inspires an increasingly vociferous dissent movement. There's no way to stop the cycle without abandoning any pretense of political liberty and instituting a police state - and oops, sometimes that happens anyway when you're not even paying attention.

Most people in the United States (and dare I say the rest of the world) possess an express desire to live quiet lives unaffected by political turmoil. Protest movements are historically unpopular in this country because anything that threatens to overturn social and political stability on the national stage is unavoidably seen as a potential threat to local stability. So there is a very real possibility that the Occupy movement will have a deleterious effect on the short-term prospects of liberal politics on the retail level. That makes perfect sense: the Tea Party, inasmuch as it was a "real" populist protest movement, was still essentially contiguous with the values and goals of the mainstream Republican party. The Occupy movement, however, rejects the Democratic party, and even those Democrats seemingly most amenable to aligning themselves with the goals of the Occupy movement, such as the very liberal Democratic senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, are still essentially corporatist technocrats dedicated to preserving the economic status quo through smarter regulation. The Occupy movement is far beyond the reach of the Democratic party. One of the country's most historically liberal politicians, Jerry Brown, is once again governor of California, and his complete silence in the face of increased radicalization across the University of California system has been deafening. (It is worth noting that our Governor during the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s was Ronald Reagan, and his unambiguously hostile reaction to the protests in Berkeley during that decade was a crucial factor in helping Reagan gain credibility with national conservatives in the years leading up to 1980.) There is no way any politician on the national stage can possibly align themselves with the Occupy movement on anything other than the most vague and equivocal basis, because the whole point of the Occupy movement is that capitalism is failing in stark and unambiguous terms.

I'm not going to bother reiterating the facts regarding skyrocketing tuition - they're on the public record for anyone to see. But I think it is worth looking out for a moment from the specific circumstances of the moment and towards other aspects of the same problem.

If you have not already done so it is worth your attention to set aside the time to read Taylor Branch's recent article, "The Shame of College Sports," published in last month's issue of The Atlantic. It's a long and extremely interesting article, and so any attempt to summarize it would be necessarily reductive. But at the risk of doing violence to Branch's central thesis, the article lays out the case against college athletics and the NCAA in extremely methodical and unmistakeable terms. College athletics - particularly basketball and football - are such a remunerative enterprise that successful athletic programs effectively take over the schools to which they are attached. In the process they commit a variety of tacitly accepted crimes against the players who participate in college ball in the hopes of using it as a means of reaching the brass ring of a fat paycheck with professional sports. The way money circulates in the NCAA system distorts the educational mission of public and private universities to such a degree that any arguments regarding the economic benefits of college athletics are mooted ten times over by the deleterious effect of college sports on the reputation, educational quality, and dignity of the institutions in question. Many are already calling for the NCAA to be either dissolved or cut free entirely from the university system to which it already seems a pressingly terrible fit.

For any proof of the potential negative consequences of college athletics - consequences that go far beyond even vastly important questions concerning the ethical treatment of college athletes and the parasitic relationship between large athletic departments and large research universities - you merely need to look at the crisis at Penn State over the last month after it was discovered that a long-serving assistant coach for Penn State's storied football team had allegedly raped multiple children over the course of many years. The behavior was known and a cover-up of indeterminate dimensions in place for a long time. If you want to understand why and how such behavior could be allowed to continue on any basis, it is best to ask the most basic question: cui bono? Who benefits? Follow the money.

In the weeks leading up to the current campus crises, all graduate students, postdoc researchers and faculty in the UC system received a new patent contract. (I got the same patent contract myself since I'm a graduate student, even though the humanities obviously don't produce much in the way of patents.) Universities count on revenues from industrial patents to produce a surprisingly large percentage of their income. Current patent law apparently was such that existing contracts were not proof against loopholes, so new contracts were drawn up to clarify the University's ownership relation to all intellectual property created under its auspices. For those of you paying attention at home: scientists and engineers working for research universities are employed on a work-for-hire basis. Money gained from research income - be it in the form of patent revenues or industrial grants - is increasingly not funneled back into further research or education. It "disappears" into the administrative budget.

The problem is that there's no quick fix. The problem is that "the problem" is systematic and ultimately points to the most basic questions of how our society functions and how people pay their rent. The problem is that for an increasingly large percentage of the population, society isn't functioning quite so well, and a lot of people are having trouble paying that rent. President Obama was only ever going to be a centrist conservative Democrat: anyone who ever believed differently hadn't done even the most basic research required to read this excoriating New Yorker profile from 2007. There's no hope of redress at the highest levels of government, and so the dissatisfaction will continue to seep outwards and upwards.

It doesn't take a lot to radicalize leftist humanities students at public universities. When you actually get the scientists to pay attention to issues of social justice, you're working overtime to make enemies. There is no good reason why college athletes shouldn't be protesting for the exact same reasons that professors, graduate students (who teach and research) and undergraduates (who pay steep tuition) are: we make a lot of money for this university, cui bono? Why is tuition so high? Why are citizens of the wealthiest nation on the planet being asked to pay so much for an education that is an essential prerequisite to being an economically productive citizen? If people stopped sending their kids to college in high enough numbers, the economy would suffer for lack of educated workers to staff non-manual positions.

The only way this situation makes sense in the long term is if you accept that the logic of capitalism is self-defeating: debt begets debt, and a society burdened with debt will collapse because excessive debt makes growth impossible. The moment capitalism stops growing, when economic systems stagnate and contract, it enters a spiral of quickly diminishing returns from which it cannot extricate itself. Government regulation could probably temporarily arrest or slow the decline if the legislative will was present, but no one can acknowledge the existence of the problem, much less propose economic solutions predicated on the understanding that capitalism can't sustain itself indefinitely with a minimum of regulation. Eventually someone, somewhere, will simply stand up and refuse to pay their debts: it's already happening in Greece, and we have seen the consequences of even just one small-ish, relatively unimportant economy refusing to play by the rules. Any larger default would existentially imperil the entire financial system. When that happens, all bets are off, and all of our lives will be immeasurably worse for the duration of the crisis.

All of which brings us back to the photo at the top of the post, of a helmeted police officer hosing down nonviolent protesters with pepper spray. I walk along that pathway every day on my way from the bus stop in the Student Union to my office in Voorhies. I know those people, some of them at least: one of the men in the foreground who I recognize was seated across a conference table from me in class not three hours before the photo in question was taken. I know from class he looked exhausted: he'd been involved in many of the protests both on campus at Davis and ninety minutes away at Berkeley. I went home that afternoon after class and took a nap: it had been a long week with minimal sleep (that's graduate school!) and I knew going into the weekend that the next week, right before the Thanksgiving holiday, was going to be fairly intense. My Chaucer students have a term paper due in twelve days for which I can't help worrying they are woefully unprepared: I'm most concerned right now in being able to plan effective paper-writing workshops in the very busy week after we return from holiday. I slept all afternoon and woke up to find that Something Had Happened.

It's a bit weird to wake up and realize that you've been placed in a fishbowl. Suddenly a campus protest movement which had previously appeared vaguely desultory was the flashpoint for international attention: it hit Reuters, it hit the AP, it hit the BBC. The pictures and video of the pepper spray incident have shot around the world. Why was this such a revelation, when things like this had happened just a few days earlier in Berkeley? And this was happening in Oakland? Why was this happening here, in a college town to which I had moved with the specific understanding that it would be a quiet place to burrow down for a few years of extremely taxing intellectual labor?

I would never describe myself as an active member of the protest community: that would be doing a great disservice to those people who are extremely active and important in the organization and implementation of dissent on campus and in the community. But I'm a member of a Graduate Student Assembly that is responsible for formulating official responses to these events, I'm represented by a union that stands in solidarity with political activism, and I'm an individual surrounded by good friends who are deeply involved on every level of the process. We stand united and we roll deep.

But as an individual I'm frightened, terrified. I look at the pictures and watch the videos and hear the slogans and I know that things have reached a fever pitch: the demonstrations are going to get bigger and the political ramifications, at least for those living under the UC system as it stands now, are potentially massive. It's one thing to see these things played out on a TV screen from hundreds or thousands of miles away, but another thing entirely to see images taken in what is essentially your home being broadcast across the world as symbols of political repression. There's that old creeping fear of law enforcement which my parents instilled in me. My mom worked for the police as an emergency dispatcher and (when she couldn't possibly get out of it) a jail warden. She was exposed to policemen at their best and their worse - as first-responders to accidents and incidents of domestic abuse, as people who worked hard to catch violent criminals and support their community, but also as people who could be bigoted, sexist, violent, and abusive, who exploited the authority of their badge and their position of trust in every conceivable fashion. After working with the police for ten years she told me in no uncertain terms: avoid the police. There are two types of people who become police: good people who want to accomplish the good things associated with police work, and people who become corrupted and compromised by the very real ethical dangers of a career in law enforcement. When you're being pulled over for a busted taillight you can't know which type of cop your getting, or what kind of day that cop had, or any number of other variables.

(An aside: one of the best days of my life was the day a cop actually apologized to me for pulling me over without a reason. He ran my plates on his computer when he was driving behind me on a country road and his computer told him I didn't have a drivers' license. He pulled me over and I showed him my valid license. He looked at it, handed it back and apologized for stopping me.)

I know, I know: I'm not saying anything here that any black or hispanic citizen wouldn't be able to tell you. Here I am, "free, white and twenty-one," whining about the existential threat posed by police violence against middle-class graduate students at a well-esteemed public research university in the richest country in the world. But the fact remains: if you're poor, you know (or should know) that the police can do a lot more than ruin your day. They're dangerous. They represent the potential for unchecked and completely arbitrary exercise of dangerous power. So if they put a handful of police officers on indefinite leave, good for them - that's a start. But (and this shouldn't be taken in any way as an absolution for those individual officers responsible for the event at every step of the chain of command) the problem is not a few bad apples, but a system that has been designed with the express purpose of being abused. Urban police forces across the country have been militarized for decades, as a direct result of the never-ending stream of bad consequences resulting from our ruinous "War on Drugs." Cops dress like Navy Seals to cross the streets: when you give someone an assault rifle and body armor of course they're going to walk the beat like they're grinding a tactical sim on their Playstation.

I'm afraid of the fact that I can't decide to just "opt-out" of capitalism at my convenience, because somewhere on the other end of these decisions is a man with a badge and a gun who has been specifically deputized to protect the rights of private property. I have made decisions in my life with an eye towards monetizing the few skills I have in order to lift myself out of an indefinite future of grinding poverty and towards something resembling a comfortable middle class existence. I'm afraid of losing this chance, and that is exactly what the system takes for granted: when it becomes almost impossible to pick yourself up after falling down, the negative consequences of tripping over your own feet become inconceivably grim. I'm old enough that I'm fully aware of just how much I have to lose. I look at the pictures of my friends being assaulted not fifty yards from the cafeteria where I eat pizza on Thursdays and I can't help thinking of exactly what is at stake: this is a systematic breakdown. This is not an isolated case of police abuse or a small group of disaffected agents provocateurs inciting violence. This specific incident may eventually fade from immediate memory and the specific provocations may be swept under the rug, but the only way for the problem to go away is for the systematic inequalities that form the bedrock of our country's economic system to go away. And that's not going to happen, not without a lot more turmoil and possibly more bloodshed. It's only going to get worse before it gets better, because the problems are only going to keep getting worse for so long as people lack the political will to step up en masse and change the system with their own bare hands.

When you've been poor for a long time you pay a lot of attention to issues of class. You can look around and get a pretty good read for issues of wealth and poverty, just from how people carry themselves, the type of clothes they wear, the attitude they adopt. Poor people know how much money they have in their bank accounts at all time. People who haven't lived like that can't understand just how much energy goes into keeping yourself afloat when you don't have the confidence of being able to fall back on wealthy relations or substantial savings. When you're poor you realize just how much you have to lose because you know exactly how much you have. Those who have the least have paradoxically the most to lose. I feel like I have a lot to lose, and I'm frightened to see the system fraying in front of my eyes. I wish I could say I didn't see it coming, but you don't need to be a Marxist to have seen just how badly things have gotten. (Although, if you've read Capital, you have a pretty good idea of how it happened. More than a few mainstream economists have been circling around Marx's ideas for the last few years, unable to bring themselves to actually utter the name of the man who, whatever some of the specific faults of his analysis might have been, was able to predict many prominent features of our present moment with startling accuracy.) I'm scared for myself but I'm also scared for my parents who are dependent on the government for their retirement income, my friends who receive their paychecks from the government, and anyone who needs to pay bills with money backed by the full faith and trust of the increasingly repressive and completely unresponsive United States government. You know, everyone.

At the most very basic level, we have to ask a simple question: does capitalism work? For a long time capitalism worked well for an impressively large number of people, a large enough number that you could probably ignore the seepage around the edges if you so desired. But it has now ceased to work for an increasingly large number of people. The reflexive response from both sides of the mainstream political dualism has been that localized problems should not be confused with systematic problems: if you fail, it's your fault and not that of the system. The system works. Both major political parties seem to differ only in the degree to which they posit government action as a remedy for the localized shortcomings of capitalism. The American political system as it is presently conceived is simply unable to process the possibility that current problems are not localized, and that they may very well be systematic and progressively degenerative. Right now I believe it is safe to say that, despite whatever economic problems they may be experiencing in their own lives, the mass of middle America has not been sufficiently radicalized to be able to see any continuity between pictures like the one above and the circumstances of not being able to pay their bills and feed their children. People remain isolated and aloof for so long as they feel afraid, and a lot of people feel very afraid right now. They're more afraid, however, of not being able to pay their bills than they are of the government. All that needs to happen in order for that to change is for the government and its representatives to keep on doing what they did last Friday.

I'm saddened and shocked to see these things happening in my own back yard, but it had to start somewhere. Might as well be here.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Everything Right Is Wrong Again

They Might Be Giants

Anyone listening to They Might Be Giants' self-titled debut album without any knowledge of the duo's later career may have been justified in the belief that there was no way in hell these guys should ever have been allowed to make a second album. To say that They Might Be Giants is a weird album is an understatement considering how often the word "weird" is abused and misused: there's something downright scary about this album in a way that can't entirely be dismissed by recourse to ironic distance. For all the chirpy energy and mutant power pop songwriting chops on display, this isn't even remotely happy music. These are murder ballads disguised as bubblegum synthpop, telegrams of self-loathing broadcast from the interior of a strange subterranean prison. If this juxtaposition does not perhaps seem quite as strange now as it did in 1986, it is to They Might Be Giants' credit that they have effectively created this subgenre unto themselves.

I am consistently surprised by Robert Christgau's longstanding affection for TMBG: to put it mildly, they don't particularly seem like his type of thing. And yet love them he does. He's actually more kind to their debut album than I am inclined to be:
Two catchy weirdos, eighteen songs, and the hits just keep on coming in an exuberantly annoying show of creative superabundance. Their secret is that as unmediated pop postmodernists they can be themselves stealing from anywhere, modulating without strain or personal commitment from hick to nut to nerd. Like the cross-eyed bear in the regretful but not altogether kind "Hide Away Folk Family," their "shoes are laced with irony," but that doesn't doom them to art-school cleverness or never meaning what they say. Their great subject is the information overload that lends these songs their form. They live in a world where "Everything Right Is Wrong Again" and "Youth Culture Killed My Dog."
Where I think Christgau gets it precisely right is the statement that "their great subject is the information overload that lends these songs their form." At a certain point, after having listened to this album enough times, the sheer profusion of different styles and attitudes threatens to overwhelm the understanding or enjoyment of any individual song. Track for track, this is one of the weakest albums from their early period. But taken as a whole the confusing multiplicity of styles and genres - to say nothing of the anomalous un-musicality of truly bizarre tracks like "Chess Piece Face" and "Boat of Car" - makes the album seem better as a composite whole than as the sum of its parts. Like Marshall McLuhan, They Might Be Giants (unintentionally) foresaw the negative consequences of information overload in a fractured and infinitely refracted society. You're not supposed to be able to focus on any one object: the best way is simply to absorb everything all at once and hope for the best.

The difference between They Might Be Giants and a group like Negativland, however, comes from the Johns' steadfast removal to engage with the world beyond their own horizons. There aren't many overtly political songs in the band's discography; one of them, the weak "Put Your Hand Inside The Puppet Head," is the second song here. They seem more or less constitutionally unable to discuss politics with conviction. (One of the better songs on their next album, "Purple Toupee," addresses this problem in explicit terms.) So immediately we're trapped within the confines of a narrow, hermetically-sealed universe populated by strange characters defined by varying degrees of depression and psychosis. I believe this was actually a brilliant decision on their part: as opposed to someone like "Weird Al" who has alway been tied to explicit parody as his primary subject matter, TMBG don't really engage with the outside world. Devo by their very nature were extremely political: they were (and are, since they're amazingly still a going concern) persistently hyper-critical of contemporary life. They Might Be Giants are certainly persistently critical and overtly parodic, but not of society or or pop culture or other musicians. Their metier, the inescapable target of their relentless criticism, is themselves. There's a reason why mind control, hypnosis, and delusion are the most consistent subject matters in their oeuvre: nothing makes sense for these guys outside the realm of their own heads. For better or for worse, They Might Be Giants are extremely narcissistic songwriters. That does however not mean that they aren't at all times completely willing to abase or humiliate themselves.

To put it another way: They Might Be Giants became successful because they created their own world, and each album was an exercise in fantasy world-building that differed from the likes of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd not in kind but in quality. This wasn't about power fantasy, this was about routine powerlessness inflated to ritual proportions. The trials and tribulations of everyday banality were reflected and distorted to funhouse-mirror proportions: take another look at "Absolutely Bill's Mood" and "Alienation's For the Rich," and you might perhaps be able to discern a spiritual resemblance to the work of Harold Pinter. Some of the best songs from their early albums actually resemble one-act plays or character sketches, brief expository passages intended to illuminate the lives of people trapped by the circumstances of their own misfortune. Even "upbeat" songs like "Everything Right is Wrong Again" and "Nothing's Gonna Change My Clothes" are, on closer examination, abrasive acts of self-mortification.
All the people are so happy now, their heads are caving in,
I'm glad they are a snowman with protective rubber skin,
But every little thing's a domino that falls on different dots,
And crashes into everything that tries to make it stop.
There's a reason why these guys became so popular with nerds: they appeal to young nerds' inflated sense of self-importance, the irrefutable conviction that everything going on inside their heads is far more important than whatever might be going on outside. Attempts to communicate are most likely doomed by the subject's inability to look beyond the frame of their own neurosis in order to acknowledge another person as more than an appendage ("Don't Let's Start"). The most genuinely affecting song on the album - "She's An Angel" - is less sincere than it might appear on first blush, inasmuch as it is built around the lyrical conceit of taking a commonplace romantic compliment and weaving it into a sci-fi fable. They Might Be Giants would have very little material if it weren't for their nigh-autistic ability to literalize familiar idioms in a clever, albeit occasionally maddening fashion.
When you're following an angel
Does it mean you have to throw your body off a building?
Somewhere they're meeting on a pinhead
Calling you an angel, calling you the nicest things.
I heard they had a space program,
When they sing you can't hear, there's no air.
Sometimes I think I kind of like that and
Other times I think I'm already there.
What saves them from their own worst impulses - and what will alway save them - is their skill as songwriters. This album appears at times to have been conjured up out of thin air: it's lo-fi and doggedly minimal, using energy and enthusiasm to cover the fact that the whole album was recorded with no more instruments than two people could carry on the subway. My patience for odd vignettes like "Chess Piece Face" and "Rabid Child" was never particularly strong, and the many weird interludes that dot this album do not seems to have grown less annoying with age. But at the same time the effect of these interludes is countered by the handful of truly great pop songs that dot the album. They Might Be Giants are and have been almost from their inception gifted songwriters in the great tradition of formalist power pop. There's a reason why "Don't Let's Start" made it onto rotation on MTV despite the fact that it was a terrible video by a no-name indie band with a weird name: it's a catchy song constructed with exacting precision. Everything is exactly where it should be: the intro, the chorus, the middle eight, the way it seems to go a little bit faster for the final chorus - this is how you write a pop song, this is how you build a tiny ladder to transcendence on a 4/4 scaffold. Even when their subject matter betrayed them their skill saw them through. If on their first album this skill is occasionally obscured and diffused by a surfeit of ambition, their second album would see the duo tighten their songwriting focus with the methodical precision of a laser.

(out of five)

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Money's All Broke, and Food's Going Hungry

For a long time I had managed to convince myself that I had outgrown They Might Be Giants. There wasn't necessarily a conscious decision on my part to distance myself from the group. It was as simple as noticing that, as I grew older, I wasn't listening to them nearly as often. I never completely abjured them: Lincoln and John Henry, in particular, always managed to sneak back onto the playlist at periodic intervals. But there was a growing recognition on my part of the fact that they just weren't as important to me as they once were.

And then, as they say, a funny thing happened. I moved over the summer, which you might recall me mentioning. Moving is always an ordeal, and never fails to put a person into an odd headspace. This was compounded by the length of the move (3,000 miles), and the fact that there was a new job waiting for me on the other side of the country. After the move was over and I settled into my new situation I became fascinated by a group to which I had never before paid the slightest bit of attention: the Dismemberment Plan, and specifically their 1999 masterpiece Emergency & I.

I listened to that album in near-constant rotation for at least a good month. I never really cared much for post-hardcore - hardcore never appealed to me, so post-hardcore seemed like something best avoided. Of course I mainly based these unformed opinions on bare thumbnail sketches of genre stereotypes, the truth about which I knew nothing and, furthermore, just wasn't that interested in exploring. And yet: long after the age when most people go through their DIschord faze, I found myself really digging Fugazi and poking my toes ever so tentatively into the DC scene. Although it took me a few listens to really get the feel for the album, Emergency & I finally appeared to me as a kind of revelation: here was an album with a depth of field to rival OK Computer or Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, a precise and exacting whole that nevertheless managed to seem spontaneous and raw. It's not hard to see how this band and this album in particular have exerted such a massive influence on the later evolution of post-hardcore into poppier forms such as emo in the early 2000s. But then again: there's a cerebral quality that places the group apart from lesser contemporaries and followers, and a mordant sense of truly mature melancholy (not to mention a sense of humor!) that removes them from the immediate company of the more obnoxiously heart-on-hand varieties of post-punk and pop-punk.

But a funny thing happened as I was getting into the Dismemberment Plan. I began to notice something strange. It was subtle, at first, more of a general association than a specific connection. But the more I listened, the more I saw previously-hidden connections. There was something about the precise combination of intense playing and nervous energy, a sense of tweaked urgency that came across like someone having wound the clock too tight. Travis Morrison's vocals in particular seem just slightly too high to be singing the songs he's singing, nervy and anxious and completely emasculated. The band gets pegged as "math rock," and I suppose I can see the connection: the drums are sharp and the rhythms complex, marked by off-beat syncopations and persistent, unexpected lunges in odd directions.

I don't know and can't say whether or not the Dismemberment Plan were consciously influenced by They Might Be Giants, but listening to the former I was struck by their incredible similarity to the latter. Lyrically, the D-Plan seem to share a preoccupation with tongue-twisters and speculative fiction metaphors as a means of moving past bathetic cliche. TMBG play with the kind of exacting precision that could only come from spending the first decade of your career playing catch-up to drum machines and pre-programmed synthesizer tracks. The D-Plan take the energy and propulsion of punk and filter it through a sparse, disciplined asceticism that owes as much to Television as anything else in the punk canon. If they weren't specifically influenced by TMBG, they were playing within a certain segment of the rock vocabulary that simply hadn't existed before TMBG.

Listening to the Dismemberment Plan awakened a sudden, fresh desire to revisit some old friends. By chance, this coincided with the release of the Johns' latest album, Join Us. One of the reasons why I had moved away from the group was the fact that they released a couple not-so-good albums in the first part of the last decade. Mink Car and especially The Spine seemed to be thin on my first exposure and have not grown in succeeding years. The Else was stronger and it sounded good thanks to the participation of the Dust Brothers, but it never quite made it into my permanent shuffle. Unfortunately, considering how much I loved the group in years past, They Might Be Giants had dropped off my radar entirely. I've never felt so much as the slightest interest in their kids albums: although I can't begrudge their success, it always seemed to me to be the exact wrong move for the group to make, a doubling-down of precisely those traits that I found least endearing in their sound as I grew older. They were always silly, but their best moments (to my mind) came when they could work through silly and wacky towards something more authentically anxious on the other side. Much of their catalog, at least their older material, is actually quite dark. Of their classic period, Flood has always been my least favorite album, while I cling to the profoundly misanthropic and dyspeptic John Henry as the underrated masterpiece of their oeuvre. There didn't seem to be a lot in their kids' records to hold my interest.

Given my ambivalence towards their last decade's worth of output, imagine my surprise to fine in Join Us that rarest of rarities: a true, honest-to-God return to classic form from a band who I had written off years ago. None of these songs would have seemed out of place on any of their Elektra records. And so after a few a listens to Join Us I felt a sudden, familiar urge: let's listen to They Might Be Giants. Let's really listen, closely, for the first time in a long time. What I found was that, after having been away for many years, coming back to records with which I once had such an intimate familiarity elicited a strange but not unpleasant sensation. At the risk of sliding into the realm of pure nostalgia, it felt like coming home.

Monday, November 07, 2011

I See Smoke Signals Coming From Them

On 4 November 1986, They Might Be Giants released their eponymous full-length debut studio album. Although I didn't buy the album on its release, I do remember seeing the video of "Don't Let's Start" a few times on MTV. It wasn't until a few years later that I actually purchased my first TMBG album - still, by the time their mainstream breakthrough Flood was released in January of 1990, their discography already numbered two full-length albums and another album of B-sides and rarities.

They Might Be Giants occupy a unique position in rock music history. They are simultaneously one of the last true "college rock" bands to emerge out of the underground independent music scene of the early and mid 1980s, as well as one of the first true "alternative" bands to rise to prominence at the outset of the 1990s. Their career trajectory was almost a textbook example of how rock & roll careerism worked in the years between R.E.M. and Nirvana respectively broke: a hard-working and fiercely talented group rises up from years of steady gigging in a supportive local music scene (in their case, Brooklyn, NY), builds a national presence on the underground level through relentless touring and a commitment to proactive DIY promotion, before finally "graduating" to a recording contract at a major label.

The only difference between TMBG and the aforementioned R.E.M. - not to mention the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, the Pixies, et al - is that TMBG were and remain doggedly strange in a way that never quite mapped onto existing notions of rock's stylistic hierarchy. Even a band like the Flaming Lips - perhaps their closest analogue, even down to the fact that both bands were signed to appendages of Warner Music - still at least somewhat corresponded to preexisting ideas of what rock music was "supposed" to sounds like. The Lips, especially back in 1990 at the time of the release of In A Priest Driven Ambulance, were very weird but they were weird in a recognizable fashion: noise-rocking acid casualties who were cool because they didn't give a shit. TMBG was two nervous-looking vaguely Judaic white guys who wore button-down shirts and played the accordion over breakneck drum machine loops. They weren't "through being cool," they had never been cool, and proud of it. While there are certainly stylistic forebears - you can see bits and bobs of "nerd rock" predecessors such as the Feelies, the B52s, Devo and a few British synth-rock acts - TMBG were unique, a cult act that should never have been able to achieve three top-twenty hits on the US Modern Rock chart, let alone a Platinum plaque and a handful of Grammys.

It might be difficult to explain, at this late date, the ubiquitous significance of TMBG to nerds and recovering nerds of a certain age. One of the problems is that, in the 25 years since the band began their recording career, what we consider "nerd culture" has changed drastically. When They Might Be Giants and Lincoln hit, nerds were still nerds in the most pejorative sense possible. Comic book stores, gaming groups, and sci-fi conventions were still fringe activities, and the collective force of societal disapprobation that accompanied these phenomena was significant enough to imbue a monstrously strong sense of entitled defensiveness on multiple generations of kids who grew up ostracized and isolated. The reasons for this ostracism were many and varied, but there is truth in the notion that whatever problems a kid growing up in the United States may have had - precocious intellect, acne, obesity, social incompetence, poverty, disability, mental illness - burgeoning nerd culture represented a welcome and essential respite from the problems of the "real" world. They Might Be Giants was for decades the house band at the Android's Dungeon, and perhaps the purest example of nerd-culture F.U.B.U. - For Us, By Us, outsiders need not apply.

But that's not the world we live in anymore, or at least, not entirely. I see sorority sisters with their Greek-branded pink sweatshirts and Ugg boots reading George R. R. Martin paperbacks on the bus. It's long become cultural conventional wisdom that for all the trials of youth and public schooling, people who look like They Might Be Giants often end up running the show when they grow up. Porn stars play AD&D. All of this is not to say that suddenly high-school bullying is over and social misfits slide through life with the greatest of ease. The continuing success of a show like Glee attests to the universality of social ostracism in primary and secondary school - despite the fact that only in Hollywood would these people not be considered immensely attractive and successful individuals.

The point, however, remains: it doesn't mean the same thing to be a nerd in 2011 as it did in 1986 or even 1996. Now almost all of the most remunerative entertainment franchises in the world are essentially nerd properties. J.R.R. Tolkien no longer belongs to nerds. Batman, Spider-Man and the X-Men no longer belong to the nerds. Harry Potter never belonged to the nerds. The biggest comic book conventions belong to Hollywood. People who actually play sports and date real girls continue to play video games after middle school - which is something that I still can't wrap my head around. A man who became famous from publishing a black & white independent comic book about zombies appeared on an American talk show with Barbara Walters and Elisabeth Hasselback. Even good old "Weird Al" Yankovic is still going strong. It's a strange world for anyone who grew up having to hide comic books from their friends or was socially shunned for reading sci-fi paperbacks on the school bus. The underlying conditions remain - weird kids still get picked on and seek out divergent subcultures in order to find places they can "fit in" - but the collective nerd media apparatus has evolved to the point where it no longer really belongs to us anymore. In many crucial ways, nerd media is the media.

Where exactly do They Might Be Giants fit into this brave new world? What does Dr. Spock's Backup Band do when Dr. Spock is a sex symbol? That's a good question.