October 18, 2002

What Kind of Total Disregard for Humanity do You Have?

What kind of total disregard

Down, down, you bring me down

I hear you knocking down my

Door and I can't sleep at night

Now, this is not to say that the government runs the media. That's absurd. We all know that a moneyed cabal of seventeen old, white men run the media. Only one or two of them are in the government. Yet in times of national crisis—or, rather, in times that should call for crisis—it's always interesting to see what the media offers us instead. Last summer, for example, among many "newsworthy" issues (crumbling economy, failure to break terrorist networks, a li'l company named Enron), the media decided to take something astoundingly rare and blow it up into a national issue: a few people got attacked by sharks. Instead of worrying about the pink slip on the desk, people worried about where the sharks were, if they were nearby, and whether or not the sharks would get them. It was rather absurd, really. Just like Ms. Perl in The Virgin Suicides, reporters around the country took a not-particularly newsworthy story, spun it into a "growing national concern" story, and, thus, made it newsworthy. It's appalling. The anger, hysteria, and frenzy that should have been directed at a sublimely corrupt Bush administration was aimed, instead, at a few animals that haven't evolved much since dinosaur times.

This summer, of course, the media is behaving much more responsibly. The situation is more dire: the economy's in even worse shape, the Cheney Kriegsmaschine is busy pulling orcs out of the mud around Isengard, and rampant unilateralism is threatening U.S. interests abroad. As a result, the media has stopped hyping sharks and moved on to a more contemporary crisis, snipers. On one mailing list I read, a person snapped over a thread, saying that the entire line of discussion was unimportant considering there were snipers out there. When the citizenry should fear the power grabs the executive branch is making, the media makes them; instead, fear snipers—who can't even metaphorically be the executive branch, I don't think. Instead of marching by the thousands through public places, the media has scared us into our homes, wary of leaving lest a high-powered rifle take us out.

Again, this is not to say that the government runs the media, or that the government has nudie pix of the seventeen aforementioned pasty, scaly, white men that force a certain occasional rescue job perpetrated by the media. It's just convenient that whenever things get a little dicey for the Bush administration, something frivolous is always available to take its place, something like a newfound mania and terror of snipers. Anyway, I won't let my fretting, wild paranoia and agoraphobia regarding the upcoming war be swayed by something as ridiculous as snipers. No, thank you. Instead, I think I'll let the scary, frightening threat of the upcoming Nirvana anthology (to be released nationwide!) give me night sweats.

I'm standing alone

I'm watching you all

I'm seeing you sinking

I'm standing alone

You're weighing the gold

I'm watching you sinking

Fool's gold

Earlier this week, in these august pages, one of the Pavement dork Voices writers muttered between belts of bourbon that the only revolutionary thing about Nevermind was that it "moved a shitload of units." Yet true fact still appears to be a minority opinion, for certain. The buzz is out—Courtney, Krist, and Dave have stopped their spat, unreleased stuff is in the release pipeline, and an anthology is imminent. Nirvana saved rock, they say, and it's time to celebrate its liberation of us masses a decade ago. Yet, as I've said elsewhere, what exactly did Nirvana save us from? Poison? Bell Biv Devoe? It's acceptable to say that they did turn popular music upside down, paving the way for grittier bands, but look at where that's led us: to the extreme absurdities of Slipknot and Limp Bizkit. Six of one… if you ask me. At the same time, however, Nirvana turned around and (unintentionally) bit the hand that fed them: college rock. Before grunge broke into the mainstream, the sound was familiar enough on college rock. Sonic Youth and the Pixies are two of the most important (and loudest and grittiest) college rock bands of the late '80s. In other words, Nirvana took away the arty humor of the Pixies and the musical experimentation of Sonic Youth to replace it with shopworn "ironies" about teen angst. Wait! Stop the presses! Being a teenager sucks!

Would that the problem were just that better bands were being ignored while Nirvana ("wait… you know that 'Teen Spirit' is a deodorant, too, right? Isn't that just the funniest!") conquered/saved rock. The problem was that Nirvana's popularity changed the direction of even college rock, which was a shame, since college rock was getting really good—the Manchester scene was finally hitting us Stateside along with a flurry of competent débuts. Yet all of the bands fell off American popularity once Nirvana and the rest of the Seattle scene overshadowed them. Sure, bands like the Lightning Seeds, Charlatans UK, and Ned's Atomic Dustbin continued making albums, but we never heard them, drowning as we were in the Nirvana (then Pearl Jam) tidal wave. Were these bands so bad that they deserved to be pushed aside? Hardly. In fact, as a general rule, they were more interesting, more fascinating, and, most importantly, wear much better.

I've been listening to The Stone Roses' 1989 eponymous début a lot lately, and it strikes me how it, though released not even two years before Nevermind, still accomplishes quite a bit musically that we have not seen since. They embraced the full sound of late '70s pop rock (I'm thinking of Styx / Cheap Trick / Tom Petty here), incorporated a modish '60s feel, without ignoring either the heavy depths of deep funk or the emergent rave scene in England. It's quite a fusion, and it works a whole lot better than four power chords. The Stone Roses is adventurous, experimental, and thoroughly engaging—just the sort of thing you want at the close of a decade, before the déluge. From the absurdity of "Don't Stop" (more or less, literally, the previous song, "Waterfall," played backwards) to the aching majesty of the final two tracks, "I Am the Resurrection" and "Fool's Gold," the album doesn't let up. There's a nearly perfect wistful late-'80s rock-pop love song in "Elephant Stone," a quiet nod to Simon and Garfunkel (and the Beatles) in "Elizabeth My Dear," and a handful of other quiet, seemingly simplistic and innocent love songs.

But it's the final two tracks that deserve the most attention, especially in comparison to what passed for good music for the five years after this album's release. Clocking in at over 18 minutes total, the songs are truly sprawling, to the point where they're almost indulgent. "I Am the Resurrection" runs out of lyrics (referring to the song's title initially almost three minutes in) with five minutes to spare. "Fool's Gold," and, subsequently, the album, close with a nearly five-minute instrumental vamp of flanger and wahwah rolling around the speakers, inviting both the crowd to get closer and keep on moving. The album does not want to end, even once the bass hits just a simple pedal for the rest of the vamp, movement and variation continue, and, surprisingly, it never gets boring. Similarly, "I Am the Resurrection" seems to be in a hurry to rid itself of lyrical content before getting to the important business—an Allmanesque duel between guitars and percussion sections. When, just before 4:30, the second percussion section kicks in, the listener knows that she is in for something truly engrossing while the variously distorted guitars duke it out (with the bass angling for its own piece of the action).

Yet for all the sophisticated pure rock knowledge imparted in this passage, it's also pretty hilarious, as is most of the album (cf., again, "Don't Stop"), something missing from Nevermind and their ilk. Has anyone ever laughed at a Pearl Jam song, other than to laugh at the absurdity of Eddie Vedder's earnestness? Has anyone truly ever enjoyed any of the pop rock made between, say, 1991 and 1994? I mean, was Beck's "Loser" the first time I laughed at the radio in four years? Probably. That's why, when it's time to go to the ballot booth, I'm voting for the guy who wants to protect me—and America—from Nirvana anthologies.