Our Band Could Be Your Band
How the Brooklynization of culture killed regional music scenes
By Justin Moyer • September 14, 2012
What is it, then, between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?
Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not.
—Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”
On July 5, 1997, my band El Guapo played a show in Danville, Va. This was our first show as a touring band—the first time we would play an unfamiliar city and sleep somewhere other than one of our parents’ houses. I was 20 years old.
From our drummer’s family homestead in Elkins, W.Va., we drove five hours over the Appalachian Mountains to Danville, a third-tier, postindustrial city rusting on the banks of the Dan River. The show was in a dilapidated, indoor skatepark in an empty warehouse district in a part of town where no one walked the streets. We arrived early and, without access to cellular technology, kept feeding quarters into a pay phone, trying to locate the promoter and access the venue. When he finally arrived, we learned that no local groups were playing—death for a touring band—and that the P.A. system was broken. Thus, we played an instrumental set on a stage built into the middle of a half-pipe for the promoter and two or three kids who skated around us as we performed. We made something like $12.
After the show, we met the promoter, a punk enthusiast in his mid-20s, and his teenage girlfriend at a Waffle House. The promoter, who traveled by bicycle, said wild dogs had attacked him on the way to the restaurant. Packs of feral canines, he claimed, roamed Danville’s vacant streets. (Our guitarist later confirmed that he heard the dogs howling. I dispute this.) He also claimed to have secured a seat on Danville’s city council—a seat for which, presumably, no other civic-minded Virginian had bothered to campaign.
A few minutes after the check was paid, it became clear that our band had nowhere to sleep and, moreover, no sleeping bags. The promoter offered his place. We accepted, and soon found ourselves on the top floor of a warehouse in what might generously be called a loft where cat litter crunched underfoot. Too many lightbulbs were red.
The band played rock-paper-scissors to decide who would sleep where. I won and, despite a well-documented allergy, ended up on a couch coated with cat hair. My bandmates slept on the floor in their clothes, having declined sheets stained with cat urine. Our guitarist later woke up with a beer top pressed into his chest. Unable to sleep, we left at 8 a.m. for our next show in North Carolina without saying goodbye. That show would be just as bad.
We had gone over the mountain, and we hadn’t liked what we’d found.
With Pussy Riot behind bars, I do not relate a 15-year-old anecdote to glorify the insignificant struggles of my punk youth. Nor do I wish to indict the Clinton-era Danville punk scene. I found the few people I met there hospitable, if unusual.
I resurrect Danville because going over the mountain is important. As alien as Danville was to a young musician from an expensive East Coast university, I needed that city because it was foreign—terra incognita where people related to music in ways that I did not. Unlike other places where I’ve brought my music—Bloomington, Ind., or Austin, Texas, or Lille, France—I didn’t like much about Danville, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t learn from Danville, or that I wouldn’t go back.
Before I was even aware of their worth, places like Danville helped me measure my music against someone else’s. Even today, I can reject what’s useless and steal what’s worthwhile. A regional music scene—hereafter, “RMS”—furthers art in the same way that, say, Wisconsin furthered progressive politics under Gov. and Sen. Robert La Follette in the early 20th century. RMSes generate ideas. They lend music character.
RMSes differentiate Hill Country blues from Delta blues and New York hardcore from Orange County hardcore from harDCore. RMSes draw lines between KRS-One and MC Shan, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, Merseybeat and The Kinks, Satie and Wagner. RMSes are why I would almost never play a show that wasn’t all ages in D.C., but would only play Joe’s Bar in Marfa, Texas. RMSes make you think differently.
Like accents, RMSes are disappearing. Sure, record stores and record labels are dead or living on borrowed time. Sure, smart clubowners can’t afford to book a show for an unknown, out-of-town band instead of an ’80s dance party.
But money’s not the problem—or, at least, not the only problem. RMSes are disappearing because everyone is starting to sound like everyone else.
Let’s talk about Brooklyn. Brooklyn is a place where artists gather. There are galleries, and loft parties, and record stores. A dude who presses vinyl lives there. So does a dude who makes stickers and a woman who books a venue. Because there’s an infrastructure that supports getting shit done, people do shit, and a lot of the shit they do is cool. Someone is a recording engineer. Someone is a graffiti artist. Someone has a blog. There’s a lot of energy, and a lot of people to know. Information—“Know a cheap place to print posters?” or “Who can play the tambourine in my Jefferson Airplane cover band?”—is the coin of the realm.
But Brooklyn has a downside. Those who abandon their RMS to come to Brooklyn risk co-option by an aesthetic Borg. Things get mushy. There’s too much input, and there’s not a lot that’s not known. Somebody’s band sounds like Howlin’ Wolf and ESG and Gang of Four, but also sounds like REO Speedwagon and Glenn Branca and The Pointer Sisters. There aren’t many secrets. There are no mountains to go over.
Do not confuse Brooklyn with, well, Brooklyn—the New York borough that sits about 230 miles from Washington on the southwest end of Long Island over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge off of I-278. There are many Brooklyns. Los Angeles is Brooklyn. Chicago is Brooklyn. Berlin and London are Brooklyn. Babylon was the Brooklyn of the ancient world. In the 1990s, Seattle was Brooklyn. Young Chinese punks challenging Communism risk prison to make Beijing the Brooklyn of tomorrow.
Some Brooklyns aren’t even places. MySpace is Brooklyn. YouTube is Brooklyn. Facebook is Brooklyn. Spotify and iTunes are perversely, horribly, unapologetically, maddeningly Brooklyn.
I’m against it.
On general principle and for the good of all, I stopped writing music criticism for money almost a decade ago. I now reluctantly climb back into the ring to write about one of the greatest bands of the 21st century: The Gossip.
The Gossip formed in Olympia, Wash., in 1999, but its founders are from Searcy, Ark. According to famously large singer Beth Ditto, Searcy was no picnic. “There’s nothing like being called a ‘fat faggot,’ being fag-bashed, fearing for your life every day, and being ostracized as a young kid to set you up for negativity in adulthood,” she told the Vancouver Sun in 2009. “Being fat and being poor and growing up with so many kids, it wasn’t like my parents encouraged me to use my imagination. I just didn’t have a choice.”
Though I toured with The Gossip in 2003, I don’t know them well—I’ve only met them, long ago. Nor have I been to Searcy, Ark. Nor am I a time traveler. Maybe The Gossip’s surprising, heartfelt, disarming, exhilarating, totally unexpected queer blues punk could exist without Ditto’s Southern Baptist roots and the Searcy RMS. Searcy: a town of fewer than 25,000 souls less than 150 miles from Clarksdale, Miss.—John Lee Hooker’s hometown—and a two-hour drive from Memphis.
Early Gossip recordings reflect the trio’s native environs. Even with a four-string guitar and a drummer that lagged a bit live, the band was lethal. On 2003’s Movement, the band somehow sounds like a better version of Muddy Waters and a better version of Black Flag. Times change. On this year’s A Joyful Noise, The Gossip often sounds like Ke$ha.
Please understand that I’m not slagging what I consider to be an incredible group. Smart musicians evolve or die—the audience is irrelevant, or should be. But when a band from Arkansas starts making wan disco, homegrown character is, consciously or unconsciously, traded for an entrée to the global marketplace. The landscape flattens.
The Gossip is in a Brooklyn state of mind.
It’s an oft-told Beatles chestnut: As a teenager, Paul McCartney had to get on a bus to learn a guitar chord. Here’s the Walrus in an authorized 1997 biography:
We literally once went across town for a chord, B7. We all knew E, A, but the last one of the sequence is B7, and it’s a very tricky one. But there was a guy that knew it, so we all got on the bus and went to his house. “Hear tell there’s a soothsayer on the hill who knows this great chord, B7!” We all sat round like little disciples, strum strum. “How’s he doing it?” And we learned it.
I won’t fetishize post-World War II Liverpool. There may have been racism, or smog. I doubt there were avocados or unsweetened flax milk. Certainly, the future Wings frontman couldn’t grab his laptop and casually type “B7” into Wikipedia in the comfort of his bedroom. Certainly, he couldn’t sample a better guitarist playing B7 using GarageBand, Audacity, Reason, or ProTools.
McCartney had to rely on his RMS. He learned to play left-handed. He was in a skiffle band. He hustled. As De La Soul once put it, stakes was high.
Were stakes this high for Flo Rida when his production team created “Whistle,” a song about blowjobs that somehow sounds like Peter Bjorn and John’s “Young Folks,” and Black Eyed Peas’ “Just Can’t Get Enough,” and The Scorpions’ “Winds of Change?” Were they this high for Lou Reed and Metallica when they whimsically, inexplicably made Lulu? Are they this high for Nintendocore artists, or Kelly Clarkson, or Wugazi?
If they are, I can’t hear it. This music—this pastiche—doesn’t have an address. It’s all Brooklyn, the inoffensive, mix ’n’ match, international sound of internationality.
How did Brooklyn happen? Many schools of thought help explain the power of Brooklyn to seduce, mystify, and derail talented artists. These include, but are not limited to, Hegel’s “Other,” Marxism, Guy Debord’s society of the spectacle, post-colonial theory, gentrification, third-wave feminism, and Baudrillard’s whole spiel.
But it’s more efficient to refer to Ian Svenonius’s 2006 book The Psychic Soviet, an overlooked work of genius which I fear is fully understood and appreciated only by its author—the former frontman of Nation of Ulysses and The Make-Up and singer for Chain and the Gang—and me. Anyone thinking about The Psychic Soviet probably thinks it’s just a pisstake by a wild-haired punk singer who wears tight pants. For my part, I ponder this little pink pocket manual quite a bit.
In a piece called “Seinfeld Syndrome”—an essay that explains how the success of shows such as Seinfeld, Sex in the City, and The Sopranos helped gentrify New York—Svenonius writes:
The city was reborn as the super mall, its allure augmented by its storied history, born of the diversity which would be abolished. Cheap white labor, in the form of aspiring artists, could be lured via this history, mythologized in books which marketed the city through the very idiosyncratic or marginal character its advertisers had helped to systematically exterminate.
The city’s new privileged inhabitants would wear their city’s outlaw image as a badge of honor and even venerate it with fervor, fiercely proud of a history they had never experienced, let alone contributed to—like suburbanites living on a civil war battlefield and boasting about Pickett’s charge.
Whether they were “new privileged inhabitants” or “cheap white labor,” I wonder whether many of my peers fell for Brooklyn via the process Svenonius outlines, abandoning the scene they had helped build for an imagined other. Artists wanted to live in the city of Pollock, Warhol, and Basquiat; writers wanted to live in the city of Kerouac and Thomas Wolfe; bands wanted to live in the city of Suicide, ESG, and Talking Heads. And the musicians, once they got there, started sounding more like Suicide, ESG, and Talking Heads.
Can you blame them? Who wants to live in the city of John Quincy Adams?
Whether Svenonius is right or not, in the early 2000s, Brooklyn—in both its psychic and physical forms—devastated the Washington RMS. A partial list of D.C. bands who lost members or former members to Brooklyn includes El Guapo (my band), Supersystem (my band), Antelope (my band), Edie Sedgwick (my band), Orthrelm, Measles Mumps Rubella, Quix*o*tic, Fugazi, Black Eyes, Q and Not U, Dame Fate, No Lie Relaxer, The Crainium, The Long Goodbye, Cold Cold Hearts, Bratmobile, Partyline, and Trans Am. At its creative peak, The Rapture imported half its members from D.C. Ted Leo—a former Washingtonian—stole an ex-member of The Make-Up and a member of French Toast. New York also spirited away a Black Cat booker and at least one popular recording engineer.
That’s just our little indie-rock world.
Though it once loomed large across the nation, the Washington RMS isn’t big. It’s not a national scene. And no RMS can lose this many people—literally dozens of musicians, promoters, flyer-makers, T-shirt silkscreeners, sound guys, record company and record store employees, and showgoers—to a Brooklyn and expect to remain relevant.
Fucking Brooklyn. I would have moved there too, but was unwilling to abandon my piano.
I am not from Brooklyn. I’ve recorded records there, but never lived there. I was born in Philadelphia in 1977.
Now “the sixth borough,” Philadelphia was an unenviable place to be from for teenagers interested in alternative music in the 1990s—though, it must be noted, it wasn’t as bad as Searcy. It was The Dead Milkmen, G. Love & Special Sauce, and The Roots against the world. A record store in my hometown that should have survived to be put out of business by iTunes went bust before the end of the Clinton administration instead.
In Philadelphia, input was limited. I remember a time when I owned two tapes: U2’s Rattle and Hum and Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits. If I wanted to dust off the record player, my mother had scratchy copies of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid and Led Zeppelin IV. Born in the U.S.A. was in heavy rotation. So was a weird 1960s mix featuring “The Monster Mash.” When a friend introduced me to The Dead Kennedys, it was good luck. When I heard Fugazi, it was a miracle.
Was it my duty to stay in Philadelphia instead of moving to the District? Is Washington my Brooklyn? Faithful to my RMS, should I have started a funky, live hip-hop group, or joined Mummers, or listened exclusively to Sun Ra’s Arkestra? Should I be hanging out with Kurt Vile?
What this essay is not saying: People should only play and listen to music native to their RMS. Los Angeles rappers should sound like Tupac. New Orleanians should rush to join second lines. Go to Wilson High? Start a straightedge band. Live in Ward 8? Play conga at the go-go.
This isn’t the Soviet Union. When desperate people start talking about the need to “support the scene,” you know the scene is dead.
What this essay is saying: In Brooklyn, there is too much input.
What this essay is saying: If music wasn’t better before Brooklyn, it was, at least, weirder.
What this essay is saying: In Brooklyn, music comes too cheap. (Please note: “too cheap” doesn’t refer to price.)
What this essay is saying: When you’re a young musician, it’s better to start with just “The Monster Mash” than with every song ever recorded.
What this essay is saying: A melting pot is not an aesthetic. Neither is a salad bar.
What this essay is saying: There is a tidal wave of generic, mushy, apolitical, featureless, Brooklynish music infiltrating the world’s stereos.
What this essay is saying: Beware what you put on your iPod.
It might not be dangerous.