Hate 1984

August 02, 2024

I Hate 1984

Has anyone else found this week's City Pages collection of vignettes, "I Hate 1984", a little regressive? In a series of brief essays, the usual suspects show us how cool they've realized they were back in 1984 by dint of their musical tastes.

From Peter Scholtes' "1984: An Introduction" to Brad Zellar's "The Minutemen: Double Nickels on the Dime" to Chris Strouth's "How Scraping Foetus Off the Wheel Almost Saved Me from Poseurdom", the recurrent joke seems to be, look at me, I was a total geek, a loser, lost...but because of my musical tastes, hindsight has vindicated me.

In these pieces, the narrator gradually vanishes (or fails to emerge at all), and instead the particular bands that they happened to find (or that happened to find them), and the styles of hair they haltingly adopted, take center stage. All we have as points of reference are embarrassing circa-1984 class pics which only underline the irony for us of how cool they've become. For example, in 1984 we learn that the fourteen year old Scholtes was a "punk rocker" who got shit about his hair on the playground. But his later success was prefigured--his record reviews were published in the high school newspaper by a woman who went on to be editor of The Progressive, natch. Zellar couldn't honestly tell you what the hell he was doing in 1984--"I surely had some sort of shit job"--but he could damn well tell you the best albums of that year. At the top of the list would be the Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime, which had some sort of profound effect on him. Vague on the details of the album's influence, all we know is that it still makes him profoundly happy. But what should help to give shape to an identity instead trumps that identity (or lack thereof). The Minutemen stood for something, but we don't know what. It helped make 1984 "a good year" for Zellar, but we don't know why. Perhaps he doesn't either. Something profound happened--the album is such an inextricable part of him that upon finding out he had forgotten the album on a road trip out west, Zellar detoured for a day in a frantic search of Rapid City's record stores for the album and, upon being thwarted there, had a friend overnight the album to his next stop in Montana. You rarely hear of such obsessive behavior outside of addiction counseling.

The album takes precedence in several of these essays, at the expense of making everything else appear vague. Perhaps that's the goal. What is a 'tribute piece' but an exercise in nostalgia that uncomplicates the past into a a series of smoothly saleable markers. They stand in for the past. And by dropping on to the page the Replacement's Let It Be, the Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime, Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade, as well as ironic trimmings like Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen, Chaka Khan, and Purple Rain, we're referred to these albums and their cultural connotations in place of anything authentic or specific about the narrator. We end up knowing nothing about him or why these albums meant so much to him in particular. All we come away with is proof that he was cool. Or rather, he was a nerd until history made him cool.

This is the leitmotif of a generation deeply anxious of their place in the world and uncertain of the future. Rather than confront these anxieties, they retreat into the immemorial realm of the album. Thus, Zellar can listen to Double Nickels over and over again and it sounds exactly the same. It brings back the exact same feelings and reminds him again and again "that nothing has been lost, that I'll always be in some essential way the same guy..." Whoever that is. It is this essential timlessness to an album (it will always sound the same, so long as you don't use the CD as a coaster, but even if you do you can always go out and buy another exactly like the first in every way) that makes it so attractive as a nostalgic device. Ironic then that Zellar should try to qualify his love for the album by asserting that there's "no ache of nostalgia" associated with it.

These are the narratives of wannabes and poseurs who, seemingly through the effortless pull of destiny, are saved by particular albums that, through a conflux of the universe, cross their paths at the perfect moment. We know that Foetus almost saved Chris Strouth from poseurdom, but what was he posing as? What was the alternative? What authenticity did the album impart on him? We'll never know--such answers are beyond our grasp. All we have access to are the reflections on the walls of the cave-- and very specific reflections at that.

These pieces do seem to be conscious of their own retrogressive politics. You can't tell the story of how The Replacements replaced your unrequited love for a girl without realizing the irony of your construction. By returning to an adolescence marked by growing pains, emerging sexuality, bad hair, alienation, and acne (at best!), and replacing all this with albums and bands that have since been validated by time, we can rewrite our own histories and erase all the baggage that we might still be carrying. Even in the loving way in which some contributor's express their hatred of 1984 betrays a kind of nostalgia that's always to be wallowed in. After all, these critics (as they would be pleased to have you call them) are setting forth their credentials. These are their resumes--by acknowledging their unself-consciously cool youth, they are imbuing themselves and their futures with authority. For a young unaware child to stumble across Let It Be as if it were destiny...you can't manufacture this kind of cred.

Only albums could figure in such an anti-intellectual pursuit. Books, which as entities enjoy with albums the same sort of permanence, somehow never stay the same. Books to these writers only start to make sense when they're adults, years after they first read them, or at worst remain just plain confusing and hard.

see also:
"I Hate 1984: The Box Set" via City Pages>.
"The Intellectual Situation" at n+1.

Posted by jason at August 2, 2024 11:22 PM

The meta-meta-criticism that follows needs a couple of disclaimers:

1. I'm happy to see someone critique the City Pages. Arts criticism in the Twin Cities, by virtue of its paucity, often assumes a false authority because no one has the energy or column inches to rebut it.

2. I wasn't overly-fond of the I Hate '84 series when it first began to appear on Scholtes' blog Complicated Fun some months ago. The concept was good, but the execution was too sprawling. I guess that's what blogs are for. And naturally some of the pieces were better than others. I''m glad to see the print version was edited.

Having said that, Jason, I feel I must point out that I don't think you've ever listened to Let it Be, Zen Arcade, or Double Nickels on the Dime--in 1984 or any year since.

Why does that matter? Because if you haven't, I think you're left out of the intended audience of this series. That is, indie rock audiophiles and Gen-Xers who had there first nocturnal emission in Orwell's dystopic annum .

All this name dropping and anti-poseur posturing amounts to "smoothly saleable markers" whose significance is admittedly "beyond [your] grasp." So what? If criticism weren't a slightly esoteric pursuit every pinhead with an opinion would be writing it (a reality I'm afriad we find ourselves ever-closer to in this "information" age).

Frankly, all I can see your argument amounting to is that you feel left out. So you don't listen to the Minutemen. That's fine. Skip to the book reviews. And while you're at it, I'll point out that you're playing the same game by calling "these writers" semi-litereates who probably still find books "confusing and hard."

By objecting so vehemently to the cred-mongering of pop music critics, you're only validating their cool. If a rock music preference can inspire this kind of invective then the listener/writer must be really rock 'n roll. Anyway, my point is that your argument (one which I'll let Fiveo'clockbot readers know we've had many times) really doesn't hold weight unless you heard Paul Westerberg scream out through bedroom speakers "I'm so unsatisfied!" at some point in your formative years. If you didn't, then you're right, you'll never understand the writer's perspective. As for me, I'll take the 'Mats over Milton any day.

Posted by: Brian at August 2, 2024 02:40 AM

Brian, you're response is beautifully written, but you miss my point completely. While I have no problem with criticism that speaks to only a small select group that's "in the know", my point is that these pieces aren't criticism--anything that could have been of substance has been pushed to the edges. My complaint isn't with feeling left out...my beef is that I'm told these albums are great, but not why they are so. You seem to be saying, "but you had to be there..." as though the power of these albums is somehow beyond criticism. That's hokey.

Posted by: jason at August 2, 2024 07:38 AM

Feeling left out is mostly what it's about. I was there, you weren't--it's the indie rock equivalent of "I heard Pavarotti sing that high note in Trieste in 92, too bad you didn't."

One thing that fuels this is that most critics, most critics of anything, don't really have much to say about what they're discussing; they don't have an aesthetic (or any) framework, they don't actually know music on either a technical or a performing level. So about all that's left is to write a diary about their reactions. This may or may not be interesting, but it's not criticism of the music.

Most contemporary criticism of fiction is written by other fiction writers, and it's limp enough. But most contemporary criticism of music is written by free-lance amateurs whose main qualification appears to be that they heard Pavarotti--oops, sorry, The Bats--do "Streets of Baltimore" live in 2003.

I am qualified to make these observations because I heard Otis Redding sing "Dock of the Bay" live at the Jacksonville Coliseum in '67. You can never never never never top that.

Posted by: glen at August 2, 2024 09:13 AM

Redding beats Westerberg any day. Glen, I concede defeat. All hail the new king of cool!

And Jason, I guess I'm a little hokey. I don't consider anything beyond criticism. I just keep a few 45s in a drawer and pul them out every once in a while to remind me who I was and who I am. Very Proustian, no?

Posted by: Brian at August 2, 2024 12:49 PM