Heaven on Earth
221 · 22 April 99
Maybe it wasn't in the first article I read about Tuesday's shooting at a Colorado high school, but certainly by the time the breaking news was over, and people began the largely hopeless process of trying to impose sense on the event, somebody remembered the press' statutory responsibility to report the musical tastes of any violent juvenile. The two boys were "Goths", somebody noted in tentative quotation marks, not really sure what that meant. Goths, another writer explained, unable to resist the urge to reduce complex phenomena to consonance even in the face of a tragedy this gruesome, are fond of the "shock rocker" Marilyn Manson. Later, other correspondents would find a Nine Inch Nails bumper-sticker on one of the boys' cars, and suggest, in the context of intimations of neo-Nazi-ism, that the clique the boys belonged to listened to "German techno", although I'm quite sure nobody involved could detect, much less elucidate, the difference between the self-evidently evil German techno and the benign, world-harmony-promoting Dutch, English and Belgian variants. Eventually someone supplied the corollary detail that the boys were avid players of computer fighting games, and at one point there was a brief feeding frenzy around the idea that one of the two had a web page. It's still a little too early to tell whether the understandable recriminatory backlash will choose to vent much of its fury on media targets this time, but it wouldn't be surprising. A photo will leak out of one of the boys' bedrooms, with a Marilyn Manson poster on the wall perhaps, and some conservative with public-service aspirations will take upon themselves the unenviable task of actually listening to some Marilyn Manson records, or at least scanning the lyric sheets looking for easy answers, and probably in their self-fulfilling frenzy they'll come up with a worryingly apt phrase or two. Manson, assuming somebody with a grasp of the volatility of the situation gets to him in time, will issue a sober press release in which he uses his real name, expresses his sympathy, and quietly reminds everybody that he is just an entertainer, no different in principle from a harmless rodeo clown. The makers of Doom and Duke Nukem, if they have any self-preservation instincts at all, will hire PR reps far too plain looking to make good television, and the few reporters alert enough to spot the glaring logistical parallels between the boys' actions and the scenaria of most fighting games will soon be reassigned to more photogenic leads.
And after all the "news" is done, the reporters run out of things to report, the story slips off of front pages, and we're left with nothing to do but the real labor of trying to understand why this happened, and figuring out how to keep it from happening again, it's easy to predict what two of the central threads will be. One, although this one is familiar enough that it will devolve into meta-debate almost immediately, will wind itself around the role of violence and related seditions in entertainment. The second will concentrate, with an intensity disturbingly akin to that with which reclusive thirteen-year-olds draw imaginary fortress blueprints, on arming and armoring schools, gun control, and various permutations thereof. Nobody will find it especially ironic or disturbing that the reactions will tend to be couched in even more military rhetoric than the problem. Numerous metaphorical wars will be declared, the phrase "take the fight to the streets" will be invoked through determinedly gritted teeth, as if we've had "the fight" in mothballs in the attic or something, and for every desperately ancillary symptom we can identify, somebody will propose an ornate and intrinsically ineffective poultice. And we will get nowhere, because the real problem is too pervasive to strike. The Pope, whose pronouncements after events like this tend to have the same reflexive cadence as the insufferable talking Austin Powers cutout at the record store I go to, said the only thing I've read, so far, that to me hints at insight, encouraging us, as CNN translates it, "to promote respect for the dignity of human life". And this is where the music we listen to and the games we play and the heads we mount on spikes around our public schools all become part of the same issue, to me. On one level, I don't think it's insane to demand that Marilyn Manson and the programmers of Doom and the producers of movies whose entertainment value is measured in body counts assume some responsibility for the world they influence. Doom didn't make those two boys walk through the maze of their own high school, shooting people too terrified to run, but it isn't helping, and I'm pretty sure there are much better uses to which the time and effort invested in making it, and playing it, could have been put. Marilyn Manson and Trent Reznor didn't create misanthropy and violence, but they do glamorize it. They are symptoms, not causes, but diseases often require that we treat both.
But if my understanding of this social dilemma is anything like correct, these encrustations of human ugliness would promptly take care of themselves if we could get our hands into the true source of evil. The most telling detail, to me, in all the coverage of the shootings in Colorado, was the supposed fondness of the boys' clique for swastikas and Hitler. I am willing to bet that none of them had read and internalized Mein Kampf. I am certain of this because I had to read it, myself, for a course in college about what happened to art and artists during the Third Reich, and it is tedious, incoherent, and wildly lacking in drama, and doesn't offer, in teenage terms, a hundredth of the defiant allure of a single Marilyn Manson song. Wearing swastikas, therefore, cannot be an informed political statement, it must be, like Satanism in other similar contexts, simple rebellion, couched in a vocabulary provided by the moral establishment. Find a seventeen-year-old who can inventory the founding principles of National Socialism, and you've found a kid who isn't going to walk into his high school with a gun and a pipe bomb. Kids yelling "Heil Hitler" at their cafeteria nemeses are merely saying the words they've learned their community finds most inflammatory. In other towns they're dressing in drag, or building rockets, or writing suicide poetry. A community determines the form of its discontent. The most horrifying, insensitive, offensive truth is that Littleton, Colorado created murderers, that all of our towns are allowing natural rebellion to fester, and then channeling it into violence. By the time the culture produces Marilyn Manson, the big harm has long since been done. Don't blame the niches of culture in which the persecuted take refuge, blame the forces that drove them there, and the irresistible erosion that carved the niches in the first place. Blame over-budget commercials for slow-motion lives no real person can lead. Blame 90210 and the Backstreet Boys for making normal kids feel awkward and inadequate. Blame the cheerleaders and the athletes that snubbed their peers, and send them scurrying back to their bedrooms and to virtual worlds in which they can control their own status. Blame their churches, for turning noble impulses into numbing ritual and nauseating conformity. Blame their parents, blame their schools. Blame everybody who sits in front of their television, sucking greedily at pictures of carnage. Blame everybody who dotes on the comfortably vicarious horror of somebody else's airplane crash. Blame the storytellers from Homer to George Lucas who have set slaughter to stirring soundtracks. Blame me, blame yourselves. We've created a culture, whether through our actions or our complicity, in which suicidal massacres in public spaces are unavoidable. The shootings in Colorado didn't have to happen to tell us that, their inevitability could be easily deduced, as could all the lessons we've now given fifteen more lives to be reminded of. Our culture is unhealthy. The Pope is right, we do not value human life. We fear death so much we forget to itemize the alternatives. We construct elaborate taboos against sex, which only succeed in engendering such a superficial obsession with it that we're left with the intimate emotional fluency of a helium party balloon. We tolerate smoking, and drive trucks when we could walk, and support a hundred dehumanizing industries a day. Our environment is overwhelmingly garish, soiled, artless and unloved, and we put up with it. We surround ourselves with blaring messages that nobody believes, that deny our souls, that tell us, over and over, that magic is for sale, and then take our money and hand us back crap. It's amazing more people don't snap. If we don't take our own lives seriously, why would anybody else?
Unfortunately, even if you agree with me that the problem is obvious, the solution is not. How do you promote respect for human life? Not by standing at a suburban lectern and saying, somberly, "Life is precious". Not by lining school hallways with National Guardsmen, so our children grow up under siege. Getting rid of all the guns is a fine idea, and could hardly hurt, but it's impractical, and post-facto enforcement is a fundamentally futile approach, anyway. Maybe we can make the cafeterias safe, but at the end of the day the kids leave the building, and eventually they stopping coming to school at all, and then how have we prepared them for the world outside the cafeteria, which we can never secure? Will you frisk every human before you let them out of their own front door? Short of that, how will you make anywhere truly safe? This, I think, is where music comes in, and art in all its forms, even the ones as unsophisticated as video games and spectator sports. Art gets inside houses, and inside heads. One song can reach a million times as many people as one police officer or one priest. Effectively, art can frisk every kid before they leave their house. The trick, however, is that kids will rebel, and in fact, the people who struggle against a culture are the very ones responsible for its survival, so not only do we need art that recasts misfits as heroes, but we also need art that disgusts people in productive ways. The reason the pervasive co-opting of counter-cultural idioms is so socially destructive is that it constantly pushes rebellion towards extremes. Wearing swastikas is one of the few remaining ways to conclusively assert that you're not in a soda commercial.
And this is why my recent tardy survey of the ABBA back catalog, prompted by its US reissue, seems particularly well-timed. For one thing, I've come to think of ABBA as a powerful faith-restorative. The clanging piano cascades of "Dancing Queen", the boys' gruff background muttering in "Take a Chance on Me", the cheesy synth-bass and Fisher-Price guitar riffs of "Does Your Mother Know", the exaggerated giants-tiptoeing caution of "Two for the Price of One", the syrupy yearning of "Fernando", the hilariously overblown trills of "Super Trouper", the shameless lowest-common-denominator melodic pandering of "Waterloo", the broad musical-theater mannerisms of "Money Money Money", the Valkyrie rounds giving way to breathy mock-gospel frailty on the choruses of "Name of the Game" -- none of these things makes me forget the horrors humanity is capable of, but they remind me of the wonders, at the other extreme, that we often make without necessarily even understanding the syllables we're singing. ABBA's music, to me, is profoundly life-affirming, if for no other reason than it seems oblivious of evil, an object lesson in living a life uncontaminated by hatred. Even the later ABBA songs into which they allowed traces of their personal acrimony to creep never got much more than cozily maudlin. ABBA showed up in stupid outfits, but the gleam in their eyes, of belief in their own transcendent beauty, is too dazzling for me to concentrate on anything else.
And the other half of the equation is that ABBA were so resolutely shiny and trivial that if you insist on turning your back on them, there are a hundred useful directions in which you can head. This is the same reason I've come to believe that the Spice Girls are OK as role models: they are philosophically compact. They take up very little mental space, so when you start to find them cloying, they're easy to escape. They are training idols, nurturing while you learn, but meant to be outgrown. Which is also why, I think, I've ended up fixating on this live album, not any of the eight ABBA studio albums, even though the clunky performances here are clearly not these songs' True Selves. It helps to hear these songs wrong. It helps to know that ABBA didn't fully understand what they were doing, or what they accomplished. It helps to hear all the ways in which these songs could have been better. It helps to hear a couple treacly ballads and be reminded that even when you distill ABBA's career down to fourteen songs, there's still some filler. ABBA, to me, are an aesthetic signpost, simultaneously proving that we are traveling in the right direction and exhorting us to press on, because there must be unimaginably greater things ahead.
Roxette: Have a Nice Day
Roxette are one of those greater things, for me, although I'm sure some people will think this is backwards, and I should admit that I only became reconciled to ABBA in retrospect, after falling in love with Roxette. ABBA were kitsch, on a monumental scale, like a paper maché bunny the size of the Lincoln Memorial; Roxette reduce the same epic pop urges to more human dimensions. I have the feeling, when I'm listening to ABBA, that liking them is sort of something I'm doing, a bit of sleight-of-hand in which I contrive to pluck gems from the heart of their songs without, incredibly, becoming covered in goo. Roxette, on the other hand, I don't feel self-conscious about at all. Benny and Björn seem like pop idiot savants, to me, like it was lucky that their insular little musical world turned out to share a chromatic scale with ours, otherwise they'd be dubious cult figures, like Jandek or R. Crumb. Conversely, I believe Per Gessle knows exactly what he's doing. Roxette's songs make me happy. I don't think I ever harbored many murderous urges, really, but the descriptions of Columbine High School sound just like mine, and I was similarly outcast, so it isn't that difficult to imagine myself in those boys' place. With fewer friends for support, fewer alert teachers to keep at least some of my energy focused on my education, and parents negligent enough to overlook a plea for attention as plaintive as Nazi berets, I'm not sure I wouldn't have been dangerous. We emptied the school, a couple times, when unsanctioned chemistry experiments went awry; how far from that to pipe bombs? I desperately wanted an Anarchist's Cookbook, but had no idea where to look; if we'd had the internet, back then, I'd have found it. I stabbed a kid in the arm with a sharpened pencil, once. It was Texas, getting guns would not have been hard. In how many alternate universes, different roads chosen at how few forks, did the routine frustrations of adolescence become as intolerable to me as they did to those boys? In how many eventualities, from how few tiny jolts to their trajectories, did they grow up to lead my comparatively successful and well-balanced life? I don't think, having heard Roxette, that I can hate the world that much any more. I'm sure it's not causal, I'm sure that I'm only able to love Roxette because a thousand twists and turns in my life happened the way they did, because my parents did a good job, because I was small and slow and had to learn other skills to offset that, because some gland produces the right amount of serotonin. So maybe Roxette aren't really agents of change, and can't salvage your society, but if your society can't find a place in its heart for them, at least you know there's a problem, and might be able to assess its magnitude. They are precious to me in either case, for what they've given me or for the serenity they suggest I've achieved on my own.
Is it grotesque to actually talk about music, in the wake of this event? Maybe I should declare this a week of silence. But no, too much silence is how we got here. The music isn't denial, it's part of our insistent counter-argument that life is worth living. So: Have a Nice Day is the first Roxette studio album since Crash! Boom! Bang!, in 1994. Two- or three-year gaps between Roxette albums were always normal, and there were two compilations, two new singles, a reissue, a Spanish-language remake and a Gessle solo album to keep us company during this wait, but still, five years was long enough for me to worry, just a little, about how far out of touch Roxette might drift. Have a Nice Day shows that they've actually paid pretty close attention. There are basically two archetypes of Roxette songs, the bouncy dance-pop song and the languid romantic ballad, and these fourteen tracks are approximately equally divided between them, but the proceedings are split, too, between reverent atavisms and earnest modernity. "Crush on You" pulses and sputters with techno dance-percussion and wiry analog-synth hooks, but the vocal oscillation between Per's insistent verses and Marie's soaring choruses is trademark Roxette. "Wish I Could Fly" has the grace of "It Must Have Been Love", but grounds Marie's aching lead on a simmering rhythm track, with a composite effect not that much unlike Madonna's "Frozen" or "Drowned World". "You Can't Put Your Arms Around What's Already Gone" opens with a few beats of teasing DJ scratch, but then eases into a goofy strut with Per at his chirpiest. Marie's "Waiting for the Rain" is half Beatles sing-along, half big-band Beach-Boys drama. "Anyone" is schmaltz unapologetic enough to put Celine Dion to flight. "It Will Take a Long Long Time", rising from acoustic candor to string-buoyed pomp, seems like an attempt to bridge the gap between Alanis Morissette and Patty Smyth. Most of "7Twenty7" could be arena Devo (or studio-recluse Golden Earing), but then there's a bridge in the middle with a descending piano figure borrowed straight from ABBA. "I Was So Lucky" is quiet, jazzy and wistful, Marie sounding a little like Tracey Thorn until the impassioned chorus, a creamy sax part tossed in to get the attention of soft-rock programmers, but "Stars" is full-speed dance-pop on the order of Madonna's "Ray of Light", with a children's choir to humanize the beepy synth runs and drum-machine thump. "Salvation" is haunted and sentimental, like a half-speed rendition of Aztec Camera's "Oblivious". "Pay the Price" is galloping power-pop, all delirious harmonies and Per's pealing guitar solos. And the symphonic finale, "Beautiful Things", weaves together scraps of ABBA, Marillion, Bowie and Bacharach, as if that's how garments are always constructed. My favorite of these songs, though, at least so far, is for the most part the album's simplest track, "Staring at the Ground". A clattering, tympani-ish drum loop (played on drum cases, according to the credits) cycles under expansive acoustic-guitar chords, winding bass, Marie's effortless singing and Per's sighing harmonica. On album Roxette tend to be maximalists, reserving their sense of proportion for use on acoustic b-sides and live recordings, but here, for once, they let a song alone, filling it with the power of life using no tools more complicated than lungs or hands. Ways to kill, reasons for enmity: we know far too many of those, and far too little about how we're able to breathe so much joy into such simple sounds that I can think, wildly, for just a moment, that three small minutes might know the right words to comfort a century.
The Lonely Boys: The Lonely Boys
Another piece of solace during the wait for a new Roxette album, if I'd managed to get a copy before, basically, now, would have been this casual side-project of Per's from 1996. The Lonely Boys is a novel, by Swedish writer Mats Olsson, about a fictional Swedish pop band in 1965, and Olsson somehow convinced Gessle and Wilmer X guitarist and singer Nisse Hellberg to journey back in time and create the album such a band would have made. The product of this quick, enthusiastic experiment sounds, unsurprisingly, like a cross between Roxette and That Thing You Do. Gessle and Hellberg each provide about half of the songwriting and half of the singing (in English, which was apparently de rigueur for Swedish pop bands even then), usually in parallel. In the most simplistic analogy, Per is the Beatles here, and Nisse is the Rolling Stones, but they're both having too much fun to be overly precise about influences, so stray elements from at least a decade on either side of the nominal year wander in and join the fun, and if the liner notes didn't explain the premise, there'd be little reason to suspect this music was meant any more facetiously than Cotton Mather, the Orange Peels, the Plimsouls or the Merrymakers. Were it not for the confounding detail that this album appears to have only been released in Sweden, I can't see why "Lonely Boys", "Keep the Radio On (This Is the Perfect Song)" or "Genius Gone Wrong" wouldn't have the potential to win the hearts of all the people, and surely there are thousands of them, for whom even "Closing Time" is too weary, too stooped under the burden of everything thirty years have laden us with.
Stina Nordenstam: People Are Strange
It's easy to forget, listening to Per Gessle, how cold and far away Sweden is. If I were to deduce geography solely from sounds, I'd probably place Per's Sweden somewhere off the coast of Georgia, close enough for his ancestors to have kayaked to the mainland, but sunny and sheltered enough that they wouldn't have bothered. Triangulating from Stina Nordenstam would get me closer to the truth, closer to a polar land locked in ice and dim, relentless sunlight half the year. It's been a couple years since Stina's last album, Dynamite, but that album found her curled up so tightly inside her own head that I was skeptical she'd ever come back out. She sort of doesn't. People Are Strange is an album of covers, but rather than pay fond tribute to her loves and influences, Stina seems to me to be trying to recreate the sound of the ghosts of these songs, often only vaguely remembered, eddying around in the recesses of her skull. Mary Lou Lord, by comparison, is positively effusive. The eerie effects of Stina's barely-audible singing are even more pronounced on other people's songs than on her own. A stark version of Gavin Sutherland's "Sailing" (via Rod Stewart) sounds like a third-grader's unmotivated piano recital, except accompanied, possibly at an overindulgent parent's behest, by a small string-and-brass ensemble, who struggle, meekly, to be heard over the ambient hiss of the room. Stephen Foster's "I Dream of Jeannie" turns into a frayed, menacing lullaby for a city's infrastructure. The traditional "Lonesome Road", edged with some tentative brass, sounds like a James Bond theme crossed with some old bedside prayer nobody ever held out much hope for. A becalmed version of Leonard Cohen's "Bird on a Wire" reveals where all the ennui the Bobs stripped out of their a cappella surf-punk version went to die. The choruses of Prince's "Purple Rain" are still faintly recognizable, but the rest of it seems to have been left in either an oven or a freezer for way too long. "Swallow Strings" is a one-minute string quartet, of unclear relation to "Like a Swallow", on which Stina is accompanied by a near-mute bass, some distant drums, and a few reedy keyboard whines that seem under the delusion that they're oboes. Meditative electric guitar and violin, on Tim Hardin's "Reason to Believe", try to goad Stina into being a rock singer for a few minutes, but she hides behind an amp, and you have to listen closely to be sure she's still there. She gives in a little for a surging performance of Charlotte Deaver's "I Came So Far for Beauty", something like how This Mortal Coil might sound with Steve Albini doing the recording, but her own "Come to Me" seems to be the result of two bets, one that she could record an entire vocal part while sitting in a crowded bar without anybody noticing, and another that the noise of the bar could make, with some creative editing, an abstract background for the song. The piece the album has been building up to, though, turns out to be the title track, the Doors song, performed with far more of Mark Hollis' organic reserve than Jim Morrison's predatory sexuality. A cor anglais moans softly, two wary Stinas circle each other, and an entire history of rock and roll as extrovert theater is rewritten to make the listener the heroine. It's frightening, inside of Stina Nordenstam's head, but at least, after hearing this, you'll know that the sounds like this you hear inside your own aren't a dementia from which you alone suffer.
The Nàu Ensemble: The Eternal
Inspiration and empathy are important, but if music is going to keep us from killing each other, at some point it's going to have to confront despair and death directly. "The Eternal" was originally a song from the Joy Division album Closer, their last before singer Ian Curtis' suicide. Hans Ek's seven-part, fifty-three-minute (and on CD, one-track) suite, arranged for the Swedish contemporary quintet the Nàu Ensemble (two violins, viola, cello, piano), the Swedish baroque choir Coro di Bellini and Fred Saboochi's sound processing, takes the lyrics and some rough silhouettes of music from the Joy Division songs "The Eternal", "Decades" and "Atmosphere", and turns them into an epic liturgical reflection on the interrelated natures of depression and awe. Ek's relationship to his source material is even more oblique than Stina Nordenstam's; if the package didn't say "Variations on Joy Division" on the outside, I'd have assumed the faint resemblance was due to a shared lineage from some Baltic folk melody, at most. Much of this sounds like Arvo Pärt after a month locked in a bank vault with a stack of Penderecki records, or like soundtrack music for a Star Trek episode in which the Enterprise locates the planet angels come from. Ek describes it, in the notes, as a "free fantasy" based on the mood of Joy Division's music. "Fantasy" and Curtis' bleak, proto-Gothic gloom make a strange pair, in theory, but the sense I hear in the music is that this is an alternative, a slow, ingenious conversion of nihilism into rapture, which tries to show that the depth of a suicide's despair can be turned into the intensity of their faith. If you have the strength to defy life, then you have the strength to change your life. Our challenge is to embed that idea in the sidewalks and bridges of our world, so that it becomes a self-evident truth, so that the people we ostracize come back to show us what we missed, not to exact vengeance. We have to sing songs that will make our children stronger whether they love them or hate them. Marilyn Manson is only dangerous if we forget to laugh at him; let the Nàu Ensemble make a plainsong symphony by unraveling "Knowing Me, Knowing You", and let high school marching bands mangle "Love Will Tear Us Apart". We will fight, but let us have the sense not to corner each other, because there are too many of us, and too many corners. We pay for our complacency. Fifteen people died in Littleton, Colorado, not to teach us about handgun regulations, or violence in schools, or the hazardous effects of video games, but to remind us, because apparently it takes daily bloodshed to hold our attention, that these horrors are a product of our culture, and will keep happening until we figure out how to sustain a value system in which they're no longer thinkable. So turn off your television, put down the paper, close the browser you have pointed to CNN. You don't need any more input, you need to think. Start with your own life. What do you do with your hatred? What do your children do with theirs, your parents, your friends? In the course of your day, are you strengthening the moral character of your community, or weakening it? Make your decisions that way. Quit your job, if you have to. Whatever you have to do, refuse to hurt each other. Refuse to watch, in silence, while the life drains out of somebody's eyes. Look into the eyes of everybody you know, and sing to them about the sparks you see there. If you don't see any, make something up.