Eleven Songs for the Day After the Year After
398 · 12 September 02
This is only a country if you squint. Reduce your view of it to flat colors and blurry outlines, and you can almost believe you're looking at a place with a culture, a single place with a single culture. Close your eyes completely, preferably with the television turned up, and it's easier still. Listen to a parade of idiot politicians demanding the continued inane inclusion of "under God" in the continuingly inane Pledge of Allegiance; listen to the roll-call of idiot celebrities who already have more money than any ten humans need lining up to endorse Pepsi in the hopes of getting even richer; believe that a new car is better than sex, and that sex is better than food, and that terrible, terrible food is America's Favorite. It sounds like a culture. A hideous, dissolute, soulless culture, mind you, but at least a program with an identifiable agenda, however complicated. It sounds like a culture you could attack.
And in a certain demographic sense, that culture does exist here, but it exists by virtue of having accreted, not because anybody strove to construct it just this way. It is the least-common-denominator result of a thousand amoral processes left unattended, not the deliberate expression of any one set of beliefs. This is, as we are all reminded any time it is asked to explain or defend itself, one of the least self-aware places on the planet, where even the simplest applications of its nominal principles are likely to elude those principles' nominal defenders until the relevant meme coalesces out of nowhere and gets fed back to them. The public America has beliefs in the same way that a fractal coastline has inlets; it turns out that the math generates the illusion of volition. Attacking the manifestations of this implied culture is as cogent as applying poultices against ennui.
In reality, every good or evil that can be found or deduced in this country is a distant result of one fundamental moral idea, one core value encoded deeply enough into our legal system that it has so far survived all contravening whims: Leave us alone. We should have kept the version of the flag that said "Don't tread on me", that's far closer in four words than all the subsequent pledges and anthems and appendices have ever come. The communities that eventually agreed to form our union were established by zealots who were willing to start over in the middle of nowhere, forfeiting every established comfort, if it meant they could do things their own obtuse way. The Constitution does not impose a moral system, it attempts to create a space in which the operations of government are so constrained that moral systems cannot be imposed. The apparent hypocritical violations of this imperative are not elements of a cynical master plan, they are makeshift tactical responses to clearly perceived but poorly understood threats. The US is routinely accused of both myopia and imperialism; the latter is almost invariably a misdiagnosis of the former. All those studies in which nine out of ten American middle school students prove incapable of locating Laos on a map (or Denmark, or Chicago for that matter) are the sad and magnificent truth. Not only are "we" not out to get you, we don't have the slightest idea who you are, and would just as soon not have to find out. "We" are the people sending our fast food restaurants ahead of us so we'll have somewhere unthreatening to eat when we come sightseeing. We don't plan to even learn how to say "thank you" in your language, never mind meddling in the conversations taking place in it. We are a giant, placid, blundering infant in non-biodegradable diapers, and if you managed to get squashed by that, you are the dimmest of bugs.
And besides, even that implicit American culture represents only a fraction of what goes on here. Meat-headed declarations by bloated senators are no more representative than the lingering timid fiction that there are no gay pro athletes. Stop squinting and open your eyes, and you'll discover that this is not one country, it is a hundred or a thousand countries interleaved. The model American middle-school student may not be able to point to your country on a map, but that hasn't stopped tens of thousands of your people from coming to America and setting up your own little hidden neighborhoods the model American middle-school student couldn't point to on a map either. Wander randomly from any known spot here, and you'll find other worlds as alternate as any fantasy. Go to a US-Ireland game or a Frames show in Boston, and find yourself outnumbered by Irish. Did you know there's a Portuguese community here? You would if you walked through East Cambridge or showed up when Benfica or Santa Clara visit. Ten minutes' walk from the guy selling doughy mustard-coated pretzels on Boston Common across the street from the Finagle A Bagel, Chinatown Main Street is lined with banners for the North American Chinese Invitational Basketball Tournament. At the good taquerias, not only do the staff speak Spanish to each other, they have imported Mexican Coke. How do you propose to hate a country so nebulous that immigrants bring with them their own versions of the things we invented and foisted on them back at home in the first place? And the ethnic communities are only the ones it's easiest to locate by noticing signage and listening for accents. Superimposed on the physical communities are virtual communities of interest with even more insular priorities. My 11 September was interrupted by only one moment of silence, but nearly a hundred mailing-list messages debating whether the North American professional Scrabble circuit should or should not convert to an international-English lexicon (and if you don't think humans are fundamentally puzzling, wait until you witness the stridency with which people who live and die by QAT, VUG and GOX decry the profound unrighteousness of QI and ZO). When those planes hit the towers, half the people sitting at their desks were thinking about last night's dog-agility class, or next weekend's autocross, or how to mail-order grow-lights for their basement marijuana lab without getting their FBI file flagged. This nation is far, far from perfect, and some days I'm not entirely convinced it's sustainable, but it's the best environment humanity has yet produced in which people can pursue their own ideas of what life should be like. For all its systemic flaws and pervasive mediocrity, even the people who think they want to destroy it would rather live here while they're plotting. While the leaders of contradictory cultures search plaintively for ways to cohabit across the surface of the planet, their people have already found ways to coexist blocks apart in New York and Los Angeles. Sending suicide bombers to the US merely betrays radical ignorance of the nature of this place. An infinitely more effective suicide attack would involve simply showing up and living here according to your own customs until you die of old age and your children carry on the quiet war in your stead. Except we are immune to even that; your children will be Americans.
So what have I learned in a year and a day in the world those attacks changed? Precious little that relates to them in any way. My understanding of Islam is no more nuanced now than it was a year ago. The only thing I'm sure of about the Israel/Palestine mess is that the two sides hate each other enough that anybody else's feelings about them are round-off error (and I reiterate on my nation's behalf our offer to flip a coin and fund the relocation of the entire losing (winning?) side to Nevada). Have we been shocked out of our glutinous complacency? Hardly. This is a nation that would rather put up with daily city-choking traffic jams and tens of thousands of yearly automobile deaths than ride public transportation, so an extra hour of airplane boarding time and wondering whether the nervous flier next to you is a terrorist or an air marshal aren't going to change anything. The leading cause of American fatalities in Afghanistan so far seems to be the dubious practice of giving testosterone-addled twenty-one-year-olds the keys to helicopters. I guess I'm prepared to believe that Al Queda had to be dealt with somehow, but I have the strong feeling that we'd have been better off in the long run if we'd deployed all that firepower against Philip Morris instead.
And if you deduce "my" culture's emotional agenda from a year's worth of pop music, you'd be hard-pressed to discern that the attacks even happened. My database reports that I've bought 8754 songs since 11 September 2001, and although it seems likely that a few of them were related to that day's events, I can't actually remember any offhand. Mostly they are, as ever, about individual people coping with other individual people, or individual people coping with themselves, problems that remain just as difficult and engrossing as ever, despite centuries of scrutiny. Geopolitics is a piss-poor hobby by comparison, and religion is merely a way of avoiding the issue. Here, then, to go along with all the solemn 9/11 memorials (misguided and profound alike) and the funerals of everyone and everything else that has died of its own initiative in the past three hundred and sixty-six days, are eleven songs with which I, at least, will try to recalibrate and move forward.
Atom and His Package: "I'm Downright Amazed at What I Can Destroy With Just a Hammer"
What better rejoinder to the demonstration of what you can destroy with just an airplane than an ebullient two-and-a-half-minute reminder of how much less than that you need. We'll eventually build something where the towers were, but in the meantime there are millions of things just waiting to be smashed. "Brian, don't stay mad with us", Adam pleads. "Come on and eat some food with us, / We own a home together." What did we do after we were attacked? Everything, of course.
Per Gessle: "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend"
As history compresses, eventually the deaths of the towers and Joey and Dee Dee Ramone will merge, markers of the end of an era in New York. I never really liked the Ramones much more than I liked the rest of New York, and for me this glossy, impish ultra-pop reconception of "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" by Per Gessle of Roxette is more a demonstration of what Per can do with the sparest script than any vindication of the Ramones' songwriting or aesthetic, but I don't see how it much matters. Whichever incarnation you prefer, the song remains a gloriously frothy antidote to the grimy realism that has afflicted New York songs since Paul Simon and Lou Reed.
Cyndi Lauper: "It's Hard to Be Me"
Cyndi's new album is caught in an industry eddy somewhere, but the highlight of the stopgap tour EP, for me, is this crunchingly sardonic and happily non-topical Lauper/Wittman/Hyman anthem to false gravity, which we might easily press into service as an infectiously self-deprecating answer-song for Alanis' "So Unsexy", if that's getting to you. Cyndi will be fifty next year, and is still the best singer a puppy-dog punk band could ever want.
No Secrets: "That's What Girls Do"
My continued willingness to give seemingly disposable juvenilia the benefit of the doubt has caused me to suffer through some truly egregious crap, very little of it appreciably worse than the "serious" songs on this thoroughly embarrassing pseudo-debut by shabbily constructed five-girl acne-unguent-commercial-masquerading-as-a-"group" No Secrets, which I was tricked into buying by Adrian Gurvitz's fondly beepy backing track for their cover of "Kids in America" on the Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius soundtrack. Andy Goldmark and Jeff Coplan provide the girls with the setup for Nina Ossoff and Richard Supa's brainless "That's What Girls Do", and for three minutes, at least, I don't mind that they're wholly anonymous performers (in the cover photograph I swear their heads have been pasted onto an old Gap white-jeans ad by a Photoshop hacker without a particularly good sense of relative scale). The producers know their history, the singers don't need to. If "Funkytown" had been made after drum & bass and "Wannabe", this is how it would have sounded.
Puffy: "Aishuude ito (NEW YORK CITY NIGHTS)"
At home in Japan, Puffy play arenas, and Onuki Ami and Yoshimura Yumi are so well known that they can put a morphed picture of their imaginary cross-breeding on the cover of their new album in full confidence that everybody will instantly get the joke. In the US they can only play clubs, and if my experience at their recent show here was indicative, the process of converting thirty-something American white guys to their cause is going slowly. I counted four of us; luckily there are enough Japanese people living in Boston to fill the Paradise within four of capacity. On record, especially now that I have other Japanese bands to compare them to, I've come to find Puffy wearyingly eclectic, straying too often, and too far, into sugar-high novelty-pop. In concert, enchantingly, they abandoned all gimmicks and hopped their way through their set as a cheerful rock band whose two singers just happen to be young Japanese women. For me, knowing this pretty much ruins their scattered new album The Hit Parade, on which they make the dire judgment error of not including any Andy Sturmer songs. The one track I've mentally salvaged is Andrew J. DiTaranto and Guy Hemric's twittery neo-disco strut "Aishuude ito (NEW YORK CITY NIGHTS)", and after a bad moment when I realized that "Aishuu" means "sorrow" and momentarily thought this actually might be a New York elegy, spotting the mention of "Yellow GT" later in the song reassured me that no such unwelcome solemnity was taking place.
Garnet Crow: "Spiral"
My J-Pop knowledge has reached the point where discovering new bands I like is no longer a matter of just mail-ordering things at random, but that's long been true in most other genres, where I get along quite happily by supplementing the relatively rare new discoveries with the new records by everybody I already know I like. Nearly every J-Pop band on my short list has produced at least a single this year, and Garnet Crow has now already followed up their second album, Sparkle, with this new non-album single. Garnet Crow's brilliant moments, in my opinion, come when they manage to segue between calm ballad elegance and crisply kinetic pop, and "Spiral" shows off this talent as clearly as anything, opening with a minute of spare airiness metered by a distracted r&b drum loop, and then flipping effortlessly into the kind of pulsingly epic pop gallop that Enya and Clannad's kids might make. I've started trying to think of projects to do when I eventually go to Japan, so I'm not just standing around in Shibuya for two weeks, and the top of my list at the moment is following Garnet Crow around for a while. Hopefully after another term or two I'll know enough Japanese to inquire whether they actually go "around".
Hitomi Yaida: "Fast Car"
There's already a weird feedback effect in learning Japanese, as it involves so many words swiped from English to begin with, but that doesn't reduce the surreal shock when the b-side of Yaiko's new single starts and I find out that it is a Japanese-language cover of the Tracy Chapman song. A few spot-checks suggest that the translation follows Tracy's narrative pretty closely (as does the music, which aggrandizes the arrangement only a little bit), and although I have no real idea what cultural resonance a Japanese audience gets from this story of desperate border-town escape ambitions, the phrases flow through the music as if it all makes perfect sense. In parts, actually, the words seem to work even better in Japanese than they do in English. "Kono kuruma nara ikeru, ikimashou yo! / Yoerukurai no supiido ga ii", goes the beginning of the chorus (you'll have to trust me that that's more rhythmic than the English), rendering Tracy's grammatically and metrically non-trivial "I remember we were driving, driving in your car, / The speed so fast I felt like I was drunk" as approximately "If this car can go, let's go. / Drunkenness's speed is good." And "You gotta make a decision, leave tonight or live and die this way" becomes simply "Die here or decide quickly". In Tracy's version, they don't get away, the whole point is that no fast car is fast enough. But the Japanese make better cars; in Yaiko's, I'm not so sure.
Cinerama: "Quick, Before It Melts"
I've hit the point of diminishing returns with whole Cinerama albums, it appears, and even the songs wear out their welcomes rather quickly if I pay too close attention to the words, but for at least one or two, each record, David Gedge reminds me what a revelation I thought the Wedding Present were. The centerpiece of Torino, for me, is the chorus of this storming lead single, and although the song's injunction is actually about acting on a bad decision before you lose your momentum, if I selectively block out some context I can think of it as a less-crass paean to embracing fleeting romantic impulses, which ought to be one of the ideas for which pop songs are best suited.
Beth Nielsen Chapman: "All for the Love"
And maybe it seems like I'm just trying to avoid the subject, taking refuge in deliberate trivia, but I'm really not. My resistance to Beth Nielsen Chapman's new album, actually, is exactly the opposite, a nagging sense that she's followed one of pop's definitive records of grieving and resilience with a musically slight album that doesn't justifying the change in tone as catharsis or rebirth or anything. She was a writer of twangy country songs long before she was a widow and survivor, of course, and to twangy country songs she has every right to return, but I want more, especially now, and only on a couple songs do I feel like I get glimpses of it. The sadness feels most palpable, perhaps weirdly, in the least country song of the set, the shimmery drum-loop meditation "All for the Love". The credits claim it was written for the wedding of friends; I hope they'd planned on an elegiac tone. "For this we shed our skin", Beth sighs, sounding by no means convinced. "All for the love we want", muses the chorus, wondering if it's really that simple.
Josh Rouse: "Christmas With Jesus"
The balance of energies is similar on my favorite moment from Josh Rouse's Under Cold Blue Stars, the alternately humming and ticking "Christmas With Jesus". "It's so very hard to ask for a part in your Christmas with Jesus", Josh observes, and I'm not sure he meant this as a stinging personal indictment of how ideology only keeps people from reaching each other, but that's how I've decided to take it. "Look after your neighbors", the priest tells ranks of people with their eyes on God.
Twinemen: "Who's Gonna Sing"
But it's the end of a year of pain we're marking, and I don't really want to see it out by restarting the argument about what caused it. I don't necessarily believe it was all of our right or responsibility to take this pain as our own, but we've made those decisions already, and it's time to move on. What I want now is some sort of requiem and farewell, and you'll find few as sparely elegant as the one that concludes Twinemen, an album made by ex-Morphine members Dana Colley and Billy Conway in the shadow of their late band-mate Mark Sandman, who died of a heart attack during a concert in 1999. Rather than replacing Sandman with anyone remotely similar, they instead recruited singer Laurie Sargent, and the tension between Colley's ominous, raspy saxophone and Sargent's clear, smooth voice turns out to interest me a lot more than Morphine ever did. "Who's Gonna Sing", though, is another thing yet again. It's Conway's one solo song-writing credit and one lead-vocal, and I don't know how it came about in fact, but I know how it will happen in the movie. Colley and Conway are at Sandman's graveside, and as his instrumental exit music plays, Conway wishes that somebody would sing to it. Sargent steps forward and does. I realize this doesn't completely make sense, since Conway and Sargent sing it as a duet from the beginning, which means they're singing that they want somebody to sing, but never mind that. "Don't be afraid," they say. "Step into the sun." There's no profound insight there, and why you'd ever trust living people's assurances about the afterlife, I don't know. But messages, after all, are for the people who hear them, and the audience for this one isn't the departed, it's those of us left. It no longer makes a sliver of difference to us whether dead souls drift gracefully into the sun or spend the first couple months of their eternities cowering petulantly in the Asteroid Belt. But it matters a lot what we act as if they've done. We have to stay behind for now, and we know we eventually have to follow them, so our stories about their heroism are our stories about how we hope to face our own reckonings, when it's time. Funeral music is always for the survivors. What have we learned in the last year? Not much, most likely, but maybe this small thing: we will not defend ourselves by giving up our selves. I don't mean we shouldn't, I mean we haven't the ability. It may seem, watching television, that our self-declared enemies have played into the hands of politicians who are our own closest equivalents, and given them the excuse they need for global bullying. The pleas against military response and escalation are admirable, but crumble in the face of any of a dozen iconic split-second pictures from that morning. The aggressor dictates the format of the battle, and this one will be fought, literally. For most of us, though, the war against terrorism takes place in a corner of the world, and the corner of a screen. Obviously somebody knows where these places are on a map, but it's not us. While our soldiers answer death with death, the rest of us are answering it with distraction, ignorance and obliviousness. As the sun comes up on the twelfth, our public mourning is already being redirected to an old football quarterback, and our secret triumph to an ex-astronaut for slugging a conspiracy cretin who accused him of faking his greatest accomplishment. This is how it should be. In my inbox, Scrabble geeks have switched from arguing about SOWPODS to arguing about whether arguing about SOWPODS on 9/11 is (was) appropriate. In Chinatown, trucks are squeezing through narrow streets to bring Taiwanese Coke to a Vietnamese grocery store, and presumably somewhere a Chinese Basketball official is trying to decide what to do about a guy with a Korean passport who looks pretty damn unmistakably Swiss. The hundred coextensive countries that occupy this same land carry on their affairs and negotiations, many of them deeply and irrevocably incompatible, and collectively we stand for all of it. Whatever you believe, we stand for that, too, as well as for its opposite. This is not a country, it is an anarchic dream and the only viable future for the world, and if we can't make it come true here, somebody will try the exact same thing again on Mars. This nation is the union and the undoing of nations. All you hate by hating us, and all you can imperil by attacking what you think defines us, is what we could have been with your help. And what you'll get, for fighting it, is vice versa.