Craig Schuftan’s new book, Entertain Us!, takes stock of a decade which brought us Nirvana, plaid shirts and MTV – the 90s. Oscillating between music fan, historian and cultural anthropologist (a formula he nailed in Hey! Nietzsche! Leave Them Kids Alone! where he linked millennial emo bands to the romantic poets of the 1800s) Schuftan applies similar perceptive to the birth, death and commodificiation of the “Alternative” music movement.
He explores that shift in an exclusive extract from the book, Learning From Las Vegas, which you can now read below.
If you’re in town, Schuftan will host a launch event in Sydney this Thursday with another to follow in Melbourne.
Sydney, Thursday May 31st, ?Godgood Smallclub
Hosted by Craig Schuftan featuring performances by Jay and Lindsay (Frenzal Rhomb), The Holy Soul, Shantan Wantan Ichiban (JJJ), Bastian Fox Phelan, Chris Taylor (The Chaser)and a DJ set by Zan Rowe (JJJ)
Tickets $15 or $30 with a signed copy of the book.
Melbourne, Thursday June 7th, The Tote
Hosted by Craig Schuftan featuring performances by Planet Love Sound, Kevin Mitchell, Adalita, Sid (Vasco Era) Valentiine
Tickets $15 or $30 with a signed copy of the book.
LEARNING FROM LAS VEGAS
In 1996, Weezer released its second album, Pinkerton, to very little acclaim. The record was a more difficult affair than the band’s debut; the pop hooks were buried in a noisier mix, and the material was darker. But if Weezer no longer sounded like the band that had given the world ‘Buddy Holly’, the good news was that there were now plenty of others that did. By 1996, the influence of Weezer’s first album had percolated through the music world, and post-Weezer records were beginning to emerge. Nada Surf’s ‘Popular’, for example, was exactly the kind of post-grunge MTV hit Rivers Cuomo no longer felt capable of writing. On Pinkerton, the dash of bitterness that had given Weezer’s first album its edge was served straight up, and many found the result hard to swallow. ‘Popular’ was a much more appealing concoction, a nerd-rock screed about all the good-looking kids with easy lives and fashionable clothes who made the singer’s high school life hell, served over a piece of music that sounded almost but not exactly like Weezer’s ‘Say It Ain’t So’. That the single was produced by Ric Ocasek, the man who had guided Weezer toward pop perfection two years earlier, only added to the impression that Nada Surf had picked up where Weezer left off.
In July, Nada Surf was booked to appear on MTV’s Beach House, performing their hit in front of an audience of good-looking kids with easy lives and fashionable clothes. But on the day of the shoot, as the bussed-in football jocks and cheerleaders wearing their off-the-rack grungewear took up their positions, Daniel Lorca started to feel as though he’d made a big mistake, and by the time the cameras were ready to roll, the bass player was nowhere to be seen. Singer Matthew Caws found him ten minutes later, standing alone on a nearby cliff, staring out to sea, refusing to go back and play ‘Popular’ for the entertainment of popular people. The singer worked hard to coax his colleague off the edge. He told Lorca that the band should do what they came to do and play Beach House – not for the money, not for the kids or even for the music – but for the irony. ‘Look at it as a giant performance-art piece,’ he said. ‘People smart enough to understand the song are going to be smart enough to realise that this is the ultimate postmodern thing.’
Caws’ advice was sound. ‘Popular’ wished for a world without popular kids, a world where their football pennants and cheerleader trophies meant nothing, a better, fairer world where those born with perfect bone structure did not automatically inherit the earth. Now the members of Nada Surf were about to perform the song for the amusement of the very same people it railed against, on a show which simply reinforced the values of the brutal high school pecking order it described. Since the band couldn’t possibly be happy about this, they faced the accusation that they must be doing the spot for the money – or to fulfil a contractual obligation, which amounted to the same thing. The only way for the band to admit to this litany of failure and still walk away from Beach House with some semblance of dignity would be to appeal to postmodernism, which had, by 1996, been helping artists to rationalise failure for almost thirty years.
Postmodernism was the catch-all term for a range of strategies invented by artists in the mid sixties in order to address the failure of modernism to change everyday life. Its clearest demonstration could be found in the world of architecture. By the 1960s, American architects had begun to realise that their adherence to the tenets of modern design had failed to create liveable housing for low-income workers. The result was a crisis of faith among architects, and many began looking again at all that they had sought to avoid. They learned to accept that modernism’s white-cube ideal might be impractical, if not impossible for ordinary people to live in, and started to study Vegas casinos, roadside attractions, and kitsch retro furniture in an attempt to come to terms with the tastes of the masses for whom they were ostensibly designing. Painfully aware that they were slumming it, they learned to do these things with a wink and a nudge.
In the world of painting, a similar reversal took place. The abstract painters of the 1940s had taken modernism’s war against mass culture as far as it could go. In 1963, Andy Warhol’s soup cans and detergent boxes served notice that their island of resistance could no longer be maintained, that artists must learn to accept the world of money and advertising or perish. Warhol, with his bland demeanour and permanent attitude of cheerful open-mindedness made this look very easy. His pop art was often described as a ‘celebration’ of mass culture, though his attitude toward it was probably better summed up by his own phrase: ‘I like boring things.’ He never claimed that mass culture had any great intellectual significance – he simply trashed the debate by insisting that intellectual significance was overrated and unrealistic. ‘Buying,’ he once said, ‘is much more American than thinking.’ This attitude served Warhol very well over the next two decades. In the 1996 film Basquiat, Warhol – played by a silver-wigged David Bowie – could be seen making his way through the money-hungry 1980s art world with supernatural ease, just as he had in real life. Many of the younger artists portrayed in the film cling to the notion that art is separate from or opposed to the world of money and business, and suffer as a result. Director Julian Schnabel showed how Warhol’s semi- ironic habit of thinking and talking about art only in terms of money, fame or popularity made him immune to such dramas.
Warhol seemed ahead of his time in 1996, because the semi- detached attitude he took toward mass culture had, for most intelligent people, become an essential means of psychic survival by the mid nineties. In a 1993 interview, author Douglas Coupland spoke of the huge sense of excitement mingled with relief that came over him when he first discovered pop art, as he realised that artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein had invented a way for him to understand and critique the mediascape without having to fight against it. In the nineties, ‘thinking pop’, as Warhol termed it, became necessary, because in a media-dominated world, it was simply no longer possible to stay angry about everything all the time, as L7’s Jennifer Finch realised. ‘You have to have a sense of humour to survive here,’ she said of her native LA. As an idealistic punk in a city of freeways, strip-malls and bad heavy metal bands, Finch had lived in a near-permanent state of outrage until she met her bandmate Donita Sparks, who helped her see the funny side. ‘A lot of people are like, “LA is so fake and phoney”,’ she explained. ‘That’s why we like it here!’
Surviving the nineties was no different from surviving LA; one had to learn to laugh at banality, and to see the depth in surfaces, to learn to like bad things – as Mike Patton said of Vanilla Ice – for ‘wrong reasons’. In September 1994, 350,000 visitors attended Woodstock ’94, a music festival held on the 25th anniversary of the original event, featuring appearances by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day, Blind Melon and Nine Inch Nails. This new Woodstock retained some of the attractions of the old one, including Crosby, Stills and Nash, Joe Cocker, and a great deal of mud. But the Vietnam War was conspicuous by its absence – as was the feeling that the event meant anything at all besides a multimillion dollar profit for its organisers and a lucrative sponsorship deal for Pepsi. To music writer Jim De Rogatis, the event seemed less like a music festival and more like a gigantic outdoor shopping mall.5 But when one visitor to Woodstock ’94, writing in an online forum, complained that the festival had been ‘purely manufactured for commercialism’, another suggested that having fun in the midst of, and despite, such blatant exploitation was ‘the ultimate form of rebellion’.
In 1995, the editors of a zine called Hermenaut advocated precisely this kind of ironic attitude as the only kind of intellectual freedom available in a commercialised world. ‘Let us then be in-between,’ they wrote. ‘Let us revel in Baywatch, Joe Camel, Wired magazine … but let’s never succumb to the glamorous allure of these things.’7 To be in mass culture, but not of it – this is the strategy employed by Brodie, the smartass protagonist of Kevin Smith’s 1995 film Mallrats, who responds to the corporate takeover of public life by wasting time in the mall, shopping with no perceptible shopping agenda. ‘I love the smell of commerce in the morning!’ he exclaims, throwing his arms in the air.8 Being far too smart to blindly accept the air- conditioned nightmare, Brodie has learned to love the mall the way modern architects learned to love Vegas – ironically. Brodie’s gesture was exactly the kind of postmodern ‘performance art piece’ Caws suggested Nada Surf might pull off on MTV’s Beach House. The singer knew that MTV – like the mall – was banal, exploitative and possibly evil. But since he felt that the effort involved in opposing evil would most likely be wasted, he hoped instead to appear to be cooperating with it, while at the same time making it clear – to those who had an interest in such things – that he was not; to do the show, while letting his fans know that he knew that they knew that he should not be doing the show.
Gestures of this kind had become commonplace in alternative music by 1996, from the matching suits and stuck-on smiles worn by Nirvana in the video for ‘In Bloom’, to the album cover of No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom. Here, Gwen Stefani was pictured wearing a short red dress, smiling and holding aloft an orange – which on closer inspection turned out to be riddled with holes and buzzing with flies. The band’s name was spelled out in big showbiz-style chrome letters over her head, while the band itself stood glumly under a barren tree in a field of corn. ‘Bought and sold out in the USA’ read the guarantee printed on the bottom left corner of the label. In its own way, the image was as loaded with disgust as the baby swimming toward the dollar bill on a fish hook on the cover of Nevermind. But it was also, after all, a picture of a girl in a short dress with a big shiny sign over her head. In this way, No Doubt got to have their corn and eat it too – as did many other groups in the mid nineties. By this point, the sense of ‘ironicism’ Eddie Vedder admired in Kurt Vonnegut, but couldn’t quite get the hang of himself, had become as essential for artists trying to negotiate the treacherous terrain of the music industry as it was for fans trying to buy their CDs at the mall.
An interview with Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman in Hype! suggested that irony had been essential to the breakthrough of alternative rock from the beginning. The pair described how they’d created Sub Pop to be an indie-rock ‘hit factory’ that might compete with major labels on an international level.10 But since they knew that these ambitions would be frowned upon in the indie community, they turned the label’s business aspirations into an ironic joke about the music business. Sub Pop advertised its wares with knowingly crass corporate slogans, and joked in its press releases about the lengths it would go to exploit its artists and rip off their fans. Stunts like these allowed the label and its artists, as Michael Azerrad put it, to ‘quest for ever-higher levels of money and exposure while laughing it off as a joke about questing for ever-higher levels of money and exposure’.11 ‘We went along with it’ said Tad Danielsen, speaking of Sub Pop’s late eighties marketing pitch. ‘It seemed kind of funny at the time.’12
‘Irony,’ wrote Mondo 2000 scribe Andrew Hultkrans, ‘is the X-er’s true birthright.’ Certainly, irony seemed to be everywhere in 1996, an impression heightened by the ubiquity of Alanis Morissette’s second single, ‘Ironic’. In an online essay published at the height of the song’s popularity, Matt Sturges concluded that of the eleven scenarios presented in the song, only two could be properly considered ironic (though Sturges awarded a half-point for ‘it’s the good advice that you just didn’t take’). But most people knew what irony was when they saw it, even if Morissette and her songwriting partner Glen Ballard appeared not to. As he watched Tom Morello eat McDonald’s French fries within sight of the monument to the 1907 uprising in Moscow, Rage Against the Machine bassist Tim Bob Commerford was fairly sure he’d seen a prime example. ‘Isn’t it ironic?’ he sang, doing his best Alanis impersonation. ‘Don’t you think?’ In October, music writer Elizabeth Gilbert went to Las Vegas to do a story on the newly opened Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. The building was a typical Vegas folly – a luxury hotel complex the size of three city blocks with a twenty- storey high Fender Strat sticking out the top. The inside was a riot of autographed guitars, rock-themed cocktail bars and ‘Anarchy in the USA’ slot machines. But Gilbert barely made it through the lobby. ‘I am momentarily paralysed by what I see when checking in at the Hard Rock,’ she wrote. ‘Right above the front desk, big cheerful brass letters spell out, “Here we are now, entertain us”. Underneath, smaller letters note, almost parenthetically, “Kurt Cobain”.’ As the desk clerk beamed at her and told her to have a nice day, Gilbert wondered whether there was any room for ‘in-betweening’ in a place like the Hard Rock, whether, in 1996, alternative rock had anything more to learn from Las Vegas.
By Craig Schuftan