Mixtapes for Hookers

One Beat

Sleater-Kinney, One Beat

[I used to review every album I bought and post it on my website; most of the reviews weren’t very good, though this one–three times as long as any of the others–seemed worth holding on to.]

We’ve had a year now to stop and reflect on ourselves as a society, to think about our place in the world, the global village if you will, where you can hop a plane and in just a couple of hours be in any city in the world, eating in the same restaurants and shopping in the same stores you had back home. September 11th, if you weren’t personally connected to anybody that died (or, I don’t know, even if you were), was a chance to step back and look around, maybe appreciate your families a little more, but also it was a chance to ask questions. Not just ‘how did this happen?’ but also ‘why did this happen?’ It’s too easy to dismiss anything as the ravings of a madman, denying that there might be a speck of sense in what really goes on in the world. So why does everybody hate Americans?

Well, because we’re assholes, for one thing. We’re destroying the earth, the same earth that everybody else lives on, in order to keep a small number of rich folks happy. And a good number of us that aren’t rich, that don’t drive BMW SUV’s and don’t live in gated communities, well…. we wish we did.

I for one consider myself extremely lucky to be where I am. Lucky because I can walk over to the sink and get a glass of water without being afraid that the water is poisonous or that there isn’t any water at all. I’m lucky because right now I’ve got on more lights than I really need, and I know it. I’m lucky because I can read and write, not to mention do all sorts of other useless things like conjugating French verbs and do calculus problems. I’m lucky for lots of reasons, most of which I never think about.

But one reason I’m extremely lucky, and it’s a reason I’ve thought about a lot this past year, is that I have the ability to look around and question what’s going on, to decide for myself what’s true and what’s a lie. It’s something every American can do, although most don’t. I’ve spent a good part of my life so far avoiding politics, and I plan to keep doing that. I can’t seriously say what I think about what’s going on in the world because I know jack shit about politics and governments and economics. Furthermore I don’t want to; it’s really boring. I only react to things instinctively, and nine times out of ten my instinct tells me to keep my mouth shut. My opinion about these things, just so you hear me say it myself, is completely worthless.

That said, I’m going to carry on anyway. Read along if you feel like it.

The terrorist attacks of last September were unfortunate. Lots of people died unexpectedly, and I’m sorry for their families. On the other hand, the United States reacted by blowing the holy fuck out a country where the terrorists were believed to be hiding. And I feel bad for all the families living there, too. And it looks like our president is about to lead us into another war, just for fun’s sake, just to keep all the American flag salesmen in business.

Today I went for a long walk, something most Americans for some reason elect never to do because they claim not to have time. Funny, since I go to school full time and have a job and still have time to do all my homework, be in a band, watch movies, read, and spend an inordinate amount of time sitting in coffee shops doing nothing whatsoever. Anyway, today I went for a long walk to OfficeMax, so I could go make copies. And as I was walking through the shopping center on the way, I noticed that almost every store had signs up. “In Remembrance” (or something similar) said the sign at Yankee Candle, and there was a picture of a (Yankee?) candle burning. What the fuck? IParty is opening an hour late, to show respect for the victims. Hallmark’s gone so far as to make a holiday out of it, Patriot Day–you can by cards for it. It all seems extremely tacky to me–what the fuck do I care in Williams-Sonoma would like to commemorate the lives of the people who died at the World Trade Center? Since when is Williams-Sonoma an entity that has its own feelings, anyway?

Sometimes, you’re just going along doing your own thing, and something makes you screech to a halt. I’m talking about anything–falling in love, tripping on a tree branch, seeing your sister’s baby for the first time. And sometimes, just coincidentally, there’s a perfect song on that makes everything seem infinitely clearer. Like at your prom, say. Well,. I guess it was just a coincidence, but today as I walked through the shopping center I was playing One Beat, the new Sleater-Kinney album. And it all made perfect sense.

I got One Beat a few weeks ago, and it didn’t really grab me. The best song seemed to be Off With Yr Head, which didn’t even come on the CD but appears on the bonus 2-track EP you get alongside the CD. It’s a fun song, jerking along like the louder songs on their last album, 2000’s All Hands On The Bad One. The chorus is catchy as hell; it’s a perfect pop song.

The songs on One Beat aren’t pop songs. There’s nothing to match, say, One More Hour, from 1997’s Dig Me Out (which was my introduction to the band). Instead you have strange-sounding things like Combat Rock, which is some sort of Clash tribute. Musically it’s not much to speak of, and Corin Tucker’s vocal delivery is even more affected than usual, to the point that it’s weird and kind of grating. But Combat Rock really grabbed me as I walked to OfficeMax..

I come from a generation where nobody sings protest songs. Maybe it’s because we’ve all gotten too complacent, which I find possible but not very likely. I think the demise of the protest song came in about 1984, when President Reagan appropriated Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA to turn it into some kind of MTV-generation national anthem. And it worked, because people don’t actually listen to song lyrics. That’s why everybody things When A Man Loves A Woman is love song, say, and that’s what everybody thinks Born In The USA is patriotic, which it is, but only since Reagan took it for himself. You can’t sing it now without either a) feeling intensely patriotic or b) feeling awkwardly and acutely aware that everybody else in the room thinks you’re being intensely patriotic. It’s a dilemma.

But maybe I’m generalizing. There have been quite a few protest songs since 1984, which you’d know if you listened to folk music or hiphop or 80’s house music. But in rock, real rock with guitars and real drums, there’s hardly been any protest music at all. Rock, which was started as a rebellion against the established order, is now so old that everybody under the age of sixty sees himself as some kind of rock star, part Elvis or part Kurt Cobain or John Lennon or David Bowie or Jim Morrison or whoever. So much so that it’s not anti-establishment anymore. It is the establishment.

I like rock music, I really do. But if I ever want to hear something political, I have to borrow a song from some other place and recontextualize it. Dancing In The Streets, I’m So Bored With The USA, Destroy 2000 Years of Culture, they’re all inspiring, but I can’t relate to them automatically because I’m not living in the same times and places as the people singing them. Songs like Anarchy In The UK, 911 Is A Joke, and Bring The Boys Home are all great, and they all make me feel emotional to some degree, but it’s not always easy to forget that I’m not British, black, or living through the Vietnam War.

So Combat Rock was a welcome surprise, a shock even. Because it’s the first song I’ve heard about America that’s made any sense to me lately, on an immediate level I can see by looking around me. “Where is the questioning? Where is the protest song? Since when is skepticism un-American? Dissent’s not treason but they talk like it’s the same.” It goes on: “Show you love your country, go out and spend some cash. Red white blue hot pants, doing it for Uncle Sam. Flex out muscles, show ‘em we’re stronger than the rest…. the good old boys are back on top again.”

A song like this had to be written, and it makes sense that it came from Sleater-Kinney. It’s odd, saying that about a band I first fell for because one of their songs (Words And Guitar) reminded me of the Go-Go’s, but it makes sense.

Last September I was pretty miserable, even on the tenth. My doctor had told me I was dying (bastard), my new school was awfully dreary, I was living with my parents permanently, and I didn’t ever leave the house except to go to school and work and the video store. Then the world changed, or that’s what they said. Everybody went out and bought flags, people stopped talking about the weather and started talking about Arabs instead, and the TV showed the planes crashing over and over and over. TVs we’d never even noticed before, in bookstores and in Dunkin’ Donuts, were suddenly all turned to CNN or MSNBC, and they all had crowds gathered around them, too. It was too much for me. I’m spoiled, I know, because I wasn’t personally affected at all by what happened. I didn’t know anybody that died. But I still couldn’t watch it, not more than once.

My mother watched it for four days, but then my parents watch TV constantly, and I hardly watch it at all. Maybe if you watch too much TV you have to see something dozens of times on every channel in order to believe that it really happened. But once was enough for me, and the sound of the TV drove me crazy. I’d lay on my bed face down with a pillow over my head and CDs blasting, just so I wouldn’t have to hear it.

And I had to be careful what I put on, too. Mass media behemoth Clear Channel (which incidentally owns not just three radio stations in Providence but also two of its local TV outlets) made a list of songs not to be played, which isn’t a terrible idea, except that the idea that anybody would be incensed or upset by hearing 99 Luftballons or Walk Like An Egyptian was just dumb. And, even if people did get upset, there’s nothing wrong with that. If a thousand people die suddenly I think people have the right to get upset.

The events of last September 11th led to a few noticeable changes in pop music, for better or for worse. It was (thankfully) months before I heard Bodies by Drowning Pool again, even though it was on every hour just the day before., In a sillier move, NYC Cops got pulled off the US release of the Strokes album, because somebody thought it would be offensive if some smarty-pants rock stars said that New York City cops ain’t too smart.

In my room, some of my own CDs took on new meanings, whether briefly or until this day. I put on Doolittle by the Pixies, which can always cheer me up like nothing else, and I ended up feeling disturbed by all the gore and that line in Gouge Away about breaking the walls and killing us all with holy fingers. Pavement’s Crooked Rain Crooked Rain, another album that can usually pick me up, seemed downright evil by the time I got to Shoot The Plane Down. The gleeful abandon with which Stephen Malkmus proclaims “There’s no survivors!” was a little hard to handle. So I settled for listening to just a couple of CDs: Nirvana’s Nevermind, which has turned ten years old just a week before, and My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless album. Loveless is like a drug that lets me forget whatever I want to forget and drown out whatever I don’t want to hear. Plus I can’t make out any of the words, which made it safe.

Besides those two, I found myself listening to Sleater-Kinney’s All Hands On The Bad One, although I’m not quite sure why. For some reason, though, I was cheered up immensely by the song Leave You Behind, which I’d hardly even noticed before. The words to that song came to me in pieces, and they all fit the puzzle: “Did you disappear, or were you just misplaced?” “Thinking clearer now that it’s over.” “Why is it I just feel so heavy?” “A place I used to call home.”

It’s their most gentle song, nudging you along rather than attacking you. That song still means a lot to me, and while I can now gleefully listen to the Pixies again, and which I can put on Pavement without feeling (quite so) disturbed, Leave You Behind is the one song I associate with last September, even though it was written for entirely different reasons. I also hope, naively perhaps, that my personal appropriation of this song is somehow less corrupt, less dishonest, or less evil than what happened to Born In The USA. Because although I profited from this song (it made me feel better), just like Reagan did, I don’t think the meaning of the song actually contradicts the intended meaning. It’s just different.

I’m not sure if it was all the post-9/11 flagwaving, or if it was something planned before that, but towards the end of last year Time Magazine ran a series on everything that was great about America, profiling everybody from America’s best scientists to Chris Rock, America’s best stand-up comic. And, surprisingly, Sleater-Kinney were America’s greatest rock band. Or maybe not so surprisingly. It was odd because most people have no idea who they are. After six albums I’ve still never heard them once on a commercial radio station, and only occasionally on college radio.

But in another way it makes perfect sense. There are some great rock bands left out there, believe it or not, and a couple of them are even American, like (I’d argue) Weezer. Sleater-Kinney are the only great American rock band, though, in the sense that they’re the only ones I know of who merge rock with a spirit of rebellion like you’d hear from all the other great American rock bands,whether you like post-punk theorists like Mission of Burma, introspective timebombs like Nirvana or Hole, or even subversively oblivious potheads like the Grateful Dead. Nobody but Sleater-Kinney would sing a song like Was It A Lie? from All Hands On The Bad One. That song, about just some of the tasteless things on TV, was quiet and sad, but its sadness only arose from a lack of faith in humanity, a sadness realized only when you realize that what’s on TV is on TV because there are people who will actually sit and watch it. No other American rock band right now seems to be looking around, recording not just songs about relationships, but also singing about America as a whole. Pedro The Lion do it, but their audience is even more marginal than Sleater-Kinney’s is, and their sound isn’t as immediate. There are no protest songs anymore, and I’m not sure about you but it seems pretty obvious that we need them now just as much as ever.

With One Beat, Sleater-Kinney try to unite the various voices of protest that have (presumably) inspired them in the past. Combat Rock is an allusion to the Clash album of the same title. Another track, Sympathy, is a nod to the Rolling Stones that featues a shrill adaptation of the woo-woo’s from the Stones’ Sympathy For The Devil. Step Aside, my personal favourtie, is a nod to the great R&B protest songs of the sixties, featuring quirky lyrics (“When you feel bruised and you feel beaten, like a used-up shoe or a cake half-eaten….”) and (Lord help us) a horn section. Halfway through the song there’s a call-and-response, with second vocalist Carrie Bowenstein’s part turning into a call to arms. “Janet! Carrie! Can you hear me!” wails Tucker, and Bowenstein responds with lines about exploitation. It’s really quite clever, and it works, too.

* * * * *
I’ve seen a lot of flags this past year, and a lot of tributes to America that were in rather questionable taste (U2 at the Super Bowl, say.) A couple are worth mentioning, though, as horribly mangled wrecks that should never even have been conceived, let alone really made. The first of these was Freedom, the song Paul McCartney rushed out after the attacks in order to, I don’t know, reinflate the sales of a tired old windbag, I suppose. And it would have worked, too, if the song weren’t so offensively moronic. “I’m talkin’ bout freedom,” he says, over and over, accompanied by music that strongly resembles the sound of a marching army. Of course, since that’s all he said, the song was a lie. He’s not talking about anything, the stupid fuck, he’s just saying a popular word over and over, and whether it’s to get people to like him or whether it’s to get people to march off to war, it’s pretty sick. The song says more for fascism than it does for freedom.

The year’s other great pile of shit might have passed you by. I only saw it once. It was an ad for jeans, Wrangler I think, featuring Credence Clearwater Revival’s song Fortunate Son. After the very-famous opening chords, John Fogerty launched into his very American song: “Some folks were born waving the flag, ooh the red white and blue.” Then the song went back to the intro, while on the screen people wearing the jeans actually waved flags around.

This is becoming pretty popular in TV ads I’ve noticed, where the ad will feature a popular song but just isolate the lines that might make you want to buy something. It happened to Smashmouth, who are in some ad that features a very instrumental version of Walkin’ On The Sun supplemented only by the title line of the chorus. The company’s probably afraid you wouldn’t buy their stuff if they kept in the verses, about buying goods just to stay in the clique. It also happened to Iggy Pop. “Here comes Johnny again, with a Lust For Life!” goes a newly-edited version of that song in some new car commercial. Of course it’s silly, because anybody that knows the song knows Johnny’s coming again with liquor and drugs, and that the lust for life doesn’t come in until later. Still, it’s a catchy number, so I guess the idea is to lure people in who don’t know the actual song.

With Fortunate Son it’s even more deceptive. Deceptive because the song does indeed begin with the line “Some folks were born waving the flag, ooh the red white and blue,” but the meaning of the song isn’t entirely apparent until the chorus: “It ain’t me! It ain’t me! I ain’t no military son!” In other words, the ad promotes flag-waving by playing a song that’s specifically opposed to any such tihng, and only keeping one line before it has a chance to be negated. Why you’d bother with Fortunate Son at all is beyond me. If you want to promote flag-waving, why not play the Star-Spangled Banner?

Well, for one thing the Star-Spangled Banner isn’t catchy, and most people can’t even sing it. And even if you can hit all the notes it’s no fun to sing, anyway. Whereas Fortunate Son is a Great American Rock Song, the kind a whole generation can identify with. It’s rock, and everybody wants to be a rock star. Fortunate Son comes from back when you could actually turn on the radio and hear protest songs, and they sincerely meant something. It wasn’t Paul McCartney’s rancid farts, which completely disappeared from the radio in a matter of months. Fortunate Son’s been around for thirty years now, and even a ridiculous jeans commercial can’t dilute its impact.

Which Sleater-Kinney know, of course. When I saw them in the Spring of 2000, they covered it at the close of their show, and they even brought out their two supporting bands to sing and dance along. Like most good protest songs, it’s the kind of thing everybody can sing along with and dance to. It’s infectious, and makes you get out of your seat and do something, even if that something is just dancing. Sleater-Kinney try to do that on One Beat, and it works. Even if it didn’t work, though, you have to give them credit, because nobody else in their league even seems to be trying.

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