The Drama You’ve Been Craving

monitoring carrie brownstein’s monitor mix.

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Carrie Brownstein is up to something important on her blog, Monitor Mix.

As the social life of music changes, reacts, shifts from technological changes of distribution, new sensibilities, new politics, new senses of the self and the world and how they’re connected, Monitor Mix extends the feeling of joining a community, entering a drama, taking on an enlivened sense of being alive.

Her blog feels like an attempt to carry forth and bring forward the energies and the spirit of the world of ‘zines and riot grrrl that Sleater-Kinney both drew from and concentrated into a potent mix in their music from the mid-1990s. I remember that music doing a lot of things: mostly, I remember how it sounded amazingly tough and vulnerable all at once. And I think the blog carries that mix of emotions onward: Brownstein’s blog, at its best, uses music to foster a space for experience and discussion about self and world, power and pleasure, togetherness and loneliness.

So I laughed this week reading Brownstein’s efforts to be indoctrinated into fandom for the band Phish. Until I heard bands like Sleater-Kinney, the jamband scene felt like the only way out of the stultifying New York City suburbs of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Like Monitor Mix, it offered the promise of community and loss of alienation.

This may sound odd, since I lived a commuter train ride away from CBGBs, the Knitting Factory, and the like, but the whole punk, DIY, riot grrrl, and related scenes  was weirdly more available elsewhere, on the margins rather than near the center (my wife attests to this, growing up in Urbana, she had way more indie, punky taste in music than I did). Maybe this was because you had to be extra-super cool to get into that kind of world in New York City, or maybe just because the city was big and it was hard for a teenager to navigate. The only time I remember experiencing it was at the briefly thriving Threadwaxing Space.

Anyway, since the 1970s, the Grateful Dead had played the role of escapist band for those lost in the suburbs, but by the early 1990s they were sounding, well, dead. Jerry Garcia was on his last legs and the band sounded, to me, awful. Plus, the Dead had gotten so huge that they essentially were the suburbs (and maybe they had always been that to some extent, but that’s another huge topic).

Along came Phish, which I remember as part of the whole Blues Traveler/Spin Doctors scene developing in New York City, at places like the Wetlands Preserve and at bars like Nightingale’s. They seemed to pick up the baton from the Dead and carry it forward. But Phish was also from Vermont, and symbolized a kind of escape from the privilege of the suburbs to a different kind of privilege: the ski bum, affluent liberal arts college, farming commune, trust fund world of the countryside. I’m not talking about the biographies of the bandmembers themselves, but the sound and feel of the music and the audience as it came together.

So Phish felt like a way to get out of the suburbs, but to something just as safe and secure, and maybe just as oblivious and escapist in the end. The endless jams, the rootlessness, the silliness, the effortlessness: it sounded like a life of leisure.

But when I began to hear bands such as Brownstein’s Sleater-Kinney in the mid-1990s, they sounded like a whole new world, one that was more connected to real life. It was, as one of their songs put it, the drama I’d been craving.

I remember a Sleater-Kinney show at Tramps when the band insisted the fratboys in the front row move to the sides and back of the stage so that the women in attendence could move forward. It wasn’t mean-spirited, but it was really important: it made conscious all the subtexts of gender and power in the rock world, and it opened up new ways to be together.

I remember when Sleater-Kinney opened for Guided By Voices at Central Park’s Summerstage and lead-singer Bob Pollard threw his microphone into the crowd for the audience to sing. It felt so radically egalitarian, such a dare to the audience to take over. Phish does stunts like this as well, but they feel more meaningless and silly, the stakes so much lower. How odd, since Phish’s audience is so much bigger.

So, the point is that Sleater-Kinney, even drunken and sodden Guided By Voices, made music that connected one in to the power grid, somehow, that raised up issues of power, of equality, of meaningful engagement. Maybe it was in the grit of the electric guitars, or the grain of the voices (Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker’s howl and grumble sparks, Robert Pollard’s homemade Roger Daltrey chants), or maybe it was all just as mirage, as imaginary as Phish’s escapist tramopline jumping. But it didn’t feel that way in the moment—and maybe the moment is what counts.

Which brings me back to Carrie Brownstein’s experiment on Monitor Mix to move between musical worlds, to open up dialogues across those foundational moments when music stakes out boundaries and creates definitions of self and sound. It’s a challenge, maybe one bound for failure, but it’s got the mix of toughness and vulnerability, skepticism and sincerity, that creates another moment when things feel like they matter, and whether they actually do or don’t doesn’t.

Links: The Monitor Mix Phish experiment also reminded me of another, fabulous essay on a semi-ashamed Grateful Dead fan: Daniel Chamberlin’s “Uncle Skullfucker’s Band: Daniel Chamberlin explains the discreet charm of the Grateful Dead,” from Arthur Magazine.

Bonus material (here’s the above in different form of comment I posted on Monitor Mix):

The Drama You’ve Been Missing

Part I: Growing up Phish

I remember listening to Phish in the late 80s/early 90s when I was growing up in the New York City suburbs. Weirdly, I didn’t have as much access to punk/college rock there than if I had lived further away from New York (my wife attests to this — she had way more indie style musical taste growing up in Urbana, Illinois). So Phish’s music sounded like and symbolized a way out of the suburbs. To what? To Vermont, the countryside, becoming a ski bum, maybe also to a kind of privilege and affluence, but a different kind — like say of having a summer house. It was elite, but alternative all at once. And the music sounded like that too. It had all sorts of influences, and it had a lot of space, but it was kind of rootless, untethered from the real. That was appealing at first. It felt like an escape from the suburban mainstream to something more free, with traces of the counterculture in it, but also of a life of ski-bum leisure in the Vermont hinterlands.

..to part II…

Part II: Enter Sleater Kinney

But by the mid-90s, when I started to hear bands like Sleater Kinney, Phish sounded thinner and thinner to me, canned, tinny, lacking in connection to the world. The escapism started to grate on me. It was silly and fun and its own little world, but it had no consciousness of its privilege. I mean the music didn’t, and it felt like neither did the fans. Sure, there was an environmental consciousness, and a lot of good will. But there was something missing in the music that I heard in bands like Sleater Kinney, which was a drama connected to real life.

Sure, Sleater Kinney, indie-rock, etc. also comes mostly from places of privilege — from middle and upper middle class places. Just like Phish. But there was more consciousness — or maybe the better word is self-consciousness — in the music. I think there was especially a consciousness of gender and power, and that really opened my eyes (and because the music was good my mind and body and everything all at once) to the social world around me. It made me feel connected and involved instead of distant and oblivious.

…part III…

Part III: Engagement vs. Dissipation

Was it that the guitars were grittier sounding, the drums more direct? Was it the voices of the singers? Was it the audiences? It was all of that. It was the way that Sleater Kinney honed in on things in their music and their lyrics (gender, love, jealousy, inequality, imperfection) while Phish kind of spread out and, for me, it all just sort of dissipated into the air.

It sounds like I’m hating on Phish. I’m not. Well, maybe I am a little bit. But I’m totally glad they exist, and I’m always willing to give them a listen, to really listen. But the experiment here, which is such a great idea, really made me think about what it is that hasn’t been talked about much yet, which is the way the music sounds to us as individuals, and how it links to social worlds and our awareness of them. Maybe one of you super-dedicated Phish fans can spend a week listening to riot grrrl bands and see where it takes you too…and try to put it into words.

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