Music has been a part of my life for as long I can remember, but now a days, I find myself disinterested in most of what’s being recorded. It wasn’t always this way. My discovery of underground music, my discovery of punk and hardcore hit like a bolt out of the blue. A lot of music I hear being made today doesn’t affect me like that music did so many years ago.
I came of age during a wonderful time for music, the alternative boom of the 1990s. In the early 90s, for a brief moment, the musical status quo was turned topsy turvy due to the sucess of Nirvana’s Nevermind. In the fall of 1992, I would come home from school and see videos from Sonic Youth and Morrissey on MTV. This period of time was so brief ,from about 1992-1994, the point when alternative went mainstream, and an alarming number of artists who actually maintained a sense of artistic integrity were able to gain mass exposure like never before.(without compromising their sound) Of course the prevailing pop formula was re-established in the late 90s, due to the rise of the boy-bands and the teen pop phenomenon.
The chart success of Nevermind was often described as coming out of nowhere, but it was actually a culmination of an underground music scene, which had previously existed on the fringes, reaching a point of critical mass, and finally boiling over into the mainstream via Nirvana. I remember reading a Nirvana biography entitled Come As You Are. The book was littered with references to a number of bands I had never heard ,and in some cases never heard of. I had to know what this stuff sounded like. I had to know what Black Flag, Husker Du, and the Bad Brains sounded like. Around age 13, I started searching out music that was before my time. I had recently been introduced to the music of the Sex Pistols, the Smiths, and David Bowie, but it was a couple days after my 14th birthday that I bought Black Flag’s Damaged album, and life would never sound the same again. The album was recorded and released in 1981, the year after I was born, but I felt such a deep connection to the record. Black Flag is my favorite band of all time, and that album is my favorite album of all time.
The intensity of Damaged is unrivaled. It’s pure sonic napalm, a musical embodiment of rage, anger, and nihilism. I was frustrated and pissed off, and the album resonated with me, saying everything I felt, but was unable to express at the time. After listening to the album, I dove head first into whatever underground music I could find. After getting into Black Flag, I started listening to the Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat, Bad Brains, and Agnostic Front, and a host of other bands. I feel in the love with early 80’s hardcore. I still play that old-school stuff. Also during this time, I was searching out underground music from the era I was growing up in. I first heard AFI back in 1995 on an obscure compilation, which now goes for hefty price, called This Is Berkeley, Not West Bay. I spent my teens into my twenties listening to punk and hardcore, and now they are genres I no longer pay much attention to, with the most notable exception being that of Madball.
I think one can not have a true understanding of artwork, movies, or music without an understanding of what was going on during the era they were made in, a historical perspective. An understanding of events of a particular era can produce a greater understanding of what influenced and inspired the artist’s work.
The nihilism and anxiety that was prevalent in so much of the the hardcore-punk of the early ’80s was partially a result of the increased tension between America and the Soviet Union. Many historians and political analysts have cited the early ’80s as the closest the two super-powers ever came to a nuclear showdown since the Cuban missile crisis of the ’60s. You can hear the anxiety over the threat of “mutually assured destruction” in the lyrics of the Circle Jerks’ song Stars and Stripes: “What they did past or present, got us in this situation, predicament, no where to run, everybody’s building bombs.”/ “Science, modern technology digged your grave, care of Moscow and DC, votes you never gave.”
Let’s switch gears into the present: What can be learned about what is on the minds of young people by looking at the lyrics of contemporary pop music? It doesn’t even seem like there is much there. I have a hunch that the popularization of “swag” rap is actually a plot by the Illuminati to dumb down the youth population. Ok, that was me joking, but seriously, I see humanity in a state of devolution, which appears to be the most noticeable among millennials. I see a society that is rapidly hurdling towards what is depicted in the movie Idiocracy. Ke$ha becomes the perfect soundtrack for the dumbing down of a society that was never all that bright to begin with, and I really don’t have a problem with Ke$ha. It’s obvious she is doing a send up, a parody, an exaggeration, similar to what the Beastie Boys did on License to Ill.
In contemporary pop music, the party life has become a central lyrical focus, a defining feature of this era . Some would say that’s nothing new: just look at Animal House. As long as there have been college kids, there have been festivities. That’s true, but I’ve noticed an excelration concerning a love of partying, like the ante has been upped. In the the 70s, FourLoko and Tilt were not available. The weed around today is stronger than that of the 60s and 70s; it contains higher levels of THC. The credo of the current party generation seems to be to “go hardcore,” to “go all out,” to live without concern for consequences. This mentality is displayed in songs like Wiz Khalifa’s “Young, Wild and Free” and movies like Project X. Are these celebrations of debauchery and recklessness a reflection of youth culture or are they creating it? That’s a chicken/egg question that I don’t have an answer for. Is the return of the party life in music a response to so many things turning to shit and falling apart, so more people are eager to boogie down to take their minds of the collective problems we face as a nation?
Music is still an integral part of my life although I don’t like most of what’s being made. My musical tastes have expanded far beyond the confines of the punk and hardcore of my teens. When I actually pay money for a CD, yes I still do that, 70 percent of the time it’s hip-hop, but I’m not talking about Lil Wayne or Gucci Mane. I’m talking about underground hip-hop,Jedi Mind Tricks, Immortal Technique, Ill Bill, MF Doom. Most mainstream so-called hip-hop/rap holds no interest for me. It’s rather mindless, often presenting the worst, most degrading, stereotypical representations of so called “black culture,” serving up images that harken back to the days of the minstrel show. So much of it sounds like it was manufactured on a conveyor belt. It’s monolithic and monochromatic, but with underground/independent hip-hop there is a diversity,a variety, concerning flow, beats, and subject matter. There is a universe of difference between Talib Kweli and Brotha Lynch Hung, yet they are both equally hip-hop and equally talented. One of the reasons why mainstream (false) hip-hop does nothing for me is because I focus on lyricism. I want to hear more than someone talking about diamonds in his mouth or I got my drink my cup type of stuff.
A prime example of what I want to hear in hip-hop is Vinnie Paz. ( of Jedi Mind Tricks) When I bought JMT’s 2006 album-Servants in Heaven,Kings In Hell-I was blown away. The lyrical content of the album was a combination of gritty, grimey street level content combined with complex political and theological themes. Some of the lyrics went so deep, they served as a catalyst for me doing research: I had to in order to follow what Vinnie was talking about. Example: “Fuck around and get laced with the Luger if you sympathize with the Hellenization of Judah.” A Luger is a pistol, but I wasn’t able to decipher the second part of that verse until I took a class on the history of the ancient world.
Throughout all the various changes and twists and turns in my life, music was always there, and it always will be there. My days of stage-diving and roughhousing in the pit are long gone, and the Doc Martens were retired years ago, but some of the spirit from those days still remains. The way I function today is a lot different than how I lived at age 19, but one feature from those days still remains: I have never truly conformed, given one inch, or submitted to bullshit. That’s a quintessential “punk rock” attitude. Sure, I’m in college now, working towards a “professional” career, and to a certain extent, I’ve learned how to “play the game,” to shake hands and break bread with people I don’t really like when it’s called for, but I have never, and will never sacrifice who I am, my core ideas, and principles, and regardless of what future changes will happen in my future, I will still need a soundtrack to my life.