on isolation and what comes next

Where do we go from here? That’s not quite the question, I guess, because of course the answer for now is nowhere—not to work, not to restaurants, not on tour, not anywhere with other people. So instead: What comes next?

Anything could be next. Our ears fill with the dissonant hum of wildly divergent, distinct futures opening up before us[1] while the days start to blend together in their sameness. The past 40 days feel like a strange joke, both familiar and foreign. Sure, modern life can feel textureless and gray, but at least there are distractions. Now that many of those distractions are inaccessible, we’re not quite bored: that word doesn’t capture the odd sensation of feeling that history is really, finally happening in front of you, but you have to experience it without leaving the house. You end the day feeling like anything could happen; you begin the next eating breakfast in a different room just for a change of pace. 

Isolation doesn’t necessarily shrink one’s sense of what’s possible, I don’t think. Rather, it expands that sense beyond coherence, temporarily untethering one’s view of the horizon from the enormous forces and minute decisions that shape mundane, routine existence. When your choices are suddenly limited, the variables that shape daily experience so radically restricted, the number of variables that there used to be can seem overwhelming. Finding a place to get dinner used to be the source of real decision anxiety for me; imagine what that might feel like after months of being limited to what’s in my fridge. Sure, I miss my friends, but right now the thought of going to a party makes me feel like my brain is leaking out of my ears.[2] 

Similarly, thinking about the social, political, or economic effects of this strange time can feel a bit like trying to hold water in a sieve. The variables seem infinite; anyone who claims otherwise is being willfully obtuse. Sure, the crisis lays bare the injustice of our healthcare system, the irresponsibility of the financial system, the excesses of the corporate world, and the inability or unwillingness of those in government to face up to powerful interests. But to know something is not necessarily to change it. It’s tempting to imagine that this moment might augur a swelling popular demand for welfare state expansion; that support for universal, free-at-the-point-of-service healthcare and debt forgiveness might become a litmus test for the bare minimum of a progressive political hopeful’s legislative ambition. It’s just as easy to see the country lurching rightward, or at least stubbornly clinging to the status quo, grasping whatever scraps of stability are still reminiscent of former tenuous comforts. How can you reckon with the absurdity of a moment that demands solidarity with the oppressed and mistreated around the world, from postage workers to Palestinians, while also making you covet your parents’ SodaStream?

Most importantly: even if I can’t get it all in view, I’m still lucky to find myself zooming out. Plenty of people don’t have that luxury during the pandemic. Many go their whole lives without this kind of prolonged chance to sit back, take stock, reassess. So much of life is instinctive, at best reactive. Bills are due, you’re burning daylight. Inertia muscles out intent; politically, socially, but also personally and emotionally. My bank account is steadily emptying, but my rent is cheap enough that $1200 Trump bucks buys me some time to think. Have I organized my life in a way that is worthwhile and meaningful, consistent with my values, both sustainable for the time being and nurturing of my hopes for the future? What precisely is the relationship between rethinking society and rethinking my place in it? 

This is the crucial task of the moment, I think: personally crucial for those who are able, and politically necessary for the sake of those who are not. It is and ought to be unsettling, this feeling of holding all possibilities for the future in our hand—on the one hand, a total reimagining of everything that grates against our sense of justice and equity; on the other, a defeated slump backwards into whatever tenuous security the old circumstances might have offered. The world is our oyster, so to speak, except we can’t leave the house long enough to pry open the shell. 

So what can we do in the meantime? What can I do to cultivate that sense of possibility in myself and others—as a musician who can’t tour, as a writer with no audience, as a person temporarily reduced to electronic pulse via group chats and Discord servers and Google Hangouts? I haven’t found an answer yet, and judging from a month’s worth of social media in isolation, it doesn’t seem like too many other people have either. Social distancing seems to have amplified the medium’s natural tendency towards optimism, our best selves imagined for others. Words like “wellness” and “mindfulness” ligner just off-screen in tasteful fonts, their tone at once ironic and sincere, framing vague gestures at communal endeavor in the form of naturally lit pictures of homemade bread, or tournament brackets between bands belonging to obtuse genres like “old school alternative.” Even Twitter seems less dour than usual. At our loneliest, our pleas for attention have a resigned tranquility. We share recipes and memes, and we wait. You can’t fault people for a lack of urgency when they can’t make plans. 

If I manage to incubate a little urgency in the coming months, I doubt it will be from watching or playing music live on Instagram. No shade against those who either begrudgingly or enthusiastically have turned to streaming shows, it’s just not for me. Personally, the balance between performance as an endeavor with inherent value—as a natural and necessary part of music as creative practice—and performance as an endeavor that derives value largely from the money it earns the performer has always been precarious at best. That might sound crazy; isn’t music essentially communal, meant to be shared? Don’t I have to eat? But it’s how I’ve always felt. After all, I’ve made lots of music in my life that I’ve only shown friends, and historically I’ve been more successful feeding myself by pouring drinks or data entry than by playing guitar. At my level, and hopefully at any level, the best part of a good show is always the feeling in the room, not settling up with the promoter. Taking the gig virtual tips that fraught scale to the point that I’m no longer interested.[3] It’s like trying to record guitar DI: for it to feel right, you’ve gotta be moving air around.

Of course, losing interest in something tends to make you wonder why you were interested in the first place. What about it drew you in, genuinely excited you, and what did you merely tolerate? Lots of my particular slice of the music world falls into the latter category, first and foremost being the depressing but understandable insistence of so many of my touring peers to talk about music as their “job” or their “career.” For me, going on tour is largely an effort to spend as little time as possible at something that might be considered my “job.” In fact, as far as I can see, the only reason to conceive of a cancelled tour as “lost labor” is because you need money, and without touring, many musicians’ only hope of getting money is to trigger the sympathy of the more fortunate among us, who often seem to believe that having a “job” is the only dependable sign that one doesn’t deserve to go hungry and die in the street. 

This is not to say that I’m averse to work. I actually work very hard on things, like music, that I think are worthwhile. Unfortunately for my bank account, the things I see as worthwhile are very rarely the things that our society’s conception of work—a combination of late-capitalist market logic and a protestant morality drained of all spiritual content[4]—has deemed valuable (i.e. worthy of compensation). I’d hoped that music might offer me a convenient way out of this dilemma, and I still do. I’ve found I’m willing to tolerate the caustic reduction of creative pursuits to “a job” if doing so allows me to make enough money to spend less time at worse jobs—and there was a brief moment when it seemed like that arrangement might work, at least for a few years. 

The current pandemic has more or less obliterated that possibility, at least in my field of vision. Blinking, rubbing my eyes, other possibilities come in and out of focus. I glimpse ways to organize a life. There are only so many hours in the day; if one wants to do creative things with a significant number of them, it’s hard to imagine doing so without stuffing that creativity into whatever work-shaped box other people recognize as commanding some amount of currency.[5] But as it does with so many other things, this moment gives us a chance to at least rethink the shape and contour of that box. 

Live music is an incredibly stupid business: notoriously exploitative of labor and talent, wasteful beyond imagination, a cesspool of abuse and assault, duct-taped into something resembling a functioning “industry” by the force of its largely unrealized or misdirected potential for human connection, communication, and meaning-making.[6] That is to say, it’s capitalism, but it can be pretty fun if you’re lucky.[7] Some of the people involved are well compensated and comfortable; most of the musicians I know slog through a bunch of bullshit most nights for 30-45 transcendent minutes, followed by the privilege of drinking a few free beers, gratefully hawking some reasonably-priced future landfill scraps to generous audience members, and walking away with maybe a few hundred dollars from the door. On the balance of things, I would have happily done it for years, and still might.[8]

But the possibility of a year or more of dark stages has knocked that balance loose, and right now it feels uncertain if it will ever recover. What emerges once we regain our footing is, if we want it to be, up to everyone who performs, works, facilitates, or listens in venues and non-traditional music spaces around this country and the world. What we choose to rebuild can be very different from what was knocked down, provided—just as in every part of our economy and society—we are not so eager to get back to boom times that we ignore the lessons of the bust.

Existentially, spiritually, rethinking live music should probably be the least of our ambition. My real hope for myself and my peers is a total reimagining of creative work as a lifestyle—its motivation, purpose and effect; its place in a just world; how to sustain and nurture it. Some days it feels unlikely that a successful conclusion to this effort would involve playing at, say, Live Nation-owned venues. Most days it doesn’t feel like an effort that will ever conclude.

There do appear to be avenues opening up, though. Streaming revenue is down, meanwhile fans broke Bandcamp’s website on their revenue share day last month; there are good things about streaming and bad things about Bandcamp, sure, but on the balance this feels like a good sign to me. Additionally, it seems increasingly likely that house shows and other non-traditional, unregulated venues will be the first to come back, if audiences are willing to attend. Hopefully some people will rediscover the radical potential of hosting music in spaces that don’t have to sell Anheuser-Busch products and report earnings to the IRS. Maybe a year off the road will lead some bands to reevaluate whether that 8pm opening slot and well-lit merch table is really worth a $150 guarantee and a 20% venue cut for “soft goods.” The pyramid scheme of buzz-band touring could well take a richly deserved hit. 

I don’t know if any of these things will happen, or if they’ll even seem desirable in a year. I certainly don’t know how to achieve them while protecting the short-term security of people who have staked their livelihoods on a creative economy they likely know on some level is as unjust as any other. But it’s hard to imagine that a few months off won’t provide the opportunity, if not provoke the necessity, of reflecting on injustice, in music and everywhere else. I hope to not waste that time.

***

[1] The capacity of the crisis to encourage and even nurture extreme conclusions was pretty apparent from the beginning. For example, it seems to me that the reason the Imperial College model of the pandemic was so widely cited, despite having a number of questionable assumptions that were apparent to many epidemiologists as soon as it was published, was that its grim predictions inevitably led readers to one of two extreme positions: either halting all labor, shutting down the economy, and effectively holding capital hostage; or, if one found that unacceptable, getting everyone back to work as quickly as possible, essentially embracing eugenics to keep the markets afloat. Though I have no quarrel with holding capital hostage, this is probably a false dichotomy, and it’s telling that models of the pandemic that didn’t encourage such starkly contrasting strategies didn’t command the nearly same bandwidth.

[2] Joking aside, I think there is just as much reason to be concerned about mental health problems once things get “back to normal” as there is to be concerned about those suffering mentally now—that is to say, plenty for both. It seems to me that those with depression and anxiety are likely to react as badly to the expectation to suddenly leave the house again as they may have to their inability to do so previously.

[3] That’s to say nothing of the less immediate but probably more pernicious effect of taking the gig digital, which is moving all “live” music under the purview of streaming services owned by one of three or so enormous tech companies—entities not known for being overly concerned with making sure creative endeavors are adequately compensated.

[4] “Work” as defined by society is meant to fulfill the worker, to give them a sense of purpose without which their life is meaningless. It is also, with the exception of the very lucky among us, meant to A) make enormous profits for other people, B) facilitate the vast corporate bureaucracy meant to obscure who is making this profit, or C) facilitate the shrinking private bureaucracy meant to make it as difficult as possible for those who can’t seem to do one of either A or B to ameliorate their suffering. These two conceptions of work seem inherently contradictory to me.

[5] This is more or less the usual difficulty one encounters trying to stand against the cultural hegemony of market logic. So often being “anti-capitalist” seems to mean defining oneself not in opposition to capitalism but rather as its negative formulation, i.e. reinforcing its logic. Put another way, Marxists seem to frame all sorts of activities—creative, emotional, reproductive, social, the list goes on—as labor, when to do so seems, instinctively at least to me, reductive, incoherent, and even soul-destroying.

[6] It ought to be said that the record industry is all these things but even less fun.

[7] “Lucky” in this context, and so many others, often means “male,” “white,” and/or “able to move in with your parents if something goes wrong.”

[8] The inequities of the music world can be a frustrating and sticky problem, and so I want to be clear about the fact that I would happily and freely continue to participate in the small club touring world, and that I don’t feel hard-done by it. In my probably unpopular opinion, lots of people’s complaints about how “unfair” the touring economy is tend to boil down to something along the lines of “it’s unfair that other bands are more popular than mine.” As a result, many other people justifiably roll their eyes at these exhortations to reform the industry. Ultimately, there will always be only a few popular bands and lots of unpopular bands; this imbalance has nothing to with the forces that concentrate power and wealth in other industries and everything to do with how consensus forms around taste (and with the fact that unfortunately most music is simply not very good). What needs addressing is not this imbalance, but rather whether or not there are avenues to carve out a creative life for yourself if you’re not one of the popular. That life does not need to include playing to hundreds of adoring fans, but it ought to offer security and dignity (as everyone’s life ought to, regardless of their choice in vocation). Ensuring those avenues exist clearly requires a more robust infrastructure for the arts, an infrastructure that, unlike the club circuit, is not driven by profit.

Turning Dust Into Mountains

or, the Composite Loneliness of Being (Radically) Online

The excellent Philly alt-country band Friendship has, among an endless number of brilliantly matter-of-fact lyrics, a line that really sticks out to me whenever I see them play. Easing into the second verse of “Dusky,” their singer Dan casually silences the room: In our house, the sickness is the same as the remedy. It’s one of those lines that could be, and therefore is, about everything. Addiction, love, politics, depression—you play a chord, those words will sing over it.

In my life, one of the more dissonant of those chords is the internet. Like all but my most self-respecting peers, and in that subconsciously ritualistic way that feels almost violently at odds with the skin-and-bones mindfulness of most Friendship songs, I spend way too much time on my phone. Lately, I’ve found myself thinking about how that lyric describes the rhythm and contour of looking at Twitter, a technology that will be remembered for, if nothing else, perfecting the concept of the vicious cycle. 

One thing that draws me and, I suspect, many others to Twitter is the feeling that something has gone very wrong in the world. People like me look around us and find that the things we have been told about society by its most established documentarians do not adequately explain its features; in fact, the lessons seem designed to mislead. If we’re lucky, we have a few non-virtual friends who also feel this way. If we’re really lucky, we might be involved in some sort of non-mainstream creative or political culture through which that feeling is acknowledged, appreciated, and cultivated. But at our core, we define ourselves against others. How is it that everyone else isn’t seeing what I’m seeing? It’s a lonely feeling, despite how many people seem to share it. 

Media studies people have something called Reinforcement Theory, the idea that people primarily seek out and respond to information that supports their preexisting beliefs. But you don’t go looking if you don’t suspect there might be something there, that there might be an antidote to this interpretive loneliness. You’d be right: you can find all sorts of people on Twitter pointing out injustices, misdeeds, and falsehoods all around us. Some of these people are hysterical, some are cynical, and some are really onto something. 

They all get made fun of. For every bit of loving satire or justified pushback, you can find plenty of callous punching down. Perhaps most commonly, you’ll find someone reproducing social or political critique with ironic detachment, either because they have no skin in the game or because they recognize it’s rigged regardless. There is a whole genre of meme that deals explicitly with the online ecosystem of non-mainstream ideas, from generalist images like galaxy brain or Charlie from Always Sunny, manic in front of a sticky-note-and-twine-covered cork board, to “Bush did 9/11”-style parodies of specific political heterodoxy. In fact, you could argue that a key point in the life cycle of every meme is the moment it gets repurposed in this context. This is usually its death rattle.

There’s one that particularly annoys me whenever it creeps into my feed, an especially vapid placeholder for the feeling of realizing something it seems like no one else has: Will Ferrell, as the effete fashionista by-way-of the KFC Colonel character from Zoolander, screaming I feel like I’m taking crazy pills! I think the experience of seeing this gif, especially when it’s used in the context of a topic you take seriously, illustrates what I’d call the Composite Loneliness of Being Radically Online.[1]

It’s a complicated and I think usually subliminal feeling, a not-always-linear pattern of, [1] frustration at the thought that you’re the only one who sees what you see, [2] relief at the realization—not new, but always comforting—that there are other people online like you, and [3] mild-to-severe annoyance at the belittling feeling of having your genuine emotions refracted back towards you via a stranger’s stock regurgitation of a totally unmemorable piece of media you’ve seen a hundred times.[2] This usually leads to the paradoxical combination of [4] mild shame at the absurdity of thinking that your perspective was unique enough that you turned to a infinite digital expanse for acknowledgement, and [5] the realization that, since you would never have posted something so corny yourself, the person who did is unlike you in some important way, even if they’re sympathetic to the eccentric opinion being discussed.[3] In other words, you feel a little lonely. You’re back to the beginning of the cycle, frustrated that no one sees the world quite like you do.

This cycle probably sounds like more of a shock to the system than it really is. It’s surely not an immediately noticeable feature of the Twitter experience for most people. Rather, it’s the hum in the background as we go about the online routines that otherwise bring us joy: laughing at jokes, keeping up with news and gossip, feeling an otherwise collective outrage towards the day’s most outrageous abuse of power or celebrity. It’s not the illness that kills the quickest or has the most apparent symptoms, but I think it’s a dynamic that has potentially serious psychological and spiritual consequences. It’s how a person who goes online and mostly finds things they agree with can still feel emotionally isolated—laughing at themselves for thinking they’re somehow enlightened, while simultaneously despairing that most people are still in the dark.[4] It’s a map onto which we can trace a clear route from unconventional thought to cognitive dissonance to conspiracist ideation. And I don’t think it’s unique to Twitter.

***

If my media studies hack-job holds any water, it’s fair to say that we turn to the internet precisely because of the scarcity of relatable perspectives presented in the other forms of media, forms more dominated by corporate and establishment voices (at least for now).[5] In no recent moment has this scarcity been more obvious than in the controversy surrounding the Iowa Caucus, blamed on cable news and in the papers of record on garden-variety bureaucratic incompetence, but interpreted by a certain amorphous segment of the left-leaning internet as a conspiracy of some sort. Fair enough: the meltdown involved an opaque delegate counting process involving an apparently malfunctioning app built by a company called (no joke) Shadow, Inc, funded by an umbrella organization called (for real) ACRONYM, who employ a consultant named (still not joking) Robbie Mook—a combination of plot points that would be too on the nose in the script for the next Fast and Furious movie. And the details get shadier from there, albeit less funny.

Plenty of people found this interpretation of events outrageous and insulting. You can’t blame the volunteers, regular Iowans who freely spent their Tuesday night interpreting the inscrutable rules of an outdated political tradition, for bristling at the implication that they were willing pawns in a stolen election. That said, you also can’t blame those who realized that the CEO of ACRONYM was married to a senior Buttigeig staffer—and then watched as Buttigeig declared victory with a shit eating grin, before any official results were released—from wondering if something untoward was going on. At the very least, it seems fair to suspect that the inscrutability of caucus rules is, to borrow a phrase from programming that the Shadow developers might recognize, a feature, not a bug.[6]

When the crime is something as ostensibly offensive to the credo of liberal democracy as miscounted votes, how much does it matter whether the criminal was negligent or intentional? If the system is designed to fail—and the rate at which overseeing failure is rewarded with increasingly cushy consulting and media gigs would indicate that the people doling out those gigs welcome it—then screwing up has the same material outcome as being in on the scam. Accordingly, some left commentators have repeated the point that to argue Iowa was a conspiracy is to make “a distinction without difference,” borrowing (some pedants would say inaccurately) the name of a fallacy in formal logic. The point is well taken, except for the fact of one obvious difference: only one of these interpretations of the events of February 3, 2020 will cause your NPR-listening friends and family members to wonder if you have all your marbles. You have to wonder if the fading of the conspiracy narrative ultimately represented a bunch of self-appointed Sanders surrogates realizing that appearing crazy isn’t the best coalition-building strategy. 

It’s a shame, really; shouldn’t we all be going a little crazy? Maybe it’s a conspiracy, maybe it’s standard issue self-serving bureaucratic incompetence; the truly vexing realization is that you’ll never actually know. Maybe it’s a bunch of people who have so completely internalized the profit motive that they find the phrase “conflict of interest” to be antiquated at best, and incoherent at worst. One thing is for sure: for some people, going online is the best if not only way to meet peers who haven’t internalized a colorful variety pack of the most soul-immolating motivations that our culture rewards. If only that were enough.

***

Iowa was of course the tip of the iceberg, and the counterculture response to it was as much motivated by past suspicions as it will inform future ones. Even a casual observer of the world in the past 50 years finds many reasons to question received wisdom, from seismic scandals like Iran-Contra to the banality of bread prices.[7]

Among the best sources for this questioning I’ve found recently is the writing of David Graeber. In the last few weeks, his 2018 book Bullshit Jobs has provided me with one of the more profound experiences I’ve ever had of hearing a vague suspicion I’ve long held about the world articulated thoroughly and convincingly. The suspicion is this: a huge number of the jobs available in the modern economy serve no purpose other than to further the myth that humans ought to keep their nose to the grindstone for 40 hours a week, and the system that perpetuates this absurdity is allowed to exist because of the benefits it affords certain people, benefits far in excess of the wages that 40 hours of “gainful” employment will ever net the average worker.

The title of Graeber’s book doesn’t refer to jobs like dishwasher or garbage collector, which serve a clear purpose even though they might suck. Rather, Graeber is talking about “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or even pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence, even though as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that is not the case.” The book is inspired by a 2013 essay Graeber published in Strike! Magazine, and draws on hundreds of testimonials Graeber received after said essay went viral. He talks to everyone from uneasy corporate consultants to unhappily stranded administrative seat-warmers, by way of a Hollywood “development” person who keeps themselves busy working on never-to-be-aired reality series with names like Too Fat to Fuck. There are many recurring themes—Graeber is an anthropologist, and produces both a rich theory and detailed taxonomy of bullshit employment—but the one that sticks out most is devastatingly simple: these people all seem very unhappy. Moreover, the fact that no one will acknowledge the uselessness of their position is central to their unhappiness.[8]

Bullshit Jobs describes the depression and alienation of the bullshit employee with sympathy and concern. The book also offers a detailed example of how a system can be designed to serve power without technically being a conspiracy. Graeber’s methods involve an obvious selection bias, in that the people who reach out to him tend to be well-meaning victims of a broken work culture. But while his account of the modern workplace is populated mostly with those who wish things were not as they are, the model also implies (and implicates) at least a few of the sort of feckless, self-preserving sycophants who seem to have been responsible for the Iowa Caucus disaster. (Maybe Will Ferrell’s Zoolander character was onto something: Blue Steel? Ferrari? Le Tigre? They’re the same face! Doesn’t anybody notice this?)

Drawing in part from a YouGov survey conducted in the wake of the Strike! essay, Graeber estimates that roughly 37% of jobs in Western economies are bullshit, and 37% of the remaining jobs are support work (cleaning, clerical work, etc) for bullshit industries, meaning that in his eyes over half of all labor falls into what you might call the “bullshit sector.” Nearly all of them suffer from the emotional distress of seeing something clearly about the world that few of those around them seem to recognize. Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. 

***

It’s a paranoid land, America, and paranoia runs through our fiction and film. The ‘40s and ‘50s saw a gritty, alienated, art-deco film aesthetic calcify into a genre French critics called film noir, but the strict stylistic categories for stories of suspicion and intrigue seem to have dissolved as, from the 60s on, the movie-watching public found more and more to be suspicious about. Today, neo-noir touches everything from Brick to Batman.[9] I recently watched one from last year that probably won’t go down as a classic of the genre even though it should: David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake. The movie follows the classic noir formula—guy goes looking for girl, finds way more than he bargained for. But the viewer gets more than they bargained for as well, namely some quietly tragic moments that are given a bit more time to breath than is perhaps typical of noir’s exaggerated paranoia.

Under the Silver Lake careens dizzyingly through the maze of a just-barely-imaginary LA underground, depicting the banal pleasures and depraved ulterior motives of various suspicious characters with an ironic detachment that nears kitsch. The movie’s feel may be drawn from noir, but it’s eerily familiar to the internet age. Fans of Chinatown and Pynchon will find lots to like; if you’re like me, and recent obsessions with Jeffery Epstein have left you diagnostically eager to suspend disbelief, you’ll love it. Thankfully, the plodding seriousness of some recent failed stabs at this sort of thing (read: True Detective season 2) is nowhere to be found. Instead, the action floats past us at a bouncy pace more reminiscent of comedy or even blockbuster horror. It’s easy to float along with the plot, assuming that the stakes are low until suddenly they’re quite high. 

Our main character Sam isn’t a particularly likeable guy; in fact, he could charitably be described as a sex creep, and much of the film’s effect lies in slowly chipping away at the emotional distance the veiwer instinctively maintains from him. That distance bluntly collapses when Sam comes digitally face to face[10] with the very woman he’s mined the dark recesses of Angelino nightlife in search of. He’s been after a connection, but of course the resulting conversation leaves him brutally, decisively alone. I’ve been looking for you, he says.

Really? You hardly know me.

At this point, Sam knows a lot he didn’t know a few days before. But she’s right; he’ll never know her. The scene captures—devastatingly, at least to me—the feeling of talking to someone who you realize will simply never see the world the way you see it. Any communication of substance, any potential exchange of information, is over before it begins. The cult member who’s patched Sam into the subterranean tomb where his crush is waiting to die (long story) says perhaps the one absolutely true thing we’ve heard in the last two and a half hours: Their chamber was covered in a mountain of concrete. It can’t be opened. There’s no reason to upset that girl. 

You’re left to conclude that, by the cult guy’s logic, there wasn’t much reason for Sam to upset himself, either. But he did, with a compulsive single-mindedness that I think anyone who’s suddenly snapped into the present to find themselves once again taking a shit and scrolling through Twitter might recognize. We go looking for people like us, and on good days, the joy we take from finding them might drown out the sadness of talking to someone buried under a mountain of concrete. I could turn mountains into dust, goes that Friendship song. Where would that leave us?

Of course, most people are a little bit of both: lots we recognize, lots we don’t. We’re all entombed in individual concrete mounds, but the mounds have windows; we can reach out and hold each other’s hands. Some of us have learned to take visitors. 

But there’s nothing like a good, old-fashioned coverup to put you on edge in unfamiliar surroundings. You start to make it clear you see the world a certain way, and suddenly your neighbors are painting shut their windows from the inside. Even (or perhaps especially) my own sister pointed out to me the irony that the experience of reading this essay might reproduce for the reader the very same sense of isolation from another’s views that the essay itself discusses. I don’t feel like I have a choice: the last few years seem to have brought with them more and more of the watershed political and cultural moments that you just can’t talk about with some people. Who knows, maybe before I wasn’t looking.

If it’s trite or obvious to point out that the internet age has been marked by the apparent fracturing of shared cultural narratives, then that might help explain why noir seems to have gone out of fashion (Under the Silver Lake bombed, despite the success of Mitchell’s previous outing It Follows). Truth is now stranger than fiction. If we used to sympathize with Jake Gittes’ anger and revulsion, now we’ve adopted the resigned outlook of his partner. Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown. 

There is plenty of art about the frenzied frustration of someone beginning to glimpse the whole corrupt picture. There’s much less that deals with the feeling of resigning oneself to the fact that those you love might be looking at something entirely different. Once the hysteria of realization subsides, it can feel very quiet. That silence makes a nonsense of politics; it belies the supposed interconnectedness that our technocratic overlords will tell you characterizes the internet age. Once you can finally hear yourself think, it’s the last thing you want to be listening to. 

***

[1] I use the word “radical” not necessarily in it’s left political context but in the simpler, traditional sense of “unorthodox” or “advocating change.”

[2] This comes in part from the cognitive dissonance between using such a mainstream pop culture product to describe a countercultural take on an issue, but I suspect it’s way more than that, since I’d still find this gif annoying if I received it while trying to explain my most normie opinions to my most radical friends.

[3] I will venmo $5 to the first person who plugs this schema into the galaxy brain meme.

[4] I also suspect this dynamic is central to understanding the left’s widely bemoaned tendency to cannibalize itself. Namely, it illustrates yet another way that the most “radical” thought (again, in the sense of heterodox) can lead to a mindset that is actually antithetical to radical organizing: left untouched, this sense of isolation will eat away at the very parts of one’s humanity that make organizing possible, like mold at an unused sponge.

[5] I’m sympathetic to the argument that this founding myth of the internet is largely bullshit and that, as a military R&D project turned private utility, the internet has always been just as dominated by establishment influence as any form of media. A conversation for another time.

[6] In my opinion, the least radical conclusion a thinking person ought to come to from seeing the events of February 3, 2020 unfold is that caucuses are a voter suppression mechanism.

[7] Enter Mayor Pete.

[8] In discussing what he refers to as the “spiritual violence” of bullshit employment, Graeber focuses mostly on how the unproductiveness of these jobs cuts against the essentially human desire to create. But his analysis makes it clear that the gulf between the supposed purpose of one’s job and the reality of purposelessness is a significant undercurrent of the bullshit employee’s sadness.

[9] Screenwriter and producer Larry Gross (Streets of Fire, True Crime) wrote in a 1976 article for Film Comment that neo-noirs were “attempting to switch from a psychological to a sociological analysis.” Many people (including Graeber) might of course wonder if the two can be meaningfully distinguished, and at the very least I think you could reasonably argue that, as modern life provides more avenues for the simultaneous and reciprocal fraying of the social and psychic fabric, a huge swath of otherwise dissimilar films have adopted elements of neo-noir.

[10] I don’t think it’s an accident of narrative that this conversation happens over video chat, refracted through a screen.

update

not a lot going on. demoing new songs and thinking about a new record. hopefully some shows in the spring.

since i can’t seem to use this space to write about my band, i’m going to try to use it to write about other things. will post something i’ve been working on tomorrow hopefully. ❤

new record this summer and a tour

hey – got a little behind here. was on the road with strange ranger and van time is particularly unsuited to forms of communication that you can’t carry around in your pocket. i’m sure i could figure out how to update this blog from my phone but i haven’t yet.

anyway the news i didn’t post here is that we have a new record coming out on 7/12. it’s called “I Never Said I Didn’t Care” and you can listen to the first couple songs and pre-order the digital version at http://cooloriginal.bandcamp.com/album/i-never-said-i-didnt-care

you can preorder tapes from Underwater Ally here: http://underwaterally.limitedrun.com/

we’re going on tour after the album comes out with our friends alien boy. here are the dates (a few subject to changes which i’ll post/update here):

7/12 – Portland, OR @ Dee’s Castle
7/13 – Corvallis, OR @ Nearly Normals
7/20 – San Francisco, CA @ Code and Canvas (only alien boy 😞)
7/21 – Berkeley, CA @ 924 Gilman 
7/22 – Oakland, CA @ Octopus Literary Saloon
7/23 – San Jose, CA @ Peace and Justice Center
7/24 – Long Beach, CA @ tba
7/25 – San Diego, CA @ Che Cafe
7/26 – Phoenix, AZ @ Trunk Space
7/28 – Salt Lake City, UT @ The Mansion 
7/29 – Denver, CO @ Nude City Relief Center
7/30 – Lawrence, KS @ tba
7/31 – Omaha, NB @ Mid Town Art Supply 
8/1 – Sioux City, IW @ Whiskey Dicks (21+)
8/2 – Minneapolis, MN @ Our House
8/3 – Minot, ND @ Why Not?! Fest 
8/5 – Bozeman, MT @ Labor Temple
8/7 – Missoula, MT @ Free Cycles
8/8 – Seattle, WA @ Fusion Cafe
8/9 – Portland, OR @ Blackwater

ok last thing – to celebrate the tour we did a collaborative dual music video with alien boy. you can watch that below:

and here’s alien boy’s half, for their song called “If We Don’t Speak” that i really truly love a lot. these videos were extremely fun to make and stand as a nice document of a beautiful group of people in portland that i’m lucky to call my friends.


couple shows next week

playing a couple solo shows in the mid-atlantic next week with my friends lost dog from boston. we first played with them on our hilariously ill-fated first full us tour in 2017 and i was blown away. they’re extremely good and frankly if you live in baltimore or dc and like fun guitar music and fuzz pedals, you’d be crazy to miss it. seriously check out this song:

4/28 baltimore, md @ the crown, 18+, $7, 8:30 pm

4/29 washington, dc @ dwell, all ages, $5-10, 7:30 pm

new songs: “want” b/w “bait and switch”

here’s two songs from the sessions for our new record (out this summer). they didn’t make the record, not because i thought they weren’t good, but because i thought they worked better as two sides of the same coin. yin and yang, thesis and antithesis. the grass is always greener. maybe it’s better never to get what you want.

some of the usual collaborators and friends helped with these songs and some new faces joined the fold as well. original member and engineer extroardinaire Andy Rusinek played lead guitar, engineered and helped mix. Ethan Conroy (who played drums in the most recent west coast live iteration of the band) played piano, organ, and contributed vocals on “want.” Fiona Woodman sang on “bait and switch.”

buy on bandcamp or stream on spotify et al. ideally both, that way both us and our label (http://goodcheerrecords.bandcamp.com) get paid 🙂