Black Ribbon Award

THE MONOTONY OF DARBY CRASHISM

Darby-Crash

The first show The Germs played was at Hollywood’s Orpheum Theater in April of 1977. They were to open for the nascent Weirdoes, who picked the Germs because they were even more nascent, having only just formed that month with no rehearsals, no songs, and no knowledge of their instruments. Their set lasted 10 minutes before they were removed from the stage. The band, with guitarist Pat Smear, bassist Lorna Doom, and drummer Donna Rhia, blared feedback at the audience (which included The Damned) while singer Darby Crash wrapped himself in licorice whips, that soon melted, and slathered himself in salad dressing and peanut butter on top of that. For a later show, the band would tell their friends to bring food of their own; during a rendition of The Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar,” they poured bags of sugar on the audience.

In every regional scene one was likely to know at least one band purely by reputation. Even if its members were not the most proficient musicians, and their songs were rudimentary at best, their shows were not to be missed. They were more social experiment or life sculpture than musical act, demolishing the invisible wall between spectator and spectacle, along with actual walls. Seattle had The Mentors (among others), San Francisco had Flipper, Detroit had The Meatmen, Austin had Scratch Acid (among others), and DC had No Trend. One band for my cohort was The Ultimate Warriors, from Nazareth, PA. When they played our town’s recreation center in 2000, they (or their entourage) donned luchador costumes and other wrestling-themed gear and wreaked havoc in the pit. I believe they also brought fruit as the venue smelled of bananas after they played. They are now Pissed Jeans.

Within this ilk The Germs were very much among their number, even their ancestor. Even at their best they never played technically well. Slash writer Claude Bessy described their debut single “Forming” as “beyond music … inexplicably brilliant in bringing monotony to new heights.” But at the same time, The Germs were able to shake off their “joke band” status, in part because getting constantly banned from venues was a net negative, but also because something more powerful was at hand. By September 1977, The Germs were headlining shows with massive turnouts. As Geza X recalled later, “it was the buzz on the Germs as a social force more than a musical one that caused a line to form outside The Masque for the first time.”

Darby Crash (née Bobby Pyn, née Jan Paul Beahm)[1] was born and raised in the Los Angeles area. His childhood was one of routine instability. He lost a brother to a heroin overdose. His mother struggled with minimum wage jobs, often working nights. The closest thing he had to a father figure was a stepfather who died when he was 13. His education, which he neglected, included an experimental program that combined Werner Erhard’s est with Scientology. Darby was precocious, however, with his mother carving out sections of her stringent budget to appease his voracious intellectual appetite with books and a typewriter. He developed interests in Nietzsche, Charles Manson, Herman Hesse, Hitler, and Oswald Spengler. Typical interviews included the following: “Fascism is not a philosophy. It’s a way of life. Fascist is totally extreme right. We’re not extreme right. Maybe there’s a better word for it that I haven’t found yet, but I’m still going to have complete control.” And: “I can respect Hitler for being a genius in doing what he did, but not for killing off innocent people. [His genius] lies in his speech. What he could do with words.”

Darby Crash’s vocal style relied on barely annunciated snarls and screeches. Perhaps you’d rather not imagine a cat being processed by a wood chipper, but that is the image conjured for me whenever I hear him. Yet the words were there. Indeed, the quality of Darby’s lyrics was a surprise even to those who liked the band. “Standing in the line we’re aberrations/Defects in a defect’s mirror/And we’ve been here all the time real fixations/Hidden deep in the furor,” goes the first verse of “What We Do is Secret.” But so, too, was the personal charisma to which chaos and music alike were subsumed.

“I completely control a number of people’s lives,” Darby Crash said. “Look around for the little girls wearing CRASH TRASH T-shirts and people like that.” Darby had a gift for branding. In a way, The Germs became a serious enterprise for him not with the refinement of their artistry but with the aesthetic identity he crafted around it. “Everything works in circles,” he said. “[L]ike something you’ve done maybe eight years ago, but all of a sudden it feels like you’re in the same place doing the exact same thing.” They adopted as a symbol of a clean blue circle, to match Darby’s eye color, which appeared on their merchandise, flyers, and recordings. Germs fans were collectively called “Circle One,” who wore “Germs burns” on their wrists, which came from a cigarette. “I think we should make a new shape for flags. Round flags.”

R-1107962-1317595483.jpegDarby’s proposals did not stop there. He dreamed of putting “allies in key positions,” in such places as the postal service and newspaper presses who, with little more than flicking a rubber band, could jam the gears of society and bring it to its knees. When appearing on a radio show, Darby rang off a series of satellite numbers that would allow anyone to make long distance calls for free. He became obsessed with L. Ron Hubbard and, according to the Screamers’ K.K. Barrett, “talked about how religion was just basically a funnel for lost souls.” “Darby Crash completely resocialized me,” F-Word singer Rik L. Rik recalled. “He taught me to question everything and how to make up my own mind by evaluating reality and drawing my own conclusions. … He did this for everybody he came in contact with. It was a whole retraining program.”

These ambitions were quickly derailed; first by Darby’s abrupt sabbatical in London, which broke up the band, and then by his death at age 22 by intentional heroin overdose once he returned. It is on this morbid crux that Darby’s legacy is balanced. As he’d often voice is intention of dying young, sometimes at the exact age when he did, I can’t say it is altogether unfair—but it is also too simple.

Darby returned from London in 1980 sporting a Mohawk haircut and face paint. He’d met and become enamored with Adam and the Ants, much to the bewilderment of his friends. Indeed, when Adam and the Ants were doing an in-store appearance at Tower Records around the same time, Black Flag disrupted the proceedings, throwing around their trademark flyers reading “BLACK FLAG KILLS ANTS ON CONTACT.” The Hermosa Beach-based band formed a year before The Germs, and promoted a stripped-down version of punk that favored brutality over—or rather, in addition to—chaos. The Hollywood scene did not appreciate it as it attracted a more aggressive police response and repelled their female fan base. But like Darby Crash, Black Flag’s Greg Ginn had his own ambitions, involving hours-long daily practices, endless touring, and sustaining his own record label. Darby never even held a job. Ginn’s efforts helped make hardcore a national concern, eclipsing the more nuanced Hollywood scene. Ultimately the flag shape was to be deconstructed rather than changed outright.

Whether longevity was ever a possibility for the Germs, its undesirability is less arguable. Darby Crash was a genius. He was among the first to understand that this youth phenomenon was more than a temporal market demographic. He understood that its adherents’ idealism and energy could be concentrated into an overwhelming counterattack against the predominant culture, so long, of course, as their cry came from his voice. “Whatever it is people like that have in them that enables them to attract a following, he had it in him,” Pat Smear said. “I’m talking about some guy coming from a log cabin and ending up being president of the USA.” Darby Crash was the earliest, and perhaps the only, self-made cult of personality in punk, at least the cult that was focused on an individual. His vision of punk was ceremonial, historical, and abstract, but it was not ethical.

Not that Darby Crash should be forgotten. He had been too right and too wrong in equal measure to be damned either to obscurity or infamy. And the path he chose made his gifts too evident after more than half a lifetime of deprivation. Whether or not punk’s more ethical turn was warranted, or whether or not it is comparably better, is a matter of debate that will never properly be settled. Nor should it be, for punk is in all respects a movement against monotony. It is also a movement that, having embraced Darby Crash’s world-historic call to greatness, was quite efficient in finding it disappointing at best. Punks have travelled too many shapeless roads and found too many permutations of themselves along the way to abide by the dull logic of a circle.

1 For background of this piece, I am indebted to this article, these books, and the liner notes to this album.

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THE ANONYMOUS PUNK

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I.

“Look at us today/We’ve gotten soft and fat/Waiting for that moment/It’s just not coming back.” So sang Ian MacKaye in the Minor Threat song “Salad Days.” The song stands out in Minor Threat’s small but monumental catalog for a few reasons. First it is among the last songs they ever wrote. It was performed only once at their final show in 1983 and not released until 1985. Second is that it is one of the five songs, out of a total original output of 23, that exceeded two-and-half minutes. And third, it marked a complete tonal and operational shift from that which established the band two years before. Yet because of all this, it is crucial to our understanding of why Minor Threat is remembered at all.

Minor Threat were one of the more peculiar bands to arise out of the 1980s post-punk milieu. They were one of innumerable acts then embodying the hardcore scene that was overtaking all of America’s major cities and not a few of its minor ones. Compared to their peers they hardly qualify as originators or refiners. They were not as foundational as The Middle Class, as nuanced as Hüsker Dü, as technical as Bad Brains, as angry as Negative Approach, as clever as Dead Kennedys, or as provocative as MDC (Millions of Dead Cops). Yet the 20 minutes that comprise their first two EPs, Minor Threat and In Your Eyes, are among the most revered by the genre’s fans, almost rivaling Catcher in the Rye in fervor of imitation and abuse. Contrarianism plays a role here certainly, with MacKaye’s rejection of punk self-destruction in favor of self-preservation that saw the hazards of recreational drug use and promiscuous sex. But that was nothing without the band’s larger accomplishment: their cohesion. What Minor Threat lacked in technical or creative prowess, they more than made up for both in their synchronization. Minor Threat stands as one of the tightest units in rock music. A typical Minor Threat song combines four separate sources of youthful energy to emit a brief but riveting jolt of power. It is more engine than song.

Salad Days” is the exception that proves the rule. By 1983 the engine was not so much out of steam as it was breaking down altogether. The band was at cross-purposes. Members Jeff Nelson, Lyle Preslar, and Brian Baker were pushing for a more accessible sound, rather inexplicably along the lines of U2, a change which included the option of signing to a major label. MacKaye disagreed and they opted instead to go their separate ways. “Salad Days” shows the extent of the disintegration. The music is the most polished of Minor Threat’s oeuvre, including a slow-building—some might say ponderous—intro with bass and the tolling of a bell that ascends to a properly crafted hook. But MacKaye, who had recorded the song under duress and laid down his vocals quickly, is having none of it. Where he put any effort into his singing at all it was to convey the disillusionment that had overcome him in those short two years. He saw what was best in hardcore—its expressive freedom—accelerate in the wrong direction while the worst in hardcore—its mindless aggression—fused itself in place. The strange cross of evolution and inertia understandably propelled a reflective mood of purity corrupted and good intentions set aside.

MacKaye’s laments were premature, of course; not simply because he was 21 when he wrote the song but because he would eventually find footing again in subsequent bands, refining the style and stretching the reach of his message to the extent that it shapes more than just punk. Nevertheless, “Salad Days” typified a widely shared feeling among his cohort. “At the time everyone was bummed at how stagnant and separated and elitist everything had become,” Marginal Man guitarist Kenny Inouye said. “When that part came in that says, ‘Do you remember when?/Yeah, well so do I,’ I just lost it.” And it continues to be felt.

II.

Nothing quite prepares punks for when their first bout of nostalgia sets in, but many know it when they see it in someone else. That punk, whom I will call Alex, is nigh on the ripe age of 27. Just 10 years before, Alex gained prominence as a bassist in at least three bands and one basement “side project” that doesn’t really count. Alex may be a fixture on demos but not on debut EPs, let alone proper albums. Alex eventually moves to a larger city to attend college, leaving the gear at home. Alex takes up graphic design or communications or “comparative literature”, though, in hopes of giving back to The Scene. Alex dreams of starting a label or a zine, or at the very least joining an ethical public relations company. Alex interns at a nonprofit to gain some experience. Alex gets hired to the junior staff of a prominent firm, and commits all spare time and funds to fostering any project, or tries to. Alex makes account manager and tries to focus on “community awareness” rather than just “hot brands.” But Alex wants a bigger apartment. Alex makes account executive and starts “building relationships” with microbrews, influencers, and venture capitalists. Alex finds a partner and a dog.

Alex ventures back home for a holiday or an anniversary or something and meets up with an old bandmate who never left. He is gainfully employed at a local bar that requires suspenders, gingham, denim, and regular gym visits. One arm is covered in clouded tattoos; the other is around a woman decidedly younger than both of them. She is the designated driver, and she takes them to an old haunt of theirs, a ragged, barely livable house that was a meeting point for denizens of The Scene. Attendance never required explicit invitation yet everyone always knew who would be there and who wouldn’t. The neighborhood looks slightly more cleaned up than Alex remembers and there is a FOR SALE sign on the front lawn. Inside Alex recognizes no one, though they bear hints of familiarity in manner and dress. The continuity is comforting until the younger occupants talk admiringly of bands Alex never heard of or dislikes and indifferently about bands that meant everything to Alex at their age. Almost worse is when they talk obsessively about those latter bands, which they probably never saw live and never listened to the first seven-inch Alex cherishes despite not being able to find. But Alex hits it off with someone who says all the Correct Opinions, is full of energy and idealism, and who is not there just to party. She and her friends have a group blog that promotes positive action and calls out negative vibes. But then she hands Alex something, a demo cassette. “It’s a throwback, I know,” she says with a self-conscious giggle, before mentioning that the email address in the insert is not run by her but she checks it if s/he has feedback. Alex thanks her and motions his/her companions to leave. In the high school parking lot the two agree to listen to the demo while their chaperone smokes outside. Neither of them say anything as one song transitions seamlessly into another. They don’t have to say anything. They just face forward in silence. Alex isn’t sure if the demo is actually good, but is nonetheless overcome by a dread that had long been on the cerebral periphery. A dread of time passing and new generations ascending, not doing anything differently but somehow doing it anything done before better. That dread would have its hold on Alex all night had it not been broken by the fermented stench of the friend’s vomit that appeared all over the glove compartment and his fancy work denim.

The malaise of punk nostalgia always has the air of a rite of passage. The final rite, that is, in which one realizes one’s own shelf life. One ideally hopes to grow out of punk while staying somehow within it, often as a kind of elder statesman. All projects are not projects in themselves as they are means to achieve that end. The end is often deferred, however, whenever one encounters those whom elder statesmen would seek to minister. They seem arrogant, speak more readily on any matter regardless of knowledge, and denounce the errors of the past without admitting any of its virtues. It hits home once one realizes that one did the very same thing years before, and the malaise is of one’s own making. And it’s going to hit much harder when one finds the very fount of that nostalgia entirely erased.

III.

When one has been involved in punk long enough, one often speaks as if they had been punk since birth. The idea of existing before or without punk is unthinkable. That person would have been beneath contempt, a hopeless and hollowed-out shell of a human. But such is the passion that comes from conversion. The appeal of punk is rooted in understanding, or rather in being hypersensitive to, what is not punk. It is, to be sure, a tundra with many routes: the boredom of suburbia, the meritocratic bloodlessness of modern education, the upending of divorce, a sudden and inexplicable gulf between one and one’s peers, really any kind of trauma. Many manage to bear with these obstacles as best they can, but some cannot accept the landscape as is and long for an oasis. Punk is one such oasis and to find it one must often look very intently for it.

The cultic element of punk has long been a matter of contention for its critics, and punks have flirted with this from time to time. Germs frontman Darby Crash instituted the “Germs burn,” administered by pressing a lit cigarette onto one’s wrist—always by someone who already had one—as a sign of allegiance to the band. But in truth the majority of punks do not prefer a zero-sum initiation. One either encounters punk by sight or by sound, and if one is compelled they begin immersion: going to shows or buying an album or two. If one is immersing with friends, which is the preferable method, they would naturally trade tapes or CDs.

If nostalgia is the final rite of passage then immersion is the first. But it grew out of necessity. Punk long functioned in scarcity, with mass media attention being intermittent and fleeting. Its perpetuation and maintenance has been left almost entirely to those who listened to it. The journey into punk was predicated on what one heard and what one was able to get. A punk, whom I will call Pat, hears about an album. Great! How is Pat supposed to get it? Buying the album. Does Pat have the disposable income? Pat will pay Mom back. Is the album distributed at Wal-Mart? No. At Sam Goody? No. At the 10 sq. ft. record store 30 miles away next to a body shop and has no parking lot? Yes! Does Pat have a car? No. Do any of Pat’s friends have a car? Yes! Do they have gas money? No. Does the internet exist? It’s 1998. Can Pat’s friends make a tape with their copy? Pat’s friends are high right now, they promise to do it later. (Repeat.) Special order that motherfucker locally and wait 14–21 business days.

I’m being somewhat reductive, but this was broadly the process by which immersion took place. And punk culture was shaped by it. At its best punk was a deeply social cultural formation in which peers at once refined their own tastes and instilled communal bonds through the local scene. At its worst, however, particularly enterprising punks could build didactic walls around sections of the scene separating, arbitrarily, those with “correct” formations from those without. This predominantly comes from my own experience. My own formation was regrettably done in isolation, which produced an unusual palate and made me more of a satellite in the scene. My formation was dependent largely upon reference books, oral histories, anything I could buy or check out.

But it was also a time of transition in which technological progress made access somewhat easier. One friend had a CD burner on his computer and was offering to provide CDs from his own library for a small price, maybe even nothing at all; he even provided an inventory list. From him I got several Hot Water Music albums I haven’t listened to in ages, as well as Cave In, Botch, Bad Brains, and others. Message boards did as much to empower word-of-mouth as set the stage for memes. And this is to say nothing of Napster, the legacy of which is better seen as a hands-on consumer guide than as a treasure trove of free goods of consistent quality. But technology, like most scientific applications, is not a moderating one.

Steve Albini notoriously lambasted CDs as “rich man’s eight-tracks.” They threatened his aesthetic sensibilities, which were analog in the extreme. He was partly right in that CDs are now these cumbersome, space-wasting reflective circles. But the fervor to vinyl remains a niche concern. Most of the purchasing public, as James Poulos wrote, prefer access to ownership, which digitization has provided in unprecedented depth and change so far-reaching in punk as to utterly mutate it.

IV.

At the conclusion of his memoir Your Band Sucks, former Bitch Magnet guitarist Jon Fine lamented that “nothing I’d hoped for twenty-five years ago had happened. The weirdos hadn’t taken over. Our bands hadn’t changed the world, or destroyed the big, bad major labels. (That was the Internet’s [sic] job.) Or even changed the mainstream that much.” His parenthetical is a significant one. Fine is no critic of the web, which “provided a central place—more precisely, a decentralized place—where many small campfires could be tended, around which widely dispersed but unusually ardent audiences traded tales and live recordings.”

20 years ago, a nascent punk like myself had to undertake considerable sleuthing in order to find even the most basic information about even a contemporary obscure band. Many bands, in fact, seemed more like zoological legends. Deadguy, a short-lived and still ferocious New Jersey band, impishly shrouded themselves in so much mystery that I suspected them of being a shady front operation. But the increasing sophistication of the internet provided for an extensive lifting of veils. If one wants to listen to The Faith’s influential Subject to Change EP, two versions of it are on Spotify. If one wants to watch 25-year-old footage of Universal Order of Armageddon, there’s YouTube for that.

That is territory well-trodden compared to the greater change that has come to punk culture as a result. As the internet decentralized the music industry it, too, decentralized punk. More than that, it delocalized, demystified, and, in a way, destigmatized it. It sewed shut the word-of-mouth and replaced it in the code of algorithm. It purged the gatekeepers and replaced them with “curators.” Punk’s scarcity has given way to extreme abundance, its hidden nature is now fully transparent, almost naked. For bands this might not actually change much. Though this at first saves many more bands from being “criminally overlooked,” the nature of the search has mostly changed from a treasure hunt to landfill scavenging. But the implications to the punk on the street are immense and the implications should be divisive. Indeed, this moment has a peculiar and, I think, illustrative parallel.

I am led, in other words, to the mid-20th century, Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, SJ and his theory of the “anonymous” or “implicit” Christian. It proposes that one can accept God’s salvation without ever having heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ. “The person who accepts a moral demand from his conscience as absolutely valid for him embraces it as such in a free act of affirmation—no matter how unreflected—asserts the absolute being of God,” Rahner wrote, “whether he knows or conceptualizes it or not.” Its central inclusivity was popular in the heat of the Second Vatican Council, even leaving its fingerprints on some of its documents; it also reflects some of punk’s highest ideals, which are now more applicable than ever before.

V.

As I have written elsewhere, punk has long been an ethical and creedal endeavor. Its ethics have helped to assure its survival against the predation of the mainstream rock industry and the decadence of its culture. “Fuck your trends, fuck your friends/Fuck your groupies who try to pretend that you’re down/You’re fucking not,” goes the Nails song “You Will Never Be One of Us,” “Nobody wants what you’ve fucking got.” But translated at the local level it’s cold dogma—rules, restrictions, and pedantry. It doesn’t so much keep the scene pure as it makes it socially uniform and aesthetically anemic all for the end of purging posers. Post-analog punks have never been freer from this stranglehold than at this moment. Even if they can’t hear everything, they can hear anything at their own discretions and set their own limits. After Spotify, everyone is a punk.

The most positive result, then, is a total reversal of Ian MacKaye’s initial concerns about hardcore. The authoritarian tendencies are gone, and expression is finally flourishing. But the erosion of authority also leads to the erosion of the community and its immense benefits. Peer relationships will be less instrumental in immersion. Immersion won’t be tempered by the guidance of a mutual explorer, but will be overwhelmed in aimless indulgence. Punk then vindicates its most vulgar critics by becoming what they always said it was: noise. The anonymous punk risks becoming an atomized punk.

Rahner’s anonymous Christianity was controversial in its day, and remains so among those who remember it. It has its critics on the traditional wing (it’s relativistic!) as well as the progressive wing (it’s paternalistic!) of the Church. His most thoughtful critic, though, has been Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who responded to Rahner’s project with a clarity and a commitment to striking at the heart of the matter that I find both familiar and helpful. “Is it true that Christianity adds nothing to the universe but merely makes it known?” he wrote while still a Cardinal. “Is Christianity really just man as he is? Is not man as he is that which is insufficient, that which must be mastered and transcended? … A Christianity that is no more than a reflected universality may be innocuous, but is it not also superfluous?”

Outwardly at least, little seems all that different. Bands still form, shows are put on and attended, merch is made and purchased, and music is at least made. Communities, of a sort, still convene, though they do so largely online. Rather what I am arguing has changed is the intimacy that punk engenders. That indescribable sense of belonging fostered away from the crowds and within the microcosm of friendship. There were limitations in that enclosure, sure, but there were no rules imposed from on high or procedures to follow. Not everyone was punk, perhaps, but punk could be anything, whether a shriek of catharsis, a moral reinforcement, the courage to say something one cannot yet say themselves, or a reason merely to live.

It’s possible that despite the static, that intimacy is maintained, that its custodians are aware of the static’s volume, and are now committed to its abatement. It’s possible that I, like everyone else, am just old and should forget. And for once that would be nice to do, difficult though it is.

LUXURY VS. CULTIVATION

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Last summer I was visiting a friend, another writer, and we got almost immediately to doing what writers do when writers are in the same room: talk about writing. Perhaps because I was the guest, I recall having considerable sway over the course and tone of the conversation. It centered largely on anxieties related to being a writer: whether one is ever as good as one imagines in one’s own mind, whether one has done enough to provide evidence for the case, and whether one will be justly remembered regardless. Something along those lines. Anyway, in the course of talking, my friend made an observation that, generally, collections of writings by a single author seldom contain work from the first 10 years of their career. Fair enough, but of course there are exceptions to this. One is the iconic author, who tends to encourage completism among publishers if not readers. The other is the prematurely deceased author.

There are many examples of the second kind; Rimbaud is probably the most obvious, and maybe infamous. But her point connected me immediately to an author who’d been on my mind for much of that year.

“I suppose I am not a truly dedicated artist, whatever that is. I’ll probably never produce a masterpiece, but so what?” So Lester Bangs assessed of himself in 1968, at the age of 20, the year before he came into prominence as a contributor to the fledgling rock magazine Rolling Stone, and later Creem and The Village Voice.

Few would disagree with that assessment. Bangs never did write a masterpiece as commonly understood. Though it was not for lack of trying. In early the 1980s, Bangs was writing a book called Rock Gomorrah/Tales from Beyond the Grooves. Bangs had written two previous books, on Blondie and Rod Stewart, but they were more like unauthorized hackish fan guides. Rock Gomorrah was more ambitious, a musical complement, it seems, to Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon. Bangs completed a draft in 1982 and submitted it to its publisher. He celebrated later that day with Valium and an over-the-counter cold medicine. He went into a coma and never recovered. He was 33 years old. Rock Gomorrah was shelved and, going by what his biographer read of it, will remain so in its present condition.

Bangs’s legacy has since rested on his shortform work, which spans two collections. Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, edited by Greil Marcus, is seen as the authoritative collection. It amasses his most accomplished pieces, including his tense feature on Lou Reed and his survey of racism—ironic and otherwise—in New York’s burgeoning punk scene. It also features some of his failed attempts at “serious” narrative literature. This was followed by John Morthland’s Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste, the authentic collection that expanded upon the first, including more fugitive pieces but also his Rolling Stone debut: the hatchet job on MC5’s Kick Out the Jams.

While it’s one book more than Robert Warshow, Bangs, as a result of his brevity, joins a long line of writers who are esteemed almost exclusively on style points. It’s the kind of inverted hex that renders a writer all but invisible to a larger public while being fiercely polarized among specialists. As a writer with a knack for criticism of a pop cultural bent, I am no exception. I own a poorly printed copy of Psychotic Reactions, which I bought not after watching Almost Famous, but after putting “rock critic” into Google (or whatever I was using circa 2003). The purpose was then to explore the form I was intent on pursuing at the time. I studied his work with caution. I had already understood the spell of imitation being caught from other “impassioned” stylists of very recent antiquity, and the Bangs style was and is especially potent.

In 2016, Art Tavana wrote a column for LA Weekly on Sky Ferreria. It received backlash from other websites for its exaltation of the singer’s “sex appeal” at the expense of her actual music. It has all the markings of a deliberate troll, given that “sex appeal” was in the title, but also of being poorly written. The piece froths over with tacky imagery (“Sky Tonia Ferreira … has a name that reads like a turbo-charged Italian sports car.”), pedestrian comparisons (“When I say Ferreira looks like Madonna, I also mean to say she has the same kind of innate charisma that most normal people lack.”), and equivocating abstractions (“Male subjectivity aside, the cosmetic potency of Sky Ferreira’s sex appeal shouldn’t be objectified …”) But so intense was the ire that he wrote a formal apology for it. “As a disciple of Bangs and [Richard] Meltzer,” he wrote, “I have cultivated an intentionally provocative prose style that thrives on enacting a certain disregard for the conventions and protocols of polite society.” The word cultivate is significant, because Tavana’s piece is a case study in precisely how it should not be done, in the sense that it was not done at all.

More than his own writing, Bangs lives on in those who invoke his name in an amalgam of tribute and protection. He gives power to a certain kind of nerd with a certain kind of self-confidence to remove the shroud of Tavana’s dreaded “protocols of polite society” so that their opinions charge free like wolves through an opened gate of a sheep enclosure. Bangs is not so much a writer as a Promethean figure, a motivational speaker. It’s a representation that reminds me of Dave Grohl’s lecture at SXSW, which pounded in the skulls of every listener, with Grohl’s trademark indelicacy, a single theme:

There is no right or wrong. There is only, YOUR VOICE. Your voice screaming through an old Neve 8028 recording console, your voice singing from a laptop, your voice echoing from a street corner …. It doesn’t matter. What matters most is that it’s YOUR VOICE. Cherish it. Respect it. Nurture it. Challenge it. Stretch it and scream until it’s fucking gone.

Despite, or because of, the positive intonations of self-actualization inherent in it, writing of this kind is divisive. For the haters it is self-indulgent, vulgar, and/or pretentious. For its admirers it is authentic or uncompromising. I prefer the more all-encompassing term luxuriating, for that is what it is, whether good or bad. It is the championing of the singular voice, and the strident self against the trembling many. It is a mud bath in one’s total subjectivity. It is the triumph of and unflinching allegiance to lived experience. At its best it reveals writing’s immense flexibility and can clarify or simplify ideas for any lay reader where more restrained writing may obscure or flatten. Montaigne was of this bent, as were Thomas De Quincey, Friedrich Nietzsche, G.K. Chesterton, Virginia Woolf, Eric Hoffer, and James Baldwin. Good contemporary examples include Annie Dillard and Jessica Hopper.

The luxuriant voice can break bad in two ways. One way is in authority, a word-vested priesthood, if you will, where the voice is the doctrine. “This effect [of Emerson on his audience] was by no means due to the possession … of the secret of the universe, or even of a definite conception of the ultimate truth,” George Santayana wrote. “The source of his power lay not in his doctrine, but in his temperament, and the rare quality of his wisdom due less to his reason than to his imagination.” The other way is in performative detachment, where a writer livens up a given space by the gravitas his being there lends to it. Think David Foster Wallace on the cruise ship, or John Jeremiah Sullivan at the Creation festival:

I suspect that on some level—say, the conscious one—I didn’t want to be noticing what I noticed as we went. But I’ve been to a lot of huge public events in this country during the past five years, writing about sports or whatever, and one thing they all had in common was this weird implicit enmity that American males, in particular, seem to carry around with them much of the time. Call it a laughable generalization, fine, but if you spend enough late afternoons in stadium concourses, you feel it, something darker than machismo. Something a little wounded, and a little sneering, and just plain ready for bad things to happen. It wasn’t here. It was just…not. I looked for it, and I couldn’t find it. In the three days I spent at Creation, I saw not one fight, heard not one word spoken in anger, felt at no time even mildly harassed, and in fact met many people who were exceptionally kind. I realize they were all of the same race, all believed the same stuff, and weren’t drinking, but there were also 100,000 of them. What’s that about?

Tavana’s piece hewed closest to this kind. At bottom, what hinged most on his column was not what it said about Ferreria, though she was understandably unhappy, but simply that he was saying it. He could have written similarly steamy prose about bass fishing for all anyone cared. True, this is the essayist’s power, but it’s also the essayist’s responsibility not to drift into inanities and platitudes, which in this case it did at the very least. Of course this is only one piece, and singling him out overlooks that he’s apparently been publishing since 2013, and so is protected by my friend’s 10-year rule. Tavana, after all, did write an engrossing feature on Milo Yiannopoulos, the sadness of which verged on gothic.

But luxuriating one’s voice, whatever its timbre, is an affirmation rather than cultivation. Writing that is cultivated is not as passionately contested, but has its own line in the sand. For its haters it is studied, arch, cold, and, also, pretentious. For its lovers it is elegant, disciplined, witty, and respectful. It pays heed to past forms and is concerned primarily with following Swift’s dictum of “proper words in proper places,” so as best to illuminate the subject at hand. But the subject may not be one especially called for by others. Cultivated writing is no less idiosyncratic than luxuriant writing, but it is idiosyncrasy of judgment more than voice. The finest examples include Edmund Burke, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt (for the most part), Walter Pater (most of the Victorians really), Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, and Maggie Nelson. But also Lester Bangs.

“I feel I have a Sound aborning, which is my own,” Bangs continued in 1968, “and that Sound if erratic is still my greatest pride, because I would rather write like a dancer shaking my ass to boogaloo inside my head, and perhaps reach only readers who like to use books to shake their asses, than to be or write for the man cloistered in a closet where reading Aeschylus.” Certainly on the surface that rings like luxuriating pomp, but the word choices of “Sound” and “boogaloo” give the game away. Bangs’s style, in the end, is in his subject: rock and roll. His style was not mere opinion-dispensing or shit-shooting, but a compound of knowledge, passion, and a gift for turning sound into language. But there was much clarity as there was passion. He wasn’t so much a polemicist or an iconoclast as he was one to call things as he saw them. “Another reason for getting rid of all those little verbal barbs is that no matter how you intend them,” Bangs wrote in “White Noise Supremacists,” “you can’t say them without risking misinterpretation by some other bigoted asshole; your irony just might be his cup of hate.”

Things like the Creem articles and partydown exhibitionism represented a reaction against the hippie counterculture and what a lot of us regarded as its pious pussyfooting around questions of racial and sexual identity, questions we were quite prepared to drive over with bulldozers. We believed nothing could be worse, more pretentious and hypocritical, than the hippies and the liberal masochism in whose sidecar they Coked along, so we embraced an indiscriminate, half-joking and half-hostile mind-lessness which seemed to represent, as Mark Jacobson pointed out in his Voice piece on Legs McNeil, a new kind of cool. “I don’t discriminate,” I used to laugh, “I’m prejudiced against everybody!” I thought it made for a nicely charismatic mix of Lenny Bruce freespleen and W.C. Fields misanthropy, conveniently ignoring Lenny’s delirious, nigh-psychopathic inability to resolve the contradictions between his idealism and his infantile, scatological exhibitionism, as well as the fact that W. C. Fields’s racism was as real and vile as-or more real and vile than anybody else’s.

Eventually I drifted away from Lester Bangs as I drifted away from writing about music. But Bangs’s example never really left me. Bangs is at heart a model critic for those to whom analytic faculty comes easily but cultural pedigree does not. My personality makes it impossible to assimilate his attitude, but his senses are something to strive for. Maria Bustillos wrote that Bangs “had the most advanced and exquisite taste of any American writer of his generation, uneven and erratic as it was.” Where he was most free, radical, and interesting was in where he chose to look, letting his talents guide him to his conclusions. There is no uniform way to sharpen that sight, and there is no way to control one’s blind spots. The endgame is not to replicate Lester Bangs or any other critic, but to have a criticism, that continues to be as sharp, committed, and has fun as his was.

THE ANTI-HORROR OF NEIL HAMBURGER

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In a previous post, I alluded to the fact that I have a soft spot for upbeat viewing. In that specific case, it was as a way of unwinding from my cerebrally taxing endeavors. But even before I was knowingly engaging in criticism, I always found comfort in the light and cheerful. In fact it is possible that I consume these products more correctly than I do the graver materials. There is no shortage of good media that is also optimistic; just look at Parks and Recreation, Portlandia, or Clueless. But their quality is a secondary matter to the escapism they offer. Left to my own devices, my mind is that of a hyperactive, neglectfully attended child atop an Action Park waterslide that slopes into darkness.

That in itself is bad, but these thoughts are of such power that I always feared they could sniff me out of hiding. And my fear was vindicated following an umpteenth viewing of Napoleon Dynamite.

Jared and Jerusha Hess’s 2004 debut feature is eternally polarizing. Some love it for the excessive quirk of its world and the almost childish guilelessness of its characters and some do not. I was perfectly at peace the first time I saw it the summer it was released, with my father and one of my brothers in tow, in a Montclair movie theater that no longer exists. All three of us were delighted and remain so. At the time it seemed quite appropriate that it was contrasted against Todd Solondz’s similarly styled but far bleaker depiction of awkward adolescence, Welcome to the Dollhouse. But lately I’ve come to realize that this was an error.

My error is twofold. First, Welcome to the Dollhouse is not similarly styled. It is a realistic portrayal of a gawky, inept child stuck in a suburb whose alternating hostility and emptiness is rendered with a classical sculptor’s precision. Second, Napoleon Dynamite is actually the bleaker of the two films. This might seem ludicrous, but it makes more sense when you see what Napoleon Dynamite is presenting: a tightly contained ideal. It is a kind of rustic snow globe where the depravity of the outside world is prohibited, and this is portrayed with delicate suggestion. “I don’t know how they do things down in Juarez,” the school principal tells Pedro, “but here in Idaho we have a little something called pride. Smashing in the face a piñata that resembles Summer Wheatley [his rival for class president] is a disgrace to you, me, and the entire Gem State.” The film does end on an upbeat note, with Napoleon playing tetherball with his love interest Deb, but we are left with the suggestion that things go downhill the moment he stops playing.

This interpretation was given greater illumination when I recently watched Rick Alverson’s 2015 film Entertainment. It tells of a standup comic, simply identified in the credits as “The Comedian” as he goes on tour through the Mojave Desert to Los Angeles, performing to audiences in bars, restaurants, and prisons who are varyingly unreceptive. He is played by Gregg Turkington, and is actually a revival of his character Neil Hamburger, a dark parody of a night club comedian, with a cheap tuxedo and a greasy comb-over, who seethes with unfunny one-liners (“Why does Madonna feed her baby Alpo brand dog food,” goes one of his “jokes.” “Because that’s what comes out of her breasts.”) while clutching multiple cocktails in his arms as he holds his microphone. When Norm Macdonald lambasted the performance criticism of anti-comedy, Hamburger is doubtless the example he had in mind.

Turkington was initially approached with the idea of playing Hamburger as interacting with people on the street. But rather than risk devolving into a Borat knock-off, Turkington preferred “a Two-Lane Blacktop art film kind of vibe.” Its conception was not so much ambitious as it was shrewd. It is at once a kind of lyrical road film and an upending of the character vehicle. It demystifies Hamburger’s persona even further by showing him out of character, so to speak. Off-stage, Hamburger’s grating register reverts back to Turkington’s more introverted tone and manner as he shuffles through venues, tourist traps, guest rooms, motels, party houses, and endless stretches of hot desert road. The most time he is seen speaking, outside of performance, is into his phone as he leaves rambling messages to his estranged daughter Maria, who does not answer or reply.

Like Napoleon Dynamite, the film is framed in static but beautiful establishing shots of vast western wilderness and tacky, time-abandoned interiors. But whereas Napoleon Dynamite’s Idaho was a safe enclosure of expansive blue skies and knick knack-filled homes, Neil Hamburger’s California is an endless scorched waste of airplane graveyards, sterile lodgings, strung-out hipsters, a very creepy Michael Cera, and minimal—seldom warm—human contact. Entertainment comes closest to a kind of spiritual sequel to Napoleon Dynamite, in which a singularly odd character is stranded from his home, trying to survive in a much less hospitable world. It is Napoleon Dynamite in exile.

Entertainment is neither a comedy nor an anti-comedy, nor is it really a drama. It tows the line between the realistic and the absurd and leans deeper in either direction. But no matter which way it leans, the result is always a variation on emptiness. The story is more of a series of incidents strung together than a narrative. He is patronized by a more successful cousin (played by John C. Reilly) on his expansive ranch, he has an ethereal but opaque session with a traveling chromotherapist, an eye doctor forgets about him mid-appointment, he agrees to, then abandons, a shoot for an internet comedy video in the middle of the desert, his opening act is a silent clown. His most receptive audience is politely laughing convicts. His strategy for interruptions is to verbally lacerate. A drunk woman cuts off his train of thought and he proceeds to call her a “whore” with “syphilis breath” as she stares back at him with a mix of shock and familiarity. She accosts him outside and breaks his glasses. When you see Neil go low, he goes lower still. When a private party requires him to jump out of a large cake, he breaks down and jumps into the pool.

Entertainment was little seen upon its release while being more praised than not by critics; with an 82 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating. One dissenter was Vulture’s David Edelstein, who watched it twice but couldn’t be convinced “that Alverson and Turkington had made an authentically punk art movie.” For all its willingness to examine “the skeletal remains of a snobbish, viciously exploitative America,” it lacked a compelling explorer. “Neil is quite a character—he’s unforgettable. But he doesn’t have the stature for tragedy.” He’s not wrong. Excessive cynicism can be every bit as unpalatable as excessive whimsy. But maybe that’s not really the intent of the film—or anyway it’s not its most interesting attribute.

Todd Solondz has dodged accusations of his own of being misanthropic, but as The AV Club points out, that is a gross simplification of his work. Though his films examine “the minds of the unlovable and unforgivable,” not only pitiful adolescent nerds but also pedophiles and anti-abortion terrorists, he does so with an aim towards humanization and empathy. “Where other filmmakers strain to give us protagonists that are immediately identifiable, Solondz tends to confront us with someone who, for most of the audience, is an ill-fitting subversion of a stereotype we didn’t know we had.”

Looked in this way, the effect of Entertainment might not be in how we respond to Neil Hamburger, but in what Neil Hamburger reflects back at us. Hamburger may not have “the stature of tragedy”—but we might. Indeed, Turkington’s creation is not a very effective commentary on standup comedy hackery—compared, anyway, to someone like Dan Nainan. Instead he strikes more broadly at the sense of exhaustive despair that is either felt or feared but never easy to articulate. Neil Hamburger is a kind of manifestation of our greatest weaknesses, our laziness, our vindictiveness, our drift into mediocrity, our isolation. He embodies Ambrose Bierce’s definition of being alone: “in bad company.” Rather than a jester of anti-comedy, Neil Hamburger is a specter of anti-horror.

But through all this, Entertainment reasserts itself as two films in one. It is a brutal trek through the American frontier’s social excrement. It is also a character study of our encroaching moral and emotional solipsism. It is suited for a warmer reception now that the rest of the country has more or less caught up with its corrosive pessimism and now that the film is on Netflix. Yet Entertainment does have one thread through which it could have stitched a timeless, or at least more coherent, work.

In one of his several calls to his daughter, Neil, drunk and on the floor, sings “Ave Maria” into her voicemail. Edelstein points out that these iterations of Maria are not accidental. Over the course of the film, the invitations to conversation assume the cadence of prayers to a being he can’t quite distinguish. In one call he asks her point blank if she believes in God. Yet these read less like a thematic undercurrent and more like a missed opportunity. With the amorality of the era well established by now, the creative curiosity not just for moral narrative, but religious narrative, has been on the rise. If mother! was an imperfect entry, it was also an indicator of further commitment. Neil Hamburger’s Dark Night of the Soul might have elevated the broadly tragic and shocking non sequiturs into more classically grotesque observances of the suffering and humility that can give way to grace. Michael Cera’s menacing but pointless cameo could have made an unsettling case for the demonic presence. “Neil is desperate for salvation,” Edelstein writes. He could have had it.

It is possible that I’m reading too much into this with the religious road movie I already have in my head. But Entertainment at least understands more concretely, and with far less words, what most proselytizers can only speak of in the abstract: we are exhausted trying to fill our spiritual absence with empty calories. At the film’s best, Neil Hamburger’s hopeless binge veers on the poetic. The power inherent in finding one is no longer hungry remains unrealized.

POSTERITY BITES

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When I take actual stock in what it means to be a millennial, I find myself always settling on the image of a floor of a burning skyscraper. The floor itself is not burning, but the floors just above it and just below it are one by one being engulfed in flames. These dual infernos, I suspect you will have gathered, are meant to represent the animosities of the surrounding generations. The top-down flames are the boomers, possibly also a select chunk of generation X. The bottom-up flames are the succeeding generations.

This metaphor functions on a certain level of speculation on my part. Compared to the animosity of the baby boomers, little can be said of the generations to follow us—that is to say, “generation Z” and anything after. The flames coming down are certainly much closer than those coming up. But I’m placing my bets squarely on the likelihood that the rising flames are in fact rising.

Of the older generation’s laments, we hear about them often. Their thinkpieces of avocados, selfies, pornography, and narcissism speak volumes. Time, you see, is a great obstacle course of struggle. It is not up to the elders to tell you just how those obstacles are placed or when they will appear, but only to be ready when they do. But then some obstacles appeared that not even they knew how to overcome, and so the only reasonable solution was to place a greater onus upon us. Up went our potential, up still went our destiny, and with that all outside hopes and expectations. And yet by all appearances we dithered and floundered.

If this is worth responding to at all, I suppose it can be along these lines: lay the fuck off, you prigs.

As with any other generation, the millennials are a complicated lot gathered together by the fortune—or misfortune—of the temporal lottery. For all the overlap we share there is a far greater reserve of difference between one another in how we approached our bizarre age. Some, when the War on Terror had commenced, reacted to it by volunteering to fight for it, while others endeavored to protest its excesses if not its entire existence, and others plowed forward regardless of either for various reasons. Some are excited by the sudden explosion of technology and its revolutionary implications and others are not. Some are ennobled by the liberal order the previous generation established and want to usher it into their own age in their own image while others would rather not do that and wish to consider less favored alternatives. Some can thrive amidst the shifting economic plates beneath them while others are still trying to figure it out. Some are invested in cultivating stability and family life and others are just not. To hound us for our failures to rise to the occasion seems, firstly, to be very rude to your children and, secondly, to plead blindness to human experience, which guides itself by no one social framework.

The ire of the subsequent generations is another matter, especially as it is starting to take shape with the new one is coming into adulthood.

Those who make up the Parkland teens were born in or around 2000. As victims of or witnesses to one of the deadliest school shootings in the United States, they are both symbols and leaders of a mass movement to bring about greater gun control laws in the country. They and other young people have proven remarkably savvy in carrying out their message. They made the cover of TIME magazine this week in anticipation of the March for Our Lives, which took place on March 24 in 800 cities around the world, with hundreds of thousands of attendees in Washington, DC alone.

Those sections of the media not antagonistic to the phenomenon have explained it with an air of destiny. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students were “trained for this moment” thanks to a curriculum that includes forensics and public speaking as well as high-quality drama and journalism programs. They have also been reared in the morals of young adult fiction. “Emma González’s extraordinary, uncomfortable, unexplained silence was one of the most transformational political moments of my lifetime,” Dahlia Lithwick writes on an instantly iconic moment of the march.

The coverage is instructive more of the people doing the covering than on their subjects. The teens are not just aggrieved high school students, but keepers of the progressive flame that others have failed to kindle. It is not simply arms legislation they seek to change but The Culture. In other words, they make up one branch of the continued assault on the Trump presidency (the other, currently, being Stormy Daniels). As of right now, the teens and their supporters share the same target, but The Culture is vast and entangled. At some point, another rising young person of equal command will have sharp and impassioned things to say about others. Quite possibly us.

It will doubtless look typical that a millennial should wonder whether anyone is thinking of him and his cohort in any intent way. Nevertheless, it is appropriate to do so. Seeing as how millennials, quite against their wishes, achieved their own quasi-mythical status, it would make some sense for the next crop of thinkpiece fodder to assess us with their hindsight. I can’t say that I’m incurious. I was a freshman in high school when the Columbine shooting took place killing 13 people, four less than the deaths at MSDHS. If there was any mass student-led movement in its wake it is not remembered. “There’s a part of me that says, ‘You could have done more. You could have been more active,’” Columbine survivor Andy McDonald told Vox. “One of the things that crossed my mind was, what if there were changes that were made after Columbine on a policy level? What could have been different today as a result? Would it have become part of the culture? That was part of my frustration.”

Columbine was something of a transitional moment, as with any other major millennial event. But it was the transition of one form of backlash—politicians blaming popular culture for violence—giving way to another—politicians arguing the how versus if of gun control. Columbine was when the cycle as we’ve known it for years was created and calcified with each new shooting. What student protestors could have done at the time is unclear. The media, for one, was much more controlled than it is now, and social media was rather … limited. I defy anyone around my age to remember his or her first AOL screen name. Moreover, the character of the time was much different. Even after Ruby Ridge, Rodney King and the Los Angeles riots, Waco, the Unabomber, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Atlanta Olympics bombing, and the Seattle WTO riots, the era was an optimistic one. Trust in government was considerably higher than it is now. In fact, Bill Clinton’s approval rating was hovering around the mid-60s in the first half of 1999. The idea of protesting and moral outcry seemed less attractive than simply processing the trauma and letting the kids be kids again.

Seen less generously, the millennials look to those younger like an age demographic reared, willfully, into an age of complacency, with some even longing for a return to that complacency. This perception would not be any more deserved than the one lobbed from above, but it is more understandable.

There is a greater rift separating the millennials from generation Z than the rift separating the boomers from the millennials. Our recent culture and politics have been framed by and to the benefit of those who witnessed the 9/11 attacks in real time. Little has been thought of those born just before or immediately after the attacks. It is entirely plausible, likely even, that their views will be markedly different from ours. They look much more skeptically toward power structures, or at least those structures that exclude them. With greater means to participate in social activity, they are less passive or curious. To that end, the internet is no longer a wondrous novelty but a functional tool. I won’t say that they’re unsentimental, but they might have less patience for the sentimentality of millennials.

Millennials are left to wonder: how are we to respond if they come calling? My answer is: we don’t. Not out of callousness, mind you, but out of acquiescence. It’s become clear in the last several years that millennials are not actually going to Inherit the Earth as each generation has in the past. The bill of damages racked up by those generations had to be handed down at some point, and it fell to ours to default on the debts. The generational wars are over—in stalemate. History is bored with us. Millennials in this sense, and only in this sense, are free. Free, anyway, to address their responsibilities in different ways. Say, for instance, in managing multigenerational homes, which will reassert age divisions not as cultural signifiers but as levels of experience in carrying out familial and communal roles. For many millennials, the world is looking smaller than it was initially promised, and so retreat from worldliness into something more local may be more attractive, or at least more sustainable.

The experience of a millennial, then, is still a burning building but with different accelerants: the contradictory expectations of the recent past burning from above and the succession of social and cultural upheavals burning from below. Yet the millennials are in themselves a singular phenomenon, in the sense that they can exit the generational structure, walking away as the building burns down.

HANNIBAL BURESS AND THE HEIGHTS OF LOW ENERGY

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March 4, 2018 was for America the night of one of the most momentous and paradigmatic Academy Awards ceremonies in recent memory. Weeks, months even, went into the building up of its immense proportions, which were as much historic and social as they were artistic. It was designed as a monument to all the hopeful and vibrant things that managed to escape from the vortex of negativity long roving across the land. A commemoration, simply put, of emerging voices and relevant stories. So revolutionary and radical were the circumstances surrounding it that they caused a horror film to be nominated for Best Picture and a fantasy film to win it. To have missed the events of that night, then, constituted an act of malice in the eyes of right-thinking people.

We are ever a nation drunk with malice, it turns out. The 2018 Oscars broadcast was viewed by a mere 26.5 million people. That seems like a lot but is actually a 19 percent decrease from last year’s viewership, making it the lowest-rated Oscars ceremony ever. For those for whom the direct avenues of power are closed off, the next available detour is often the power of refusal. As is often my fortune, I never go out of my way to seek power; it’s just something that falls before me offering its embrace freely. This instance is no exception, and so I feel it is my obligation to disclose the responsibility, wisdom, and prudence with which I wielded my power.

I was very tired at the close of that Sunday. Some time before dinner I’d finished and sent off a long essay that I had been writing over the last week, and so I was not interested in the grave matter of validating cinematic history. As with the conclusion of similar undertakings, I want to lighten rather than leaden my mind. I resolved to dive headlong into what scribes of online call “guilty pleasures.” So instead I put on last year’s film adaptation of Baywatch.

The effect that comes with watching a bad film can really only be equated with the effect of taking recreational drugs. Every bad film promises for viewers an intensification of their senses and an elevation of their well-being. The sorrows and stress that brought them to their viewing are vaporized in an instant. These effects are in some cases quite cheap and dirty, with short-term sharpening giving way to long-term dulling. Some viewers never quite recover from seeing Troll 2, The Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence), or We Are Your Friends. It takes a shrewd sense to know which bad films will waste you and which will spark the fuse of your third eye consciousness. Baywatch did not, at first, seem like anything special. It looked mostly like a sure thing that curiously misfired. I soon found that I was mistaken. But rather than Helen Hunting myself, I was fortunate to traverse the cultural-space continuum and attain enlightenment.

In the annals of bad film, the status of Baywatch is pretty plain, and not in the camp way of the show on which it is based—it is simply a mistake. A strange mistake, to be sure. It was a safe concept wasted either by poor writing or by not casting it with more improvisation-friendly performers. (I am also quite certain that at least some part of Zac Efron’s musculature was CGI-enhanced.) Baywatch is that rare beast of an error whose charms have no effect on the contrarian fairy. The initial critical response was the correct one. It was not wasted for me because I found one bright spot, a North Star tearing a small but easily spotted rift in the film’s otherwise tepid void.

Hannibal Buress Is listed in the cast as playing “Dave the Tech.” I know this because as part of the not even five-minute stretch of his performance in the film, he is sitting behind a laptop, discussing some tech-based exposition to the film’s villain, Priyanka Chopra. He is there to keep the plot moving, which is another way of saying his character is killed off somewhere at the film’s midpoint. I remember his line-reading more than his actual lines, laconic and indirect, like any stranger at a party. His two modes aside from being dead are standing stiffly and sitting stiffly.

In a film that is predicated on physical prowess and movement, he is an energy sinkhole. The critics noticed. “Hannibal’s talents were terribly underused in a movie that needed some genuinely funny comedy,” Megan Schuster wrote at The Ringer. “Underused” might not be the right word. Oscar Nuñez was underused. Misused is more accurate. A better film would have cast someone who was at once unmemorable and more tonally compatible in the role—say, a Curtis Armstrong type. But this is no such film, and so “Dave the Tech” is a needlessly unusual addition, contrasting rather than complementing Baywatch’s beachfront utopia.

Burress’s persona in the film is detectable to anyone who watched The Eric Andre Show on Adult Swim. As with their sibling shows, Eric Andre relies on absurd, surreal, and discomforting forms of comedy, but here it is more deliberately framed within a late night talk show format. Eric Andre is the manic, volatile host, who starts every show by destroying the set before it is quickly replaced. His guests—who don’t seem to know where they are—are more objects to prod or bounce off of then people to inquire about. Buress is the sidekick, who is more introverted and awkward. There is only one chair next to the host’s desk, so when a guest appears, Buress stands beside them and looks down.

The Eric Andre Show’s genius is not in its random antics like Doc Chicken but in its approach of the host-sidekick dynamic as a sort of parody of physics: Andre is the unstoppable force to Buress’s immovable object. It also highlights, if inadvertently, the distinction between people who disregard social mores and people who don’t understand them. In interviewing Lauren Conrad, Andre asks dismissively about what she does and later starts dismantling his desk with a buzzsaw. Buress asks her if she likes Waka Flocka Flame and then eats a head of lettuce. Buress’s deadpan delivery recalls Steven Wright and Bob Newhart, and in some respects Maria Bamford, for whom the tone is as much the joke as the content. “I have a question,” he says to porn star Asa Akira. “Do we have enough porn?” Akira replies, “No.” “I think there’s enough,” he muses back. That is not the limit of his style, of course. His standup is more spirited, with one of his sets more or less catalyzing the Bill Cosby rape allegations into wider attention. And his role as Lincoln the dentist on Broad City is more conventionally funny. But even there his presence shines a beacon on a virtue much maligned in our present atmosphere.

Few people understood or cared to know what constituted “low energy” until Donald Trump lobbed the term against Jeb Bush in 2015. Though as with anything Trump touches, language itself is servant to his own purposes. It strikes at the heart of what seems to disgust Trump the most: self-abnegation over self-assurance, apathy over enthusiasm, inertia over velocity. Surely if Trump had the ability of detection and power of execution, he would scour America and its territories for every person with a trace of low energy to rehabilitate them and to cordon off from the rest of society those whose rehabilitation do not take. Buress’s example, as seen on Baywatch and Eric Andre, does not deny cause for Trump’s revulsion. But it does show how low energy is often a valid social phenomenon.

Perhaps what went most wrong with Baywatch was that it got lost in translation. Instead of poking updated fun at a ridiculous ‘90s melodrama, it reverse-engineered the concept to convey an ideal world. Much of what was portrayed in the movie are things sincerely hoped for by most Americans: sunny surroundings, filled with positive and active people, for whom physical appearance is somehow both prized and not a big deal, and who are protected by the benevolent authority of The Rock. Nothing in it would cut against the grain of Theodore Roosevelt’s “strenuous life.” In that sense, the only plausible joke landed in Baywatch is Buress himself, who stands in the middle of The Rock’s hyperkinetic dominion as a weather reporter stands in the middle of a hurricane.

Less is left to the imagination with The Eric Andre Show, where there is more of a balancing act being performed. Andre’s love of chaos is met by Buress’s tolerance of it. Each feeds off the other in equal measure; yet while Buress is more in control, Andre is more dominant. It would be a most unusual paring if it did not so acutely reflect the true character of the American situation as it is now. In Baywatch every moment he appears on screen he averts the audience gaze, tempting them with thoughts of a world that does not subsist exclusively on charm, can-do attitude, wit, or conventional notions of beauty. That world is our own.

With this I mean not to pigeonhole Buress himself. As The Ringer points out, Baywatch’s ultimate crime was treating “2017 Hannibal Buress like he was 2013 Hannibal Buress.” I suspect that the “2017” means “more famous” and therefore more multifaceted. Far be it from me to say conclusively what Buress should be going forward, though it would not be a grave offence to suggest “better used.” If that means more conventional and mainstream work—maybe even a talk show or Netflix series geared to his own idiosyncratic charms—it would be no detriment at all to the wider world. But, if somewhere down the line it includes an ingenious and revelatory adaptation of “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” I, for one, would be more than delighted.

 

CHEAP SHOT YOUTH MEMOIR

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The last few years of my life have been tyrannized by an embarrassing predicament. It is clear that I make a portion of my income through writing. More often than not, that writing is focused on what my fellow Morris and Essex rail line denizens Naughty By Nature call “OPP”—other people’s published[ work]. I don’t believe I am bad at it. In fact, I have something of an aptitude for it, or what one friend described as “a calling.” All well and good, of course, but I often wonder how much easier that calling could be responded to if I had an at least an equal aptitude for reading itself.

Let me clarify: I know how to read. Granted, I had to learn to read differently from others thanks to one of my neurological hexes, but I can get through more than one sentence from start to finish. Rather it is the discipline of reading that fells me every time. I suspect no one is more surprised at my career path than anyone with whom I shared a literature class in college. Particularly the two Education majors who would very visibly roll their eyes every time I spoke in class about a text with which I obviously hadn’t familiarized myself. It wasn’t for lack of trying, but my surplus of nervous energy is difficult to overcome. I’m fidgety and irritable when still, and filled with anxious thoughts. Meditative practices for me require extensive or routine movement like miles-long walks or washing dishes. I did not inherit the temperament of my father who after dinner every night sits at the table for an hour at least working through a new thick tome (Middlemarch, Little Dorrit, or the Neapolitan novels). He was even diligent with the rigors of college reading, talking of Moby Dick as if he vanquished a gladiator in the Coliseum. Sometimes I think maybe he deserves my bookish friends more than I do.

Needless to say, this has given me something of a complex. Though I’m not sure why this should be. Literary history is at least moderately populated with well-regarded, even revered, writers who were also reluctant readers. Thomas Hobbes, according to John Aubrey, “was wont to say that if he had read as much as other men, he should have known no more than other men.” Virginia Woolf wrote of William Hazlitt that “he never read a book through after he was thirty; that indeed he came to dislike reading altogether. … [A]ppetite, gusto, enjoyment were far more important than analytic subtlety or prolonged and extensive study.” I make no claims to be anywhere on par with these two authors (or at least to ever be on par with Hobbes) but there is something to this that appeals to me. If my writing has any distinction, I would think it is for how I try to integrate extra-literary elements into it. Put another way, the essays of mine I most esteem are those that hew closest to the tone and structure of Cave In’s “Juggernaut.” But I digress.

Of course I do read, even for pleasure. It just takes certain situational factors to make it more possible. As with alcohol and God, reading is more agreeable to me when there is a void that requires filling or a tribulation that requires endurance. In this case it was “having a job,” though it had to be a particular kind of job, with apathy practically form-fitted into the description.

Growing up in my corner of Union County, there was one place where a certain type of young person in need of money could work and get some enjoyment out of it. Scotti’s Records was the local hub for the punk in-crowd. As with the fabled alcoves of interwar CCNY, young cultural luminaries would convene to debate the pressing issues of the day—just swap out the encroaching threat of Stalinism with actually, Bivouac is better than 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, tyvm. Depending on who one was, one either liked or hated Empire Records for precisely this dynamic. I liked and got on well enough with the people who already worked there, running into them at shows and, occasionally, parties. I applied for jobs there three times, and each time I failed. The process was a bit strange. After a standard application, you were given a “test” to prove your cultural expertise, including a question to list what the top five bestselling albums were at that time. In hindsight, the test seems very much like an exclusionary tactic for reasons both practical and petty, but fair enough, I went next door and down the stairs to the movie theater, which shared employees with Scotti’s and caught a lot of its spillover. I was promptly hired in 2004, the summer after sophomore year in college, leaving behind Empire Records and settling for Ghost World.

Writing in the era of streaming services highlights many novel experiences of the business of getting people to leave their homes and sit in a dark room for two hours. Not all of them are really worth remembering, but I’ll do so anyway.

On my first day I stopped a screening because, when being shown a projection room, I neglected to notice the convoluted process of the projector that loops the celluloid across the floor. It was my good fortune that the film in question was in the end credits. On the opening night of Anchorman, a fight broke out in the middle of a packed screening because some kid brought in glow sticks. On a particularly busy day, a customer held up the concession line by rubbing his chin and asking in a Grey Poupon commercial cadence, “What do you recommend?” whenever I asked him what he wanted. A group of mid-2000s-style hipsters were the only people in a screening of Land of the Dead, when the film ended, one of them proceeded to lecture us on our poor choice of projection lens. He did not appreciate my mockingly asking him which film school he attended. The fire alarm system went off for no reason once, and as the fire department went through the building, my coworkers and I had to sit up front and wait. One of them went on an exegesis on Dr. Strange, and for a hot minute I was intrigued by the Marvel extended cinematic (whatever) universe. I only saw four people see Catwoman, and most people walked out of Before Sunset. I imagine I would hate Potterians less if they cleaned up after themselves better, but not by much. One positive: as befitting the town that counted Jon Corzine and Jim Cramer as residents, our patrons were so careless with money that I personally found just under $100 on theater floors in a single summer.

In spite of these annoyances, however, I managed enough downtime to actually read. I believe I managed to get more reading done during my theater shifts than any other time in my life. Part of it was in my choices. Red Harvest and The Big Sleep are not very intensive, neither are Flannery O’Connor’s stories. I had something of a southern kick that summer, going through Harry Crews’s Feast of Snakes, Terry Southern’s Red Dirt Marijuana collection, and, I shit you not, The Sound and the Fury. Also there was a Howard Hughes biography for good measure. I never finished that one. Much of this was done during sunny matinee days, with two of us working. Once or twice in a shift would come a sweet spot where multiple film times overlapped and I could read uninterrupted as my coworker napped in one of the armchairs.

But much of this was done just up the stairs in the ticket booth, at once the best and worst place to be in the theater. It allowed for significant isolation from everyone else downstairs, with few distractions and an almost enveloping silence, comparatively speaking. And the job was not very demanding in concept, with the computer doing the difficult parts. Even long lines were a breeze provided two things happened: the ticket dispenser didn’t get stuck, which did happen from time to time, and the costumers observed the regulatory mandates of the MPAA.

I’m of two minds when it comes to rules. Generally, I understand them to be feeble, arbitrary, and rife with temporal and institutional bias. But I also know that once they’re there they stay there and it is easier that they be followed rather than subverted. I guess in that respect I am very much like Hobbes. A cavalier attitude toward rules, even stupid ones, is a very quick way for me to lose respect in anyone. Then again, to be an effective custodian of those rules, one must have a certain authoritative self-possession that I found myself confirmed to be lacking.

The summer of 2005 saw the release of Wedding Crashers. With a $209 million gross from a $40 million budget, it is considered “one of the most commercially successful R-rated comedies of all time.” Now 13 years on, people are able to look back on it as a cinematic milestone, an R-rated film with as much maturity, wit, and heart as vulgarity. I thought it was a mediocre bro comedy at the time and was popular just for that reason. Long lines and sold-out screenings were frequent, and the Vince Vaughn-Owen Wilson pairing was guaranteed to bring out the two variants of male teenhood they each embodied: perpetual senioritis and middlebrow soulfulness respectively. And if one was under 17 in the Summit area who went to see this movie while I was manning the booth, there is a sure certainty that unwonted entry was gained.

I had many ways of facilitating that entry for them. There was sheepishly asking for ID, which was grudgingly given, then not really looking at it, or forgetting what the chronological cutoff was. There was asking for it, getting it, and then enforcing it, only to indifferently accept their money through an adult intermediary a few feet behind them, an arrangement made in my view. (To quote the superior movie of my tenure: “I’m not even mad, that’s amazing.”) Then there was simply aging youngish customers in my head out of sheer laziness. This backfired once when I carded a girl who turned out to be in a woman in her thirties, her frustration indicated that this was a frequent occurrence. Or it was a fake ID and she was a good actor, who knows?

One might be tempted to ask if I am haunted by my days as a diffident corruptor of youth. If I made the job of my superiors more difficult then yes. But I’m not sure if that was ever the case. It seems that the most trouble I got into was for taking the tedious closing inventory way too early or for failing to upsell on certain obscenely priced concession items, which they monitored using a spy.

Occasionally, though, I wonder what might have gone differently if I had been more of a stickler than I was. Working the ticket booth necessitated a sharpening of my observational skills. But these were another method of passing the time, more fruitful perhaps than even reading. I cannot imagine the kind of person I’d have to be to weaponize it, however trivially. Even if the rating system wasn’t as laughable as it now is, it still doesn’t seem worth it. A rule seems less compelling when it is not practical. Moreover, I imagine vigilance would have denied me both the instance and the amusement of turning away a woman because Wedding Crashers sold out again, seeing her turn to me as she was leaving to tell me in a huff, “My nephew wrote it,” and the subsequent teachable moment of wondering whether fame of that kind was ever worthwhile, before proceeding to get more reading done.

The movie theater has since closed, along with most of its nearby branches. It and the carpet store that was above it are now a West Elm. Scotti’s remains open, of course, subsisting largely, I suspect, on the fumes of vinyl. The last time I was at the theater was three years ago to see, of all things, the Skype-based horror film Unfriended. It was a Sunday night and I was the only one in the theater. They were selling tickets downstairs by the concession stand. The interior and the technology had improved in the decade since I’d been there, as did the character of its staff; or at least the one staff member who asked me for my ID before selling me a ticket. I obliged and he did not even blink when he saw that I was born in 1984.

Before going into the theater I wanted to commend him for his adherence to the rules, and to tell him that he was a better class of human than I have been and will ever be. But I refrained. Ultimately I crave nothing greater than respect. And I probably wanted his a little too much to risk it with candor.

SMOKER’S HUBRIS

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Of SpaceX’s launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket last month I had two reactions. The most immediate was of bitter amusement. It crested just after the rocket breached the firmament and released its payload of a Tesla car and a space-suited dummy strapped into the driver’s seat. How wonderful, I thought to myself, that Elon Musk found a proper use for his comically impractical toy cars that had previously evaded it on earth. And nothing could be better than for it to traverse the far reaches of space to another civilized planet with hostile intent towards us, whose citizens shall gaze upon its late capitalist glory and assume no harm could be dealt to such a planet that hasn’t already been self-inflicted. Then I forgot about the whole thing.

Upon being reminded of it a few weeks later I was more delighted. I began to appreciate the ingenuity of the launch and Elon Musk’s bottomless drive. I care not a lick about Mars or whether or not it is livable, but the future potential of SpaceX to dispatch my enemies is too thrilling for me to wave the whole enterprise off. My thought now was not of one gimmicky luxury car floating into the cosmos, but hundreds—maybe thousands—of gimmicky luxury cars in space, each carrying a former obstacle on my path towards personal betterment. Whether they are moving as aimlessly as the current one or on a more direct path—say, towards the sun—is no matter to me at present; a bridge to be burnt and all that.

In admitting this vision there comes with it not a little embarrassment, though there is a matter of placing its source. It is not in its “cruelty,” which I’m certain does not deviate from the thoughts of any other person on a given day. Nor is it in its “hubris,” which can only be so if it was impossible to carry out even if the means were available to me. If my dream of power was made real, little would prevent me, no doubt, from sending loyal toughs to the SpaceX headquarters to commandeer its technology and its inventor while the show trials commence elsewhere. In time I would be easily another link in the Chain of Greatness that holds Queen Boudica in Camulodunum, General MacArthur in postwar Japan, and Dr. Cotton at Trenton State Hospital. Consider me one of those people who, as a child wasting precious homework time in the library, saw the posters on the wall with, say, Cal Ripken endorsing the belief in my own potential for achievement and did precisely that. My embarrassment, then, is rooted in the equal certainty that my potential will go unmet.

The common complaint against my generation by those older—and soon younger—is that we lack any clear endgame with which to guide our lives, yet at the same time are expectant of the riches that come with a life well-ordered. I will not deign to speak for my cohort, but if the complaints have merit, then I would be an outlier.

More than well-ordered, my life is crafted to perfection. Tireless years went into carving out my arc: a precisely curved mound, rising steadily to its peak before a most elegant downward slope—more of a glide than a decline. It is a masterstroke of self-knowledge, a span of existence in no conflict with my intellect, my charm, and possibly even my personal appearance. Perhaps my chronological brethren really are a little too reliant on destiny, or least on the hope that things have a way of sorting themselves out in time. This is not my way. I’ve always held to the truth that one gets nowhere without a sure plan of action, and the ethic of strife, consistency, and integrity that must go with it. But just because I accept something as true doesn’t mean I have all the faculties for living it out.

Though my arc is constructed with care, marshaling the materials for my ascension of it is a different matter. Every time I think about realizing my life vision something stops me from going forward. Obtaining power requires amassing influence; this requires networking, putting myself out in the social circles to promote and to persuade others to invest in my vision. But what if my pitch is ill-formed? What if it falls flat on the ear? What if it my assurance masks my sophistication and I look the dumber for it? What if it does all these things and alarms someone so much that they mount resistance against me? And if so, do I have the bodily courage and the mental resilience to endure the consequences? If I endure the first time, can I repeat the process until I get it right? Am I prepared to sleep less? Eat poorly? Have fluctuating body mass? Have no friends, no consistent income, no leisure time, or comfortable living space?

Surely if all these requirements were actionable and all the adversities easily overcome, nothing would stop me, and those who’ve given me offense over the years would be in some trouble. But they aren’t. Whenever it came to deciding whether my arc was better as an elaborate, if plausible, fantasy or a worthy life commitment, my conclusion always fell toward the former. Why? I don’t know. Fantasy seems far more fruitful than the effort to make it real. Is this not always so? Maybe not for some, maybe not for the hard doers of times past. Maybe this is what is meant when a Boomer lambasts a lesser for being “low-energy.”

Make no mistake: I never lacked for confidence, but confidence is more of a blanket than a shield. I wrap it tightly around my person as if a caterpillar wearily reverted back from its butterfly stage. It’s a pure, self-satisfied confidence, demanding no answer or qualification from its possessor. It is among the last well-kept secrets of our Age of Disclosure. Above all else, however, it is a confidence that does not worship in the church of effort. It does not sacrifice for the liturgy of trying as one might. In the past it might have been called something like “smoker’s hubris.” Whether it is willing or able to prove itself equal to the robust it is not going to, there is no law compelling them, it is no one’s business but its own.

Such talk is obscenity for certain Americans: those who can’t conceive of restraint, reticence, or prudence as anything short of modern seppuku—ancient seppuku, ironically, being too much for today’s quitters to take on. They do not take kindly to mere suggestion. Anything less than confirmation, no less of struggle, leaves an existential wound on one’s being. It is not enough for me to want to and believe I can launch miscreants into the sun; I must take action, and be proven. And they’re not wrong. To shirk the realization of my arc is to deny the simple catharsis of a cleanly checked-off to-do list.

Beneath my confidence there is some disappointment that it is, at the end of the day, only that. But it’s just as private as the confidence itself, a little gift I give myself from time to time for bearing the burden of crippling reluctance. Sometimes in those moments I do wonder if I’m just like the other millennials after all, that all this happens for a reason and that I’m being guided to the right conclusion to be reached in due time. I’m not as keen on an answer as others might be. Often I pacify these moments by looking up at the night sky, imagining other possibilities.

REASONS, IF ANY, TO BE HAPPY

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As with most people, it was not until recently that I’d come to know about the 20-something social media star siblings Logan and Jake Paul. And as with most people, it was not a pleasant introduction.

Last December, Logan Paul took a trip to Japan. After spending a few days running around Tokyo throwing stuffed Poké Balls at policemen and thrusting raw fish in people’s faces, he made a stop at Aokigahara, Japan’s breathtaking “sea of trees” that is infamous for its numerous instances of suicide. Its reputation did not disappoint. Within 100 yards of the parking lot, Paul happened upon a dead body; though he implored to call the police, he also took 15 minutes to film the corpse and prod it with probing inquiries like “Are you fucking with us?”. He then uploaded the video on New Year’s Eve, warning his 16 million-odd YouTube subscribers that it was “the most real vlog” he’d ever posted.

The outrage was widespread and instant; indeed, it was as if people could not be outraged enough. “Go rot in hell,” was the simplest advice from Aaron Paul (no relation). But the outrage was understandable for two reasons. The first was the very fact of the video’s content, which needs no real explanation assuming we all have some residual decency. The second reason seems more unique to our time and place. There was hope that last year would ultimately be like all others, when the usual obtrusions of bad news and obnoxious personalities abated somewhat in December for some fantastical and inoffensive social aloofness. This was not to be, and 2017 made its uniqueness plain in its final hours in a moment that was as grotesque as it was stupid.

Troubling as it was, though, the situation also left me somewhat curious. For deep down something prevented me from fully accepting that the Paul brothers are in any way real. They are, of course, real in the sense that everyone else is real, with desires, personal contexts, blood types, and so on. But all that aside, there remains something about them that is very exceptional, and in fact quite intentionally so. Though much of their notoriety can be attributed to media savvy, there is something more to it; something that is actually quite beneficial rather than antagonistic to the pervading social spirit.

Much of 2017 found media figures and outlets trying desperately to keep pace with a zeitgeist in overdrive. In the process, I would often come across a few repeat words that aimed at pinpointing at the general atmosphere. “Anxiety” was one. “We’re a culture of anxiety,” the AV Club writes. “The myriad intricacies of every relationship, every interaction, and every ‘friend’ on social media is [sic] enough to collapse even the most ironclad of constitutions.” The other word was “hellscape.” “But that advice [to be personable and tell stories] falls woefully short of the real role of science in the post-fact Trumpian hellscape of the current American moment,” goes The Stranger in response to the response to New York magazine’s controversial climate change feature of last year. “We’ve reached a weird, quiet agreement that the most potent force in our politics is, for the moment, a stew of unease, fear, rage, grief, helplessness and humiliation,” Nitsuh Abebe writes in The New York Times Magazine.

America in 2017 and for the foreseeable future is a country averse to fun and joy and afflicted with despair and discontent. And whose citizens find everything they possess and every principle they share either entirely meaningless or vulnerable to being taken away or corrupted. Strange, then, that the Paul brothers have an outlook entirely contrary to the broader one. They carry themselves with a confidence that permits them to pretend that no existing rules apply to them and to wave away any new rules that might crop up in their path. These are not court fools in the Tom Green mode, using in-born irritation to lift our spirits, they are more careless than that. Before the Japan fiasco, Jake Paul made local news when he caught backlash from his West Hollywood neighbors for having to endure his filmed antics, like setting a huge bonfire in an empty pool. His response to them was twofold: dabbing, of course, then tweeting what appears to be a guiding philosophy: “Don’t conform to society.”

The most obvious conclusion is the one already made: the Pauls are trolls of refined toxicity, combining an ease to offend with a mastery of self-promotion. But this is almost too pat to be taken seriously. For even as we lambast them for each new break of decorum, they persist. Even if their young fans remain loyal and increase, the Sophisticated Adults Who Watch Westworld (SAWWs as I call them), can turn away any time, or inveigh to stop them. Not just take away their posting privileges, but shame and ostracize them in their own perpetually adolescent playpen and move on. But we don’t. It is as if we somehow require their presence, as if they are imparting some profound omen to the rest of us. That the Pauls are inescapable YouTube sensations seems a necessary evil to their more central role as interactive PSAs against the dangers of happiness.

If Americans are in any way exceptional it can be found in their relationship to happiness, which is never casual and always shifting. We remember how it started, as a “self-evident” truth to have an “unalienable right” to be pursued without any outside infringement. Soon enough it morphed into something on par with a consumer good; not so much something found in actual goods purchased—though it was certainly thought that way—but as something with which you exchange things (energy, let’s say) for a long-term commitment. This was its most lasting form, which as of last year came to an abrupt end.

Happiness now appears more like an illness with very visible, mass-affecting derangements if it is left untreated long enough. Happiness is a kind of stupidity that clouds us of our better judgment to see the world as it really is: broken and unjust. Our joyful ignorance may not have been the culprit, but it was an enabler. These millennial test cases you see tricking people into helping move dead bodies, bear this out. Two cures are available: earnest self-righteousness or ironic detachment. At worst one can just crouch in the corner in paralytic self-mortification. But those who resist any cure to happiness are nothing short of emotional Typhoid Marys.

It takes a certain level of cynicism to both hold up this idea of happiness and to keep the Paul brothers somewhere in the public mind for its containment. And there was a time in my life when I would have been among that vanguard, to be sure. I have no taste for fun or adventure or carefree living. I tolerate life more than I enjoy it at any given time. At the height of my distaste, anyone with an opposite view was to be scorned and discouraged using whatever means available at my behest. For me it was a zine, and it was a resounding failure. Not that this feeling lasted. I found later that stupidity does not discriminate between dispositions. Cynics are easily vulnerable to it. It allows them confirmation of their most tempting biases, prime of all the notion that our reduced state is uniquely reduced and it must be accommodated in order to be endured.

Anyone who has read tough love self-help understands first that life is a struggle, perhaps not as universally brutal as gurus portend but it’s more hardship than harmony. Happiness, moreover, is not the end goal or an object of pursuit, but a modest outcome. There is no gleaming pillar, let alone a grave spire, but a polished trinket, the location of which is never known and only discovered from time to time in the midst of bypassing other obstacles.

Compared to Big Happiness, this is a much trickier kind. Pursuing it directly means never reaching it, and having reached it means that the long struggle or the arduous task, the end of which seeming unreachable in the process, has been overcome. On the one hand, it’s not a happiness that makes itself known to others, to be seen as a display of health or satisfaction—it’s private and intimate, like a haunting. On the other hand, it is a happiness that thrives on connection to others, human or animal. In fact, the happiness achieved is not always one’s own, but the object of an act of good on one’s own part, undertaken as a necessity because, again, reduced times are reduced and will be reduced whether we wish them to be or not, and we seek to elevate them through a combination of resolve, integrity, patience, and a knowledge of one’s own limitations. For instance, a regular citizen has not much power to curb any number of war crimes being perpetuated around the world at this moment. But, assuming any of the aforementioned attributes line up—and it is rare that they do—a plan might be drawn up to replace the current political personnel with personnel less keen on our involvement in their perpetuation.

What sort of happiness comes out of that, let alone in how long a time and at how far a distance, is not guaranteed. If anything is achieved it may never be seen by anyone who set the change in motion. But such are the wagers one makes if someone truly believes the Great Hellscape is worth beating back instead of observing ad nausea.

But I know happiness is possible. I felt it myself in a small way, back in late December. It was a strange uplift to which I was hardly accustomed. Hearing about Logan Paul’s now global displays of idiocy elated me as much as they despaired me. For once I was in tune with the feelings of my fellow bipeds, entirely in unison with their disappointment and their exhaustion. I brought me out from the cold and into a tepid shelter of belonging. It’s a rare feeling, but one that gives me the temptation to seek to keep the Paul brothers around for my own joyful reasons.

THE HEGEMONY OF ADULTING

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I have two approaches when it comes to attending parties: show up very early or show up very late. By “late,” of course, I mean the following afternoon when it is certifiable that every guest has left but all the Solo cups, pizza boxes, roaches, and small mirrors (if applicable) are still strewn about like a bomb went off and when the bathrooms are still disgusting. I find these approaches to be greatly congenial to my temperament, which craves not the thrill of the spectacle but the intimacy of its being carefully assembled beforehand or totally dismantled after the fact. Needless to say, the frequency at which I am invited to parties has steadily dwindled over time.

This is no less true of metaphorical parties. And indeed this is the case now as I find myself late to the pornography party that came and went last weekend.

As Twitter seeks to resemble the brute meritocracy of high school more and more, I seek refuge further and further from it. Yet I still could not help hearing through the grapevine that never ceases to grow that Ross Douthat threw a “ban porn” rager in his online corner and simply everyone who was anyone was there. I’ve been early to pornography parties before, which is awkward enough, but showing up late to a pornography party, even a metaphorical one, is quite like the old saying that one should never bring a knife to a gunfight, except there are much different … tools involved. But here I am, and I hold my nose accordingly.

Douthat’s piece is a standard spiel from conservatives who have achieved a certain level of prominence in the center-left forum. He tries to persuade those who would be his enemies that they are, quite contrary to their blasé conventions, his friends. They share a common ground that culture is in a bad way, with sexual mores being entirely tangled and lopsided as either gross power play or “joyless mimetic spamming.” We must seek to be better to one another, ergo we must seek to be virtuous. “So if you want better men by any standard,” writes Douthat, “there is every reason to regard ubiquitous pornography as an obstacle.”

It doesn’t appear that his pitch was altogether successful. But I believe there is reason for this.

Anti-porn crusaders are familiar with the standard line of pro-porn argument that pornography won’t be banned until humanity has ceded its dominion over earth to a less depraved species. Douthat was perhaps moved to write what he did when his employer published Maggie Jones’s long feature on “porn education” three days earlier. It tells of the push of sex studies professors introducing “critical thinking” courses on pornography to high school students. As one professor puts it, such classes are “grounded in the reality that most adolescents do see porn and takes the approach that teaching them to analyze its messages is far more effective than simply wishing our children could live in a porn-free world.” Hannah Witton, a YouTube vlogger who focuses on sexuality, also sounds the education horn in her video “The Benefits of Porn.” Granted, her pointers are not entirely consistent. Porn helps people in relationships open up about their desires and boundaries, and it provides escape when those sexual desires prove disappointing. But that seems beside the point, and indeed implies a much grander aim.

I suspect that pornography doesn’t factor too heavily in the schemes of the sex positive. It is, as the porn literacy teachers imply, something they’ve come to accept, albeit gladly. It is not sex sex, let’s be clear. It’s an ideal, or in any case it is a kind of magical realism. Whatever it is, though, it is not offensive or an aberration, but something that should be encountered, acknowledged, and not shunned. It’s a part of a ritual: a rite of passage. It is the entryway rather to than the final destination of the new adulthood.

Over the advocacy of pornography, or whatever atomized issue is presently at stake for them, is the blanket gospel of the maturity the advocates are demonstrating. It is less a concern to ask why a world takes this or that form than it is to adjust to its norms and to assimilate. This particular world is one that favors freedom, but a very joyous and extroverted sort. It’s the kind of freedom that comes to resemble mandatory fun as it depends on the assumption that one would be foolish or actively antagonistic not to want to bask in the bacchanalia. But of course there are such people, people who are awkward, people who have scruples, people with morals founded out of sight or while the screens were in sleep mode, people who are low energy, people who are fearful but who can’t really say why, people who had fun exactly once and felt awful, people who don’t care to talk right now, people who don’t live in cities, people who can’t afford to move, people who dropped out of school, people who need rather than luxuriate libraries, people who require considerable effort to be happy, people who may never be happy, people who are at least content and may not be interested in any ideas of happiness others are selling, among others.

It’s wrong to assume that sex positive advocates disparage these types of people. It is probably better to say that they simply don’t notice them, and when they do it is generally met with bewilderment. The negativists may be vulnerable to offensive notions, but they themselves are too strange to truly offend. The positivists will show compassion, if not empathy, but might lose patience once the negativists prove immobile on certain principles. But of course the prestige self-help movement where sex positivists thrive has become less ideologically inert, while remaining tonally so. Soon people like Jordan Peterson shrewdly come to take the place the last person who gave up left behind.

Ultimately it is less interesting in parsing the justification or logistics that go into restricting pornography. If it comes it comes, and no one crusader may have any significant say in how it does. The implications of that shift, no matter what, will be messy and any benefits derived from it will not be apparent after maybe a couple of generational turnovers. What’s more interesting, and for my part more important, is to figure out how to jump off of this pendulum that swings violently between repression and liberation, and which calls for an all-consuming hegemony on either end. The greatest case against pornography, and the world in which it thrives, is that sooner or later it’s going to get boring.