“You guys should play more angry”
–The Mixtape Girl’s Brother
“Goddess, sing the Rage of Achilles, the son of Peleus / the destructive rage that sent thousands of Greeks to their doom”
Homer, Iliad 1.1-2
(We never took time on this blog to note the passing and commemorate the memory of the Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch. It is always a loss when a good man dies young. Coverage of his passing made me think of this subject.)
When I was younger I had the peculiar experience of dating a girl a few years my senior. Now, as far as the dating goes, there was really nothing unexpected or abnormal (indeed, it was a formative and not atypical adolescent firestorm); the peculiar part was that her (the Mix Tape Girl’s) younger brother was my age and in my classes at school.
Perhaps that is not all that strange—it was, however, a bit awkward. At the beginning he and I were not friends or really all that friendly. (In fact, I am sure he was not all that happy to have me around.) But, by the end of the relationship, we were friendly enough—we actually ended up in a related network of friends. We went to at least one movie together. He farted around me openly.Where the Mix Tape Girl was a little ‘alternative’ (but still close enough to the in-crowd), her brother started out a little nerdy without being a geek—that is, he took AP Physics and Calculus, but definitely wasn’t into Dungeons & Dragons or They Might be Giants. He was a bit of a clown, atypically kind in private, and charmingly goofy outside of school.
One day, when the two of us were working together at a convenience store, I was inflicting another conversation about my band on him. I am sure he heard me sing and play the guitar more than anyone not dating me or related by blood should have had to. But he never complained. Instead, he seemed to try to understand the maudlin lyrics, the prog-rock harmonies and the attempts to imitate TMBG on one day, Nirvana on the next, and bad folk music on the third.
I think I was complaining about how no one we knew would come see my band play. And then, he said it: “Why don’t you guys play more angry? You know, like Rage Against the Machine or something.” He impressed upon me the value of letting people feel pissed off, the adrenaline sparked by angry music.
In all honesty I have always been a little bewildered by the attraction of the heavier and angrier bands (to the extent that my own affinity for Fugazi is only half-hearted). Moshing, slam-dancing, intentional violence—all these things always seemed off to me. Of course, at the time, the alternatives were to be a full-fledged Lilith Fair supporter, or to dwell somewhere awkwardly between the extremes.
The angry, or aggressive side of rock was not a new phenomenon even then—the heavier sounds that arrived with Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath set the stage for the much later mainstream popularity of a band like Rage Against the Machine which drew on the Hard Core movement of the 1980’s. Punk, especially in its early days with the Sex Pistols, shared the same genes.
Of course, I did not think any of this that day behind the register as we sold 99 cent King Cobras to local drunks. Instead, I tried to figure out what such a kind, often quiet, and altogether ‘happy’ guy like my girlfriend’s brother found to identify with in the anger of Rage Against Machine and the mad noise of “Sabotage”?
The complicated answer I come to years later is that for most of us who lead normal lives, such flirtation with anger acts like an emotional release valve. On a cultural level, our raging musicians, artists (and sometimes crackpots) express the destructive emotions that might just destabilize society if they are given no release.
This is not to say that artists like Rage Against the Machine, Black Flag, or Fugazi have nothing to be angry about, but, rather, that their appeal to those who are not defined by protest and inspired to challenge authority confirms that they are filling a larger cultural need.
Or something like that.
But, when I think about this topic further, this explanation makes sense (although it needs nuance and support). Anger, or perhaps something more basic and animalistic like rage, appears as the central theme of one of the oldest narratives in the Western tradition, the Iliad, where the main character’s rage (Achilles) is so super-human that it not only destroys his enemies but it results in the deaths of his friends. In turn, as Achilles follows his anger to its (il)logical end, it secures his death as well. It is only when he gives up his rage to make common cause with Priam, the father of his enemy Hector, the man he kills and then whose body he disfigures in fury, that Achillles becomes something like a human. He re-enters society. To become a civilized man, he must foreswear his rage.
Led Zeppelin got angry. About a foot.
Yet, the society that tells his tale still ponders the dangers and effects of anger. Why? Because the sub-human, animalistic spirit resides within us—especially within men. I used to think that angry music was popular because anger is a simple emotion that often covers for more complex things. Now, I think that while anger may correlate with many other emotions—loss, frustration, jealousy, to name a few—it is more basic and profound than a mere cloak for tender feelings.
Anger, I could say, is that battle within as we negotiate the balance between our needs and the world that confounds us. Anger, on a larger scale, is the expression of fundamental disappointment in the way things are. Anger, when sampled even vicariously, must be tamed or released for us to live together in something like peace.
Or that’s the answer I have now for why a nice young man essentially implied that my band was too whiny and needed (as he put it later) “balls”. Perhaps this too may explain my brother’s disdain for ‘emo’. Who wants every day and self-pitying emotions when stronger stuff is on offer, when angry music lets us feel something or express something that we don’t find every day?
Here’s some real angry stuff:
And what do you think my brother? Does the theory pass the smell test? Did you ever think you’d read about Achilles and Black Flag in the same post?