(Songs for) Debt Servitude

I have read a lot lately about the spiraling forces of income inequality: student-loan debt, new possible mortgage fears, and the breakdown in the basic social compact of which education is a central and collapsing piece (Thomas Frank, why do you have to make me so sad?). During my sister’s recent visit when we got to celebrate the Red Sox’ most recent World Series win and even during the good news of my brother landing a real teaching job, discussions have been sobered by the reality of crushing student loan debt.

So, before the pretty lights of the holidays distract us, here’s a re-post and reminder that we live off tomorrow’s wages today.

My brother recently wrote about one of the influences on the pervasive depression–the seasonal affective disorder–in our hometown and similar regions. I think there is more to be said about it. But I want to warn you before you start reading: this post is one of those times when I am going to start ranting. I will definitely get political and personal.

Yeah, I am getting up on it

Yeah, I am getting up on it

I will talk about music, but I will mostly talk about something that should concern all of us: the widening gap in prosperity in our country, the broken promises of the American dream and a system that really can bear no better name than debt servitude.

(Ok, ok. I originally wrote “debt slavery” but the younger j thought that this was historically insensitive. In my mind, I countered that this is a big deal too, but words mean a lot. I’ll save the histrionics for the end.)

What does this have to with music? A relatively small amount, if you think about the issue directly—yet, it has to do with the hopes and fears that fuel our music and give it its themes (both high and low), the twisted values that dominate the commercial end of music in this country, and the real-life effects that send many of us rushing to our headphones for escape or with the fragile hope that someone else may communicate what we’re feeling in a better way.

Here’s the dramatic pitch. There is something really, really wrong about our system. We all buy into a series of values and promises that turn out to be worse than empty–they are filled with negative space.

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Angry Music

“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?

(Songs for) Debt Servitude

My brother recently wrote about one of the influences on the pervasive depression–the seasonal affective disorder–in our hometown and similar regions. I think there is more to be said about it. But I want to warn you before you start reading: this post is one of those times when I am going to start ranting. I will definitely get political and personal.

Yeah, I am getting up on it

Yeah, I am getting up on it

I will talk about music, but I will mostly talk about something that should concern all of us: the widening gap in prosperity in our country, the broken promises of the American dream and a system that really can bear no better name than debt servitude.

(Ok, ok. I originally wrote “debt slavery” but the younger j thought that this was historically insensitive. In my mind, I countered that this is a big deal too, but words mean a lot. I’ll save the histrionics for the end.)

What does this have to with music? A relatively small amount, if you think about the issue directly—yet, it has to do with the hopes and fears that fuel our music and give it its themes (both high and low), the twisted values that dominate the commercial end of music in this country, and the real-life effects that send many of us rushing to our headphones for escape or with the fragile hope that someone else may communicate what we’re feeling in a better way.

Here’s the dramatic pitch. There is something really, really wrong about our system. We all buy into a series of values and promises that turn out to be worse than empty–they are filled with negative space.

Continue reading

Some more Political Songs

The Personal is Political, said Carol Hanisch. The guys in Fugazi know that

After I read my brother’s post about political songs, I knew that I couldn’t be silent. It is not that I do not like his list; in fact, I like it a whole lot. What I cannot leave untouched is his sense of disenchantment.  I think it is terrible that he feels so apolitical. I would call it tragic if it were not so common.

See, I feel  apolitical too. We live under a political system that is at best a plutocratic oligarchy where corporations are citizens. Our elections are so corrupted by money that we spend the GDP of some nations on elections. Even English speaking allies like the Canadians and British think our system is ridiculous.

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