Friday, November 17, 2017

slackers

SLACKERS
end-of-year essay for Melody Maker, unpublished i think
1992?

by Simon Reynolds



There were "slackers" long before anyone gave them a name. For
decades, every college town and major city in the Western world has
had its bohemian sector of n'er do wells and time-wasters busily
engaged in trying to stave off the Real World for as long as
possible.  Rejecting the career ladder, these drop-outs prolong
adolescence and mess about - for a few years, for decades, sometimes
forever.  Financial insecurity seems a fair trade for more time to
devote to creativity, questioning and self-discovery. It was this
bohemian milieu that birthed the hippy and punk movements, and it
remains the perennial breeding ground for indie bands.

     The UK equivalent of slackerdom used to be "dole culture",
before signing on became an increasingly untenable lifestyle after
Thatcher's assault on the Welfare State.  In the USA, middle class
kids try to drag out their college education as long as possible;
after college, some live off private incomes (as with the notorious
"Grandma's trust fund" that subsidises every Lower East Side
hardcore band's recording costs and drug habits), others eke out a
living with temporary jobs (waiting, working in record stores, etc).

     But in the late Eighties, a particular rock aesthetic and
worldview emerged that was eventually christened "slacker".  It
combined elements from earlier boho-movements: slacker = the stoned
dreaminess of hippy + the faithless vacancy of punk. But perhaps
more significant was what it left out of the fusion: slackers were
hippies without the world-changing idealism, punks without the
speed-fuelled uptightness and will-to-power. The defining quality of
slacker is limp: as Mercury Rev put it on their second album,
"Boces" - "if there's one thing I can't stand, it's up".  The
slacker is apolitical, a Rebel against Causes, against Movements
(and movement).

    Perhaps the archetypal slacker in rock is J.  Mascis. On the
early Dinosaur Jr's albums "You're Living All Over Me" and "Bug"
(1987/88), he came over as a pampered, housebound, spiritual
invertebrate. Mascis' ragged, frazzled guitar-sound, torn-and-frayed
drawl-whine of a voice, and fatigued lyrics, all aspired to that
early Seventies Neil Young feeling of burn-out, that stemmed from
the bitter comedown after the late Sixties high.  Another early
classic of slacker rock was Sonic Youth's "Daydream Nation" (1988),
which imagined New York as a psychedelic labyrinth, "a wondertown"
for the dazed-and-confused wanderer.  Songs like "The Sprawl",
"Eric's Trip" and "Hyperstation" took unmoored drifting to the brink
of psychosis.  Then there was the nouveau acid rock of the Butthole
Surfers, whose Gibby Haynes and Paul Leary chucked in careers in
accountancy for a life of making mess (on stage, on record) and
getting wasted.

     In the US, there's another strand of maladjusted, unmotivated
youth, who have less choice about wasting their lives: they don't
have any opportunities to squander in the first place. These kids,
known as "burn-outs" or "stoners", drop out while still at school.
Despised by their teachers and by their more aspirational peers,
burn-outs wear long-hair, smoke pot by the bike shed, and listen to
heavy metal (classics like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath,
contemporary thrash like Metallica and Slayer).  They hang out in
car lots and abandoned buildings, get harassed by the cops,
sometimes graduate to harder drugs like heroin.  The British
equivalent of burn-outs are probably the kind of delinquents that
made up Happy Mondays or todays' hardcore techno youth. But rave
culture hasn't impacted suburban America yet, so burn-outs don't get
hyper and happy, they numb the pain as best they can.

     In her book "Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia's Dead End Kids",
Donna Gaines pinpoints the predicament that faces the burn-outs.
With the decline of traditional manufacturing employment, the only
options for these kids are ignominious service sector jobs, devoid
of union protection or prospects for advancement.  Hence their low
self-esteem, the feeling that there's no future, and the commonly
expressed sentiment: "no job is worth cutting your hair for".  The
gap between the expectations fostered by the dream factory of
Hollywood and MTV, and what they can reasonably expect from life, is
huge.  The escape routes from this dead end include the
anaesthetic/amnesiac coma of drugs, and the one-way ticket "outa
here" of suicide. The more optimistic imagine joining the army or
forming a successful rock band: both ways of seeing the world and
learning a trade.  Even after Clinton, the outlook is still bleak
for American youth: paying off the deficit will depress the US
economy for years. There's literally "No Future": the babyboom
generation have already spent it.

     In the late Eighties, after years of "lite-metal" (all those
poodle-perm groups like Bon Jovi), metal got heavier again,
musically and thematically. Bands like Metallica took on punk's
attitude, cutting down the musical flab and addressing grim reality
in their lyrics.  Meanwhile, the post-hardcore bands were getting
heavier, fusing the turgid ponderousness of early Seventies blues
rock with the belligerence of punk. And so grunge was born. And out
of its birthplace, Seattle, Nirvana exploded into the mainstream
with "Smells Like Teen Spirit", a record that briefly forged
middle-class slackers and blue-collar burn-outs into a unity of
disaffected youth. Only Nirvana could do this, because of their
unique combination of intelligence (Cobain and Novoselic are
art-school drop outs, politically sussed) and raw, simplistic
aggression. Today, the grunge spectrum extends from arty absurdism
to bludgeoning, brain-dead bombast. At the slackerdaisical end of
the spectrum, there's Pavement, with their surreal wit and mild
disillusionment: at the other end, pure burn-out, you'll find Alice
In Chain, who are devoid of irony and totally mired in despondency.

     Pavement exemplify the brighter side of the slacker condition:
namely, that all that freedom from responsiblity gives you time to
bliss out on the weirdness and wondrousness of everyday life, time
to acquire an obsessive knowlege of music. But there's a downside
even here: you can tell that Steven Malkmus' inordinately large
record collection hasn't made him happy, that in fact he feels
dwarfed and unworthy when faced by the achievements of previous rock
eras. And like true slackers, Pavement disguise this by terminal
irony.  The dark side of slackerdom comes through more plainly with
bands like Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, Rollins Band, Nirvana:
feelings of impotence, entropy, entrapment.  I reckon grunge is
'castration blues', and if you think that's fanciful, consider the
fact that Alice In Chains actually have a song called "Slow
Castration", that there's a line in "Smells Like Teen Spirit" about
being "neutered and spayed".

     In that one song, Nirvana captured all the anguish and the
cruel irony of the slacker condition.  Nirvana want to rebel, they
want to believe that music can change the world, but their
insurrectionary spirit is crippled in advance because they know that
resistance is futile: the music industry routinely turns rebellion
into money. Teen spirit is bottled, shrinkwrapped and sold over the
counter.  And so Cobain's rage chokes in his throat, festers and
turns to bitter bile.

     *         *         *         *         *

    As well as Nirvana's breakthrough, 1991 also saw the cult
success of the movie "Slacker". Directed by 28 year old Richard
Linklater, it was a low-budget snapshot of the shiftless, decentred
life of the twentysomething hangers-on who inhabit the fringes of
the University of Austin, Texas.  Drifting through Austin's summer
streets, Linklater's camera bumps into a hundred of these ne'er-do-
wells, eavesdropping on their bizarre monologues and debates
(usually concerning conspiracy theory or elaborate validations of
their own apathy), and observing their peculiar rites. Funny,
touching, but implicitly sad, "Slacker" steadfastly refuses to judge
the slackers. For Linklater the film was neither diatribe nor
celebration, just a document.

    One of the things "Slacker" captured so well was the way that
slackers, while passive and weak-willed, envy those capable of
action. They have a voyeuristic, vicarious fascination with
assassins and mass murderers, perhaps because they offer a mesmering
spectacle of pure will.  "Slackers spend their whole lives in their
own heads," says Linklater.  "Making that leap of faith into action
is hard.  So when they hear of one person who did make a difference,
they're impressed, even if it's a mass murderer."

     Slacker's main activities (or passivities, more accurately) are
"daydreaming as productive activity" and trawling the detritus of
decades of pop culture.  The result is a slacker aesthetic, a weird
mix of kitsch and mysticism, that has obvious parallels in music
(Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth, Bongwater) but also in modern art.
Artforum magazine identified a slacker school of artists, whose
installations involve random accretions of found objects, trashy
knick-nacks and personal souvenirs. In slackerdom, wrote Jack
Bankowsky, "everyone worships at their own jerry-built altar".

     1991 also saw the publication of Doug Coupland's 'novel'
"Generation X", an amusing but lightweight dissection of the
twentysomething malaise. Seeing no hope for advancement on the
career ladder, Coupland's X-ers are into "lateral mobility", moving
from one unsatisfactory "McJob" to another.  After the success of
their debut efforts, both Linklater and Coupland turned their
attention to teenagers: Coupland wrote "Shampoo Planet" (about
today's global teens) and Linklater filmed "Dazed and Confused"
(about Seventies high school burn-outs). Meanwhile, Hollywood
detected a market in the twentysomething demographic, and started
churning out slacker-sploitation pics, like Cameron Crowe's cute but
slight "Singles" and Michael Steinberg's stylish but pseudo-profound
"Bodies, Rest and Motion".

     *         *         *         *         *         *

     Since the Zeitgeist-defining moment that was "Smells Like Teen
Spirit", the precarious alliance between slackers and burn-outs has
disintegrated, in much the same way that punk dispersed into a
myriad fragments after the Sex Pistols auto-destructed. The slacker
contingent has gone off into the rarerified realm of noise-for-
noise's sake. In the wake of Pavement, a burgeoning movement of
lo-fi avant-garage bands has emerged: Unrest, Ween, Sebadoh, Mercury
Rev, Flaming Lips, Truman's Water, Royal Trux, God Is My Co-Pilot,
Timber, Thinkin' Fellers Union Local 282, Smog, etc.  Like Pavement,
these bands favour cryptic song-titles, surreal lyrics, arcane
influences (The Fall, Krautrockers like Can, Faust, Neu), and
a mess-thetic of loose ends and wilful dishevelment.  Meanwhile, the
bulk of the audience that Nirvana created has stuck with the simpler
fare of pure grunge: the brawn and bombast of punk-metal bands like
Stone Temple Pilots, Kyuss, Flotsam and Jetsam, who all plough the
narrow strip of terrain between Black Sabbath and Black Flag.  It's
seems unlikely that this split between arty elitism (the slackers)
and artless populism (the grungers) will be repaired.

     And what of Nirvana, the band who made the Slacker a public
figure? Judging by the sequel to "Nevermind", with its ultra-grunge
Steve Albini production, Cobain & Co seem deadset on alienating
their audience and shortcircuiting their success. You only have to
read the sleevenotes to "Incesticide", with Cobain's angst-wracked
writhing about integrity and his almost pathetic namedrops of
obscure bands, to realise that Nirvana want to go back to the indie
womb. A slacker who's somehow landed himself with a millionaire
career, Cobain is knocking on the underground's door, begging for
readmission.  And ain't that pure slack?

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