1987 is the most important year in alternative rock

From chart hits to mainstream breakthroughs, it was the year modern rock came into its own

Why 1987 remains the most important moment in alternative rock
The Psychedelic Furs; Depeche Mode; Echo & the Bunnymen(Credit: Legacy/Sire)

The National has achieved many things in its career: music festival headlining slots, Grammy nominations and near-chart-topping albums. However, the brooding, Brooklyn-via-Cincinnati band hasn’t had a No. 1 single — until now.

Billboard reports “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” a song from the National’s forthcoming “Sleep Well Beast” album, reached the top slot of the Adult Alternative Songs chart for the week of August 19, beating Arcade Fire’s “Everything Now” by a measly two spins.

In addition to the National and Arcade Fire, the rest of the Adult Alternative Songs chart top 10 includes a slew of seasoned artists: Portugal. The Man, Spoon, The War on Drugs, The Killers and Jack Johnson. Sonically, these acts don’t overlap much. However, on an aesthetic level, they all promulgate a musical approach predicated on constant metamorphosis.

The Killers’ “The Man” is an icy, funky strut; the War on Drugs’ “Holding On” is rife with sparkling Springsteenisms; Portugal. The Man’s “Feel it Still” is a taut, soulful shimmy. The biggest chameleons might be Spoon, whose latest effort is the ominous, funky “Can I Sit Next to You,” which feels like Duran Duran filtered through a paper shredder and pieced back together.

In a striking parallel, the composition of the Adult Alternative Songs chart — notably the abundance of veteran bands who are fearless about evolution — echoes the equally transformative alternative bands dotting 1987’s music landscape.

That’s not necessarily surprising: 1987 was an enormously influential year that shaped how fans and artists alike create, consume and appreciate so-called modern or progressive music.

To understand why 1987 is a cultural inflection, it’s best to consider it the year a burgeoning underground movement crystallized and mobilized. Certain facets of this movement were already in place, of course. Specialty national video shows such as MTV’s “120 Minutes” and “I.R.S. Records Presents The Cutting Edge” and USA’s “Night Flight,” as well as regional video shows (V66 in Boston and MV3 in Los Angeles) were already airing clips from new wave and so-called “college rock” bands. Modern rock-leaning radio stations — notably KROQ in Los Angeles and the Long Island powerhouse WLIR — were also giving these new groups a platform.

On a more mainstream level, John Hughes-associated movies such as 1984’s “Sixteen Candles” and 1986’s “Pretty in Pink” combined relatable depictions of teen angst with a cool-mixtape musical vibe. Hughes treated bands such as Thompson Twins, New Order, OMD and the Psychedelic Furs like futuristic pace-setters. The people responded in kind.

In 1986, OMD’s “If You Leave,” from Hughes’ “Pretty in Pink” peaked at No. 4 on the U.S. pop charts. No wonder critic Chris Molanphy, writing in Maura Magazine, points to “how pivotal Hughes was in helping to break what became known as alternative rock in America — he served as a bridge between what was known in the first half of the ’80s as postpunk or new wave and what would be called alt-rock or indie rock by the ’90s.”

Hughes’ imprint reverberated well beyond films. For example, the movie “Pretty in Pink” took its title from the Psychedelic Furs song of the same name. Appropriately, the U.K. band re-cut the tune, which originally appeared on 1981’s “Talk Talk Talk,” for the film’s 1986 soundtrack. This slicker new version landed just outside the top 40, at No. 41. However, the goodwill earned by this re-do buoyed the Furs through 1987: The desperate swoon “Heartbreak Beat,” the lead single from the band’s 1987 LP, “Midnight to Midnight,” became the Furs’ only U.S. top 40 hit, peaking at No. 26 in May.

“Midnight to Midnight” polarized fans: A collection of full-on synth-pop gloss, it bears little resemblance to the group’s early, moody post-punk. Yet bold evolutions were a 1987 trend; multiple established modern and indie bands staked a decidedly contemporary claim, sometimes in ways that completely overhauled (or at least added intriguing new dimensions to) their previous sounds.

(Let the record show that this phenomenon also has precedent: For example, Scritti Politti’s glittering synth-pop gush “Perfect Way,” which reached the top 15 in 1986, is a far cry from the band’s scabrous post-punk roots.)

Elsewhere in 1987, Echo & The Bunnymen buffed up their gloom on a self-titled album with sharper production, while Depeche Mode countered with “Music for the Masses,” an (appropriately) massive-sounding record with a dense, industrial-synth sound. The Replacements, meanwhile, teamed up with producer Jim Dickinson for “Pleased to Meet Me,” their most streamlined and focused rock record yet. R.E.M. forged a production partnership with Scott Litt that would stretch into the ’90s, releasing the loud-and-proud political statement “Document.”

In many cases, these evolutions didn’t necessarily lead to immediate commercial dividends. In fact, the Smiths — inarguably one of the biggest cult alternative acts in the U.S. — broke up in 1987, making their forward-sounding final album, “Strangeways Here We Come,” a posthumous swan song. However, in 1987, the upper reaches of the pop charts were noticeably more amenable to modern bands.

 Consider this a culmination of a slow and steady trend — how the chart inroads made by OMD and the Psychedelic Furs paired with those made by Pet Shop Boys (“West End Girls” hit No. 1 in 1986) and INXS (who set the stage for its blockbuster 1987 record “Kick” with 1985’s top 5 smash “What You Need”).

“Just Like Heaven,” from 1987’s “Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me,” became The Cure‘s first U.S. mainstream top 40 chart hit, peaking at No. 40 in 1988. The shimmering 1987 synth-pop gem “True Faith” also became New Order’s first top 40 single, landing at No. 32. Other bands found even greater success: Midnight Oil’s “Diesel and Dust” spawned that band’s first mainstream hit, the top 20 entry “Beds Are Burning,” while R.E.M. landed its first top 10 single with “The One I Love” from “Document.” Los Lobos’ cover of “La Bamba” hit No. 1 (though having a major Hollywood movie behind them helped tremendously).

What’s interesting: Besides individual radio station charts and specialized trade magazines, these alternative acts didn’t yet have a dedicated Billboard chart. The publication only launched its Modern Rock Tracks chart on Sept. 10, 1988, “in response to industry demand for consistent information on alternative airplay,” as it noted in that week’s issue. In hindsight, it’s easy to see this chart as a reaction to 1987’s alternative groundswell. The influence of these groups was now impossible to ignore, and measuring their reach and impact — no doubt crucial for label bean counters, if nothing else — made sense.

In an interesting twist, 1987’s beginnings and endings were as formative as their transformations. That year’s dissolution of the Smiths and Hüsker Dü led to each band’s frontman — Morrissey and Bob Mould, respectively — launching fruitful and vibrant solo careers that endure today. Debut records from Jane’s Addiction (a self-titled effort) and Pixies (“Come On Pilgrim”), and second albums from Dinosaur Jr (“You’re Living All Over Me”) and Faith No More (“Introduce Yourself”) put forth an aggressive, hybridized rock sound that presaged ’90s grunge, metal and punk. Even Crowded House’s 1986 debut LP finally spawned two hits in 1987, “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and “Something So Strong.”

And, in terms of the touring circuit, plenty of popular 1987 acts continue to find success; U2 playing 1987’s “The Joshua Tree” to packed stadiums is the most obvious one. Depeche Mode is currently embarking on an amphitheater tour while Echo & the Bunnymen and Violent Femmes have toured sheds together all summer. In spring 2017, Psychedelic Furs tapped Robyn Hitchcock as an opener. In the fall, the band is teaming up with Bash & Pop, featuring the Replacements’ Tommy Stinson, for tour dates.

These tour dates in particular have led several writers to recently question whether “80s pop” or “classic alternative” could become the new classic rock. It’s an intriguing idea, although one the radio consultants at Jacobs Media doubt has traction.

“While these bands may do well at state fairs and other summer festivals boasting well-stocked lineups of bands, their ability to support a format is questionable,” Fred Jacobs wrote in a recent blog post. “Classic Rock — and its derivatives — as well as Oldies stations were predicated on the power of nostalgia — not just for a few thousand fans in a market, but for tens of thousands or more of die-hard supporters. We’re talking mass appeal vs. niche.”

Jacobs then went on to point out that Echo & The Bunnymen received only seven spins on a Classic Alternative station in a recent week. “It’s hard to create a groundswell of support for poorly exposed music that’s now 30+ years old,” Jacobs adds.

In a sense, current successful bands like Arcade Fire, Spoon and the National are better positioned than their 1987 analogs to avoid this trap. Multiple channels — radio, video, streaming, live shows — make it easier for bands to gain exposure and reach more people.

At the same time, 2017’s fractured musical culture means that there are plenty of people who either don’t listen (or don’t need to listen) to any of these bands. For proof, just look at the puzzled reactions to Arcade Fire nabbing the Album of the Year Grammy in 2011. One person’s mainstream band is another’s niche or unknown act. Perhaps the underlying concept that drove alternative music culture’s 1987 rise — the mainstream cracking the door open to outsiders — is still alive and well in 2017.

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

R.E.M.’s “Monster” ranked from start to finish

An under-appreciated, polarizing album that’s aged very well

The subversive and shape-shifting 1994 album topped the charts but was never necessarily beloved. Why it should be

R.E.M.'s "Monster" ranked from start to finish: An underappreciated, polarizing album that's aged very well
Michael Stipe, lead singer for R.E.M., sings to an audience at the Shoreline Ampitheatre during Neil Young’s Bridge School benefit concert Saturday, Oct. 18, 1998, in Mountain View, Calif. (AP Photo/John Todd)(Credit: John Todd)

As the years pass, R.E.M.’s “Monster” has emerged as one of the most polarizing albums in the band’s catalog. Still, the record is also one of the most interesting artifacts of the Athens, Georgia, group’s career. First of all, it was unexpected: After previous attempts to make a rock-oriented album yielded two decidedly quieter affairs–1991′s “Out Of Time” and 1992′s “Automatic for the People”–the band finally succeeded in crafting a loud, brash record suitable for live concerts. Second (and perhaps most important), the album was a thematic curveball akin to U2′s 1991 opus “Achtung Baby,” in that R.E.M. toyed with their own mythology and decidedly tried not to sound like themselves.

As guitarist Peter Buck put it in David Buckley’s “R.E.M.: Fiction, An Alternative Biography”: “The whole record was a kind of reaction to having people following us around to a big degree, making the news in all these weird ways. … I would say that this was the only time where [vocalist Michael Stipe’s] done characters that are creepy, and I don’t know if people got that. He was getting out his things by acting out these parts that are not him. He took the mantle of front person to a degree he hadn’t done in the past. It is a record that is our least direct and our tour was the least direct. … I think it was all character-driven in a way–let’s be someone else for a while.”

This personality shapeshifting didn’t hurt “Monster” commercially: The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, sold 4 million copies and spawned several hits. Time has also been kind to the record, which sounds far weirder–and far more subversive–than it did at the time. And like many R.E.M. albums, its themes–ruminations on obsession, identity and fame–seem eerily prescient and timeless.

While there’s no real bad song on “Monster,” we decided to revisit the album and rank its songs. In ascending order:

12. “Bang and Blame”



The band’s last Top 40 hit has, over time, also come to feel like one of its most dated singles–and one of its least-essential songs. The protagonist is smugly satisfied that a deceitful person is getting their comeuppance and is refusing to be a victim anymore–”Stop laying blame/You know that’s not my thing”–although an exact motive for this vindictiveness is never clear. The song’s charred riffs and explosive chorus are engaging, but not as innovative as other moments on “Monster.”

11. “Tongue”

Musically, the weakest link on “Monster” is the delicate, piano- and organ-driven “Tongue,” an homage to genteel baroque pop that would eventually be overshadowed by plenty of moments on 1998′s “Up” and 2001′s “Reveal.” Still, the lyrics are far worthier: Written from the perspective of a woman who rues her inability to resist a paramour who is simply using her for sex, “Tongue” adroitly captures the feeling of self-loathing intrinsic to such a situation.

10. “You”

The “Monster” album-closer is mesmerizing, with an underbelly of sludgy, droning buzz overlaid with coiled rhythm guitars and wild-eyed declarations of all-consuming desire and obsession (“I can wing around your Saturn smile, shout at the moon,” “And I want you like a Pisces rising”). Yet it’s also the most unsettling song on a record full of both blatant and subtle unease; the relationship described in the song isn’t necessarily consensual–and it’s not necessarily going to have a happy ending. Either way, it’s an appropriate capper for an album that never goes for easy answers.

9. “Circus Envy”

One of those subtly genius songs, “Circus Envy” is written from the perspective of a circus animal seething with anger over mistreatment; the character threatens mayhem should escape ever occur. But like George Orwell’s “1984,” the song also functions as an allegory for anyone oppressed by government tactics, the patriarchy or any other suppressive forces. The underlying bomb-fuse sound effects, metallic-coated vocal processing and martial-sounding drums further contribute to the song’s uneasy, apocalyptic feel.

8. “I Took Your Name”

“I Took Your Name” is a sonic and lyrical cousin to “Crush with Eyeliner”; the tune deals with chameleonic personalities and the subsequent havoc wreaked by those who shape-shift with nefarious intentions. Choppy guitar riffs, menacing vocals and spates of falsetto harmonies only encourage this tension.

7. “King of Comedy”

A satirical look at commercial success and toying with labels (e.g., sexual preferences, religious beliefs) to curry attention and financial gain, the growling, gravelly “King Of Comedy” sounds like a fractured take on the liquid post-punk favored by R.E.M.’s longtime influence Gang of Four. Thematically, it also shares traits with the latter band’s output; in the end, the lyrics condone the crassness of fame and superstars-as-objects:  “I’m not commodity.”

6. “Star 69″

About as punk as R.E.M. ever sounded (on record, at least), “Star 69″ ranks up there with the Replacements’ “Answering Machine” as one of the best rock & roll songs about antiquated technology. Take a chaotic tempo–the aural equivalent of amusement park bumper cars careening all over the place–add plenty of vocal delay and then pile on of stacks of jangly, haywire riffs; the result is oddly life-affirming.

5. “Strange Currencies”

Consider this a song a sonic holdover from R.E.M.’s recent acoustic elegies, and a welcome respite from “Monster”‘s noisier songs, courtesy of its arpeggiated guitars and waltzing tempo. Like “The One I Love,” “Strange Currencies” is also deeply misunderstood. On the surface, the tune’s about a love affair; however, its lyrical desperation–”I need a chance, a second chance, a third chance, a fourth chance…”–and pointed descriptions (“I don’t know why you’re mean to me/When I call on the telephone”) reveal the song’s about an unrequited love affair where the rejected person isn’t taking no for an answer.

4. “Crush with Eyeliner”

On the surface, “Crush With Eyeliner” is about the age-old phenomenon of changing personality to attract a gorgeous crush. But like many songs on “Monster,” the song has a creepy bent (“What can I make myself be (Fake her)/To make her mine?”) and has quiet depth–in this case, an exploration of the slippery nature of identity. Sleazy, woozy electric riffs and grooves (as well as an ominous second voice from Thurston Moore) complete the seductive package.

3. “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream”

Perhaps the most underrated song on “Monster” is “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream.” Sonically, it’s a foggy daydream centered around glassy piano shards, askew guitar chime and pounding-heartbeat percussion; lyrically, it’s an enigmatic, cryptic song that leaves things wide open to interpretation: “I’ll settle for a cup of coffee, but you know what I really need.” Plus, Michael Stipe’s falsetto surge when he sings “I don’t sleep, I dream” amps up the emotional urgency.

2. “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”

The buzzsawing first single from “Monster” heralded that R.E.M. was going in a different musical direction, from the tremolo-drenched riffs and the elliptical choruses to Peter Buck’s rare solo on the bridge–a distorted, malleable beast that never turned out exactly the same way twice in concert. But “Kenneth”–which refers to a phrase uttered during a 1986 attack on Dan Rather–also fell in line with the album’s commentary on pop culture and mass media. The titular phrase is intoxicating to the protagonist (perhaps because it’s so slangy), while the sharply observant line, “You said that irony was the shackles of youth,” sums up the generation gap that broke wide open during the ’90s.

1. “Let Me In”

The death of Kurt Cobain hovered over “Monster,” which was released less than six months after he passed. (Buck even played one of the Nirvana frontman’s guitars in the “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” video.) Fittingly, R.E.M. memorialized Cobain with the achingly straightforward, grief-stricken “Let Me In.” As Stipe cries out in anguish at being unable to stop his death–”I had a mind to try to stop you. let me in. let me in/But I’ve got tar on my feet and I can’t see”–the band surrounds him with dusty clouds of unfocused, distorted guitar and a keening, funereal organ. “Let Me In” succeeds because it is so wrenching–wishing only for a small, universal gesture that’s heartbreaking in its simplicity.

Annie Zaleski is a freelance writer based in Cleveland, Ohio.

 

http://www.salon.com/2015/04/04/r_e_m_s_monster_ranked_from_start_to_finish_an_underappreciated_polarizing_album_thats_aged_very_well/?source=newsletter

Sonic Youth founder talks legacy, why artists can’t expect to get rich, Brooklyn — and his great new solo album

Thurston Moore: Sonic Youth “wasn’t really surprising anymore”

Thurston Moore: Sonic Youth "wasn't really surprising anymore"
Thurston Moore (Credit: Matador/Phil Sharp)

The centerpiece of Thurston Moore’s fourth solo album, “The Best Day,” is an 11-minute pagan guitar jam featuring some of the boldest lyrics the man has ever written: “You draw a circle around the holy fortress,” he sings. “Animals they sing and adore you.” With its tensely churning guitars and occultic imagery, “Forevermore” summons Tolkein and Crowley and even Hammer Horror icon Christopher Lee to show the weird and world-conjuring power of romantic desire. In other words, it’s a love song—or at least Moore’s version of a love song. Any treacle or schmaltz or heart-on-sleeve professions of devotions are elbowed aside by noisy guitars and an engagement with weird corners of pop history from Zeppelin to “The Wicker Man.”

Last year Moore moved to London—specifically, to a small village on the city’s outskirts called Stoke Newington—after more than 30 years in New York, where he served as an avatar of the city’s boho sensibilities. Whether that move was motivated by the need for a change of scenery or by the dissolution of his marriage to Sonic Youth bassist/singer Kim Gordon is largely beside point. What matters is that the transatlantic relocation has given Moore a whole new underground to explore. He’s part expat, part anthropologist.

Just as “Low” was David Bowie’s Berlin album, “The Best Day” is Moore’s Stoke Newington album, a collection of songs defined by the particulars of locale. The music is steeped in British history and culture—in its folk, pop and even metal scenes. Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley is the only other Yank in Moore’s band, which features guitarist James Sedwards (of Nought, The Devil and Zodiac Youth) and bassist Deb Googe (of My Bloody Valentine). Several tunes feature lyrics penned by a local poet named Radiuex Radio.

“The Best Day” is not a dramatic reinvention by any means; in fact, Moore admits it sounds in some ways like a Sonic Youth album, but adds that such similarities are inescapable. Instead, the album reveals once again Moore’s motivating restlessness and curiosity, showcasing an artist forever twisting expectations. From his new home across the Atlantic, he spoke to Salon about… well, pretty much everything: the gentrification of New York City, the revolutionary act of cutting your hair, the radical activism of the 1970s, the differences between writing a poem and writing a song, even the DIY punk scene in Bloomington, Indiana.

How do you like London so far?



What everyone says about living in England, specifically the weather is so shitty, is actually mistaken. It can be gray and rainy here for period, but we don’t have ice storms here like we did in New York. And it’s not like Vietnam in the summer. I dig it. It’s consistently nice here, but you have to live here to know that. When I used to visit, it would be incredibly rainy and gray and horrible, and I could never understand why anybody would want to live here. I guess you have to plant your feet here for a while to see that. But I’m not really here that much. I travel and tour quite a bit, which is okay but can be annoying because I feel like just when I’m getting into being here and discovering all there is to discover about this city, I get uprooted.

There’s obviously a lot of music to discover in London, although I think most of your fans associate you with New York that it feels a little like we lost a landmark or something.

There’s always been a pretty direct relationship between New York and London in my time. I moved to New York City in 1977. I’d been going there since 1976 and most of the information in New York was coming via London—more so, I think, than the rest of America. That didn’t really happen until later, when more regional and suburban activity started happening in the hardcore and underground scenes in the early ’80s. All of a sudden, those American scenes were more interesting than what was happening in England and Europe. But for me London seemed so exciting and glamorous to fantasize about, even while I was living in New York. I had this idea that I would fly to London and live there as a 19-year-old. It’s a good thing I didn’t. New York is three miles wide and twelve miles long—or something like that. And London is the size of Rhode Island. It’s huge.

Has the city been welcoming?

I don’t feel transplanted. I don’t feel like I’m trying to infiltrate England or anything. I found it incredibly welcoming. There’s a very active music underground here, and people get really interested in and excited by anybody who’s doing anything. Of course, it has the shelf life of about a day, but if you have some kind of vision, they’ll let you exist. I have a lot of history, so when I came here, people seemed happy about it. I got out and see bands and go to venues. I do things here. It reminds me a little more of what New York was like in the ’80s. It’s a little less sold out, although it’s still expensive to live here. It’s gritty, and there’s a street culture. It’s a very different kind of culture because everything shuts down at midnight. So it’s interesting in that respect. Plus, people read here. There are bookstores everywhere, which I like a lot. I dig it. But I still love New York City. It’s my home. When I go there, I feel like I’m going home. I know every little corner and aspect of it, even if I’m removed from it in a way because there’s a new generation there. It’s a more moneyed generation.

New York definitely seems like a different place than it was even 10 years ago.

For sure. Manhattan is still really bewitching in a way. There are certain areas that are off the commerce grid, way down in the tip of the island, that you can get lost in. It used to be that the whole area below 16th Street was our apocalyptic playground, but that doesn’t exist at all anymore. And there’s Brooklyn, which is its own entity. It’s great how Brooklyn has had this amazing resurgence of people coming in there and starting businesses and making it this fun capital. But that’s not my scene. It’s a younger person’s scene. It’s also a high-rent scene, so I don’t find it too attractive in that sense.

Brooklyn certainly prices you out if you’re trying to start something up. You’re almost better off going to Detroit.

The whole Detroit thing is great. To actually take that leap, go to Detroit, and do something on a big plot—that’s pretty radical. But it’s too cold for me. New York is cold, too, but Detroit is really cold. I’m in my mid 50s. I grew up in cold weather, but now I can see why old people go south. I can see why Iggy Pop lives in Miami Shores or wherever he lives. I get it. It’s time to worship the sun for a while. Where are you? Are you in New York?

I’m in Bloomington, Indiana, actually.

Cool. I have a bit of a connection to Bloomington, because there was this scene going on there in the mid ’70s, a bit of an art-rock scene coming out of the university. So, when I was 16 years old, I was pen-palling with these guys in Bloomington. There was a fanzine called Gulcher, and the first time I ever got published was a photo-booth photo of me looking tough and smoking a cigarette and talking about punk bands that I saw at Max’s Kansas City. I was writing back and forth with Eddie Flowers, who had a band called the Gizmos. I actually wrote to him in ’76 and said, Maybe I’ll come out to Bloomington and join you guys. And he said, No! Don’t do that. We have enough people in the band. I think MX-80 Sound came out of Bloomington, too. They were a really weirdo art-rock hippie punk band at a time when nobody knew how to cut their hair yet.

That was the whole thing, trying to figure out how to cut your hair and whether to wear straight-leg pants or not. It was a big deal. When I first started going to New York, even the Ramones had long hair. Lenny Kaye had this great long hair in the Patti Smith Group. There are early pics of Blondie where everybody has long hair. That didn’t last too long. I think it’s when people first see Television onstage with Richard Hell. That was really shocking. I remember that the audacity of anybody getting onstage to play rock music was just insane.

Now it seems odd that anyone would get upset about a musician’s haircut.

The identity of youth culture was all about hair. Hence the Broadway play. Hair was the flag. For somebody to cut it off and make this radical music early on, they had better have something to stand on. And there was. There was this whole attitude of change. It wasn’t just Television. It was people like Jonathan Richman—this idea of being a math nerd onstage was really wild. Alienated geeks could respond to people who were smart and looking for intellectual kicks. They knew they couldn’t look like Robert Plant, but they could look like Jonathan Richman. It was a necessary change.

Tell me about the artwork for “The Best Day.” That’s a very striking image on the cover.

The dog’s name was Brownie, and the woman is my mother. Her name is Eleanor. The picture was taken by my father when they were courting in the 1940s. It was down in Florida, around Miami. I found that photo among her photos earlier this year. When I saw it, I thought of different titles for the photo and the record, and I came up with “The Best Day.” I thought there must be a thousand other albums called “The Best Day,” or at least a thousand songs called “The Best Day.” I did a little research and could find only one song, a Country and Western song from years back. I didn’t listen to it. I was afraid to. But I had this other song I wrote, an instrumental, and having an album title already, it allowed me to write lyrics to the title song of the record. I felt good about having a title that’s about goodness instead of anger.

It certainly puts these songs in an almost literally sunnier context.

And my mother is still alive. The dog is no longer with us. My father’s no longer around either. In that respect you just think about how we all have these amazing days in our lives, but we have so much else—a lot of difficulty, a lot of stress. To me, it was like I was acknowledging that those times do exist and celebrating them. So there it is, on the cover. But you know, there’s always this underlying wistfulness in these things. We’re all wistful creatures.

The best day ends at midnight and then an okay day starts. Or a bad day. That push and pull between contentment and melancholy can make for a dynamic album.

We all have bad times in our lives. That’s a commonality among everybody, so to contemplate it is good, especially if you’re doing it as an artist. It’s an emotional expression, whether you’re doing it in music or visual art or literature. For me it feels like there’s a bit of self-medication to it, for want of a better word.

I would imagine that it would make them easier to live with for the next several months, when you’ll be playing them every night.

Sometimes I see bands whose whole oeuvre is based on anger and their own pissed-offed-ness. Every song is, I’m fucking losing it! Any kind of hard punk/metal thing is all about anger and negative vibes. Man, you have to express that anger all the time when you’re on tour. I find I don’t want to do that. There’s a lot I could scream about, but I’d rather transmute it in a way and try to turn it around. Put some light onto it, make it humorous, and see what happens. Maybe not talk about the bad, but talk about the good.

Yoko Ono said to me once, Let’s not talk about these people who are doing such bad things on the earth, be it Putin or whoever. When you talk about them, you name them, and when you name them, you give them this energy and this power. So don’t talk about them. Talk about the people who are doing good things. Let’s name them and give them the power. There’s something very ancient and Buddhist-centric about that kind of thinking, obviously, but I find it to be a very good rule of thumb in writing and presenting yourself as a public figure. That did have an effect on me.

Is that where “Detonation” comes from? Some people might look at the subject matter—political activism in the UK during the late 1960s and early 1970s—and see something very negative. But that song actually celebrates that kind of radicalism?

Those activists were university students, poets, and artists who wanted to make a point without harming anyone. They wanted to create some damage in the face of this imbalance of power in the cities. It was young men and women together—very gender-balanced. They were thrown in jail for being rabble-rousers and anarchists, and most of them continued their radical lives when they got out of jail. Some of them even lost their lives. That kind of devotion is really intense. They just couldn’t walk away from the cause, and that impresses me. I live in a little village called Stoke Newington, and there was a group here called the Angry Brigade, who were imprisoned for putting explosives in different places that were identified with the war machine. They made sure nobody got hurt; it was complete theater. Still, they were caught and thrown in the pokey.

That song looks at their creative lives. I didn’t write the lyrics. It was written by this transgender poet friend of mine who lives here named Radiuex Radio. She wrote three lyrics on the record—that song, a song called “Vocabularies” and another called “Tape.” I did do a little editing, which I’ve never done. In Sonic Youth we would trade lyrics. Someone would write a song for Kim [Gordon] to sing, and I would take some lines from her and use them in a song I would sing. So this kind of collaboration is nothing new.  “Detonation” was one of the first songs from this record that was composed, and there’s another song called “Speak to the Wild” that warns against falling in line with authority. I always thought “question authority” was the great badge of my era of ’70s, ’80s, ’90s punk. I always thought it made sense.

This whole album seems to be concerned with your relationship to authority.

I’ve always had a problem with being told what to do. I don’t know why. I think it’s because of my family unit. My parents weren’t especially authoritative. My dad was a typical father coming out of the Eisenhower era. He would spank you as a kid if you were acting up, but he was certainly not a mean guy. He was actually a very nice guy. But he passed away when I was a teenager. My mother was very liberal and open to me having experiences. She wouldn’t lay down the law. She would just worry. So I think what happens when I come into contact with some kind of expectation of authority, I kind of bristle. I feel like I want to create some kind of independence in reaction to it. I think that’s why I was really into hardcore music, because it was rebellious and it wore its rebellion and its emotions on its sleeve. Steve Shelley [Sonic Youth’s drummer] was in a band called the Crucifucks. They were a Midwestern hardcore band that I thought were fabulous, and they had these songs like “Democracy Spawns Bad Taste” and “Who Are All These Men in Blue Pushing Us Around?” My favorite, actually, is “Hinckley Had a Vision.”

Is there a point for you when the rebellion becomes the authority? Do the codes of rebellion become so ingrained that they become the thing to rebel against?

You do have to be careful. Rebellion becomes pretty chic and everybody falls in line with it. I think I’m more interested in unique independence. My favorite musicians were always the outliers, the ones who are beyond category: people like Sun Ra and Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, these itinerant people who had a singular voice as opposed to a groupthink mentality. On the other hand, I really like the groupthink of the initial punk movement. I like the idea of community, when a certain music sounds the same or has the same laws of composition, like reggae or Country and Western or different genres of jazz. When people say all reggae sounds the same, I’m like yeah, because this is a really unified idea. And I like that idea of unity, but the people who really attract me are the ones doing something singular. Obviously that’s what I wanted Sonic Youth to be. That’s who we wanted to be, and I guess that’s who we were.

Any band with a catalog as large and a legacy as long as Sonic Youth’s will necessarily meet certain expectations from fans and critics. Do you feel a need to rebel against those expectations of what the band was or could be?

Always. I feel like I don’t want to be decoded. The type of songwriting that was going on in Sonic Youth I think at some point was fairly well figured out. When we used to tour, the audience always had this kind of question mark over its head, but that kind of disappeared later on because they figured us out. People could dig the music, but it wasn’t really surprising anymore. The very few reviews I’ve read of “The Best Day” say that it sounds like a Sonic Youth record. Well, there are reasons for that. I do extend myself into other places where I play completely improvised music  or get involved with genre bands like Twilight, but for what I do as a songwriter, sitting alone with my guitar writing a song, it’s going to come out a certain way and sound a certain way. And I’m not going to try to change that just so it’s not recognizable.

In a way it should be recognizable, but it’s certainly not new. You’re only new once with what you’re doing, but that’s a great thing about being in a band—that initial impact that you have. Oh, this is a new sound. By your third or fourth record, it’s been decoded. I think it took a little while longer with Sonic Youth because we learned how to play as we existed. We learned to play in our own way, and we would settle into motifs for a few record. Those would progress and develop as years went by, but there would never be any radical changes. It wasn’t like, let’s go out and all play pianos. I don’t know what would have happened if we had done that. We would have lost our management and our booking agents.

When we did the record “Washing Machine,” it was in my mind to not have our name on the record, and just have the name of the band be Washing Machine. We were supposed to tour with R.E.M. when that record came out, and I asked if we could be listed as Washing Machine. No way. Nobody would go for it. So I had to settle for saying to people that we were called Washing Machine and the name of the album is “Sonic Youth.” But that didn’t fly either. I didn’t push it. I do side with reason. I’m not a complete nut.

It seems like you address some of those impulses with side projects and collaborations, like the “Caught on Tape” album with John Moloney and the chapbook with Tim Kinsella.

I do, and I allow all of those things to inform each other as well. The most separate thing is definitely working with writing. I teach writing courses in the summer at Naropa University, in the poetry workshop there that Allen Ginsburg and Anne Waldman founded in ’74. The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, they call it. That vocation is separate from the music activity, although I think there’s a wish that I’ll bring my guitar and play a little bit. But I don’t do it, because I want to be here teaching writing as a writer. I know I’ll never be looked upon as a writer, because I already have this history as a musician. I’ve learned how to deal with that. I like the idea of people being able to do whatever they want to do as artists. There’s always this dictum that says you shouldn’t spread yourself too thin across different disciplines. I disagree with that. I think you should be able to do what you want to do. That’s what John Cage was all about. You do whatever you do in an expressive medium to the best of your abilities, regardless of what medium it is. He called it interdisciplinary art.

So writing a poem doesn’t come from the same creative impulse as writing a song.

They can be different impulses. I’ll work on writing poems for the sake of writing poems, because they have a certain discipline—the way the line breaks, or the meter of the line, or just the visual nature of the poem on the page. I’m not writing with any intention for it to be a lyric in a song, but a lot of times when I’m writing songs, I’ll go back to a poem and try to sing the poem without having to modify or adjust it. Nine times out of ten I’ll have to modify or adjust it to fit the song. Sometimes I’ll take lines from different poems and create a third kind of piece that will become the lyrics to a song. I’ll ransack notebooks. When I write lyrics that are primarily for a song, it’s all about rhyme schemes. Rhyme schemes don’t really exist for me when I’m working with poetry. Rhyming in poetry is mostly outdated, but you can still utilize it to some degree. But you don’t want to do moon-june-spoon in poetry.

People generally think of writing as a solitary pursuit, yet you’ve managed to make it a collaborative endeavor. In fact, almost all of the art you create seems to be created socially.

To some degree. Sonic Youth worked best as a really democratic model. I always thought we worked best when nobody was coming in with song ideas. We would just get together and play, and we would hear things happening that we would focus on and create a song out of. That’s where the most interesting and magical stuff happened. But a lot of times one of us would come in with song ideas. I spent a lot of time writing songs and thinking, What am I going to do with these? So I would bring them in to Sonic Youth rehearsals and everybody would write their own parts and it would become a Sonic Youth song. But with the solo stuff, I show people what I’m doing and I don’t really allow much invention with it. It’s not, do whatever you want to do. It’s more like, I’d like you to play in unison with me here. Or I’d like you to do this on bass. It’s a different relationship than I had with Sonic Youth, because that band started with people who wanted to make something together. The band on “The Best Day” formed with me making phone calls to three people and asking if they would play this music I’m writing.

I always want to collaborate with people that I’m really interested in. When I started playing Lydia Lunch, I was so aware of what she was in the early ’80s, so it was incredibly startling to have this invitation to work with her. And then I had this whole history of working with Patti Smith and Merce Cunningham and Cecil Taylor. These people are giants to me, and all of a sudden I was partnering with them. It still happens today whenever I connect with someone who’s significant to me. I’ve always been a huge enthusiast of other people’s works, and I hold it in high regard. Those are teaching materials for me.

I think about people who lead ascetic lifestyles where they get into this state of no belongings and they just have this loss of self. In a way I have a lot of problems with that. I’m intrigued by that kind of life—you can have loss of self, but you’re always going to be imprisoned in your own consciousness. You have to deal with that. I find that the documents are my communications with the real world. I feel like I have plenty of connection with the metaphysical/spiritual world, too. I don’t feel a need to get rid of my belongings just so I can have this unattached lifestyle. I like the attachments. I find them to be friendly and interesting and exciting. I’m thinking of a whole new Buddhism where you surround yourself with mountains of paper.

Is that harder to do when music and culture are becoming less physical and more ephemeral?

Just by the fact that something is digital, it’s automatically insubstantial. I have no feeling for it. For me it’s there for a service and an immediacy of interaction, but it doesn’t turn me on. I don’t think it’s a threat to the more vibratory materials, like books and records and things you can actually touch. Because your senses are not involved in the digital. Even your hearing is negated because you’re just hearing digital output, which is numerical. Your brain doesn’t have much fun with it. It just processes it as information. I don’t get turned on by information. I get turned on by the mystery. But I don’t think these things are disappearing. There’s a lot of replacement going on, but there’s still plenty to deal with. It doesn’t disturb me.

It is a little harder to make a buck. It definitely puts a crimp in a lot of people’s lifestyles, people who made good money being in bands. There’s a certain humbling that I think is significant. Why should being in a band make you more money than any other job? Just because you have a guitar and you’re onstage doesn’t mean you have the privilege of being a millionaire. I never had that privilege, but it’s happened to a lot of people. Would I have accepted it? Certainly. Anybody could use the coin. But I always thought it was a distorted situation where people in the arts should have that ambition of great wealth. It would be nice, but it’s completely unnecessary to the craft.

I try not to have that define me or my pursuits at all. I say that, but at the same time, I’m very clear on how I tour and what is sustainable and what makes more sense financially. You can make more money playing this festival than playing this cool underground club. What are you going to do? I’m going to play the festival. I have to pay the rent just like anybody else.

 

http://www.salon.com/2014/10/18/thurston_moore_sonic_youth_wasnt_really_surprising_anymore/

 

Stop mocking normcore: It’s the natural result of our sarcasm and irony-drenched culture

Irony, sincerity, normcore: Jon Stewart, Stephen

Colbert, David Foster Wallace and the end of rebellion

Irony, sincerity, normcore: Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, David Foster Wallace and the end of rebellion

Jon Stewart, David Foster Wallace, Stephen Colbert, Jerry Seinfeld (Credit: AP/Evan Agostini/Flickr/Steve Rhodes/AP/Alex Brandon/Reuters)

Frenzied talk of normcore — the fashion trend that encourages its adherents to fit in and be normal rather than stand out and be different — is not very old. It can’t even crawl yet, but articles about it over the past three months have appeared in New York magazine, the New York Times and the Guardian and on the websites the Millions, HuffPost and Vox – and even Newsweek. An article on the Quartz website, itself quite young, traced the Google search-engine returns of the term “normcore” from 0 to 55,000 in just one month.

Most other outlets have either debunked normcore as a “this too shall pass” phenomenon, or cheekily explained it away with stock photos of Croc shoes, fleece jackets, Jerry Seinfeld, and President Obama wearing dad jeans. Bucking the trend, happiness philosopher Alain de Botton curiously observed on Newsweek’s website that “normcore is the search for the ideal. The perfect T-shirt, like the perfect pencil or table, doesn’t need to be constantly updated because it has latched on to the essence of what it’s trying to do.”

De Botton does not get normcore. It is not the search for an ideal. It precisely goes against the search for an ideal, gives up on it entirely, and plops down onto the couch in a pair of sweat pants.

The overwhelming verdict is that normcore is over before it really began. But its real meaning is neither fashion nirvana nor pointless trend. Rather, it is the end result of a logic that has been worming its way through hipster culture for the last decade. Its arrival spells a fascinating cultural knot, a logical dead end, where no one knows what will come next. That’s worth paying attention to, and let me tell you why.



I have lived in Berlin, Germany, since 2008, where a low-grade species of normcore has been scurrying around in ankle-high Velcro Reeboks and slouchy suede boots for the past four years. Toward the end of a book I published in 2012, about the 500-year cultural and intellectual history of sincerity, I described a foreboding advertisement for a German daily newspaper, Berliner Morgenpost: “A recent billboard advertising campaign for a newspaper in über-cool Berlin reads, ‘Berlin is where no one really knows whether you are in or out.’ The accompanying photograph shows a hipster wearing a horridly colored pleather jacket walking past an overweight working-class man watering the porch flowers outside his street-level apartment wearing the exact same jacket. This cheeky juxtaposition bespeaks a strange confluence: the proletariat — a word forbidden in America — and the bourgeois hipster, given these bad economic times, are becoming increasingly indiscernible. The return of acid-wash jeans would close the gap completely.”

Regrettably, two years later, acid-wash jeans now are back. I saw a young bearded guy wearing them the other day on the platform of the Gorlitzer Bahnhof S-Bahn station, along with a sleeveless shirt, Ray Bans, Topsiders and a knit cap. I also saw: baggy stonewash jean shirts, armless football jerseys, extreme mom jeans, plaid pants, thin faux-alligator-skin belts, floral-patterned stretch pants, hip-length T-shirts tied in a little knot, scrunchies and animal-patterned pastel cotton sweaters. And, of course: The Glasses. For anyone currently between ages 30 and 45, this is eighth grade all over again. Where are you, Coca-Cola shirts? Full-on mullets? They’ll be here soon, I promise you, as will jellies, Lycra, mock turtlenecks, cropped bolero jackets and anything worn by the cast of “90210.”

For all its double-take oddity, however, the fashion reemergence in normcore is not a conspiratorial decision by savvy millennial urban youth to make Gen Xers, many of us now creeping past 40, squirm with the embarrassment of recognition or the pain of ridicule. It has rather something to do with, in economic terms, the cheapness and availability of thrift stores and their reinvigorated trendiness owing to difficult financial times for recent college grads. Economic inequality and upward mobility are notoriously stalled in America. For those of us who escaped its esteem-battering claws, that’s a hard thing to imagine. Normcore is entwined in this sad development.

Normcore is also a further outgrowth of the deliberate rejection of fashion as something requiring new clothing or products — itself part of an ongoing hipster and modernist reactionary critique of capitalist culture, which has also resulted in the eminently positive reemergence of DIY activities: gardening, farming, cooking, beer brewing and the growth of local and small businesses that have promoted a rediscovered value in craft. This is something hipster foodie culture has been made fun of for, for some reason, while in the meantime it has revived billions of dollars’ worth of GDP by bolstering the restaurant business and inspired scores of people to get back into the kitchen and create interesting and delectable food from scratch.

More abstractly, normcore is the perfect illustration of what the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel called a “dialectical” development, a movement containing three components: thesis, antithesis and synthesis. The thesis is stated, gives rise to a reaction or antithesis, and then the two are resolved into a third, accommodating state: the synthesis. Hegel’s famed example was a pretty big one: all of history, wherein humanity moves from a state of slavery and subjugation through a stage of revolution and then to the end result: a free, democratic state. (Simple math for someone living through the late 18th century.) A slightly smaller deal than all of history, normcore nevertheless represents the synthesis of two antithetical trends deeply rooted in hipster culture: irony and sincerity.

* * *

Irony, or the ironic attitude, which has been around since the Roman Empire (Juvenal, Lucilius, Quintilian), takes nothing very seriously — especially superficial things — inverts or changes meanings and symbols, and prides itself on an aristocratic remove from the world. It believes in the power of distance. It is an absolutely integral and necessary part of modern culture and of a mature, educated democratic population. It is what allows for skepticism and mental remove from the everydayness of life, and what helps safeguard against the effects of propaganda and ideology. Irony had a cultural high point during the 1990s and then, despite some critics lamenting it in 1999 and calling for its head on a stick on 9/11, gave birth to the explosive international popularity of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and “South Park” in the early 2000s, to name just three of many dozen other outlets. Irony is the thesis.

Sincerity, or even the New Sincerity, aimed to be an antidote to all that had come to be seen as an impediment to true feeling, commitment, connection, art, seriousness and patriotism. Its rebirth came after 9/11 as a response to “postmodern irony,” which it saw as shallow and flip. Sincerity prides itself on saying what it really means and speaking from the heart. Among intimate friends and family it is a necessary trait to cultivate. In society, however, it is usually a ruse or performance, awkward or career destroying, or it is practiced most consistently by devoutly religious people, usually with unintended bad results, who think it is a virtue and that it makes them better people. Fanatics and fundamentalists are deeply sincere about their beliefs. Among strangers and politicians, sincerity is often a misplaced demand. It is, all told, best taken in small doses. Sincerity is the antithesis.

The foundations of hipster culture and style are debatable, but whatever originating hairs are split, it is clear that they are based on both irony and sincerity working in tandem, at different times, to differing degrees. There is ironic performance in these things: trucker hats (they are not truckers), nerd glasses (they are not nerds), grandpa sweaters (they are not grandpas), keffiyeh scarves (unless showing genuine political solidarity with Palestinians, ironic), bobo sneakers from 1986, wife beaters T-shirts, mustaches, tight jeans, cotton-knit sweaters, hoodies, church bake-sale T-shirts, braces, tube socks, sweatbands, all of that. This is the ongoing thrift shop aesthetic that lends its wearers a late 1970s, ’80s or ’90s feel as well as a sense of imagined economic-class devolution that makes them feel more real (object lesson: The working class and social outcasts are more authentic than the bourgeoisie and popular). The overall sense is that the wearer has crafted his or her look to be uncool and un-put-together when contrasted to, say, a figure out of a J. Crew catalog or from the evening news. This is the well-known and now widespread irony of uncool becoming the coolest thing possible. This has been helped along by pop-culture figures like Katy Perry, Terry Richardson, Zooey Deschanel, Justin Bieber and Jay Z.

Balanced with some of hipster culture’s productions — as opposed to just its clothing — is an amazing level of sincerity and earnestness (not exclusively), from involvement in activities devoid of the trickery, illusions and the cynicism of mass advertising, production and consumption (again: foraging, cooking, printmaking, brewing, pickling, cheese-making), to some truly beautiful music: Bon Iver, Black Mountain, M. Ward, Devendra Banhart, Iron and Wine, Fleet Foxes, Phosphorescent, Tiny Vipers and the whole spectrum from freak folk to New Weird America. There is also revived disco and New Wave sounds of Casio keyboards, drum machines, falsetto voices, synthesizers and jangly, early ’80s guitars that portray a kind of production innocence, an East-Village-then feel, heard in bands like CSS, Scissor Sisters, Daft Punk, Wild Nothing and Chairlift, among hundreds more. The band the Pains of Being Pure at Heart make sincerity explicit in both their name and what they say while dressed in slim-fit fashions. Asked about their name on an episode of ABC News’ online show “The Mix,” lead singer Kip Berman says, “It wasn’t just, like, some obscure reference, or, like, the cool guys in the tight pants or something. It was, like, um, very emotionally sincere.” There’s also the legendary Beck, who has long traversed the irony-sincerity matrix; or the sensibility of someone like Jack Black, whose ironic comedies and performances aim toward eliciting sincerity of heart; or the films of Wes Anderson, the paintings of Sean Landers and Elizabeth Peyton, and so on.

Fair enough? Let’s grant that both of these characteristics — irony and sincerity — are the prominent poles of hipster culture, indeed of avant garde culture generally over the past two decades, from the clothes and fashions it wears to some of its most important and interesting cultural productions.

If this is the case, then normcore is the synthesis. It wears normal clothes that would earlier have been worn ironically but claims that the irony is gone — that the normal clothes are just being worn artlessly, sincerely, without irresistibly tending toward a smirk. That’s not true, of course, but in this playful denial normcore is doing something beyond “finding liberation in being nothing special,” as K-Hole, the trend-forecasting agency that claims to have branded the term, explains. K-Hole describes normcore as “post-aspirational,” meaning the acceptance of conforming or yielding to mainstream American mall fashion (Dockers, J.Crew, Gap, Banana Republic, Ann Taylor) rather than boldly asserting, through fashion or anti-fashion, one’s uniqueness and individuality. Normcore wears clothes ironically (with self-conscious distance) but the clothes that are being worn are the most nondescript clothes possible. What normcore is doing by “not being different” (in relation to mall fashion, not to hipster fashion, of which it is a part) is pointing to and then traversing the dead-end status of zany, rebellious, individualist fashion itself. That’s interesting and worth paying attention to.

What began as a hippie culture of resistance to capitalist bourgeois culture has matured perfectly into an even more powerful capitalist bourgeois culture (Steve Jobs, Ben & Jerry, Richard Branson). They have bought into the idea — oftentimes the mere illusion of the idea — that rebellious individualism is always against the grain, even if they have become the grain they used to be against, which has had the unfortunate result of turning resistance into style. And so with rebellion as the new center, which happened some time ago, normcore has been inadvertently tasked with admitting that nonconformity has finally run its course.

It’s now boring to be a rebel — or, rather, rebels have become boring. When everyone from cashiers at Rite Aid to associate humanities professors to seemingly every single NBA star has a pierced nose or face, ironic clothing item, an elaborate tattoo and disproportionately strong opinions; when multinational corporations selling hamburgers, potato chips and sneakers are urging you to think different and stand out by buying their things, then the specialness of individual rebelliousness is over. The cultural power granted to symbols and accouterments of dissent — signs once referring to the bourgeois person’s cheeky, recalcitrant individuality, his or her deep infusion with modernism — only work when they remain in the margins, when they mean something over and against what everyone else is doing. Only then do they keep their charge and pointed critique at what is “mainstream.” And even that word, “mainstream,” as we have witnessed, has already been co-opted by those non-mainstream mavericks over on the Palin Express. You see, they like “stirrin’ things up and tellin’ it like it is.” They are all up in your grill. The deluxe, stainless steel Kitchen Aid gas-powered kind.

Cultural critic and Baffler founder Thomas Frank pointed exactly to this long-arcing tendency in his brilliant “Conquest of Cool” (1996), which traced the way business culture has dogged the counterculture at every turn by erecting a fake counterculture of goods, selling “counterculture” back to hippies, beginning in the mid-1960s, with records and blue jeans and soda pop and bicycles aimed at “sticking it to The Man” or refusing to let him “steal your music.” David Foster Wallace had famously tired of trendy dissent in his hallmark 1993 essay “E Unibus Pluram,” which argued, against the prevailing winds, that the postmodern ironic attitude, since it became “institutionalized,” had created a kind of uncommitted, distanced, self-absorbed personality, particularly among fiction writers and artists. (Or, even among normcore’s inadvertent mascot, Jerry Seinfeld.) This cheeky, knee-jerk rebellion, its refusal to belong, its television-inspired coolness, Wallace argued, had become “an agent of great despair and stasis in U.S. culture.” Wallace openly longed for a group of youngsters who would reclaim sincerity and endure the spiteful eye-rolls of ironists.

When rebellion and irony and individualist fashion statements are the new norm (the “Simpsons” have long been taking the barometer: Q: “Are you being sarcastic, dude?” A: “I don’t even know anymore.” Homerpalooza, 1996.); and when the margin has become the center, which it has (edgy, twerkin’, tongue-out, pierced Miley Cyrus is recorded and published by RCA, the second-oldest record label in America, and by Hollywood Records, owned by Disney), then real rebellion — that is, actual countercultural living that has a moral, social, political or even aesthetic point to make — is reduced to acting in the realm of mimicry and mimesis, or to looking like everything around it and operating in some other way. (Recall T.S. Eliot’s sage advice: “Poetry it is not the expression of personality; it is an escape from personality.”)

In other words, when the semiotics of social dissent becomes fashionable, then actual, content-concerned philosophical dissent must operate by some other means. Here’s an example: In late 1989, in Leipzig, Bucharest, Prague and other cities with discontented populations trapped behind the Iron Curtain, anti-communists cheered exaggeratedly louder than their pro-Soviet counterparts — expressing the ironic cheer of dissent that only slowly dawns on listeners. This kind of critical camouflage is one reason for the phenomenal power and success of Stephen Colbert: His television persona is the non plus ultra of mimetic criticism — he is the guy who, through satire, is taking down the guys who look exactly like him. More slippery but relatedly is the art of Jeff Koons, who personally claims no critical view of the kitsch objects he transforms into million-dollar auction items, like gold-leaf-covered figures of Michael Jackson and his pet monkey Bubbles; he’s just “giving people what they want.” Or the impossible-to-find-but-you-know-it’s-there ironic criticism by the master of high-quotidian art: Andy Warhol.

Critical camouflage is also what normcore is doing, and doing well, even though it might not be aiming to do it so deliberately. Its adherents who are knowingly wearing boring, blend-in clothing have most likely experimented with clothes that were more expressive and different, that were somehow on the forward edge of hipster fashion. The people they are imitating who are wearing boring mass-market clothes have only always worn boring mass-market clothes and wanted, truly, just to fit in. Normcore’s “fitting in,” on the other hand, remains in competition with other like-minded urbanites who are trying, through the minutiae of fashion, to show a new step, a new idea, and, above all, creativity in coming up with the next “No way!” reaction. It’s a subtle, quiet race to see who can outdo whom in the cool competition of one-upping with uncoolness and nostalgia. (This showing status and identity via the minutiae of fashion accouterments is as old as fashion itself.) If you have the energy and resourcefulness, that’s not an entirely unfun way to spend some of your time. I have been dressing like an Oxford schoolboy for nearly two decades (collared shirt, V-neck sweater, jeans, wingtips/sneakers), so I’m out of the running for normcore’s fun. Twenty years ago, however, I would have played the game.

In fact, normcore might actually be imitating one of the greatest years of a Gen Xer’s youth — and of the latter 20th century: 1989. The Berlin Wall had just come down, the Cold War ended, democracy and capitalism had triumphed over authoritarianism and communism, the Internet was born, “Dead Poets Society” was released, “Seinfeld” premiered, and some of the best music ever made was pouring out of the West: the Smiths, the Cure, Siouxie and the Banchees, Depeche Mode, Hugo Largo, Throwing Muses, early R.E.M., De La Soul, Fugazi, the Pixies, the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, Echo and the Bunnymen, New Order, Public Image Limited, N.W.A., My Bloody Valentine, on and on.

I was seventeen in 1989, had long hair instead of none, was a thrift-store junkie, wore mustard-colored cardigans, Morrissey-inspired jeans, and played bass in what was then called, in our MTV ”120 Minutes” parlance, an alternative band. Skate and BMX culture was, on the East Coast, new, alive and intoxicating in its rawness, and a smattering of local ’zines made the punk-ish/hardcore subculture feel alive to the times. There was a sense of life and healthy rebellion — and that you were doing something different from what the majority of your high-school cohorts were doing: shopping at the dumb mall. There was also a sense, at the young age of 17, that you had something real to rebel against: teachers, preachers, parents and peers.

* * *

Normcore is not necessarily controlled by its adherents; or, at least, the progress of its unraveling is more stewarded by its adherents than strictly directed by them. Normcore, to sum up again with a nod to Hegel, is part of a grander synthesis of two strands of a long-lived cultural battle: the modernist struggle between the sentiments of irony and sincerity (Duchamp versus, say, Munch or De Kooning; self-negation versus self-expression), which is working its way out before our thick-framed bespectacled eyes. If we look at it this way, if we try to see it instead of judge it, then normcore is not meaningless or pointless or a huge joke. It is rather a fascinating fusion of the loose ends of irony and sincerity, an expression of them through an ambiguous, neither-this-nor-that style. It is giving culture a nostalgic riddle to figure out, providing a focal point that retains its blurriness, representing a thing that does not yet have a fixed and predictable identity. This is the kind of situation some philosophers would have identified with an aesthetic experience: the confrontation with a thing or spectacle for which you do not yet have a concept.

But that might be going too far. For now, it’s enough that normcore makes so many people so angry and frustrated and so eager to get rid of it — and so many of us anxious to write and think about it, even if through the grimacing recognition of one’s own dorky, eighth-grade self.