Pop music stars are becoming just simulacra of each other, as we, standing in line for coffee at Starbucks, have become just copies of copies. Bleeding into one another like double-exposures in some evil daemon's camera, we become an image of that which we are only unwillingly a part, an image which none of us fully intended.
In the fall of 2004, a man named Tomas traveled from Oslo, Norway to see a week's worth of concerts advocating change in America. The Vote for Change tour meant Tomas would see Pearl Jam three nights, REM two nights, and Dave Matthews Band one night. I met him at the first of the Pearl Jam concerts in Toledo, Ohio.
People like Tomas travel so far for a love of music. There is a purity found in bands getting together to play music for a reason like social change. There is an honesty in protest that is undeniable, even if one does not agree with the ideas. In advocating change, someone is declaring disatisfaction with the state of things. Someone is saying that the present is wrong, saying they don't agree with the double and triple exposed image that makes up the picture of a society. It takes courage to tell people they are wrong. It take an individual mind to change the collective social ideology.
The Toledo, OH concert I attended did not swing Ohio away from blushing into the color red on election night. But as a group that night, we were individuals with motives of change, individual men and women with a shared idea that America is individuals with individual needs. Not a homogenous culture in which trickle-down economics can reach us all. And we wanted things to change. Not just politically or presidentially, but socially and culturally. Still, we want it.
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Near Oberlin, OH: October 2004.
The doppio espresso is the fundamental perfection of coffee in middle America. Two shots of pure espresso, poured delicately into a small porcelain cylinder. It echoes the origins of espresso in Italy. But naturally that echo is amplified and Americanized by a customer's disatisfaction with a singular shot. Two shots. We do it bigger and better in the States.
Before the Presidential election last fall, I was in line at a Starbucks within a travel center off the Ohio Turnpike. A friend and I decided to spend the weekend driving from Washington D.C. to Toledo, OH in order to see Pearl Jam on the Vote for Change concert tour.
Starbucks is a place I have affectionately renamed Rats Alley (Starbucks backwards can be "Skub Rats," which leads to "The Rats" which, if you like to read T.S. Eliot, leads to "Rats Alley"). It's my small way of trying to make Starbucks less homogenous. In a country where the individual is supposedly king, where a person can supposedly work hard to become anything they want, my individual taste in coffee is superceded by a giant coffee company, which, despite a pretty decent product (depending on how long the line is) looks remarkably the same be it on the corner of 4th and Pike in Seattle or at an Ohio off-ramp. Every Starbucks is a sketch of my memory of another.
Naturally I would have preferred to buy my doppio espresso from a place like Victrola on Capitol Hill, where the young lady taking my order knows what a doppio is, and where I can make small conversation while the coffee is being ground, tamped, poured. I want to experience buying a cup of coffee. I want a personal, subjective memory. I want Sartre's Existentialism. I don't want to share my experience with millions of people waiting in line at Starbucks-es across the world. I am selfish. But in some things, we all want to be alone.
I get back into the car and continue heading north. Listening to The Smiths' "Louder than Bombs," I wonder whatever happened to the days when music magazines were like academic journals. Writers would write about music they loved, for readers who loved music. Nowadays, music magazines seem to be nothing but books of advertisements, "How To" pamphets for the niche market of high schoolers who want to know what is cool and what is not. No longer are we allowed to make our own decisions about what to like, but we are told what is "cool." and "cool" is what we need to be. We are pressured into fitting the image of society's evil double-exposure. And none of us fit just right, so we learn to keep trying. Try harder. Try harder. Try harder. Be like your besti friend, your worst enemy, a stranger, an idea.
Once in Toledo, I meet Tomas. He is a professional musician from Oslo who learned English from old Neil Young vinyls. So when Neil Young comes onstage, sitting down with Eddie Vedder to play "Harvest Moon" to an admiring crowd of a couple thousand at the local Minor League hockey arena, Tomas is all screams, all amazement, all color and spit and curse words.
It was only a moment: Neil Young, on a stage with his wife and Eddie Vedder, playing a song Tomas has heard hundreds of times, a song he says he covers whenever he plays a solo show in Oslo. It was only about a four minute moment in time. About as significant to the grand expanse of time as a single rain drop is to the ocean separating the United States from Norway. But for Tomas, it was indefinite. It was a flood of memories – standing in a smokey bar with glaring stagelights as he strums his favorite song, sitting alone in a small apartment with the friction of a needle on vinyl scraping out his favorite lyrics, it was lifting the needle midway through Young's high-pitched voice to answer a phone call in which he is told his mother has passed away. It is sheets of heavy iron, cascading and pounding one another inside the head of this one man, Tomas, standing and singing along to a song that is not a song, but something no one but him can fully understand. To the individual, everything is sacred. To the individual, a rain drop is an ocean.
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Why do we fight it? What is wrong with every Starbucks being the same as another? Is it to personalize the experience for every individual who enters? This Starbucks in Ohio is just like the Starbucks in Puyallup I go to every morning. Is the homogenization of something like the idea of a coffeeshop beneficial to society, in that we take comfort in the individualization of a setting, in the recognition of something familiar? Or is it just threatening, even dangerous, because a person in Ohio feels a personal connection to the same place or idea that I do? If your dog dies, is there comfort in buying a puppy of the same breed? Is it the same dog? No.
But maybe it isn't dangerous that everyone think the same. In having the same ideas about things, the same beliefs and same ideals, the world would live in peace. No arguments over how to live, over what movies to rent, even. But isn't that what the Nazis were trying to do? Isn't that what's going on in Darfur?
Alduous Huxley showed us a race of nothing but Alphas in Brave New World. Nothing but the same type of hipster, of cool music fan. And it didn't work. The world he created was deluded on drugs, soma. They were all the same, and yes, lived in relative peace. But is that preferable? "Cool" is just a drug. Society is a dealer on a street corner.
I am way ahead of myself. I am casting a large net over ideas I have no authority to profess. But on a smaller level, I have gotten to the reason why I – and so many others – get upset when we see our once-favorite bands in a music video on MTV. Yes, the band is getting more popular, more people are hearing their music, the band is becoming more successful. But it still bothers me. We deny it, we deny not liking things when they become popular. The music hasn't changed, but something else has. The social idea of the music has changed. No longer am I myself, but I am just another U2 fan. I become a categorical figure.
I have a personal relationship with a band, with a musical recording, and I don't want to share. I am a child who doesn't want to play with the others, but who wants to be a child himself, not a part of the children. The music I choose to listen to is a part of my individuality, and fuck you if you want to turn Death Cab into Starbucks, into the O.C. Fuck you if you think I am supposed to like Wilco. Fuck you for taking my Bob Dylan and saying Conor Oberst is his replacement. Fuck you for telling me I'm supposed to want Converse sneakers and smoke Parliament cigarettes. Fuck you for telling me I can't still listen to Hootie and the Blowfish. Fuck you if you think my glasses are out of style, or my ideas of art and politics are naïve and idealistic and just angry-young-man. Fuck you if I can't be Agnostic, Atheist, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Islam. Fuck you for saying I can't be hetero, gay, bi, Republican, Democrat, Communist, Socialist, Anarchist. Fuck you for telling me my ideas are wrong. Fuck you if you don't have your own ideas. Fuck you if you think the word "fuck" has no place in print. Fuck you if you think there are rules to opinion, to understanding, to love. Fuck you if I don't fit the same image as everyone else. Fuck you. Fuck you. You are invading my world. You are stealing great globs of me. Oh, I want to fight back, I want to explain to you why you haven't heard of my favorite bands, but if I do I will become nothing but a music snob. Fuck you for calling me a music snob.
We are voices shouting "fuck you" because our music, our art, our beliefs are all pieces of our individual selves. There once was a time when a music magazine would spout individual beliefs on music, when writers could give the mainstream the finger and write what they pleased. Readers could read what they wanted, could believe or disbelieve the magazines as much as they wanted. Now I walk through a Barnes and Noble with a Starbucks coffee and pass Filter, and Spin, and Rollingstone, and each has either Interpol or Hot Hot Heat on the cover. These are today's faces of what the evil daemon's picture is supposed to listen to. They are pictures of dead dogs that can never be truly replaced.
Rockstars are becoming just simulacra of each other, as we, standing in line for coffee at Starbucks, have become just copies of copies. Someone better do something, because right now I feel like I am drowning in my own pretention. Someone best burn the double-exposures and make a mosaic of individualism. Your dog is dead, move on. You are no one if you are trying to be someone else.
Maybe the American dream has become bullshit, because working hard to become something better than you were is working hard to fit into an evil daemon's perception. Maybe the American dream should be about understanding Tomas' idea of Neil Young.
Or am I just fitting into the evil daemon's idea of a 22 year-old, without even realizing it?