Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Are You Not My Tribe?

I remember reading this a few years back in The Stranger, our local free "alternative" weekly. I don't know why it occurred to me today, but it ties into something I've been confronting as I try to write about music and film, particularly music or film that falls under the catchall headings of "independent" or "alternative".

First off, let me explain something about my ostensible preference for the independent, underground or alternative: My concern is less about who makes music or releases it, whether my neighbor likes it or not, or whether it has any sort of dubiously defined "credibility". My sole reason for skewing towards the independent is not that it's inherently better, but that reduced commercial expectations seem, on balance, to lead to a greater receptivity on the independent circuit for the original; whereas larger studios and distributors are more risk averse, overall, because they have to protect not only their direct investments in the product, but the massive infrastructures of their bureaucracies. So I'll be the first to acknowledge that independent record labels and film producers can churn out pablum; and I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that perennial iconoclast Bjork has been on a major label for years, while former indie darling Chris Nolan's major studio blockbuster Batman Begins (a franchise entry, no less!) provided the second most potent shot of adrenaline this most reason movie season (the first was Murderball). It's just a matter of recognizing which lever most often gives me a food pellet and which one most often gives me an electric shock.

I'd also like to cite Northwest writer Sherman Alexie, who, when addressing the matter of his writing almost exclusively about matters tribal (he's American Indian--he rejects the term "Native American" as a white-guilt thing), suggested that focusing on the tribal is the only way to address the universal. He points out that tripe like Pearl Harbor is made possible by a bland desire to appeal to everyone. Might we not, he suggested, achieve the universal by aiming for the highly subjective?

Alexie, of course, was referring to the "tribe" in terms of ethnic identity. Well, that's not really something that resonates with me; my "Irish" ethnicity might still carry some currency if I were, say, a practicing Catholic on the east coast, but our racial identity thing is a little more passive out here. No, I've based my notion of tribe on a number of things: where we fell in the adolescent caste system; class; aesthetic preferences; political leanings and temperament; attitudes towards sex, sex toys and kink; feelings towards the churches in which we grew up. Eventually, the ways of delineating tribes become so abstract that my tribe becomes whatever circle will at least feign an interest in what interests me, whoever will at least try the strange and foreign flavors I'm trying to feed them.

In some ways, this is true in the broader culture, as well. Tattoos were first the mark of sailors, whalers, military men and unintegrated natives of faraway, "primitive" cultures. Later they would be the province of fetishists, bikers, punks and cops. Then gangsta rappers. Then sensitive art students, and the first generation of emo kids. Now there are tattoo shops at the mall...

Really, this is all terribly exciting . . . and disconcerting. It reminds me of 1992, when all the music I'd been listening to in high school--R.E.M., The Pixies, New Order, Joy Division, Modern English, They Might Be Giants, The Cocteau Twins, Depeche Mode--were suddenly not so very alternative anymore, because alternative was the genre du jour. What had been featured only on "120 Minutes" the year before was now WHAT WAS ON on MTV, with Siouxsie Sioux sharing air time with the likes of Metallica and En Vogue. It was rapture, briefly. The democratization of the underground, the breaking through, was, to my mind, a show that the mainstream had finally caught up, that the last innovation had become new guard. I was set to become suddenly, impossibly cool, the guy who was on the scene before anyone knew what the scene was . . . only to watch every jock frat boy who used to beat up my friends back in the hometown trying to play the sensitive guy who was listening to The Replacements before they were cool (yeah, I saw you back then, asshole: you thought "that punk shit" was gay, and had Motley Crue's Dr. Feelgood blasting from your Dodge pickup). After that, enough copycat bands even ruined the music (for a while). It was enough to make anyone long for that sense of authenticity, and it's hard, faced with said longing, to avoid wondering if it wasn't better when it truly belonged to us.

The article to which I've linked, however, seems to represent the sad culmination of this line of thinking, a socio-aesthetic dead-end wherein it can be assumed that there's a wrong kind of hip-hop audience. I've also seen this in the punk crowd: an assumption that those who are inadequately "in-the-know" can be excluded from the party, that those unfamiliar with Botch and Kill Sadie can't be real fans of These Arms Are Snakes.

When did we start thinking this way? When I seem to be focusing in on a specific audience, it's usually an economic decision, a business move, an attempt to ascertain who is most likely to pay for and appreciate the art that I value and intend to make. When I appear to reject certain audiences, it isn't because I don't want them there, but because I have no intention of catering to their desires and doing art that has no meaning for me.

I understand the impulse to run from those you may come to perceive as hostile to your aesthetic interests. God knows there are people for whom I've stopped even trying to play music, people who are no longer invited to the shows of which I'm most proud. And I'm sure that people like Kareem Panni are only trying to protect the integrity of their vision from the facile expectations of an audience with little invested in that vision.

But is the measure of that investment apparent in an individual's hair color, skin color, fashion since, absence/presence of piercings or tattoos? Or is it, rather, in the abstract reaches of the mind and heart, where we process the things we see and hear, transforming them, word-by-word, note-by-note, into spirit? Do you have to tolerate the dilletantes and posers to get the work out? And can you tell the authentic listener from the poser by any external cues?

My hope, my dream, is to make the art I want to make and share it with everyone. This is a delusional line of reasoning of course, this notion that I can make art on my terms and expect a large and diverse audience to be interested in making sense of it all. But far be it from me to tell anyone who "gets" the work I do that they don't belong there. If you've found a brother in me through my offerings, you are my tribe, are you not?


Blogger JJisafool said...

Fuck yeah, Lyam.

An English teacher I really respected and who I still pissed off enough that he called me "a fucking craphead" in a hallway full of high school students once told me "The non-comformist does what he wants, even if it is what everyone else is doing."

I've always held onto that. I define my tribe, the tribe does not define me.

And, this notion you are talking about pisses me off all of the time. Oddly (perhaps), this has lately been most often about Harry Potter. Textual studies is my thing, and I come across academics all of the time that seem to believe that the very fact of the series success is reason to dismiss it. WTF? Is there no room to transcend the tribe, to appeal beyond? Is it inconceivable that an earnest attempt can find even universal acceptance?

Do artists sell out? Yes. The Black Eyed Peas sold the fuck out, big time. But, I'm going to love what I want to love, even if posers love it, too.

I think Alexie was tying into an idea of tribe which is very specific to the way the Skins (long history here for me, and I say, despite my buddy Sherm, NA in public and Skin everywhere else) imagine identity. A really damn good Red friend of mine once said "There are places, y'know, you can't go with me." Tribe is inevitable, is blood, is not chosen. And it isn't joinable. We make art for and from our tribe, but we eat and drink the art that speaks to us personally.

11:55 PM  
Blogger thelyamhound said...

Agreed that I may have appropriated Alexie's idea about "tribe" somewhat inappropriately (or, to be a little easier on my self, selectively), but I think it can still apply in the sense that, say, the white bohemian gnostic can speak of the world in which he lives, without capitulating to notions of what's "familiar" to those outside of that relatively narrow construct.

If I lived on the east coast, my Irish-ness might define me more; it seems like there's a tighter ethnic tie there than here, where we're just another kind of paleface. I have a certain investment in the Celtic, but can't stand the bland new-agey-ness with which those symbols and ideas have been appropriated.

Other than that, though, you seem to have gotten the gyst of what I was saying. Thanks.

Oh, and . . . Yes, Black Eyed Peas sold out, but they still make decent hip-hop. I finally heard The Blue Scholars on KEXP last night (local hip-hop band) and was pretty impressed.

9:35 AM  

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