Thursday, May 27, 2010

Sleigh Bells and Growing Up

Last night I was hanging out in the AV Club liveblog for American Idol. If you're unfamiliar with any of these terms, AV Club is The Onion's non-parodic cultural section, the liveblog was basically a few staff members chilling out in a chatroom with a bunch of readers making snarky comments about the show, and American Idol is the hit television show that has once again broken my heart. Okay, that last piece is a bit hyperbolic, but once again in a contest between a really talented, unique contestant (last year Adam Lambert, this year Crystal Bowersox) and a totally unmemorable one (last year Kris Allen, this year Lee whatever his last name is), the winner was the uninteresting one. So I hung out in the liveblog chatroom for support in these troubling times.

(Fun sidenote: AV Club uses the same liveblog/chat technology that ESPN uses for their sporting event liveblogs.)

At some point during the show Lea Michele's new commercial for Dove aired. Conversation naturally turned to Michele, and her show Glee. In the midst of the discussion I made a comment that it would be really awesome for Glee to do a Sleigh Bells episode. Sleigh Bells being a new indie-hype band. Their new album, Treats, reminds me of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" music video and My Chemical Romance's "Teenagers." It's loud, aggressive, and poppy -- like an explosive pep rally. To quote Nitsuh Abebe: "OMG JAMZ HELLS YES." The aesthetic match seems intentional too -- the front cover (as pictured above) shows a bunch of cheerleaders. Go listen to the album and then imagine Rachel Berry and Finn Hudson screaming the verses at each other while the distorted guitars combust in the background -- it would be totally rocking.

Anyway, the point of this exposition. After I made the comment, another user responded to tell me, "Sleigh Bells suck. Grow up." I found that comment really interesting. The first half is obviously legitimate, people vary on their opinions. But the second part is what caught my attention. Why would liking a bad band mean that I needed to grow up? It's obviously not just the style of music (ie: He wasn't responding to the band's youthfulness). After all, he didn't tell me that Glee sucks and I need to grow up. And Glee seems much more associated with being young and immature.

Here's what I think: Sleigh Bells is an incredibly hyped band. Its debut was preceded by a demo tape that made the rounds on every hipster music blog (from Stereogum to Pitchfork to HipsterRunoff). I believe the comment was a way of calling me out of that, as if to say, "You only like Sleigh Bells because they're so hyped. Instead of liking the expected cultural aesthetics of your social groups, why don't you grow up, aka think for yourself."

I didn't respond, but if I had gotten defensive (instead of curious) I would have mentioned that I don't just jump on bandwagon trends because they're trendy but because I like them. I've never really gotten in Joanna Newsom, or Animal Collective, or Panda Bear (despite multiple tries to enjoy them, and lots and lots of hype surrounding them). Sleigh Bells struck me in a particular way, and though I probably would've never heard of them without the hype, I liked them for reasons beyond the hype.

But actually, on reflection, I think the entire maturity/hype dichotomy is a total canard. There is definitely this cultural trope of assuming that following the opinions of others, following trends, or fitting well into a social category is acting immaturely. "If I were more mature," it seems to go, "I would think for myself." However under scrutiny that doesn't really hold up. When I was younger I was all about being an individual. I got into very obscure musical acts, and when Pitchfork covered a band it was already too popular for me. Not everyone gets that hyper individualistic about music, but we all stake out our identities to an absurd degree, we all have things that we think define us specifically in the world. *Not belonging* is a common cultural experience, generally around high school time.

Now one could say that the ways we choose to rebel against the larger group are themselves adoptive modes of performance, but the fact remains that when we're young we spend so much time trying to individuate ourselves from larger groups. There's nothing mature about "thinking for yourself." It's actually what we spend all of our time doing when we're younger. If anything, as people grow up, they start to appreciate their social/cultural categories much more for the support they can get from it. This is generally fitting into a geographic (or now digital) community of friends and family. When you're older and your friends like something, maturity isn't getting some special thrill about disagreeing with them and liking something else. It's about sharing these objects with them. I love listening to music with friends, even "shitty" music, because I like hanging out with friends and honestly that's more important than being individuated.

This goes for online taste communities too. Why not hang out on the hype blogs and enjoy the music they enjoy and chat with the people who enjoy it? I'm secure enough with my identity right now that liking Sleigh Bells (or Glee or American Idol or, hell, Dave Matthews Band) isn't an issue. So I like a hype band. So what?

Surprisingly, listening to Sleigh Bells, I think this is partially what the album is about too -- these models of belonging and non-belonging. The track "Rill Rill," is less narrative than a collection of cliches and lines that create an ambiance that addresses this issue.

"Keep thinking about every straight face yes / Wonder what your boyfriend thinks about your braces / What about them / I'm all about them": You're a high school student, and you're legitimately worried that your boyfriend isn't going to like your braces. Being cool and liked is very important to you and so you're scared and it turns out that he's "all about them." (Side note: Do students still tease each other for having braces? That seems very antiquated at this point. Doesn't everyone get braces these days?) So you might be surprised to find out that ways of non-belonging (like braces) can turn into modes of belonging (your boyfriend still likes them).

"Click click saddle up see you on the moon then / And all alone friend / Pick up their phones then / Ring ring call them up / Tell them about the new trends": Chatting with people about trends are a way to alleviate loneliness and form taste communities that can make you happy.

"Have a heart. Have a heart.": Seems self-explanatory, scarecrow.

Anyway, if sharing trends is a way to create communities and be happy, I'm sharing Sleigh Bells with you. Here's a youtube clip.

P.S. I delivered a paper on a panel called "Music & Belonging," a few weeks ago in NYU Performance Studies. I was talking about Kol Nidre, the Jewish vow annulment ritual said on Yom Kippur, and how that creates affective communities of belonging. So modes of performing belonging are very much on my mind these days.