a musical education in the early internet era
I first began listening to The Clash in high school. The internet was far past its infancy, but one could say it was an awkward teenager. It was the days before Youtube and Wikipedia and no one else I knew listened to old punk. If you even said “old punk,” kids thought you meant Green Day. It was a badge of pride if you even owned Dookie. These were the days of Blink 182 and Sum 41 and other quantified nouns. Sad times, indeed.
I had a boyband phase in kindergarten, younger than most. New Kids on the Block it was for me then. But most of the kids I grew up with continued to listen to pop music (cited as the culture), while others took to the post-grunge spectrum (cited as the counter to this culture… the alternative, if you will).
As the nineties waxed and waned, I fell into the alternative. I became obsessed with understanding the gritty side of rock and roll. I can’t explain how, but early in life, I began to empathize with the outsider (as a cultural trope). I’m sure everyone does at some point; it’s the go-to cliche of adolescence.
I think the first moment the pendulum started to shift was when my mum played Bill Haley. Having never properly heard rock and roll before, it blew my mind. This was definitely something far more profound than anything contemporary pop music. From there, I listened to a lot of early rock and roll courtesy of my mother: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, The Supremes, the Big Bopper, Buddy Holly, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Wonderful.
And then I remember my dad introducing me to Bruce Springsteen. It was Springsteen that made me realize that people could sing about something other than love, dancing, or variations thereon…. And then I remember seeing Smashing Pumpkins playing the Grammy’s. At first I could not comprehend this strange music lacking in melodies. I could not fathom why someone would want to scream rather than sing. But that wasn’t the point. Combined with what I learned from the Boss, music took on a whole new dimension.
In the same way we create history in our head into order to provide context for our own lives, I wanted to know the story of rock and roll. If you grow up in North America, you grow up with a culture screaming at you that music is important. Music means something. Music tells us who we are. I’m not necessarily going to dispute that, but I think it’s important to question how we think music tells us who we are.
Why did every kid in high school feel the need to identify with a social group? And why was a key identifying characteristic of a social group what music you listened to? Why was it impossible for you to like, say, both Goldfinger and Spice Girls? Especially if the former were made famous by covering a song that was in the same genre as the latter? Is that the essence of society: cognitive dissonance and hypocrisy? Perhaps.
But I needed answers to these questions. I needed to know why certain music was counter-culture. Because I never felt like alternative properly identified who I am. Whatever I was, it was not pop music. And the whiny caddishness of most post-grunge was not it either. Nothing was substantial enough. The closest I got in the nineties was Hole.
I wish I had easier access to riot grrl. It would have been exactly what I was looking for. I can only blame a male-bias, but I remember reading nothing but hatred for Courtney Love. I still don’t get it. It’s hard to imagine spending your formative years listening to solely the perspective of the opposite gender and not being fucked up by or pissed off with the whole experience. There
was remains to be something empowering and cathartic about hearing Courtney Love scream with frustration at being used and objectified so blatantly.
But, as I said, Youtube and Wikipedia did not exist then. It was hard to discover music outside one’s social circle. If people you knew weren’t into it, it might as well not exist. The radio failed me. There was no zine culture at my school and my funds – and record-store selections – were limited. The best I could do was scour through magazines and library books and try to parse out what seemed interesting, influential, and important. I might not have been able to hear a lot the music I read about, but at least I could use it to build a historical framework and narrative structure.
When Napster finally appeared, it was a god-send. Now, I spent night after night downloading songs I had read about. A whole new world broke open. Music finally began to make sense. I could fill in all the bare bones of my framework, all this tiny elements of influence that had fused together to lead from one major musical trend to another. Amazing it is how so many musicians and songwriters whose work bleeds through the prevailing zeitgeist of each generation can remain so relatively unknown themselves.
This how I really got into The Clash. (Talk about burying the lede, I know. A thousand words in. Apologies.) I had heard The Clash before, but the stuff that made it to the radio lacked the bite of the stuff that didn’t.
To say that The Clash changed my life is to miss the point. The Clash didn’t change my life so much as they showed me who I already knew I was. It’s so rare that something truly clicks with you, but I believe it’s one of the things we live for. Think about it. How often do you truly meet a person that just gets you? How often do you read a book or watch a film or appreciate a work of art that you just get? You know what I mean. It happens. But so, so rarely.
The Clash I just got. Every artistic choice, I wanted to say to Joe Strummer, “I getcha. I’m with you.” Even with the missteps, I wanted to console, “I see what you were going for and you tried. You failed, but you learned. It’s a process. A discovery. I can’t wait to see what you do with the lesson learned.”
It’s fascinating when you find an artist you can grow with. And even though most of their catalogue was before my time, that’s how The Clash felt to me. I don’t mean that I aged with their work, like “an album a year in progressing maturity, like fucking Harry Potter,” but more that as I aged, I could appreciate the work in different and deeper ways.
When I first got into The Clash, my favourite song was Lost in the Supermarket. So typical, I know. I wasn’t capable of detecting the sarcasm of the lyrics. Like most reviewers at the time, I, too, took it as a sentimental Mick Jones ditty. But I liked it. Because I was a melodramatic teenage girl, I thought it spoke to me and my lower middle class upbringing.
But then I grew up, gained some fucking perspective, realized Joe Strummer wrote the lyrics not Mick Jones, and I realized again why first generation punk was the best and why punk has never quite been the same since. Post-punk lost its sense of self-awareness.* Lost in the Supermarket is conscious of its backstory. Lost in the Supermarket makes fun of its self while also turning that self-awareness on its head. Lost in the Supermarket is a great example of how punk is at its best when the personal is political.
The disconnect seemed to grow as punk splintered off into hardcore (just political), emo (just personal) and so on. To me, that is what music is at its best: the personal as political. Navel-gazing has its place. Politics have their place. But like any good art, the artist hands out an extension of themselves and says: This is who I am in the world and this is why it matters.
And that is what I had always been looking for in music. It’s what I still look for.
*I am well aware of the cognitive dissonance and hypocrisy inherent in first generation punk, especially with the sad realities of facts like The Sex Pistols being just as manufactured as a boy band. I could go on at length, but I think the core importance of first generation punk is that it was so desperately needed. Just as rock and roll was needed, just as the explosion of genre in the sixties was needed, just as grunge was needed, and just as I feel something new is needed now.