ISSUE #13 - 1999

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion -- Acme  Matador/Capitol
    I'm not sure which torture is worse: listening to Acme or contemplating the demographic for this music. Living and performing in NYC appears to affect ambitious musicians in grotesque ways, and I'm beginning to think that the mayor's been putting CKI in the water supply. Acme is another wreck at the hands of New York provincialism, another glittery turd in a long line of ten-second bombs from fashion nazis so tanked on the shiny lights and big-money promises that they've completely abandoned the music. In this regard, JSBX belong in the same bin as the Beastie Boys and DJ Spooky, which is to say in the category of marketing-driven hipsters with one eye on Details and the other on the Billboard charts. New York might seem like the ideal place to be a musician, but the grim reality is that there are really only two manufacturing industries in town: 1) old-style PC liberalism and its accompanying neuroticism, and 2) obsessive careerism and its accompanying hysteria. I need not tell you that neither is conducive to making good music, but both are wonderful ingredients for concocting possibly the most puke-worthy aesthetic ever seen, an intoxicating blend of "it's-good-for-you" pop moralism (as long as it's electronic and pays some kind of pseudo-PC homage to "black" music), and "it's the shit" fashion-nazi fever that's got Andy Warhol's clammy hand prints all over it. The result: fifteen-minute psychosis that's supposedly "good" for you and "good" for your "ethnic" neighbors. Radical fashionlmarketing fever combined with endless PC kowtowing seems to be the boilerplate plan for ladder climbing in NYC, a kind of crazed hippie-turned-yuppie concoction that from all serious angles is nothing more than a surreal joke taken too far. The robots who are "into" this aesthetic like to pretend that at its core resides a dreamy-liberal capitalist utopia, but the reality is that we're merely talking about the ceaseless manufacturing of middle-class, nouveau-hip narcissism, starfucking and self-congratulatory political "concern", all of which of course flow from Paper and The Village Voice, the latter being the veritable Death Star for this brand of evil. In practice, this vile NYC PC-capitalist aesthetic favors electronica over rock, exciting "multicultural" artists over boring, old, white people, party music over serious music, gay and lesbian "aesthetic" "concerns" over the far blander "straight", "heterosexist" "aesthetic" "concerns", and hip-hop over indie rock, and furthermore packages this ideological fervor as cutting-edge radicalism, when of course what we're really dealing with is the very latest in noblesse-oblige chic. The crux, of course, is that the Voice and their progeny who roam the streets of NY only like the "multiculti" artists and their white flunkies and minions who are hot, who make the grade for this week's standards of coolness and commercial viability. Young ambitious reptiles in New York are so desperate to be in, to be hip, to be accepted, to be cool, to be on the inside track that leads to the big bucks and bigger media blowjobs, that they'll mouth any party-line platitude that gets them in the door. This vulgar ambition used to be branded with the once-stigmatic Y-word (yuppie), but around the early-nineties, being hip and cool and down with liberal/PC platitudes while simultaneously making mad money suddenly seemed inextricable and has been ever since. PC is nothing more than a distorted form of postmod moral relativism, which is nothing more than disguised radical capitalism that dictates that you cannot refuse to be a radical Darwinist/capitalist/individual divided against your brothers because you will be labeled with a special "victim" tag (your nichemarket- cum-prison) that will encourage you to fight with other "victims" for a piece of the money-pie, and furthermore you will be encouraged at all times to support the breaking of old standards, and more, encouraged to actually break the rules yourself and support those (rich, white) radicals who also break the old, oppressive rules that keep everyone from becoming free (or at least rich). In this way, rich whites deflect all classbased rage by encouraging minorities and the poor ("victims") to think the way they do, that is to say, in terms of radical competition, exploitation, fame, power and wealth. As a further pacification/compensation, the liberal NYC media pay fawning, kneeajerk, automatic homage to any minority who agrees to play this game (or to any white twit who dedicates himself to "victim" homage (take a bow, Jon Spencer). Why do you think every hip-hop freak is busting his nuts trying to come off like a "player"? Because being a "player" is the only way to play this white man's game, and to be a "playr" means being a media manipulator, charlatan, liar, cheat, fashion psycho, self-aggrandizer, selfpromoter, cynical, money- and fame-hungry, do-whatever-it-takes-to-be-rich dick who's only out for number one and knows that his moment is over the second he slips off the charts. For additional fashion impact, "players" should mouth comically surreal slogans about economic/racial justice and elevating their race. The truly poor don't believe in the PC platitudes that the Voice tries to force-feed them. The only people who mouth PC platitudes are the rich and the wanna-be rich, 'cause they know the language of business and the language of blowin' up and gettin' paid. PC is a virtual economic farm system in which a few well-chosen minorities are goaded into saying the right things (liberal slogans, race-championing) and doing the right things (embracing Andy Warhol fashiodmarketing fever glossed with the rhetoric of economic and social justice), so that they may "earn" an elusive and much-coveted seat at the table of rich, white rapists. Hang around NYC long enough and inevitably you start to see and believe in this extensive, interlocking socio-political system and its pervasive ideology. As a musician you might even start to believe that the only way to get ahead is to have a gimmick, a schtick that incorporates some kind of electronic, anti-guitar. anti-band formula and perhaps some funkhip-hopldisco appropriation. Then people will pay attention, goddamnit. And you're probably right. This rancid pop hegemony in NYC is nearly absolute, and the press won't touch shit that hasn't been dipped in irony and rolled in glitter.
    Acme, the umpteenth JSBX record (when will the torture end?) is indeed an acme, a fucking zenith of pop ambition. If rock music is in fact about the music per se, then pop can be characterized as all of the contextual amenities glossed over the music for the entertainment of attention-deficit-disorder freaks who are more concerned with what restaurant they can get into than with the rigors of art. Pop concerns include band personae, personnel trivia, lyrics, songwriting themes, costumes, props, fashion, attitude, theater, performance art, politics, political platitudes, race-baitinglrace-championing, sloganeering, cover art, graphic design, context, scene speculation, hipness, coolness, popularity, commercial viability, trendiness, financial rumors, business information, media coverage, sponsorship, and everything to do with blowin' up, gettin' paid and riding the Billboard charts. All music is, to varying degrees, subject to the above, and no music, obviously, is made wholly context-free in a Platonic test tube, but there exists music that is substantially engaged with the making of music, and on the other hand there exists music that attempts to get over almost wholly by riding various fashion waves and trends. Acme resides comfortably within the latter category, and I think it's safe to characterize the entirety of Jon Spencer's career as one long experiment in hipster attitudinizing. I used to think that Pussy Galore was part of the rejuvenation of rock music, and within the context of mid-/late-eighties mainstream pablum, that conclusion was difficult to resist. A few Pussy Galore tunes actually rock in haphazard fashion, but going back to the records, I can clearly hear the songs as a form of antagonistic performance-art theater dedicating to presenting a lifestyle more than a type of music. Lydia Lunch did a takedown on Pussy Galore in Forced Exposure years ago, but at the time she was such a shrill and repetitive wash-up that it only improved the band's standing as provocateurs and avant-freaks. I appreciate the fact that a number of Pussy Galore/JSBX records have raised the flag for anti-corporatello-fi production, but in the long view of Spencer's career, it's clear that the lo-fi production was not only not utilized as a means of making the music more visceral, but was instead utilized as camouflage, as a means of disguising banal rock/country tunes that otherwise wouldn't stand a chance in the harsh, cold, revealing light of hi-fi. Spencer gave ammunition to critics who suggested that lo-fi production in general was used merely to present a contrived measure of "bad" attitude, and in retrospect it's difficult to fault them. In the face of an increasingly-diminishing musical track record, Pussy Galore's sole entertainment value resides in their foul-mouthed, anti-PC rants like "Cunt Tease" and "You Look Like A Jew", which includes the great line, "see the sick smoke rising/over the Dischord house/smell the burning flame", and was released at a time when Ian Mackaye was treated like the fucking pope. Regardless, with JSBX Spencer gave up his liberal-baiting and went 180" towards liberal-appeasing by trading in his anti-hippie schtick for more liberal-friendly blackface-posturing and irony-mongering that he presents as blackhlues homage to liberals too coy to admit enjoying the obvious Steppin Fetchit parallels. Lately, Spencer's been getting a lot of mileage by downplaying, and sometimes simply denying, the "blues" aspect of his music while emphasizing the whitetrash tribute/mockery aspect, which is both dangerous and clever. Dangerous, in a marketing sense, because all liberals believe in their heart of hearts that rock is nothing more than blues thievery, ignoring the fact that at least 50% of rock's influences are white and country-oriented, and clever, also in a marketing sense, because Spencer knows that poor whites are still fair game for any kind of mockery, and even though liberals might be uncomfortable with his denial of making blues music, he knows that they'll fall hook, line and sinker for white-trash appropriation/mockery. So now, in a very sophisticated baitand- switch move, he sings like a Northern elitist's idea of a drunken Southern retard while still managing to make faux blues that sounds like a gross parody of every "black" blues record ever made. So under the guise of acceptable PC/liberal self-loathing, young, educated whites get to enjoy the comic hilarity of their "hillbilly" "ancestors" who apparently enjoyed grotesque blackface routines very much. The racial "issues" involved here don't concern me in the least, but I have to admit to being completely disgusted with the unbridled brandishing of one of the worst fake-dumb/cool/hipster schticks since Meatloaf and/or David Bowie. The issue is not whether Spencer is mocking or paying homage to blues/black culture, but rather the success of a disingenuous-to-the-point-of-ridiculousness cartoon personality that a certain middle-class/hipster demographic finds highly amusing and cool.
    Listening to the record, one can't help but speculate as to who exactly might be listening and why. Acme employs even more JSBX irony and hipster magic than usual by featuring remixes by several electronica artists such as Alec Empire, the Automator and Moby, thus covering all contemporary fashion bases at once. Spencer dumps whatever rock impulses he was employing in previous JSBX records and replaces them with yet more canned soul/funk. To counterbalance this full-blown descent into ironic kitsch that rivals Phranc doing the Neil Diamond songbook, Spencer uses the electronica remixers to add a measure of insulating coolness that allows his ridiculous soul-brother forays to be recontextualized as a form of ironic, cool, non-controversial "sampling". Apparently, turning black blues into soul-brother kitsch is okay as long as the kitsch in question is part of a postmod/sonic-collage landscape that treats every musical influence, white or black, as an ironic, distant joke. Or at least that's how it's supposed to work. In reality, there's no way to enjoy any part of Acme without being into Spencer's whole aesthetic trip. Strictly from a musical point of view, the riffs are tired and cliched, the singing sounds like that of a drunken eighteen-year-old running around his living room in his underwear to his father's blues records, the lyrical subject matter is willfully retarded, the dynamic interplay is nil, the songs wholly unrnemorable, the production is either flat or bombastic (and sometimes both), and the electronica shit sounds pasted-on and halfhearted. Spencer attempts to counterbalance this sonic shit sandwich with ''hip" retrolfuturist graphics, white-trash gimmickry, fake blues posturing, cool irony, cynical detachment, bandwagon electronica, and heavy PR that emphasizes the Beastie Boys/Beck parallels. Spencer claims that Acme is more of a "groove" record, but the only "groove" this record follows is the hipster-intentioned road to hell. Acme is so selfconsciously constructed to appeal to today's successful young adult that I'm tempted to say not only that the record is entirely music-free, but that it's actually a form of sonic infomercial for the good life in NYC in '98. On the surface, Acme is all fun and good times and glam and champagne and VIP rooms, but of course once you get past the velvet rope you're bored to tears because you realize that there is no "there" there. The goal of maintaining one's social status in NYC is merely to maintain one's social status in NYC, and that kind of circularity is enough for people desperate for a goal or identity in life. Superficially Acme is a party record, but it's one of the most laborious and grueling "party" records I've ever heard in my life, and so much thought and effort went into making sure that no wrong moves were made and that none of the elements were uncool, that the record is like a Miss Manners lesson on which fork to use and when. When I listen to Acme, I don't hear free-wheeling abandon so much as I hear the bright-eyed zealotry of fanatical social climbers who would rather be torn apart by coyotes than risk the embarrassment and ridicule of making a social faux pas. Perhaps when one has a few glasses of wine and hears Acme blasting over the PA at a fashion show the music sounds simply fabulous, precisely because that's its intended milieu, but dare to play the record in your apartment, sober and all by your lonesome, and all you'll hear are Pavlovian fashion cues so overwhelming and oppressive that by the time you're done you'll feel like you've just spent a wasted afternoon browsing through all nine-hundred advertising pages of the fall Vogue. Listening to the Propellerheads record simply induces one to drunkenness, but Acme is an inducement to a new wardrobe, an anorexic girlfriend and a Platinum Amex. Spencer is less a musician than a hot talk-show host creating an aesthetic by bringing related but disparate elements together for the creation of a whole new lifestyle. The music itself is beneath all contempt as it fails to groove, rock, blast off or risk any kind of musical dynamism that might indicate a departure from cynical posturing and an embrace of musical risk-taking. Most of the tracks on Acme were recorded by Steve Albini, and his connection with Spencer extends to their embrace of posturing and theorizing in place of the overdriven, unbridled enthusiasm that is the trademark of all genuine rock music. Acme is a kind of lifestyle accessory, like a StarTAC cell phone, that looks good sitting on the coffee table of your Soho studio. And who exactly is listening to Acme? Hardcore kids from the boroughs? Hip-hop heads from Harlem? Or simply more white, educated college kids who someday aspire to be in "media", where they'll plug more bullshit like JSBX 'cause that's what everyone's listening to and that's what's cool. Perhaps outside of NYC, JSBX's music plays more as straight, country-flavored rock, but that's giving Middle America short shrift as the semiotic hipster codes involved are so MTV-scripted and obvious that I'm sure "JSBX" is shorthand for "cool, cynical, on-the-move hipster" in Kansas the same way it is in NYC. I attribute JSBX's success to the new black/white dividing line that has whites and blacks pretty much sticking to their own music these days (Forget about Eminem, the Beastie Boys and the "white" "rap" "explosion": these are less signs of crossover than full-on imperialism, and in case you haven't heard, selfsegregation has reached critical mass, and furthermore, if the mainstream white audience is eager to hear a dollop of hip-hop and "blues" in their music, it's only because they want a bit of "black" "cultural" "flavor", but don't want to have to listen to actual hip-hop and blues. Of course, all true "crossover" starts with this type of brazen theft, and it must be said that blacks have the same contentious and uneasy relationship with rock music). Acme, despite the "blues" and "electronica" elements, is probably the "whitest" album I've heard in years, precisely because JSBX not only handle "black" music with ten-foot ironic tongs, but also handle "white" rock with the same tongs. JSBX are unable to traffic in any music that's even vaguely non-ironic and vital without first putting on a rubber suit and burying the offending life-force under pounds of irony and superficial blues and electronica frosting that makes such a burial socially acceptable and even desirable (the fake blues and electronica/hip-hop merely being hollowed-out shorthands for stereotypical notions of "black vitality" that superficially coat the music with "edginess"). Acme is pure corporate containment, the perfect Prozac-fueled WASP dismissal of anything disturbing or genuinely moving and compelling. Despite the rather ham-handed and theatrical appearance of musical "chaos", everything is in control, every hair is in place, every hipster move has been choreographed months in advance, every outburst has been planned and scripted, and all genuinely wayward emotions have been swept under the rug to facilitate the smooth and uneventful climb up the social ladder. Acme is a June Cleaver dream of pop circa 1998, a "wild" record from a man who hasn't been spontaneous or wild for almost fifteen years. By comparison, Plastikman's Consumed is a fucking hardcore record, a record so aggressively somnambulant that a seething tension burbles below the surface almost in spite of all efforts at containment. Spencer's vaudeville wild-man act, on the other hand, is such a cartoonish mess of hyperbolic method acting that you know the whole thing is worse than a shuck, it's a goddamn Master Plan, and it involves a new condo and BMW for Spencer and not much more. Perhaps there's nothing wrong with being a scheming, careerist grub, but when I listen to this record I not only feel dead inside, but I feel Spencer shitting all over the spirit of earnest musical creation, as though it's simply not cool to want to craft something truly wild, mind-blowing, non-ironic and ambitious. Spencer is the ultimate Company Man to the degree that he not only plays the game, but spits on and sneers at everyone who decides not to. My only surprise is that DJ Spooky failed to make a guest appearance on Acme, but I'm sure he was with Sting doing drum 'n bass remixes for the impoverished of Malaysia. Regardless, I can only hope that the ruinous Spencer gets his Karmic dessert by having his hair catch on fire while unplugging his drumbox. Perhaps a near-fatal shock will restrain this cretin from further soiling the waters of rock with his fashionista fairy dust and Spinal Tap theatrics.
   -J. Marlowe


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