Competing Spectacles by Tony Reinke, Free for CAPC Members
Reinke wants to help readers not be manipulated and enthralled by the spectacles of our media age. Instead, he shows that we see the greatest spectacle of all in the Cross.
The Pixies are a musician’s musicians — a band whose influence has always exceeded their commercial success. If you pay any attention to the listening habits of some of your favorite songwriters, for instance, there’s a good chance you’ll hear them name-drop the band.
“The Beatles of alternative rock.” “Precursors to the grunge movement.” “The seminal ’90s band.” “The most effective purveyors of the ‘loud-quiet-loud’ formula.” The problem with these kinds of pronouncements is that they sound an unavoidable note of obligation, which often runs the risk of converting the recommended band into sonic broccoli: You should listen to these guys for the same reason that you should watch Lawrence of Arabia, read War and Peace, and take your vitamins — namely, because they’re good for you.
But obligation and listening habits only go together when we’re keeping up appearances with our hipster friends. The music in our cars is usually a different story. In other words, please don’t tell my friends that Carly Rae Jepsen and Abba keep beating out that new Decemberists album.
It doesn’t take many listens to confirm that the Pixies’ first three albums will never be broccoli of any kind. For starters, the songs are much too deranged to be good for you. “Nimrod’s Son” is Deliverance by way of The Dead Kennedys; “Broken Face” continues the incest theme but adds a dash of Cronenbergian body horror to the mix; “Wave of Mutilation” is… well, it’s called “Wave of Mutilation.” “Gouge Away,” anyone? Examples could easily be multiplied: The Pixies’ catalogue abounds in a perversity that’s as reckless as it is juvenile. Keep in mind that this is also the band that covered “In Heaven” — the “Lady in the Radiator Song” from David Lynch’s Eraserhead — and gleefully exclaimed “I am un chien andalusia” in one of their refrains.
The deeper reason for the lasting power of these first three Pixies records is going to sound like a backhanded compliment. Certain albums retain their newness because of a kind of timeless quality — the same mysterious ingredient that protects our most treasured cultural artifacts from the ravages of our constant forgetting. Lewis Hyde refers to this treasure trove as our “cultural commons.” I’ve argued that Radiohead’s OK Computer belongs in this space.
Some albums, however, have lasting power not because they don’t age, but because they refuse to grow up. In these cases, immaturity is an indelible part of the record’s apparent immortality. Bob Dylan’s Blond on Blond is timeless, and we can give it a spin with the assurance that it’s got the same kind of cultural capital that we assign to Casablanca or Lord of the Flies. The same cannot be said of Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction, though. Dylan’s lyrics might make it into the occasional English class but no sane professor is going to try and sneak “Sweet Child o’ Mine” into the modern poetry unit. At the same time, Appetite for Destruction hasn’t worn out its welcome yet. It’s also equally clear that the record is every bit as adolescent, cruel, stupid, and unforgettable as the day it first entered the unsuspecting charts. It’s not timeless; it’s just never grown up, and, like some displaced teenage vampire, it knows only the raw language of excess and primal hunger.
Surfer Rosa, the Pixies’ debut studio album, turned 30 this year, and it still doesn’t sound a day over 18. If ever there was a displaced teenage vampire, it’s Surfer Rosa. Produced by notorious anti-producer Steve Albini, the album’s drums were recorded in the studio bathroom, that most pungent of resonating chambers. It’s a fitting touch for a record with such visceral preoccupations, and the cavernous sound adds a quality that’s equal parts oppressive and claustrophobic. Whether we’re talking about the vague hostility of “Something Against You” or the explicit masochism of “Break My Body,” Black Francis leaves no stone unturned in his clumsy exploration of taboos.
The subject matter is disturbing, but there’s something undeniably cartoonish about its presentation. At no point do you suspect that the Pixies’ members are this twisted, that they actually relish mayhem and pain. Instead, you come away with the feeling that their lyrics are meant to reflect their idea of someone who relishes mayhem and pain. It’s roughly the difference between the soft-hearted kid who loves slasher flicks and the adolescent sociopath who likes to poke wounded animals with a stick. Black’s a Larry Norman fan for goodness’ sake!
Much to Black’s chagrin, the album contains what is perhaps the band’s most striking and memorable song, one which represents the most fulsome collaboration between him and bassist Kim Deal. Inspired by the movie Crimes of the Heart (!), “Gigantic” is an eerie ode to a woman’s lust over a black man named Paul. Deal’s faintly bemused vocals, the sinister baseline, the voyeuristic lyrics, Frank Black’s caterwauling howls in the background — all of these elements combine to form a song that represents the band at the height of its jittery powers. The famous creative tension between Black and Deal gave us this brilliant track. Sadly, it represents a departure from Black’s usual tight grip on the reigns. Deal’s work with her sister in the The Breeders gave her the equanimity to put up with Black’s antics for several more albums, but this hypnotic song remains an emblem of her undeniable hand in the band’s power. With her departure in 2013, the Pixies lost much more than a bassline; they lost a visionary and their sound was never the same.
For most people nowadays, though, the album’s most recognizable song is “Where Is My Mind?” and for good reason: The song is brilliantly deployed in the chaotic climax of David Fincher’s adaptation of Fight Club. It’s a great pairing: The Pixies’ delirious celebration of oblivion and the film’s two protagonists stranded on the top floor of a skyscraper as they enjoy the scenery of crumbling buildings. It would be difficult to find a more fitting scene for this song.
At this point, it should be clear that those of you hunting for any kind of redemptive thread in the album are going to be disappointed. There’s just no way to fit this material into any kind of redemptive mold. As a Christian, I’ll issue the needed word of caution: Cultural territory is never neutral and we’ve all got different thresholds. The Pixies may not mean what they say but their words and tone may provoke harmful reactions all the same. Some of us would do well to avoid Surfer Rosa. Indeed, some of us won’t even make it past the album’s cover image.
However, there’s also something to be said for the bands that fit into our immortally immature category. They tend to preclude the kind of pretension that often tempts the more culturally savvy communities. You can brag about your affection for Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” but it’s decidedly harder to celebrate “River Euphrates” in certain foppish circles. Reflecting on our penchant for cultural snobbery, C. S. Lewis has Uncle Screwtape offer this advice to his demonic apprentice, Wormwood:
The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the world, for its own sake, and without caring two-pence what other people say about it, is by that very fact forearmed against some of our subtlest modes of attack. You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favor of the “best” people, the “right” food, the “important” books. I have known a human defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions.
For some of us, Surfer Rosa is toxic. For others, it’s tripe and onions.
1. Get it? They’re an ‘80s band.
2. Come On Pilgrim, Surfer Rosa, and Doolittle respectively. Even though we’re celebrating Surfer Rosa here, my argument applies to all three records.
3. Himself no fan of the band or the album that bears his producer’s stamp.
4. Full name: Thomas Michael Kittridge Thompson IV. Clearly, it was either change the name or become an obscure academic haunting the footnotes of equally obscure monographs.
5. Not that there aren’t bands that do seem to embody the very mayhem they celebrate. The German industrial outfit Rammstein comes to mind.
7. There’s also a not-so-subtle image of a male member that flashes onscreen before the credits role, one of the many reasons that this film’s technical wizardry cloaks an otherwise forgettable exercise in self-indulgence. To all those who tell me this is an intellectual film, I say Fight Club is about as thought provoking as the can-God-make-a-square-circle question that animates freshman dorm rooms.
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