Strong Enough to Break – Requiem for a Fandom

I have always been someone who cares about something passionately. But

In the movie Adaptation, Meryl Streep’s character is fascinated by Chris Cooper’s character’s capacity for fascination. She is taken by his deep, all-encompassing love for things. Depending on the time in his life, it could be turtles, ice age fossils, resilvering old mirrors, tropical fish.

But: “Then one day I say, ‘Fuck fish.’ I renounce fish. I vow never to set foot in that ocean again. That’s how much fuck fish. That was seventeen years ago and I have never since stuck so much as a toe in that ocean. And I love the ocean!”

She’s baffled. “But why?”

He shrugs, smiles. “Done with fish.”

I never understood that line.

What I did understand, however, implicitly, with all of my being, was the measure of longing Streep’s character has in the next scene when she confesses, “I want to know what it feels like to care about something passionately.”

I have always known this. I have always been someone who cares about something passionately.

The first of those things always makes people laugh. It’s the band Hanson.

It was 1997. I was eleven years old. They were my age. They were happy, rollerblading, singing about utter nonsense with a melody so convincing that I never once questioned it. I was coming of age and they were there to greet me. It made sense.

Cameron Crowe tries but no one can really explain the impact of music on people and why they become such ardent fans of it, and that’s kind of the point. Music, even with lyrics, reaches parts of you that words and images can’t. Music begets both emotional and physical sensation. It burrows and pulls and lifts. It understands you but has no idea who you are. Within it you find parts of yourself that you didn’t know existed.

It was at the exact time that “MMMBop” was released that I first began listening to music at all. I was at the exact age at which human beings start to become sentient members of society, when you become aware of your surroundings. Hanson’s music burrowed and pulled and lifted – exalted! Their lyrics were uncommonly philosophical for their age and life experience. I loved them and I just never stopped.

It was such a love that as I got older, if people knew anything about me, it was this. Hanson is Angela’s favorite band. But, no, like, her favorite band. The kind of pride I felt for being recognized as this fanatical unicorn was consuming. After the initial scoffs, when people heard the depths of my fandom they’d often look at me with an impressed respect. Few people loved as deeply as I loved.

And I really, really loved. When I was young, I kept a box full of Hanson clippings from teen magazines. My bedroom was wallpapered with their faces for years. I saved trinkets from concerts I went to, and there are quite a few of them: I’ve seen them live 19 times. (Hardly a number, compared to some fans.) I met them twice: once in 2004 when I camped out with friends at the Virgin Megastore in Times Square for the debut of Underneath, and again in 2005 when I had the opportunity to interview them for the official fan club. (I never did submit that interview… sorry, Leigh.) For the interview, I got to sit in a little room with just the three of them. It was surreal and spectacular and a total blur. I was understandably nervous but kept a reasonable cool even though they talked over and to each other the whole time, so much that I could barely keep up scribbling the answers to my lame questions. I still have the blue Hanson hat my dad bought me at my very first concert.

On the 20th anniversary of Hanson Day, I finally got my Hanson tattoo. I figured two decades was long enough to prove my love was real, and I had spent much of those two decades trying to decide what to get. Hanson has a cute little logo, but I couldn’t envision it neatly anywhere on my body. Instead I drew a little design based off of some typography I found on Pinterest to fit around lyrics from their song, “Weird.” Even though it’s one of the earliest tracks from their debut album, it resonates still: “Isn’t it weird?”

It is.

It wasn’t just the painfully slow, way-too-delicate way in which Hanson as a group and individually addressed the Black Lives Matter protests and the events preceding them. It didn’t help.

I encourage everyone to come to their own conclusions about the massive compilation of receipts, but from where I’m sitting, Zac Hanson is a robust supporter of things I find morally and ethically abhorrent, including the defense of Stand Your Ground laws and of the murderer of Trayvon Martin. I can’t imagine anything more disingenuous or hypocritical than retaining my status as a Hanson fan after learning this information.

Is there a part of me that always suspected this could be the case? Sure. These guys were born and raised (and are bearing and raising their children) in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Bible belt, the location of the decimation of Black Wall Street, the place where the mayor just said on the radio “we’re shooting African Americans about 24 percent less than we probably ought to be,” and where the current president of the United States will be holding his next rally… on Juneteenth. Racism lives everywhere, but maybe the odds were against them.

This is exactly the situation Hanson has been trying to avoid their entire careers. One podcaster got closer than most recently, and he tried to find the crack that could release the shitstorm and was baffled that he couldn’t. Regarding their personal lives, Hanson’s collective lips are incredibly tight. The Middle American, grass-fed boyishness of “MMMBop” never quite stopped being their brand. But there is no maintaining boyishness, despite the veneer. The men they became fully understand that the power they possess over their (mainly female) fans has everything to do with pulling the tether tied to hormonal nostalgia, of maintaining their fans’ freakish desire for proximity to them. And they granted it all. Enough slack on the tether, anyway, to keep the fandom going for nearly a quarter of a century. The boys of Hanson became very talented businessmen.

Tulsa is the epicenter of Hanson fandom. Before hopping a flight to Vegas for our honeymoon last year, my husband and I stopped in Tulsa for a couple of days. We went out to Route 66 and saw the big oil guy statue. The Game of Thrones finale happened to fall one of those days, so watching that and then talking about it took up a considerable chunk of time. And of course, we went to see a Hanson concert and observe some Hanson Day activities.

Yes, there is a day. And it’s become an annual, week-long celebration in Tulsa not just for fans, but specifically for members of their fan club, because you have to be a paying member to participate. (There is an additional charge for the events you want to attend, at which members of Hanson also attend, if only for a short while.) Lots of women exactly like me, white and in their thirties, go to Hanson Day every year.

After the concert, I ran into some internet friends from my days on as a teen (I was quite active). The general air about the table at which we convened for some craft beers and apps was skeptical at best. These women decided to come to Hanson Day on a lark, and while we all agreed we enjoyed the show (how could we say otherwise?), I wouldn’t say any of us were exactly enthused. The conversation was around why they hadn’t released anything but a single, a Christmas album, and a reissue of old recordings with an orchestra dubbed in in years… presuming they didn’t want to be around each other long enough to record anything new. We wondered why the subject of their songwriting has recently lapsed into somewhat lazy musings about achieving your dreams, instead of something – anything –  more sincere. If we had asked ourselves why we were there, why we were still doing any of this, I’m not sure any of us would have had an answer, except maybe “habit.”

It’s going to sound rather convenient now to confess that for the last few years I’ve been reevaluating my relationship with Hanson, but I have (do I even like this kind of music anymore?), and the trip to Tulsa didn’t help. Seeing dozens and dozens of women walking up the main drag to a venue to (pay to) watch Taylor DJ for a couple of hours, all I could think of was, This is his job. He had dinner, put his kids to bed, then went out to DJ for some fans for a couple of hours, then he’ll go home. Check the mail.

I’m not trying to be critical about the way they’re making their money. Since Hanson created their own record label in the early 2000s, they’ve bolstered their revenue stream beyond album sales to these sorts of events (they also host an annual trip to the Caribbean) and the way they’ve been able to sustain their brand is honestly pretty impressive. That moment for me was just so pedestrian. Celebrities, actors, bands go to comicons or host cruises all the time. But Hanson’s pull is so great their fans come to them.

The relationship between band and fan cannot be reciprocal, and it’s that lack of reciprocity that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. It’s not Hanson’s fault, and in fact it’s advantageous for them to exploit it, so more power to them. But in being as big of a fan as I was for the bulk of my life, I’ve given to them more than I would ever get back, and I don’t just mean money. Because this kind of fandom is not just about an exchange of material goods. When we watch bands play live, we face them and they face us, like a conversation. The love, the joy, the energy, the ineffable ephemera that’s created when you’re an intense fan of something is sent back to the creator, like gratitude. That’s how it feels for me, anyway. Felt. But there’s no returning that. It just doesn’t go the other way.

And now there’s this. Because how can I see Hanson live again? Am I supposed to simply ignore the mental asterisk of racism, transphobia, homophobia? How can I listen to Zac singing about being broken, misunderstood, when now maybe I know what he was talking about? How can I participate in being a fan, as someone who is trying every day to be a better white person to the world, knowing that at least one third of this band thinks this way? My decades-long stream of gratitude feels like it’s being spit back out at me.

The loss of my fan status will mean nothing to them. Maybe not the sign of a great relationship. Maybe intense fandom (eventually becoming toxic fandom) should generally be reconsidered.

Some fans will be okay with this. Of other people’s reactions to this I have no opinion.

If there is a fall from grace it won’t be financial, but perhaps worse (for them), reputational. There will be those who want to defend their reputation, to claim their outward, perceived goodness relieves them of all sins. Hannah Gadsby said, “We only care about a man’s reputation. What about his humanity? Fuck reputation. Hindsight is a gift. Stop wasting my time.”

I will mourn their hooks, their harmonies, the wall of sound that their best songs have and that they’re so good at making. For their intensely thoughtful lyrics that spoke for me when I couldn’t find the words. For the feeling of their sound vibrating through my veins. For the visceral jolt of joy I would feel hearing the first chord of “MMMBop” played live. I’m thankful that I don’t have to mourn the community of women I’ve gotten to know very well over the decades, because that love runs deeper than our favorite band.  

What I don’t have to mourn is my own life being taken recklessly and with purpose from a police officer because implicit bias and hate guided their hand based on my skin tone. I don’t have to mourn for my livelihood when legislation was passed at my expense because I don’t identify with my assigned gender. I don’t have to mourn my future for a lack of generational wealth. I don’t have time to list all of the things I’m privileged to say I don’t have to mourn.

I’m oddly not heartbroken. To wish that I was would signal that this fandom guided my life more than it does. I’m relieved to know that. I’m sure some Hanson fans will read this and decry I was never really a fan… a claim that is a ridiculous measure of worth but admittedly one that once upon a time would have destroyed me. But it’s fine. I didn’t know anything then, and we shouldn’t be expected to continue believing anything with enough experience, wisdom, and a shit ton of receipts.  

Done with fish.

Black lives matter.

LCD Soundsystem is back together and it’s complicated

There will be a tour. There will be an album. There will be, for the first time since 2010, new songs from the band that never recorded a bad one.

James_Murphy_by_Sachyn_MitalI’d love to be able to say that I heard the bells on Christmas Eve, but the truth is I was so preoccupied–by the holiday, by the eerily warm weather, by the streaming world’s attempt on that same day to launch Beatlemania Mach II–that it took me several days to even notice an inconspicuous single called “Christmas Will Break Your Heart” hanging out somewhere on the periphery of my Spotify page. The artist name read “LCD Soundsystem,” but I knew that couldn’t be right. LCD Soundsystem was dead, had been dead since 2011, their self-immolation so sudden and so grand it basically broke the entire concert ticket economy for a week or so. I’d watched their farewell concert from afar, via a Pitchfork livestream, and while sitting in my parents’ basement didn’t exactly make palpable the cultural and emotional weight of the moment, the band was at least gracious enough to play most of my favorite songs in the first set so I didn’t have to sit in front of my computer all night like a doofus.

Anyway, that was almost five years ago. James Murphy’s been scoring Noah Baumbach movies and opening wine bars and developing espresso blends, which are all very James Murphy things to do. Reforming LCD Soundsystem though? That’s not very James Murphy. For a guy as heart-on-sleeve as Murphy appears (seriously, between the self-consciously unassuming Courier font and Murphy’s borderline pretentious predilection for typing only in lower case, the LCD website looks and reads like a fucking LiveJournal) you’d think the notion of bowing out at the top of his game would be too tantalizingly poetic to double back on. The Christmas single was one thing; that could’ve just been a for-shits one-off sent out to tease the hyperventilating diehards. Even when the news broke that LCD would be reuniting to headline Coachella I was like, who cares? If you liked LCD Soundsystem at the peak of their powers, you’re probably too old or too domesticated (or both!) for festivals by now, and even if you’re not, the fact that this whole thing is happening alongside a very cloudy and not-necessarily-wanted Guns N’ Roses reunion sort of sucks the glory from the whole idea.

Okay, so they have this new single–which is basically just a seasonal reworking of “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” anyway–and they’re playing a great big overpriced festival in the desert. That’s cool and all, but it’s not like they’re really, actually, for serial getting back together.

Except that it’s exactly like that.

There will be a tour. There will be an album. There will be, for the first time since 2010, new songs from the band that never recorded a bad one. At the risk of doing that thing where you use the title of a band’s album as a “clever” double entendre in relation to news about the same band: This is happening.

(Oof, and this coming from the guy who just called James Murphy pretentious.)

Sorry, I guess all this news has me a little giddy. And to be sure I’m not alone; in a blog post on the LCD website (Murphily titled “let’s just start this thing finally with some clarity”) Murphy writes of being “blown away by the overwhelmingly positive response” to the news of the reunion from fans. But because this is the world, there are also people who are pissed. Pissed because that farewell concert–the concert that sold out Madison Square Garden in minutes, the concert whose tickets were bought in bulk by scalpers and resold at a profit, the concert that was so hard to get to that it necessitated four pre-farewell concerts the same week–well, I wouldn’t know watching from my parents’ basement, but I can only imagine that many of the kids who attended that concert had to travel pretty far and spend a shitload of money but would never have complained because it was supposed to be the last time. For the kids who, as Murphy puts it in his note, “found [the MSG show] to be an important moment for them, which now to them feels cheapened,” the news of this reunion a mere five years on must read like a great big gotcha. I’m trying to imagine myself as one of those lucky few who landed a ticket, making a pilgrimage to a celebration that was also billed as a funeral, one of those who’ve been spending the last few years saying “I was there” with pride–I mean, it’s hard not to be super cynical about this reunion now, right?

Murphy, of course, feels authentically shitty about this. Because Murphy, unlike most authors of rock songs, is exactly the person IRL that he is in his songs. He’s never wanted anything other than to play music with his friends and make people happy (and brew coffee). When the MSG fiasco happened, he added four extra shows because he felt so bad. He was the guy pleading “I Can Change” when pretty much everyone loved him the way he was. If one person in the crowd is unhappy, he’s unhappy. So to the fans who went to MSG and now feel betrayed by the sudden reunion, Murphy writes: “i’m seriously sorry.” Which has to make James Murphy the only motherfucker in the storied history of musical victory laps to actually apologize for reforming his beloved group.

Which, I have to admit, is a very James Murphy thing to do.

Only James goddamn Murphy would feel the need to explain each and every step of the thought process that led to his band’s reunion, as he does in the aforementioned blog post. So often in music we idolize people who “just don’t care.” Even in indie music, the fan-friendliest of imaginary genres, we get far more Mac Demarcos and Father John Mistys and (for the older crowd) Robert Pollards–aloof hedonists as concerned with pushing their brands of effortless cool as they are with writing killer rock songs–than James Murphys. Even unassuming and apparently introverted niche heroes like Rivers Cuomo have a bit of the “fuck you” pumping out of their otherwise sensitive hearts. Murphy was and is indie’s greatest populist, and that’s partially why he’s so great: his songs and his persona alike make us feel loved.

Murphy’s enlightened approach to the reunion is indicative of his love of doing the right thing. It would take a real emo screwball to cancel a reunion tour just because some folks are (understandably, if not justifiably) upset. But Murphy’s response shows his compassion and his self-awareness in equal measure:

it needs to be better than anything we’ve done before, in my mind, because it won’t have the help of being the first time. and we have to play better than we’ve ever played, frankly. every show has to be better than the best show we’ve played before for anyone to even say “well, that was good. i mean, not as good as they used to be. but, you know. it was good.”

It’s easy to be cynical, and sometimes it’s frankly hard not to be. But because Murphy’s humility has always been genuine, I feel sure that his promise to do the best he’s ever done is genuine too. It isn’t in Murphy’s DNA to let anybody down, at least not in his songs and in his performances. I can’t imagine being one of those kids who went out of their way for the MSG show right now, but I also can’t imagine not being fucking psyched for new LCD Soundsystem music. Could this one be the last time? I don’t know, and I don’t care just yet. All I know is that it’s here and it’s happening.

Because this needs to be dealt with: Michael Cera’s sudden solo album

Michael Cera made a pretty decent bedroom pop album. I don’t think he cares if I like it, but I do.

Well there’s no point in burying the lede: Michael Cera has released a surprise album called true that on BandCamp for some reason. No shit. Here, listen to it. Told ya.

Obviously, there’s a lot that needs to be sorted out here, so let’s get right to it.

1. Why tho?

Excellent question, and one that was much on my mind when I saw this item on my Facebook trending bar. First–and I’d forgotten all about this–but this is not Cera’s first foray into music. And no, I’m not counting that adorable song at the end of Juno, nor am I alluding to his stunning a capella rendition of a Guess Who classic in Superbad. Way back in 2010, Cera went the full Dogstar and became the touring bassist for indie supergroup Mister Heavenly. Again, I shit you not, see for yourself. Mister Heavenly contained members of The Unicorns, Man Man and Modest Mouse, and toured (with Cera) in late 2010 as a supporting act for Passion Pit. (Funniest part of Mister Heavenly’s Wikipedia page: The quotes around the word “supergroup.”)

I guess this could be seen as a natural progression from Cera’s role in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, but I think what’s coolest about the Mister Heavenly gig is that it’s a decidedly low-key career move. Hell, it’s not even a career move. It’s a fun thing to do that Michael Cera did without making a big deal out of it. Which is probably why I quickly forgot about it and replaced my indie-rocking image of Cera with his coke-swilling, turbo-douche persona from This is the End.

2. Okay but like, WHY THO?

Cera, it seems, is a man of many passions. For instance, did you know he has a YouTube comedy channel with Reggie Watts, Tim & Eric, and Sarah Silverman? Yeah. Wikipedia is a wonderful thing. Cera writes, directs and stars in many of the shorts featured here.

What we’ve learned about Michael Cera from this whole true that business is that he’s just a guy who does whatever TF he wants. Cera follows his muse wherever she goes. True that.

3. What does it sound like?

The tags that Cera has applied to the album’s BandCamp page include “alternative,” “dirty,” “home recording” and, perhaps ironically, “modest.” I’ll say this: it’s certainly no vanity project, at least not in the sense typically applied to celebrities. These songs legitimately sound like they were recorded on an old four-track in someone’s basement. And Cera seems unconcerned with highlighting any singular aspect of his talent. These aren’t full-band tracks, nor do I even feel accurate calling them “songs.” Many are instrumental, and only about half are over two minutes long. The tracks are mostly aimless jams over a central riff. Aimless is maybe the wrong word, but they’re relaxed, lethargic even. When it’s not gently-strummed guitar it’s gently-tickled piano and keyboard. It’s mellow to the mellow-th power. When he does sing, Cera’s double-tracked vocals sound like a happy marriage between Ray Davies and the late Elliott Smith. I almost wonder if he’s trying to put on an affect, yet nothing seems forced here. All is very, very chill.

4. So is it any good?

It is, actually! There’s nothing I’d call groundbreaking on the first or second listen, but true that offers the same kind of pleasure that a Kurt Vile album does, which is to say that it doesn’t demand approval; its worth is based on its breeziness and its refusal to give a single care. It’s an album of excellent reading music, basically, and I’m sure that’s just fine with Cera. There’s little ambition here, but even less pretense. That’s a disarming quality, especially coming from a movie star moonlighting as a musician. There’s no latent need to be liked here. It’s kind of awesome that way.

So anyway, yeah. Michael Cera made a pretty decent bedroom pop album. I don’t think he cares if I like it, but I do.