On a recent trip to the dollar store, a young cashier struck up a conversation with me about music. He had a shaved head and a blue flight jacket, with a patch that said, “Ich bin stolz.” On his sleeve, he wore three buttons: an SS insignia, a swastika, and a photo of Adolph Hitler.
While I waited for my change, he told me he was eager to find out if Skrewdriver was coming to town. I’ll bet 99% of his customers would have had no clue what he was talking about, but I knew exactly the ancient British skinhead group he meant. When I told him that I liked some of their music, but couldn’t abide their politics, the young Nazi smiled and praised me – without irony – for being “open-minded.”
After I left the store, I looked around the Web for information about Skrewdriver, and found some really awful, hateful things that have nothing to do with music. I then decided to refresh my memory with a few downloaded Skrewdriver MP3s, and found some really awful, hateful lyrics, sung over punked-up rock-n-roll that owes as much to Chuck Berry as it does to, well, a lot of other non-Aryan folks.
After chuckling at the obvious irony of cultural appropriation, I started thinking about musical taste and identity. How much does my cashier really like Skrewdriver? Given the fact that I’m pretty sure the band no longer exists (please correct me if I’m wrong on this), I would say he’s not that into them. But he’s definitely into what liking them says to other people about his identity.
How much do you really like Joanna Newsom, CAN, or Tom Waits? And how much do you like what liking them says about you? People tell me that Stereolab is great. In order to retain my Hipster International membership card and its accompanying make out privileges, I want to say that I think they’re great too. But I don’t like them. However, when I say I like Battles, I do so with a smug certainty that the world will now know I am cool, edgy and, yes, open-minded.
There’s something beyond musical snobbery at work when we tie our identities so intimately to something external. For most of us, the need for external validation lurks somewhere beneath our carefully constructed identities. The same is true for many musicians. While striving to create, talented artists of all sorts lose their identities, trying too hard to make art that others will like.
I recently spoke to a very talented Denver musician who admitted that he doesn’t actually enjoy the music his band plays. I don’t like it either, nor do many of my friends and acquaintances. Why? Because the hollow ring of falsehood can be positively deafening. When he starts playing the music that plays in his heart and his mind – as I sincerely hope he will – the falsehood will be silenced and people will start listening.
In another recent conversation, a very highly regarded Denver songwriter informed me that he might start writing music for car commercials. Will people be less likely to say they like his music once that word gets out?
My point here isn’t about Denver music scene gossip. It’s about everything that goes down in rock, jazz, folk, metal, punk and hip-hop clubs all over town, and about what keeps so many of us out, night after sleepless night. It is this:
Screw what you like. Screw what I like. Screw what you’re supposed to like. Screw your racial, economic, intellectual and musical prejudices, and screw mine too. If we could all just embrace the people, the lifestyles, the choices, the crappy foods, the sexual positions, the shitty novels and the songs that move our hearts and minds, we’d all be a lot happier with ourselves and one another.
There’s a lot of honesty already out there, feeding our thriving scene and giving it its infectious energy. On Monday night, I felt that honesty while watching Elizabeth Rose and Blue Light play passionately to an empty Larimer Lounge. Afterward, I wandered over to the Meadowlark and felt the same integrity coming from Westword’s own Jon Solomon as he almost-unconsciously noodled away on some beautifully hypnotic looped guitar figures.
Honesty and integrity. Screw everything else.
Oh, and screw Skrewdriver. Seriously. -- Eryc Eyl