Suburban Renewal

Pavement vs. Poison in the burbs

I'm sitting there in the dark of the movie theater, slightly confused, wondering what's wrong in Suburbia. Richard Linklater's new film captures hauntingly well the sick-of-it-all restlessness and cruelty of bored post-adolescents trapped in a world of strip malls and Big Gulps, but something just doesn't feel right to me. At some point, it finally hits me -- it's the music.

Those of us who grew up in the suburbs know why we left. Ostensibly it was to go to college, move to a more happening place, blaze new paths, etc., but there was another reason. We were tired of the well-groomed lawns and the lacrosse sticks. And we were especially tired of the music.

Suburban music has been widely pinpointed as that which is dumb, loud, and easy to pick out on the strings of your older brother's Stratocaster. It is based around simplistic chord structures, a pounding backbeat, and salacious lyrics that refer to females as groupies or needy, childlike things, offensive less for how they objectify women than for how baldly cliched they are. The sounds of the suburb where I was raised included classic car-stereo workhorses like AC/DC and Led Zeppelin, but mainly comprised the best-left-forgotten lite metal of the '80s -- do the names Bon Jovi and Ratt ring any bells? Something about the unadventurous riffs and sincere histrionics of these hair-farmers seemed to be the perfect accompaniment to activities like driving around and around, cruising in aimless pursuit of an unnameable something -- a break in the deadly sameness of the suburban weekend.

I have a certain fondness for the music of my suburban pubescence, if only for its so-bad-it's-good nostalgia value. My quandary as I sat in the theater was: Can you make a movie about disaffected teens in the suburbs without once making reference to Led Zep or the CrYe? In the Suburbia of Richard Linklater and playwright Eric Bogosian, apparently, you can. Many of the artists peppering the film's soundtrack -- Thurston Moore, Beck, Boss Hog, Pavement's Stephen Malkmus with Elastica -- are artists who are, it might seem, far too steeped in self-consciousness and irony to be adequate peddlers of suburban ennui. Didn't Moore escape the suburbs to the harshness of the city and end up creating, in Sonic Youth, the edgy antithesis of complacent burb-rock? Shouldn't the avant-gardists of Sonic Youth, in fact, get their collective undies in a gigantic bunch at the thought of their arty squall being used as a backdrop to a gaggle of teens chugging tallboys behind the Quickie-Mart?

This isn't to say that the music on the soundtrack doesn't complement the movie, or that the story played out on-screen isn't worthy of the efforts of the soundtrack musicians, some of whom composed their contributions specifically for the project. But it signals that the past definition of suburban music as the province of those not sophisticated enough to "get" more challenging, esoteric sounds has changed permanently. This transformation occurred in conjunction with the alternative-music explosion of the last several years that allowed formerly underground artists like Sonic Youth to slip into the mainstream via Lollapalooza and MTV's Buzz Bin. Bands who had once found an audience only in the cramped, sweaty dives of big cities were now bemusedly playing to a throng of thousands in open-air stadiums, and receiving a hero's welcome. This new accessibility wiped out the long-held notion that what plays in the city falls flat in the suburbs, and vice versa.

And because of this shift, compilations like the Suburbia soundtrack can be considered the new template for what constitutes suburban music. It's just not about big chords and cherry pie and spandex anymore. It may sound just as good blasting from a car stereo, but now the big chords are rougher and more dissonant; indie cred and earnest songsmithery have replaced anthemic, operatic howling. It's more sober, less melodic -- in short, it's more, well, urban, and although what defines urban music is fodder for a whole 'nother column, it's clear that in the case of alternative rock, the distinction just keeps getting blurrier. This makes plenty of sense when you consider that a lot of the bands making what's often considered urban music aren't far removed from their own split-level, ranch-house roots. Take, for instance, Pavement -- a band renowned for their sophisticated, Oscar Wildeian corruption of pop-rock tropes. Their tunes are loaded with self-conscious winks and asides, but, as a friend who caught one of the recent local shows noted, "They still look like such Stockton boys."

Still, it would be wrong to declare that the big-haired rock that ruled the 7-Elevens of the country up until recently is dead forever. Suburbia director Linklater understands the importance of music in situating oneself in a certain time and place -- this is the same man whose earlier suburban opus, Dazed and Confused, featured a soundtrack replete with prime '70s hesher-boogie tracks that might have otherwise been doomed to "Oh yeah, that song" radio obscurity. So-called modern rock may be muscling the competition off the airwaves, but we can rest assured that somewhere there will always be an appreciative audience for Poison and their ilk. Cultural taste-makers will continue to make suburbia the punch line to their in-jokes and lambaste those comfy homeowners for their assumed smugness and conformity, but movies like Suburbia, and their accompanying soundtracks, show that the city dwellers and the satellite-dish crowd have a remarkably similar agenda of discontent. And it sounds a whole lot like Boss Hog.

 
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