Over the last year I've felt disconnected from my usual writing habit, so I decided to jumpstart things by writing about something fun: I've chosen the ten books, albums, movies, and games that were most important in defining me as a person, and challenged myself to explain why.
Some of these set my artistic tone or left huge imprints on my personality, others changed the course of my life or career. With each item I can say, "if not for this, I would be someone else right now." But why? It's a surprisingly hard question to answer. A strong feeling would compel me to put something on the list, and then I'd realize I had no clue how to unpack that feeling.The remaining five:
Every six months or so my friends and I would make a road-trip from Santa Cruz to Berkeley, and spend hours in the music stores on Telegraph avenue. I don't know if there is an equivalent to this for high-school kids now - the pilgrimage to find media - since all media is downloadable. I'm too out of touch to know. But as a teenager, I relished a trip to the music store the same way I relished a trip to the toy store when I was six.
There was no internet to research music, and very little time to spend at a listening station where you could demo an album before buying it, so I usually bought things based on what section they were in, the cover art, the track list, and good old hearsay. For example, "Friendly Fa$cism" went into my shopping basket because I'd read somewhere that Jack Dangers engineered the album, and I really liked his work in Meat Beat Manifesto. When I queued it up back home I thought the music sounded great, but what really surprised me were the lyrics.
As a seventeen-year-old I didn't have a category in my mind that encapsulated their politics, but in retrospect I think the category would be "leftist". In fact, to say that Consolidated leaned left would be like saying that Paris is a little bit French. The track "The Sexual Politics Of Meat" was a funky beat with a spoken-word essay laid over it, excerpted from a book of the same name, and it was all about how the exploitation of "female reproductive organs" in the meat and dairy industry was interconnected with a patriarchal society that exploits the reproductive capacity of women. I was too young to sensibly interpret or critique the essay, but I knew I was hearing a point of view that was important because it contrasted with a lot of things I knew from popular culture that I wasn't all that comfortable with. Assumptions about food, assumptions about gender roles, assumptions about family structure, et cetera. At the very least, no one in authority around me seemed to believe there was even a debate worth having. This was just the way we did things; if you wanted justification you were obviously a troublemaker.
It's hard to be fair with perceptions like that, though. I was a teenager; what did I know about my community? Wasn't I just carrying around a bunch of impressions from television and films? Well, yes and no. I was living in an ostensibly liberal area, and I certainly had liberal parents, but it seemed like there was strong disagreement just a few degrees of separation away, in any direction. I had next-door-neighbors who were obsessive about religion and believed in strict gender roles. I had parents of friends who would say terrible things about homosexuals. I knew just one person who was part of a vegetarian household, and the standard response everywhere else to "I don't eat meat" was "what the hell is wrong with you?" There was a lot of separation enforced out of paranoia.
I credit Consolidated with reassuring me that there was an entire movement out there whose purpose was to identify and trash that paranoia. As the world becomes more interconnected, we have two experiences over and over again: We either feel validated and content when we discover that our belief was the majority opinion all along, or we feel persecuted and upset when we discover that our belief was an outlier, and bound for extermination unless we fight for it. Either way, interconnectedness is not the enemy. If your beliefs can't stand up to it, they need to evolve.
Consolidated's lyrics also served as a primer for a hundred different political discussions I would later have online and in college. Would things have been different if I'd purchased some turgid "christian rock" album instead? I don't know. I was already headed to the "left," and it's hard to compare a push from behind with a push from the front. I might have just put my head down and charged harder in the same direction.
I was a very stubborn kid, most of the time!
This album got a whole lot of press in its time, as part of a ridiculous culture war over a category of music called "alternative music".
I bought it because I'd already bought "Broken" and "Fixed" by the same artist and thought they were excellent. "Broken" in particular was a perfect encapsulation of the teenage angst I was feeling, but "The Downward Spiral" was more diverse, more innovative, and had a sound that grabbed me and sent roots into my imagination. The musical terrain it staked out was further explored by four or five long remix albums (counted differently depending on how you categorize the UK and Japan releases), all of which I bought and adored.
I thought some of the lyrics were a little trite, so I constructed mix tapes that cut them out, and listened to those over and over while shelving books at the Scotts Valley public library for a meager student income. At Cabrillo College I took an autobiography course, and when we were asked to discuss our favorite music, I mentioned this album, and said "it sounds like electric shocks with copper wires, and huge metal pipes colliding in a factory, and blocks of sandstone grinding together in a desert somewhere, with dried blood on everything." I storyboarded music videos for a few of my favorite songs in a sketchbook. When I started dating in college I made out with several girlfriends to the Coil remix of "Closer".
(That sounds a bit cheesy - like, I had a standard collection of "moves" I would put on my college dates and that song was among them. But the Coil remix of "Closer" is creepy and atmospheric. I really liked it, but I had no confidence that my date would like it unless they showed some interest in the same kind of music first. If they did, I would get all excited and geek out about different songs and sounds, and that might lead to this song later in the evening. If that's a "move", then I guess I'm guilty as charged...)
All that is evidence of strong influence, but the way this album really changed me was by forcing me to choose a side in a culture war.
As a teenager, I thought the music was cathartic, even therapeutic. It was one of many "alternative music" albums that located and illuminated an empty space that popular culture was obsessed with avoiding. Mass-market appeal meant that you didn't use impolite language, or talk about suicide or isolation or pain, and you disguised all your lust behind relatively benign romance, because you might upset some consumer's happy mood and get dropped from a radio station or a CD rack or dropped from a tour. Take the modern phenomenon of being "offended on the internet" as a form of entertainment, and crank it up even higher, then add a scoop of puritanical religiosity on top - this stuff is offensive to God! - and you have an idea of what this music was trying to displace. Nowadays it seems almost pathetic when a media conglomerate caves in to the wishes of a religious group. A quarter-century ago it was business as usual, built in from the ground up.
So I found myself thoroughly on the side of the counterculture. That put me among children of the "baby boomer" generation, vastly outnumbered by their parents and surrounded by a media that didn't represent them or cater to them. From our perspective, culture was measured against parental approval, and our parents didn't approve of heavy metal or gothic rock (both imported from the UK in the 80's), rap, techno, or anything else that sounded a bit weird or contained confrontational lyrics. This was the era of the "Parental Advisory" sticker, which was intended to warn kids away from "damaging" content, but was widely interpreted by kids to mean, "your parents feel threatened by this music, and if they're not the intended audience then perhaps you should be."
On the other hand, "The Downward Spiral" album was hated by plenty of young people in the music scene too, because its popularity brought with it a lot of unwelcome attention. People who felt they had a personal relationship with the music were dismayed to find it getting radio play (in censored form) on stations that mixed it indiscriminately with contemporary "top-40" stuff. My friends and I bitterly acknowledged that people we didn't like and couldn't relate to seemed to be playing "our" music because it was suddenly fashionable to do so - and because it pissed off their parents. Yes - teenager logic often runs in reverse. You identify someone you dislike, and work backward from there to establish why. (Then you're compelled to defend your position, which is where a whole lot of stupid comes from.)
When I was 18, I went to a house party with a random group of kids from my high school, and I was totally flummoxed when somebody cued up "Closer" (from this album) and everybody started dancing. To me, it was a song about the nasty emotional issues that young men develop around sex in a culture that tries to suppress it. Definitely not a party anthem. I never expected to see a group of drunk and stoned acquaintances in a trashed living room shouting "whooo!" and "I love this song!" while they gyrated around with big grins on their faces. Was this "my" music, or was it "theirs"? It was impossible for me to reconcile.
I bonded with friends - and chose my music "scene" - based on bands like Skinny Puppy, Front Line Assembly, and Einstürzende Neubauten, but it was always with the understanding that my friends and scene would be forever hidden within a larger culture that didn't welcome it. "The Downward Spiral" was simultaneously welcome, and unwelcome, in both arenas. It was simultaneously vilified by the mainstream, and regarded as "too mainstream" by people in my own music scene. At the same time, it had obviously gained mainstream popularity, and was treasured by part of the counterculture as well. (It wasn't the only album that was treated this way, but it was definitely the biggest example.)
That phenomenon led me to realize something about music itself: It was absolutely acceptable to play music that sounded angry and weird, and sing about despair and sadness, because it formed an open channel for confronting these things in everyday life. This sound needed a permanent place in mainstream culture, not just a little alcove in a dusty corner where people in "the scene" could appreciate it "properly", whatever that meant. Popular culture was broken, and would remain so until this element was built back in.
(As an aside, I think it did get built back in, slowly over the last couple of decades. Then it jumped the shark with the latest round of Batman remakes, which were way too obsessed with darkness and grit for its own sake. GOTHAM GETS THE HERO IT NEEDS! Pffft.)
I'd like to draw your attention to something called the normal distribution function. The best way to demonstrate its power is with a device, called the Galton Board. In the linked video, notice how all the beads start in the same place, and then, by making a simple binary choice - left or right - over and over again, they fall into a spectrum, and almost all the beads end up close to the middle, while the edges taper off.
That's how culture works too. Every day, people make small choices among the things they are already trained to notice. Then, day after day, choice after choice, they drift out across the normal distribution. A person can be "a little bit" of something each day (sexist, reclusive, generous, politically active, etc) and then be "a whole lot" of something in a few years, without ever deciding to, or even realizing it's happened.
With that in mind, let me tell you about this. One day I was driving home from a camping trip with friends, and my friend Kathleen put a Tori Amos tape in the stereo. "Let's see how you like this," she said. "Okay," I said.
It was the song "Crucify". I instantly thought: "Where has this music been all my life?"
I immediately liked Tori for her voice. She sang like Roger Waters sang: Swollen with emotion, but also fiercely controlled. That approach extended into her compositions as well. I could relate to her songs about wrestling with inner demons, trying to find and keep a sense of self, and being constricted by gender roles that seemed designed to stamp out everything interesting and weird. I also enjoyed how abstract her lyrics could be - for example, speaking to God as if he were a selfish ex-boyfriend who was now exploiting some other woman. ("Will you even tell her, if you decide to make the sky fall?")
As I explored the rest of the album that contained "Crucify", the song "Silent All These Years" hit me hard as well. To me, it's a song about feeling deeply discontent with the way romantic relationships work, but being shut down repeatedly or rejected in the attempt to express it, and wondering if the chance to express it will never actually come -- and that perhaps the only course is to remain discontent until the desire for romance itself fades away with age. A plaintive and bitter song. Singing it over the years in my 20's, it could sometimes drive me to tears. In my 30's it was less affecting but still powerful, and I performed it once at karaoke, under interesting circumstances.
Kathleen saw how I took to Tori Amos and decided I would like Alanis Morissette as well, but that didn't stick. In fact I immediately disliked Alanis Morissette, and it took me a long time to articulate why. Eventually I realized it was because she was externalized. Her songs were full of complaints and accusations directed at other people, fetishizing her own lack of agency as though it were a proud character trait. Even her ostensible love song, "Head Over Feet", runs: "Don't be surprised if I love you for all that you are - I couldn't help it - It's all your fault." Is that meant to be ironic? She sings it as though blaming someone else is a celebration.
Anyway, I'm not really interested in crapping on Alanis' early work, just in pointing out the contrast, and why it mattered to me. (I wasn't the only fan to feel this way. Tori and Alanis went on tour together, mostly in big arenas, and the crowds didn't mix well.)
I devoured every album Tori Amos released, including all the singles. I made my own mix tapes, threading in ambient music to give myself emotional room to recover after singing along with her in the car. From vocal performance with Placido Domingo, to the expressive grief of Roger Waters, to the kaleidoscopic Tori Amos, I was moving away from the normal distribution, and I liked the broader point of view that came with it. A few more pegs down on the board, and I was dressed in drag singing brassy showtunes about sexual freedom in The Rocky Horror Picture show, with my parents in the audience. At the time I never even stopped to consider, "How did I become an outlier?" I had only ever been making small choices.
The mix tapes turned out to be very popular with some of the women I dated too, and some of my favorite memories in my 20's and 30's are from driving along, singing alongside someone, sharing our connection to the music. (Again - if that's a "move", then I don't care.) By that point I was way off to the side of the Galton Board, and it was validating to find people in a similar place.
It's interesting to me that my ability to connect with Tori's work drops away sharply, just after "From The Choirgirl Hotel". After that she must have evolved as a person in some different direction that I could no longer relate to.
I came relatively late to the They Might Be Giants party. Their albums floated around in my friend group for years, then I finally paid attention when I went to UCSC and kept finding myself in small groups of people who happily sang all the lyrics together - some with harmony - while I was stuck sitting quietly and looking confused. So I borrowed a few CDs, then bought a few more, then I got obsessed... You know the story.
So why does this album belong on this list? The attitude. Flansburgh and Linnell's albums are like catchy musical puzzles, full of scientific facts and geeky historical references, absurd situations and metaphors, puns, riddles, and playful instrumentation. They express something in music that I wanted to express generally. At UCSC, that combination of playfulness and curiosity was something that I deliberately decided to hold onto as I continued the journey into adulthood. "I need to keep part of myself here," I thought. "Sure I'm serious and depressed at times, but I also need to stay familiar with this place - at the intersection of science and jokes."
That attitude has been a huge asset over the years. When we hit a difficult problem at work, I always look for two things - a solution, and some joke to crack about the situation to lighten the mood (though never at anyone's expense). In a way it's a survival tactic. Work would be a lot less interesting if there weren't any jokes, and if it wasn't interesting, I would get bored and suck at it.
I can't credit They Might Be Giants exclusively for this of course, but they did give me a solid push in this direction, and every time I sing along with them in the car it's like another supplemental push.
One day a couple of my friends and I got together and decided to go on a road trip, to visit another dear friend of ours who was living way out in Lee Vining. We all had musical inclinations, and it occurred to us on the second or third day that we had enough hardware sitting around in his garage to actually produce an album. To be clear: We had the hardware. That's not saying we had the talent.
So we coordinated ourselves enough to create three rough covers of video game songs - about seven minutes of music - and spent the rest of the time screaming, beating on things, cracking jokes, and playing random samples to make each other laugh. When it was all done I went home and slurped up all the "interesting sounding" parts and beat on them until I had 74 minutes of stuff. Then we burned and hand-assembled about a dozen CDs, in cases with cover art, and passed them out to friends. "Look guys, we made an album! Ha haa!"
I'd like to say we were a smash hit and embarked on a world tour. But the only thing we really had going for us was our sense of humor, and a large collection of very weird samples. We might have found a cult following if we'd been around a quarter-century earlier, but only if we took distribution and exposure a lot more seriously. One of us did work at a college radio station and passed our albums around, and they actually got some respectable airplay, but that was as far as things went. Oh yeah ... And four of our fans made "music videos", for Banana And Router, !unusual, Weenie Roast, and Monkey Seed.
And, getting together to "produce" a new album was an absolute blast, every time. I have never laughed so hard, and so often, in my adult life, as I have when four of my oldest friends got together in one place and cut loose with the noise. And that comes through on the recordings. For a while our tradition was to buy a drum kit off Craigslist just before the meetup, and make sure to destroy it before the end. One of our (very few) fans emailed us once to say, "You guys sound like your live shows would be off the hook!"
The "roster", so to speak, moved around a little over the years. One member left basically because he was "too good" a musician, and felt that his efforts were being wasted. Which they were; no doubt about that. I joked with him a while ago, "when you left, you probably took about 90 percent of the talent with you." Nevertheless we roped in two more friends and kept going, for a few more albums.
After 2008 the logistics of getting everyone together got a lot more difficult. Six of us did gather for a session in Oakland that lasted a few days, and we mined that for samples and put together a handful of rough tracks, but the enthusiasm has stayed low. I think the Braindead Monkeys are having a kind of existential crisis, about the very idea of a studio-rat musical "group". Who even owns CDs any more? Why make songs as a collection, if the idea of an "album" itself is stale? Why make new music? It's isolated from visual art, interactive art, and other more modern and more interesting mediums.
15 years later we occasionally get emails from people who've blundered across the website. Every now and then someone floats the idea of getting together to make more tracks, but then we immediately start talking about what else we could - or should - be doing instead.