Or, how little I’ve changed.

As an impressionable youth with zero academic aspirations and a lot of free time on his hands, I spent many afternoons in record stores. Maybe some of you old geezers like me will remember them. Back before iTunes and torrents, people had to put on real clothes and venture outside their homes to find new music.

It sounds strange, I know. And it really was. Especially at the best independent record stores, the kind in small store-fronts in old decayed shopping districts or nondescript strip malls, as immortalized in High Fidelity:

If you wanted the kind of records that the mainstream stores at the mall didn’t carry–English New Wave, punk rock, goth, Motorhead, all kinds of strange bands on small labels like Wax Trax, Megaforce, Dischord, and ROIR, stuff from Britain and Africa and Germany–you had to go underground. Back then, the word alternative wasn’t just a label for prefab bands with merchandising deals at Hot Topic–it really meant something.

And then there were the employees. You went to these places for the social experience as much as anything. The people who worked in independent record stores put a new spin on the idea of being weird. There was an unwritten rule book that made it de rigueur for these stores to hire only the crankiest, most opinionated bastards to work behind the counter. You’d go in and innocently ask for a record someone at school recommended, and World War III would break out. One guy would praise the production values, only to be immediately contradicted by a girl who disliked its politics. Others would dissect the musical influences, both overt and hidden, and then people would chime in on the production values and politics of those records. That kind of thing could go on for hours. It was next to impossible to tear myself away.

Every once in a while someone would talk about meeting one of these bands at a local bar, or on a road trip to Orlando or Tampa, and then even the skeptics and the haters would lend a grudging ear: if someone had been in the physical proximity of a Touch and Go recording artist, you wanted to hear about it. Even if it was a band whose production values and politics you hated. There was something about presence that got you a little bit closer to the source.

For a teenage misfit like myself, this was just about the coolest scene I’d ever come across. I desperately wanted to be like that–not just to fit in or be accepted, but to know that much about the way music was made and its history. I wanted to go to shows and talk to musicians afterward. I started buying music magazines and records and memorizing odd facts about bands I’d never even heard a single track by. Eventually I bought a ragged bass and combo amp for $75 and started a punk band of my own two months later. And I’ve been playing music and hanging out with musicians and having those conversations ever since.

In retrospect, it makes absolute sense that a person who liked reading zines and collecting quantities of seemingly irrelevant facts about all types of bands would become a scholar.

But all of the above is just background for the real purpose of this post. Yesterday I saw this video (hat tip: Otherwise, Lightning):

It basically sums up everything I hate about this particular style of music. The fey, tuneless, monotone vocals–is it attempting to convey its superiority to the smash pop song (which, after all, it is covering in loving detail) by refusing to modulate the singing voice? Or by refusing to sustain any notes? The postironic facial expressions–are they planned with great care to appear spontaneous? Or are they really random? The stripped down, ultra-basic instrumental tracks–are they hoping to prove that practicing your instrument is for suckers who aren’t in the know? Or just trying to cover up their basic musical incompetence? I’m not saying I know the answers to these questions, but frankly, does anyone? They’ve all become this decade’s heavy metal cliches.

In a sense, you might see this blog post as simply a continuation of those record store conversations I used to have. And yet, the real point of this post is not a self-aggrandizing (or self-incriminating–and the two were often synonymous in ye olde record stores) display of my own musical predilections and assumptions. No, what I really want to blog about is how long it took me to realize that the singer in that video was a woman. (Instead of, say, some annoyingly fey compadre to the de rigueur bearded twat playing most of the instruments. A minute or two, actually.)

And what that lag between perception and cognition brought to mind was the first time I ever saw the cover of the first Poison album in ye olde record store:

The first thing I thought then was, “Hey, a couple of the girls in this band are pretty cute.” Fortunately–oh, how fortunately–I did not say that out loud. Later I saw the video and realized that those cute girls were actually guys, and thanked heaven I had not announced my discovery aloud. An indie record store evisceration like that isn’t pretty.

Plus ça change, eh?

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