You smile like a cartoon, tooth for tooth
You said that irony was the “shackles of youth”
If you’re someone who likes getting the ending up front, I’ll spare you the details: the hero of the story is Bill Berry. I had gotten a copy of R.E.M.’s “Automatic for the People” the week of its release- the cassette was yellow- and immediately fell in love with the record. While it would be years before I could appreciate the clever writing of singer Michael Stipe, the album served as a welcome departure from what I understood as music in the early 1990s.
While Axl Rose and Metallica were producing work of equal measure, R.E.M. was my first exposure to the idea that things didn’t always need to rock- R.E.M. wasn’t afraid to give a moment space and allow a song to breath- this gave “Drive” room to brood ominously and “Everybody Hurts” time to emotionally settle. “Nightswimming” is still one of my favorite songs and always manages to make me cry.
As much as I loved the record, at twelve years old, I had this awful hunch that I was being duped. I had thought of myself as a kind of emerging rock critic, a junior Robert Christgau, compiling my own Consumers Guide to Rock; I knew what rocked and what sucked.
But there was something fishy about 1992- everything rocked.
Metallica put out their classic self-titled the year prior. Guns and Roses had their epic “Use Your Illusion” double-shot. Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails were changing the rules of the game by the minute and getting anyone still using hairspray hooked on Xanax. Tori Amos released her beautiful debut, “Little Earthquakes,” and further expanded what I thought of as music. Blind Melon had a hit single that was loved by all. Stone Temple Pilots and Pearl Jam had incredible records. In every direction there seemed to be the future of classic rock etching its name into the hollows of time.
But it all seemed too good to be true. Maybe I was too young to understand music- maybe the promotional forces behind the commercial success of the rock groups I loved were so strong and savvy that I wouldn’t know the difference between rocking and sucking.
What if there really wasn’t anything special about any of this?
MTV was able to marry music and image in a way that wasn’t possible before. Even if they didn’t invent the music video, they presented it with aggression. In the channel’s purest form, MTV was an assault on the senses. They kept their stars in heavy rotation- you’d lose count of how many times “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was shown in a single day.
It was television programming without a beginning or end, that didn’t necessitate undivided attention. It was something you’d be inclined to keep on all day- running in the background, feeding you a constant hum of subconscious messaging. The brand itself became a part of your identity- in 1992 it was cool to like MTV.
Every rock group I liked in 1992 existed as a star of MTV.
The old-timers, your friend’s dad with his collection of Zeppelin and Sabbath vinyl, would take shots at our beloved, monotheistic rock culture as being too commercial- a shot that stung, especially to a twelve-year-old bent on scraping through the commercial sheen of modern rock to access the reality underneath- increasingly worried there wasn’t a reality to access. There was cross-talk, of course; we loved spinning his old Sabbath records- Iommi’s guitar had an earthier crunch on vinyl- and he loved Alice in Chains and Metallica.
Still, the presence of MTV- its watchful, deadened eye humming along in the background- had to be reckoned with.
To what extent did what I like reflect how I wanted to be perceived? Even if projecting an image wasn’t the primary concern, it certainly existed as a welcome consequence. You wanted your choice in music to shape who you were. You followed the admirable qualities of the rock star in order to mold your swagger.
MTV served as a starter kit in building an identity from the ground up.
As she daydreams, Elizabeth can’t help but imagine her face tear-stained and her eyes bloodshot. She never bought into being the hero of her own story. Only in fantasy can she come to terms with what she’s desperate to hide.
I get it. I used to have a reoccurring nightmare where I’d show up to elementary school in my underwear. I’d realize it mid-way through the day, horrified, glimpsing at my bare legs under the desk. Once I noticed, I knew others would too.
I had a professor who encouraged us to share our nightmares- undoubtedly to farm masturbation material under the guise of something Freudian, something that became apparent after a girl in our class revealed that she often dreams of an aggressive man preventing her from urinating- I relayed my underwear at school story, and he made a lame joke about “body shame.”
This was likely done, in retrospect, to curry favor with the pee girl- the college professor equivalent of giving me a wedgie and stuffing me in a locker.
But he was wrong, it was never about body-shame, it was tied to a subconscious fear that my ineptitude will eventually catch up with me- it felt hauntingly inevitable. When a problem begins as something that’s easily ignored and grows into something encompassing and destructive.
Elizabeth was never invited to the cool kids’ table. While she tried to get on the wavelength of the hip, she could never find the right frequency- a craft that should have been honed in her college days, when a young girl looking foolish comes off as adorable, and any misunderstanding could be forgiven with a blushing giggle.
But that ship had sailed long ago for Elizabeth, and she knew it- now finding her only solace in imagining herself sitting on the chest of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, stifling her breath, and dropping heavy fists into the bridge of her nose. Her sobbing cries alternating between “I never understood” and “don’t fuck with me.”
AOC understands that the new era of politician must seem relatable in a highly specific way. Young voters want to see themselves reflected in their politicians. They want their political representatives to participate in social media image-management, which compromises the bulk of a millennial’s daily activities. The authenticity put forth must be carefully crafted and controlled- a concept that AOC intrinsically understands and a language that Warren doesn’t speak.
The transition from MTV to YouTube was ultimately a by-product of Martin Luther’s “Ninety-five Theses.” This should have been something obvious to Warren, still trying to cater a heroic image to an MTV audience gone extinct. When Luther granted the average person a direct line to the Divine, his intent was to destroy the hierarchy of the church. It was here that hierarchy took a negative connotation- a ripple effect that we’re still experiencing today.
The purpose of MTV was to define what was cool and sell you accessibility to it. The rock star sat at the top of the pop-culture hierarchy. This relationship was one-sided: you were meant to emulate the rock star who considered you a peasant. Arena rock culture was the modern day King’s speech- where you were given commands, dressed down for not executing them to the King’s liking, and, finally, given token bits of hollow praise. Paul Stanley tells you when to sit and stand, chastises you for being “too tired,” taunts you with possibly ending the performance, and finally sends you off telling you that he loves your town.
Warren is still running on the old MTV arena rock formula- she wants to tell you the story and she expects you to believe it.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez understands that the path to power is no longer linear- something that now comes across as alienating and fascist. Millennials don’t want a rock star, they want an anti-rock star. They don’t want someone to admire- they want someone who will make them feel comfortable. They want a politician who will wear sweatpants, admit that “adulting is hard,” and eat processed food. The groupie fucking, hotel room destroying, controlled chaos of Axl Rose would only upset them.
The new authenticity is in selling you an admirable loser.
It’s ironic that liking an R.E.M. record led to me questioning the authenticity of the entire system. They were probably the least likely rock group to skew inauthentic- in 2011 they quietly disbanded, believing that they didn’t have it in them to make another great album.
And this is where we circle back to Bill Berry- R.E.M.’s original drummer, who left the band in 1997 to become a farmer. Berry did not have a falling out with the other members, nor does he carry any ill-will- he only wanted a career change. He was able to stand at the core of the machine and back away by choice, the ultimate in authenticity- an authenticity without the consciousness of managing perception; an authenticity without an ulterior motive. Something foreign to Elizabeth Warren, Bill Berry just needed some time alone (and he feels fine).