10 min read

Deep State DIY

Deep State DIY

Look, if it were up to me today’s newsletter would be about Cosmic Psycho tribute bands with mullets and cheap beer habits. But, as the Eric Stoltz bartender character in Noah Baumbach’s 1995 college town ennui-comedy Kicking and Screaming says, “How do you make god laugh? Make a plan.”

It me, God’s amusement.

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I don’t need to write about last week’s online indie rock mini controversy. By the time of this writing, even the people who thought they cared have moved on. Quite reasonably so, considering the distractions provided. Steampunk power couple, Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman, announced, via Palmer’s crowdfunding site, that they were separating. Cyberpunk power couple, Elon Musk and Grimes, announced that they were giving their child a silly name. Oh yeah, and one (1) critic announced that they didn’t enjoy the new Fiona Apple album. So, with all that static (and whatever else might be going on), nobody can be blamed for opting out of the usual backlash-to-the-backlash-to-the-backlash (and so on) of these things and skipping ahead to the cool contempt for anyone who cared in the first place, followed by entire forgetting.

But, while others may have moved on from the back and forth regarding accusations of Mitski’s dad being in the CIA, Arca’s dad being a financial predator, King Princess (yeah I dunno either) being a heiress, and Kevin Kline’s daughter, Frankie Cosmos, being the daughter of Phoebe Cates, I will not. Because I, like the titular character of Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner, am a messy bitch who lives for drama.

Having operated within the music industry for two decades, and having approximations of taste and morals, I have a number of musicians and industry types that I can not stand. Sure, as a human person as inclined to envy and petty grievances as any other human person, some of these enemies exist mainly in my mind. Sure! And others of these enemies legit earned my contempt through the usual music industry sins; artistic theft from me or my loved one, cliche male scumbaggery, all the “-isms” that come out after too much time spent in the bathroom, etc. Those enemies I can be pretty vocal about.

But a few of the industry people I bear grudge against are not exactly evil. They may even be “good” (whatever that means). But I worry over their careers and existence because the face the world praises them for is not the face I have seen. Maybe they talk about revolution but, behind the scenes, use revolutionary jargon as both shield and cudgel. Maybe they talk community but surreptitiously pal around with abusers. Maybe they wear “punk” and “DIY” as a badge while recreating major label unfairness on a smaller scale. And maybe I just know in my soul that they’re counting the days till Trump is out of office so they can go back to wallowing in apolitics like it’s SXSW 2006. They ain’t bad people per se. They’re just not who they appear to be. Or at least they don’t seem to be when filtered through my lenses, for whatever that may be worth to anyone not living inside my head. Which does not merit calling out, or at least the hassle of calling out, unless I want to be considered a spiteful crank and get yelled at by all the other good-and-not-evil people. It’s these enemies, more even than those who have specifically wronged me and mine, that I talk to my therapist about.

So, while there is a world of difference between having parents who are simply rich and having a parent who may have destroyed and/or countries, I understand the impulse to feel betrayed in either. We have certain expectations of artists within the unwritten rules of the alt boho academy. Mitski or Arca or whomever never had to explicitly say “I am this and not this” for it to feel like their solidarity with their fans was implied. With Mitski, there’s the one-two punch. First, even if she’s never positioned herself as a “political” artist, Mitski comes from a scene that prides itself on its leftist ideals and while “don’t love the CIA” wasn’t, as far as I know, in the Silent Barn charter, it was strongly implied.

The Mitski part is notable because, maybe because she’s semi-retired or maybe because the coronavirus is making cops of us all, this new “Mitski As Deep State Scion” affair was the first time criticism of them (briefly) broke through the previously internet-wide mandate of Protect Mitski At All Costs. Through both the quality of her work and our current social norm of complete psychic immersion in our faves, Mitski inspires the sort of loyalty that comes when the listener plays the part of both confidante and supplicant. Between the fandom and critical consensus born both of the, again high, quality of the work and the critical tendency towards, well, consensus, Mitski doesn’t get a lot of shit thrown in her direction. And when she does, and I can only think of only one example of one time a twitter account with less than a thousand followers said something negative, it elicits a fury that the Beyhive might respect (maybe. In the way a sun might respect a moon). This time around, the wagons of Mitski partisans still circled but it was less a wagon circle than a demolition derby, cars careening everywhere, announcing their damage to anyone who would listen.

I’m not going to get into the specifics of the Mitski accusations because there aren’t any really. There was a tumblr post accusing Mitski’s father of being a CIA agent who, amongst other things, destabilized the Congo in the ‘80s. There is a lot of theorizing based largely on the fact that Mitski has always been cagey about what her father does outside of “working for the state department” and someone with his name was in certain countries at certain times. There’s arguably enough there to warrant further investigation. Especially if Mitski was running for office or had a song called “My Dad Is Totally Not In The CIA” on an album called “Lumumba Had It Coming.”  The tumblr post led to a number of tweets, which led to a number of tweets about said tweets, which led to more tweets… and so on till the usual twitter stacking of turtles was in full effect. Eventually the extremes could best be summed up as “Mitski’s dad is most def a war criminal and I’m heart broken” on one side and “lol the CIA is good actually” on the other, with “isn’t this momentarily interesting” folks moving freely in the middle. (And above it all, as always, were the perpetually amused “it rules/shit owns” irony boys, chortling into their facial hair, safe from having to care about anything ever again now that Bernie has dropped out.)

There’s a couple directions here, both interesting. On one hand, this is quite possibly complete bullshit and Mitski may be owed an apology. A single tweet about a questionably sourced and “just raising questions” tumblr post was quickly translated through the usual game of telephone into “Mitski, without a doubt, covered up her father’s war crimes.” And if it’s all bullshit and all these yammering weirdos with Hammer and Sickles in their usernames revealed themselves as the time-displaced Stalinists and cops they always were, well, that would certainly be embarrassing for anyone still capable of shame. But the yammerers were few and far between. I mainly saw fans who were processing a revelation they saw as a betrayal. Few argued that Mitski’s father’s work was any of their business but now that they (believed they) knew this thing, how could they be expected to unknow it? Some of the more strident posters had family members harmed by CIA machinations. And who could even think to impose my own low stakes upon them? And even among them and other serially leftist commentators, few were calling for “cancellation.” Mainly people were either making jokes or making the point that having a parent who potentially destabilized foreign governments is different than having a parent who merely has the usual capitalist blood cult mess on their hands, and therefore worth noting on the public record. I am someone who neither believes in cancelling (non-abuser) artists or that “cancel culture” is a problem (at least not the crisis that some claim it is). Even when I call out artists I loathe, for theft or Islamophobia or whatever, I’m rarely calling for their careers to be ended. I just want their bullshit on the public record. So if (and putting that “IF” in BOLD letters) Mitski’s dad is in the CIA, note that shit. Whether one feels like CIA Dad money paying for the artist’s baby food and guitar lessons is relevant and holds that against the artist or the art is entirely up to the consumer.

If you’re getting bored that I’m not being self righteous enough, hold tight. Let’s talk about money. The eternal paradox of underground music: “how does that guy I’ve never seen work a day in his life own so many fucking guitars?”

Because it’s not just CIA and its skullduggery that’s being considered here. It’s also the implication that, through ill gotten gains, Mitski was given advantages others were not. That’s why the chorus of wails greeting Mitski’s dad’s betrayal of Chomsky’s underground were also in response to news that Arca’s father is a “predatory” investment banker in Venezuela and that King Princess has Macy’s money. (People already knew about Frankie Cosmos but it’s a perennial.)

The class issues that ran through the Beatles Vs. Stones debates, The Clash’s entire existence, Oasis vs. Blur, and on through The Strokes to Frankie Cosmos, are never far from the surface. Nor should they be. It’s always been a barely maintained illusion that rock and roll (and all its offshoots) was ever truly egalitarian. While a certain fairness exists by  listeners not being privy to a musician’s parents’ bank books, the advantage is always held by those who, while waiting to be discovered and placed in front of those listeners, don’t need to scramble to pay rent. In music social capital, the necessary glad-handing of whatever scenesters run shit in your “community,” is largely predicated on actual capital; the financial capability to just hang out. This is not to say that only the rich can network, or that the quality of one’s art is entirely secondary. After all coke and beer and smooches are all reasonably inexpensive and, once you’re onstage, who the fuck nows what will click with an audience. But again, to get on that stage in the first place (and I don’t care how ostensibly punk or DIY your scene is), money helps.

The trick for the rich, in any ostensible “counter” culture, is that they must maintain the illusion (that no one really buys anyway) that rock and roll cream rises to the rock and roll top, and pretend that they are not rich. While their audience, to varying degrees, can largely afford the same rents the performers can. So there’s a tension there that doesn’t exactly encourage radical honesty on any front. Often punk and indie and DIY is a bunch of Spidermen declining by unspoken arrangement to point at each other. And for those without money, all they can do is have their suspicions. Or they can know, for whatever good that does them, like knowing loaded dice are the only game in town. And when those suspicions are occasionally confirmed, as they were last week, it’s fair to feel lied to even if you on some level already knew. Even if it’s a lie of omission. Maybe, in subcultures based on oversharing, the omission is worse.

So people can feel how they feel. Accusations of class based poseurdom are as integral to our cultures as drink tickets and singing in fake english and/or southern accents. Thing is though, unless there’s some sort of agreement that all show trial accusations will be limited to war crimes, the slippery slope will eventually rise up P.I.L. style and bite the accuser on the ass. Even if the accuser ain’t themselves rich. The music industry is lousy with monied Spidermen and call outs predicated on not being appropriately upfront about one’s family’s tax bracket will inevitably be leveled against someone near and dear, I flippin’ promise you. Label owners, managers, best friends and lovers in every level of the industry have (or are) bad dads. Even many of the artists we all think of as relatively pure or noble are able to maintain that purity at a certain level of success because they have someone (or someone’s money) cutting throats for them. Those artists aren’t being dishonest. They are just conveniently not asking their managers or labels or bookers what they get up to once the artist leaves the room. And we haven’t even gotten to the people who own a majority of the music sites (a topic for another essay written by someone smarter than I). I mean, if this is the start of a mass purging, that’s one thing. I guess go for it. My background is solidly middle class so I won’t get sent to the DIY gulags till the DIY guillotines are well rusty with the blood of my enemies (and more than a few friends… but they had a good run I figure). But this focus on artists first (especially the ones foolish enough to be POC and/or LGBQT, thus being held to higher revolutionary standards) rubs me all sorts of wrong ways. Ignoring the systemic inequality prevalent within the entire music industry in favor of pulling down a mid-level musician a week is just reifying celebrities as mass distraction, even in the negative. It’s stanning sideways.

I (obviously) don’t have a pat answer. I don’t think either unsubstantiated conspiracy posts nor glib cynicism of the “lol you didn’t know art is the playground of the rich? You rube. You utter child.” variety are particularly healthy starting points for critique. As in many things, I know what bothers me but I also don’t know what a healthy starting point looks like. So I retreat to the Wipers song, “Well, there's no solution/No, I don't see none/ I'm gonna wait for revolution to come.” Were you to point out that It’s the waiting part that’s so convenient for so many, including myself, I wouldn’t have a response.

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