I was recently asked to find a particular song that captured the zeitgeist of American culture, and in preparing I found myself desperately scouring my mind for a suitable song to write about. While there were a couple groups that I found personally exciting I was concerned with the notion that, despite their music potentially having deeper implications for me personally, they said little about the country as a whole. What I did identify in both of them was a deep seeded desire within myself for a release from enculturation and the normative. So I went along with it and wrote about Crystal Castles and The Residents.
Crystal Castles, by far the most commercially viable of the two, has managed to find a comfortable intersection between dark, ambient noise, the sharp and grainy sounds of 8-bit, with the uptempo beats and melodic flowing of more pop style electronic genres. Its final touch is Alice Glass, an almost childlike and ghostly figure, whose vocals vacillate between primal screaming and brooding yet sonorous dirges. The resulting music is what I have come to view as a somber celebration of a desire for escapism. Crystal Castles’ music invites its listeners to strip themselves of notions of suburban propriety, that subversive social order that masquerades as egalitarianism and open-mindedness yet manages to lock its youth into a system of regimented life. Suburbia does so not by force feeding ideologies but by emphasizing self-serving mores and by slyly frowning upon other opposed values. In essence it is faux-freedom, and Crystal Castles invokes escapism from it through its call to primitive movement. It’s not a call to arms, nor a call to action, just a call to movement.
Unlike many genres of music that are reactionary to the societal system, punk as an example, Crystal Castles has a far more subtle form of rebellion. In fact I would say that it is not the conscious aim of the artists. Rather than a total rejection of the system it takes ownership of the culture from which it is born. By using musical devices that prove reminiscent of the old days, of the days of my generation’s youth, by use of the 8-bit music for example, they are encouraging not an absolute division from society but rather a rebellion through ownership. This is a patently different form of rejection of the norm.
This rejection is most evident when you are present for a live performance. Glass is a truly mesmerizing artist to watch perform. She routinely steps out onto the crowd, screaming her lines with an honest abandon while writhing and pulsating her body. As she careens across the crowd you begin to feel a sense of holy communion. Through her physicality and presentation you experience a break with the enculturation of society, all of it emblematic of the liberated being.
The Residents came to life sometime around the mid-seventies. Very much like punk’s “buck the system” attitude of unpolished sounds and short, brutish songs, The Residents produced music that took America’s commercialization to its extreme. What you had were bizarre, vaudevillesque tunes that promised neither rationality or normalcy as traditionally prescribed by the industry or society. To an extent there were narratives within each song, but the narratives were not in anyway directly recognizable to the comfortably cultured or classed. The Residents were, and still are, a celebration of the absurd.
Like Crystal Castles, the true essence of The Residents is experienced while at live performances. This is where the world is turned upside down and you are presented with an incredibly bizarre yet exhilarating experience. Set against garish props that look like they’ve been plucked off the suburban world’s lawns or dollar store shelves, The Residents perform anonymously in the most brazen and irreverent manner possible. Their performances lie somewhere between concert, theater, and deranged preacher, creating a sort of suburban Bermuda’s Triangle that entraps you with a sense of childish giddiness at seeing all that was held proper being thrown back in your face, without apology.
I suppose that the main attraction of both The Residents and Crystal Castles is what I perceive as an almost subconscious recognition that the societal norm is a prison. The latent message could be the break from enculturation, to release oneself from the demands of proper sociable behavior, and to move about the world freely and without preoccupation. This preoccupation is something that became readily evident to me as I struggled with social anxiety, a state of mind that took everyday concerns to gargantuan levels of immediacy. In such a state the most insignificant daily customs and behaviors that we entertain are suddenly thrust to the forefront of our minds in a horribly debilitating manner. In a tale tailor-made for a horror story, I found myself divested of the natural ability to be human, unwillingly forced to break down its essence into individual components and consider them independently, attempting to understand what was the most normative expression and how to capture it successfully.
This subtle control over our beings is, I believe, the modern world’s dominance over our mental and physical sovereignty. In a way social anxiety, and depression, can be viewed as the only normal response to a patently irrational and arbitrary system. True, as human beings we have certain characteristics that are derived apart from the constructs of humanity and civilization. Simple things like movement and social interactions are largely habituated responses that have come about over time, becoming reinforced through our continued social interactions. To that extent we can assume them to be normative. But many other aspects of our lives are governed not by what might be considered normal, from an evolutionary standpoint, but what we as a group have come to term “normal” within the guidelines of civilization. And while one might not immediately be punished by society for moving from the norm, it has become so ingrained in who we are as individuals that we end up battering ourselves mercilessly for any infraction. In an unfortunate turn of events the system has turned us into our own worst enemy. We are in effect keeping ourselves in line.
So I suppose both bands have become representative of my desire to break away from the America that I know: subtly regimented, psychically stifling, impossibly proper. Through their music I am able to explore a more free side of myself, even if only vicariously, as if I have been too conditioned, I imagine, to allow myself the freedom to explore the world on my own terms. I also imagine that my attraction to the absurd has less to do with it somehow being more “true” to the nature of the world, but more of an extreme reaction in the face of such a standardized world. I guess that in some odd way I see both Crystal Castles and The Residents as a celebration of the deconstruction of the American way of life.