Kill Your Idols by S.A. Crary Review
by Patrick Muldowney
It is very difficult to watch The Decline of Western Civilization, Part II: The Metal Years, without feeling more shame and disgust for a genre all of us knew was shameful and disgusting in the first place. The success of that documentary relied very much on the fact that having a bird's eye view of this hedonism would forever change the perception of the musical genre we popularized. For many, The Decline… achieved that end; presenting a very clear break. S.A. Crary's Kill Your Idols provides a similar examination of the popularized New York City Indie scene, albeit more cerebral, which ends up achieving the opposite effect. Audiences will be enlightened and thoroughly confused by this documentary, which requires close analysis of its thematic divisions, and the statements of its subjects.
Kill Your Idols begins with a historical examination of the No Wave genre of music, which began in the early 70s with Suicide. Though they termed themselves "punk", in reference to Lester Bangs' description of Iggy Pop, their refusal to glam out (makeup, heels), and lack of guitars, made them the forerunners of No Wave, which would multiply five years later. Intermixing footage and interviews, Crary provides a foundation for this late 70s explosion, and this foundation was far from level. Lydia Lunch of Teenage Jesus and The Jerks was a runaway who was trying to escape the boredom of Rochester, and Glenn Branca of Theoretical Girls came to NYC to work in theater. Many of the No Wave innovators were not attempting to ride a popular music scene in New York City, because as Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth states, "the opportunity wasn't there." It was a need for expression, not a scene, that created these bands, therefore the "beauty of No Wave was no band sounded like any other (Lunch)."
Crary gets more in-depth during a segment titled "orphans", when every musician of No Wave, as if trained, states that they never considered themselves musicians. In today's world this is humble cliché, but presented with the facts that Arto Lindsay of DNA knew nothing about chords, and Teenage Jesus' longest show was 13 minutes, plus the clips provided by Kill Your Idols, this movement was not created by, or about, musicianship. No Wave was brought together by circumstance, and Lunch reflects that there was, "nothing pleasant about the circumstance."
As you can tell from the preceding paragraphs, Crary has put together such a solid story with Kill Your Idols that it is extremely tempting to retell the entire story like a 5th grader doing a book report. From the No Wave movement, the documentary moves into the early 80s with Sonic Youth and Swans, because they seem to be early evidence of musicians moving into NYC to join the scene. Thurston Moore reminisces about how many of his punk friends "dropped off" because they thought No Wave was just "bad music". No Wave was gone almost as soon as SY and Swans got to NYC, having peaked for less than two years, so used the influence to motivate their music.
It is very disappointing when S.A. Crary moves ahead to 2002. You spend the first half-hour listening to the intelligence and eloquence of Lunch, Branca, Thirlwell, Lindsay, Ranaldo, and Moore, before being suddenly thrust into the voices of the current NYC music scene. Whether it's the arrogance of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who hyped a product before they even had one, or the stupidity of Liars, who look and sound like a band Will Ferrell would create to spoof indie rock, the music (and subsequent scene) seems as diverse sonically, but so much less meaningful. What is most interesting is how easy it is to hate Brain McPeck from A.R.E. Weapons for the similar cheesiness and hedonist attitude as shown in The Decline of Western Civilization…, but he seems more truthful and reflective of the scene, which makes him more redeeming than Karen O. Kill Your Idols proves that style (in fashion and music) is no longer a sign of originality, but it definitely becomes a nice façade for ugliness. Many of the bands circa 2002 credit Sonic Youth and Swans as influential during the documentary, but it seems that anything prior to the 80s is too prehistoric. The only band featured that escapes this criticism is Gogol Bordello, who is staking new ground in a more honest fashion, although not necessarily in the important fashion of its predecessors.
In a world where The Strokes, called a NYC band, became popular worldwide, due to the benefits of capitalism, before any band in NYC had even seen, or heard, of them, Kill Your Idols ends by asking where music will go. Lydia Lunch provides a plea for bands to use instruments other than bass guitar and drums, calling the "homogenization and commoditization" of such moving parts "the downfall of modern music". Thurston Moore proves his genius, even in joking, by saying, "the next thing will be a Yes wave." If you've been listening to new music lately (refer to my review of "Rather Ripped"), you'll know that this interview from 2002 is incredibly accurate today. Yet, other than that bull's eye shot in the dark, even the most intelligent, experienced veterans of music were silent when asked to see into that crystal ball, and that unknown element is the constant hope for music.
Kill Your Idols is a documentary that will spark intelligent conversation about music, and how we can rebel against corporate sponsorship. In fact, I had an hour-long conversation about its implications with my friend, Dave, who had not even seen it yet. It is definitely confusing when Irving is used on a Totino's commercial, and that is basically the only way millions of people have heard a single bar from their album. Ending this confusion begins with what we are willing to swallow, or consume, and Kill Your Idols may be a good start if we don't devour it. My greatest fear is already being realized though, as I've heard "No Wave" erroneously referred to in music circles twice this past month, compared to having never even heard of No Wave before. So let me drop my Moore-like joke out there and predict that the "Yes Wave" will be followed by something called "No Wave", although it will reflect nothing of its obscure beginnings. Gap, Volkswagen, etc., better get their checkbooks ready.
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Kill Your Idols by S.A. Crary
Label:Palm Pictures / Umvd
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