Rethinking the Replacements: The Production of Cultural Memory in the Aughts

Here come Dick, he’s wearing a skirt
Here comes Jane, y’know she’s sporting a chain
Same hair, revolution
Same build, evolution
Tomorrow who’s gonna fuss

— “Androgynous,” The Replacements, Let It Be

But the people are here to see us tonight. The fucking Replacements. The fucking ‘Mats.

– Tommy Stinson of the Replacements (aka the ‘Mats).

After a possibly apocryphal scene in 2002’s 24 Hour Party People, Manchester music scene self-described “genius” Tony Wilson (played by Steve Coogan) turns to the camera and quotes the late John Ford: “When you have to choose between the truth and the legend, print the legend.” Of course, it hardly merits attention that what we hold as our history is in part constructed from a collective selected memory. In many ways postmodernism represented this fact theoretically and aesthetically. No linear narratives, no teleology, just webs of associations constructed by a collective subconscious. Marxists will tell you this is simply the superstructure and the base and that popular culture in large part serves as an expression of the ruling classes. The cultural reproduction of “simulacra” (I know this word is terrible, basically stuff we copy) requires us to reach back into history to reproduce a style, a product, a look, that somehow seems relevant today which says very little about what it meant in its period of origin.

In this way, society simply reproduces this reproduction, which in turn colors our understanding of history as it becomes based on a cultural reproduction of a cultural reproduction taken out of context. Frederick Jameson argues something along these lines (albeit in far greater complexity and nuance) in his 1984 work Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. While one does not have to agree with Professor Jameson in the implications of mass cultural reproduction, its hard to argue with the fact that how much one sees, hears, or encounters something, whether it be a product, legend, or idea, influences their reaction to it, for better and worse. Thus, our cultural memory remains dependent on the production of coolness by cultural critics, fans, and others that will shape our memory of music in the future, not necessarily reflecting what most people found most entertaining or interesting and in some cases, crafting images or representations that ignore other critical facets.

Late in 2002, bassist Dee Dee Ramone of the Ramones died of a heroin overdose. The same year, several months before, Ratt guitarist Robin Crosby died from AIDS related complications. Social critic-hipster Chuck Klosterman pointed out the incongruence between the popularity of each musician and the public response. Ratt enjoyed massive album sales throughout much of the 1980s, while the Ramones, as anyone who saw their documentary The End of the Century (2003) will tell you, slogged it out making a profitable but hardly meteoric existence. (The eternal counter to this seems to be “everyone who bought a Ramones album started a band, painted a picture” and so forth. How one quantifies this remains the rub.) However, Dee Dee Ramone’s memory was eulogized and the Ramones held up as symbol of all that is good. As for Crosby, nothing. Klosterman summarized this discrepancy succinctly: “What the parallel deaths of Ramone and Crosby prove is that it really doesn’t matter what you do artistically, nor does it matter how many people like what you create; what matters is who likes what you do artistically and what liking that art is supposed to say about who you are.”

To a large extent, Klosterman has something here. Klosterman wrote Fargo Rock City, a book that basically justified the importance of hair metal and growing up in the Dakotas, so his biases are noted, but clearly who writes about what is good and its reflection on your character matters more historically than what most people of the time considered good. Considering the increasingly fragmented music scene, efforts to state the importance of one’s band and its memory carries with it greater and greater importance. Moreover, as the boomers tight-fisted grip of mass culture – take for example — car commercials featuring Grizzly Bear’s “Two Weeks” or Phoenix’s “1901” — weakens and Generation X comes into maturity, these cultural battles over popular memory will manifest themselves through fictional and documentary renderings of bands and musicians.

For example, Julian Temple directed The Great Rock N’ Roll Swindle (1980), a “mockumentary” about the Sex Pistols that depicted the band as little more than performance art, manipulated for fame and profit by the auter Malcolm McLaren. Twenty years later, the remaining members of the band rejoined Temple to film the documentary The Filth and the Fury (2000), a direct response to McLaren’s claims. The Filth and the Fury portrayed the band as a unique set of personalities that McLaren manipulated only into hating each other. Their success and failure laid at the feet of the five (Glen Matlock was the original bassist) Pistols. Which one will carry the day? It’d be a pretty safe bet to say the latter. The Filth and the Fury stands head and shoulders above Swindle in both production values and watchability. Moreover, John Lydon’s persistence as a musician with P.I.L. and his general social gadfly sensibilities have enabled him to deepen the Pistols’ credibility through appearances on MTV’s long defunct 120 minutes and other venues. This reverence for the band grows when the aforementioned 24 Hour Party People has Tony Wilson attending a sparsely witnessed Sex Pistols show, turning to the camera commenting on the Manchester show’s earth shattering importance. Though the audience consisted of 42 people, it included members of Joy Division (later to be New Order), the Buzzcocks, and other luminaries of the future Manchester scene. The 2006 movie Control, a biopic of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis also references the June 4, 1976 performance as turning point in his life/music career.

Both Control and 24 Hour Party People serve as attempts by their creators to institutionalize or legitimize the memories of their respective scene and the bands within them, and the fact they reference the same show illustrates Klosterman’s point. Both movies use the Sex Pistols as a sign of how cool they were, how visionary. As of 2003, the Sex Pistols’ one album, Never Mind the Bullocks Here’s the Sex Pistols failed to even reach 500,000 sold. While certainly not insignificant, hundreds of bands have sold more and played important roles to those people who enjoyed them as musical score to their lived experiences. So Shouldn’t those bands be at least as celebrated as their more critically acclaimed counterparts? I mean, Peter Frampton and Frampton Comes Alive sold millions and enjoyed a brief revival when VH1 featured Frampton in an episode of Behind the Music, followed by an appearance on the Simpsons.

The Filth and the Fury opens to mid-late 1970s England, a dire place indeed–failed by the Labor Party, cold, miserable, and as guitarist Steve Jones notes “everyone was on the dole.” England’s social upheavals manifested themselves musically through bands like the Pistols and a little bit later the Clash (one could add Don Lett’s 2000 Clash documentary Westway to the World as well, though the Clash can claim several platinum albums). Thus, the Sex Pistols come to symbolize more than just a band, they symbolize opposition to failed institutions, a kind of dissent.

How many people engaged in that dissent at the time? Not that many, though admittedly members of Souisixe and the Banshees, Billy Idol, and Sean McGowan (off and on lead singer of the Pogues) were active and appear in the movie. Malcolm McLaren profited getting labels to sign the Pistols for large sums of money, then dropping them due to bad or boorish behavior, not record sales. So the depth of this symbolic dissent seems less than what its been made out to be. Moreover, this privileging of experience as the ultimate test of truth has been questioned by historians Joan Scott and Regina Kunzell; experience and the memory remain a force mediated by numerous factors that often preclude it from absolute truth (if such an entity even exists).

This brings us to the American example. In a recent Sound Opinions NPR podcast (12/27/2009), lead singer of Minneapolis-via-Brooklyn band the Hold Steady, Craig Finn told Chicago music critics Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis that if he had to pick a “desert island disc,” it would be the Replacements’ 1984 classic Let It Be, with the signature song being the opening track “I Will Dare.” This parallels well with the English example. Like the Replacements, the Hold Steady, though wildly popular with critics and hipsters, sold only 122,000 records of their first three albums combined; like Russia’s Third Rome theory, Finn’s comment connects his band to the mythical underselling ‘Mats.

Regionally the Replacements identified as a Minneapolis band coming out of the same ether as Husker Du. Drummer Chris Mar’s first solo album Horseshoes and Hand Grenades featured a song called “Popular Creeps” — essentially a mea culpa that admitted the band behaved like a bunch of douchebags. Allegedly one of the great American live bands, a Replacements show ranged from sheer brilliance to absolute abomination; legend has it they once played the same cover song repeatedly for 90 minutes. “It’s like we won’t try to purposely mess up,” lead singer Paul Westerberg said. “But there are some songs we’d rather just wing … And sometimes we’re going for a big kamikaze thing. I’d rather have them hating our guts in some circumstances , so they can at least go “Who the fuck was that band?”

Henceforth the Replacements have been celebrated for this unpredictability, even if it meant a subpar show (if you don’t believe me see Rolling Stone’s online “rock encyclopedia”). That bands like Poison have made nearly identical comments when asked about their music and look makes one think. Before you dismiss Poison’s opinion, consider the fact that former lead singer Brett Michaels squeezed out three seasons of Rock of Love on VH1 and that Poison brutally outsold the Replacements. Michaels’s ability to remain in the public eye, even as a joke has helped as well. When was the last time you heard from Paul Westerberg — Cameron Crowe’s mid-1990s film Singles? The closest the Replacements come is Tommy Stinson (former bassist), who now plays for Axl Rose’s fake Guns N’ Roses outfit.

As with the Sex Pistols, fans and admirers present the band as an antidote to the period. For the ‘Mats 1980s Reagan America served as their playground. Their entire act has been framed as some sort of conscious/unconscious response to yuppies, greed, and 1980s ambition. Michael Azerrad’s Our Band could Be Your Life: Scenes From the American Underground, 1981-1991 (2001) identified the ‘Mats ambitious slogan as “straight to the middle.” Drunk, abrasive, and occasionally hostile to the audience — how else do you describe playing an entire show of covers for an audience that paid to see original work — the Replacements even got themselves banned from Saturday Night Live after an infamously drunken performance. Big Star’s Alex Chilton –- a hero of the Replacements, and the creative force behind another band whose influence far outstripped its sales — reminisced about the time and place that gave rise to the band: “I’ll always be thankful in the middle of Reaganomics, for Minneapolis. It was just one of those places, just like New Orleans used to be, and maybe still is, and like the East Village was in the 1970s. It seemed like the whole town was one of the few places in America where a person like me could be themselves, and not be hauled up on charges.”

This of course is a very attractive story.  (Their video for “Bastards of the Young,” both the video and the lyrics have become for better and worse broadly symbolic of the band itself.) Four guys from working class Catholic Minneapolis backgrounds hacking it out, creating some of the decade’s most memorable music, influencing the Hold Steadys of the future. Inebriated, angry, frustrated, funny, and unambitious, the Replacements push back against everything Reagan America purported to care about. Still, this narrative ignores more fascinating aspects of the Replacements’ music and worldview. They were more than drunks who like giving the middle finger to the establishment, the East Coast, and on occasion their audience. Songs like “Androgynous” (quoted at the top) explore sexual identities and the heteronormative forces that flatten them in culture as eventually “Dick is wearing pants” and “Jane is wearing a dress.” However, the narrator envisions a future where “kewpie dolls and urinal stalls will be laughed at the way you’re laughed at now.” What about “We’re Comin’ Out,” in which Westerberg repeats the song title interspersing it with lines like “one more warning/ one more warning sound” or the opening, “One more chance to do it all wrong/One more chance to get all wrong/one more night to do it all wrong” followed by the repeated chorus of “we’re coming out!”? Then there’s “Sixteen Blue,” whose theme of sexual confusion comes through clearly:

Brag about things you don’t understand
A girl and a woman, a boy and a man
Everything is sexually vague [an awkward phase?]
Now you’re wondering to yourself
If you might be gay

Let It Be served as a coherent attempt by the Replacements to address sexual ambiguity and confusion. Even the aforementioned opening track, “I Will Dare,” describes a clandestine meeting between two people that certainly could be describing a secret rendezvous between possibly gay lovers:

Oh, meet me anyplace or anywhere or anytime
Now I don’t care, meet me tonight
If you will dare, I might dare

Considering the homophobia of the 1980s (certainly it persists today as well), the use of the term “dare” suggests that the meeting presented some sort of risk (and yes there is reference to a wide difference in age between the alleged couple but no gender is ever assigned, meaning it could be a younger man with an older one or a younger woman with an older lady). The album explores the strange sexual dynamics that unfolded in the 1980s, but few people, critics and fans alike, tease this out, chalking it up to teen angst or working class rebellion. The seminal track “Unsatisfied,” often interpreted as the clarion call of frustrated youth, might be the cry of an individual frustrated over sexual confusion, forced to hide their true sexuality. Let It Be stands as a testment to not only political and economic protest against Reagan’s America but also the sexual oppression that fewer observers seem to address. That’s not to say later albums ignored such topics completely. For example, Westerberg watched with a cool detachment as bands like Poison paraded across major FM radio stations while indie bands languished on college rock stations. Take the following lyrics to “Left of the Dial,” off of Tim:

Weary voice that’s laughin’, on the radio once
We sounded drunk, never made it on
Passin’ through and it’s late, the station started to fade
Picked another one up in the very next state
On and on and on and on
What side are you on?
On and on and on and on and…
Pretty girl keep growin’ up, playin’ make-up, wearin’ guitar
Growin’ old in a bar, ya grow old in a bar
Headed out to San Francisco, definitely not L.A.
Didn’t mention your name, didn’t mention your name
And if I don’t see ya, in a long, long while
I’ll try to find you
Left of the dial

Sure, the song’s definitely about college radio and its emergence in the 1980s as space for indie rock and post punk, but what about “Pretty girl keep growin up/playin’ make up/wearin’ guitar” followed later by “Headed out to San Francisco, definitely not L.A./Didn’t mention your name, didn’t mention your name”? Again, the sexual ambiguities of the 1980s emerge. Even the title “Left of the Dial.” Left equals communist. Communist equals gay. San Francisco is full of “left” though probably so is L.A. Considering Let It Be’s overt display of sexual confusion,the idea that later attempts might engage similar themes but more as sub text also makes sense.

One needs to remember President Reagan’s role in the AIDS epidemic and the rising consciousness of gay and transgender communities, why do some many ignore this aspect of the band? Probably, because it fails to conform to the myth that has grown around the Mats; talking about nervous heterosexuality rather than nervous homosexuality remains a more accessible way in for many people and fans. Bob Stinson (the band’s original guitarist) frequently donned dresses for live performances, but no one ever presents it as his comment on gender or sexuality, usually ascribing this idiosyncrasy to Bob’s drinking or drug use. So the Replacements, a band that definitely grasped irony, failed to see the irony of a band featuring a male guitarist wearing a dress playing songs with titles like “We’re Coming Out” and “Androgynous” in Reagan America? Unlikely.

When Alex Cummings notes that we celebrate the 1990s more for its triumphant market economy rather than its “gloomy counterculture,” he’s right, for now. The “aughts” have become the reclamation ground for Generation X’s cultural touchstones, what meant something to creative types in advertising, architecture, social commentary will increasingly influence how we remember these “touchstones.” The cultural production of films, books and oral histories all proliferated in the aughts as fans and devotees attempt to reinforce how THEY want to remember the their adolescence and early adulthood. Perhaps the 2010s will serve as reclamation for earlier decades. What’s pursued for reclamation and what it will mean will be increasingly defined by those who experienced it and feel compelled to put forth the corresponding narrative. Failure to do so will mean exactly what Klosterman suggests, “It is laughable to admit (without irony) that Ratt’s ”I Want a Woman” was your favorite song in 1989; that would mean you were stupid, and that your teenage experience meant nothing, and that you probably had a tragic haircut.”