“Cherish Your Memorized Weakness”: The Politics of Pavement

Designed to raise money for AIDS awareness, 2009’s Dark Was the Night featured two discs of music by the likes of indie darlings Grizzly Bear, Feist, Yeasayer, Spoon, and the National, to name a few. Pitchfork critic Scott Plaganhoef reviewed the album positively, but characterized the contributors as representing the “heavy hitters of the NPR wing of indie music.” Notably, the National, arguably one of the most prominent representatives of middle class hipster musical aesthetics, contributed the track “So Far Around the Bend,” in which lead singer Matt Berninger provides a timely shout out to legendary indie rockers Pavement: “You’ve been humming in a daze forever/Praying for Pavement to get back together.”

One year later, Pavement released its greatest hits, and Slate’s Zach Baron announced the end of the Boomer deathgrip on pop culture. “Indie-rock fans shouldn’t act so surprised that their music is in ascendance,” Baron wrote. “People who were into punk rock in 1980 or Pavement in 1993 are all old enough to be pushing the cultural buttons now—working at newspapers, writing for TV, booking musical guests, A&Ring at labels, and, ahem, writing pieces like this one for national magazines. We were bound to knock boomers and their culture off at some point. Why not right now?”

Sixteen years earlier, though, the transition from Boomer to Gen X hegemony was far from complete. Of all Pavement’s records, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain best captures the tensions in early 1990s indie music, giving voice to anxieties about class and race, generation and fame more clearly than any other. For many fans, the 1994 album also represents a sort of sweet spot between the band’s dissonant, lo-fi origins and the more sedate sound of its final two records. The early Pavement was surrealistic, random, tinny; the Pavement of Brighten the Corners and Terror Twilight tended toward softer sounds, more conventional song structures, and even some straightforward lyrics. “The check when it arrived, we went dutch, dutch, dutch, dutch” is somewhat more concrete and understandable than “Lies and betrayals, fruit-covered nails, electricity and lust won’t break the door,” isn’t it?

Apart from the strange and polarizing detour of 1995’s Wowee Zowee, this is more or less the arc of Pavement’s career, and some would say Crooked Rain marked a high point along the way.

Hindsight (hindsound?) being 20/20, the album might have sounded different upon its release in 1994. The production values were higher than on the band’s celebrated debut, Slanted and Enchanted, and the sound was, for the most part, mellower. The band’s sonic palette had expanded to include piano and steel guitar. There was a distinct sense of wistfulness and anxiety about the record, yet lyricist Steve Malkmus retained his reputation for aloofness and sarcasm – SPIN once praised him for cutting through “alt-rock emotionalism like so much pizza dough.”

Of course, one might argue that this lack of emotionality sustained Pavement among ironic, hipster types, while driving the formation of a new offshoot of late 1990s indie rock: Emo. In Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo, SPIN’s Andy Greenwald sets up Pavement as the indie rock straw man for the rising Emo movement. For example, New York rock critic Chris Ryan recounted his own experiences with the band and how it led him directly to Emo. Moving to New York in 1996, Ryan was little more than “another indie rocker clutching his Pavement bootlegs to his chest and looking for whatever was next,” noted Greenwald. (37) Ryan’s experience with Pavement both in the comfort of his own home and live seemed to operate as his musical foundation, especially as Greenwald uses Ryan’s memories to construct a band that seemed to fuel Emo positively and negatively.

For Ryan, indie rock lacked “thematic urgency” and often appeared “emotionally cold.” Evasions by indie rock singers regarding song meanings and the like frustrated fans like Ryan. “I was always an inquisitive music fan …. And always wanted to find out what my favorite songs were about,” noted Ryan. “I would read interviews with [Pavement’s] Stephen Malkmus or [Archers of Loaf’s] Eric Bachmann and they would dismiss the question or say the songs were about Glenn Miller or a Civil War colonel and I’d be like, no! Make it about me! Why can’t you just admit to that.” (37) Even Pavement’s live act left Ryan wanting. Remembering a 1995 show, which drew approximately 800 people, Ryan recalled sparsely attended Emo shows of the same period more fondly: “Now I was seeing shows in someone’s basement with forty other people and it was considered a hugely important event.” (38)

Perhaps Ryan’s most damning critique came when he reconsidered the 1995 show. “The thing about Emo shows is that there seemed to be a complete lack of pretense,” he says. “Not to harp on it, but that Pavement show in ’95, it followed a pattern: the houselights went down, the crowd yelled – it could have been an REO Speedwagon show.” (40) No self respecting indie rock band wanted to be compared with “the Wagon” unironically.

Still, some writers have connected this lack of emotion to the wider ethos of Generation X. Writing this month in the Los Angeles Times, music critic Scott Timberg, “Gen Xers grew up buried in talk about Woodstock, the British Invasion, ‘Happy Days,’ ‘Gilligan’s Island’ and the soundtrack for The Big Chill.” Certainly, one can locate moments on Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain that seem to echo this point. On “Hit the Plane Down” the repeated “Hit the plane down / Hit the plane down / Hit the plane down /There’s no survivors” suggests images of tragic, but clichéd rock n’ roll demise. In “Newark Wilder,” Malkmus shouts, “It’s a brand new era, it feels great, it’s a brand new era but it came too late.” When coupled with the farewell of “Filmore Jive”’s exhausted narrator, “Good night to the rock and roll era, cause they don’t need you anymore,” Pavement’s jaded, ironic sensibilities seem obvious. Irony might be the perfect antidote to boomer self-congratulation and their “earnest” memories of the “revolutionary” 1960s. However, as Timberg points out, it might also go some distance in explaining Pavement’s lack of outward emotion, “Gen X nostalgia, then, is essentially different from the [Boomer] brand, in that it’s private, sub-cultural, instead of the mass-marketed public group hug that marks the boomer version.”

Regardless of the reason, Pavement’s ambivalence about itself and indie rock remained. With a higher profile, a bigger recording budget, and the potential for upward mobility, Pavement looked ahead warily, as can be seen by several key songs. Anyone going to college in 1994 might have related with the opening track, “Silence Kid,” which reminds the title character that, “There’s no one to remind you.” No one to remind you to do your laundry, or to eat your vegetables, perhaps? “This is the city life,” Malkmus sings. “Don’t listen to your grandmother’s advice,” he adds. The portrait seems to be one of a person off on his own for the first time – like a band that’s had its first taste of improbable success, or a college kid who can do what he wants but doesn’t know exactly what to do yet.

In a later track, Malkmus says, in faux bluesman mode, “Hey, you gotta pay your dues before you pay the rent.” The song, “Range Life,” is best known for a trenchant dig at some monsters of alt-rock, but it is actually one of the most plaintive in the Pavement catalog. Malkmus sings of wanting to settle down, skateboarding on summer vacation, and running from “the pigs, the fuzz, the cops, the heat,” a panoply of antique street lingo, probably copped from reruns of Hawaii Five-O. But in the final verse, the bomb drops. “Out on tour with the Smashing Pumpkins, nature kids, I/they don’t have no function,” Malkmus mumbles. “I don’t understand what they mean, and I could really give a fuck. And Stone Temple Pilots, they’re elegant bachelors, they’re foxy to me, are they foxy to you?”

If anything, this lyric seems to convey less Pavement’s disdain for the bands than their own discomfort with attaining the success and status the Pumpkins and STP enjoyed. “I will agree that this is absolutely nothing, nothing more than me,” Malkmus seems to say at the song’s close. “Dreamin’, dream, dream, dream…”

Recently, Malkmus expressed his reticence to recite those critical swipes at Billy Corgan and Pearl Jam lite. “I just didn’t feel like singing those words,” he said. “It seems so dated now. At the time, it was an attempt to be topical, kind of like an ironic rap song and a way to make fun of the whole indie ‘We’re cool, you’re not cool’ thing. But I probably wouldn’t do that now.”

The album’s most famous track, “Cut Your Hair,” also speaks to the faultlines in a rock scene that did not know how to grapple with fame. Although seemingly a joke on 80s hair bands, the song skewers the pretensions of the alternative rock that came along and consigned Motley Crue to the past. Malkmus refers to a band that’s advertising for a player with “looks, chops a must – NO BIG HAIR!” Malkmus exclaims, “I don’t care, I care, I really don’t care!” yet the lyrics are married to one of the catchiest Pavement songs, with a doo-doo-doo chorus that (almost) could have made it to radio. At the end of the song, he seems to say, “Tension [or attention?] it strains a career, careeah, careeah.” For years I thought Malkmus was saying Korea. Is it too much of a stretch to speculate that he was likening the relation between indie and the mainstream to the stalemate that resulted from the Korean War? Yes, it probably is.

Malkmus’s unease with wealth and success came across elsewhere, of course. Arguably the album’s most rocking song, “Unfair” mocks the residents of Beverly Hills, shouting, “Wave your credit card in the air like you just don’t care.” Malkmus sneers at “Range Roving with the cinema stars”; indeed, the hip-hop nod to waving your hands “like you just don’t care” could be as much a jab at gold-plated rap stars as blonde elites in Beverly Hills, or the upper-middle class California stratum from which Malkmus hailed. “It has a nice ring when you laugh at the lowlife opinion,” the song “Gold Soundz” says, half-sarcastically. Malkmus later warily describes a scene populated by punks, “jam kids on their Vespas,” “rockers with long curly locks,” and the “dance faction,” which is, admittedly, “a little too loose for me.” These populist genres of music, emphasizing rhythm, sensuality, and even excess, were regarded by Pavement with a degree of suspicion.

One of the more confounding issues confronting a band like Pavement remains the class and racial blindspots that some have ascribed to indie rock of the last 10-15 years. In October of 2007, New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones took indie rock to the mat for its failure to incorporate more black musical forms:

I’ve spent the past decade wondering why rock and roll, the most miscegenated popular music ever to have existed, underwent a racial re-sorting in the nineteen-nineties. Why did so many white rock bands retreat from the ecstatic singing and intense, voicelike guitar tones of the blues, the heavy African downbeat, and the elaborate showmanship that characterized black music of the mid-twentieth century? These are the volatile elements that launched rock and roll, in the nineteen-fifties, when Elvis Presley stole the world away from Pat Boone and moved popular music from the head to the hips.

In response, Slate‘s Carl Wilson welcomed Frere-Jones’s “provocation” but provided counterarguments for some of the article’s blindspots. Wilson pointed out notably that the New Yorker author chose his musical examples selectively, divorced music too much from larger “social dynamics” at play, and on some level “troublingly [reduced] ‘black music’ to rhythm and sexuality, and to elide the differences between, say, funk, soul, disco, folk-blues, Caribbean, and African influences in white rock.”

However, Wilson acknowledged all was not well in all worlds Pavement. If according to Wilson race wasn’t really the issue, class was. Tying this development to political and economic developments of the 1980s, Wilson suggested that the “‘trouble with indie rock’ may have far more to do with another post-Reagan social shift, one with even less upside than the black-white story, and that’s the widening gap between rich and poor.” Wilson continued, conceding that the Pavements of the world were/are “more blatantly upper-middle class and liberal-arts-college-based, and less self-aware or politicized about it.” A 2008 SPIN interview confirms this accusation, one which apparently even Malkmus cops to. When asked about Pavement’s openly “upper class middle class” orientation, Malkmus answered honestly, “Well, we went to college — we weren’t going to hide it. Mudhoney were deliberately anti-intellectual; Sonic Youth hid it in art damage.” In more recent interviews, Malkmus has elaborated further on this issue. In the March 2010 issue of GQ, Chuck Klosterman interviewed Pavement’s lead singer presenting him with several fan theories on the band, but one in particular zeroed in on this class tension:

Theory Three: Pavement is about class dynamics. Malkmus was raised in the affluent community of Stockton, California, and he could have pursued any life he wanted—yet he chose to pursue an art form that typically represents the disenfranchised underclass. Pavement’s music is about reconciling that class dichotomy.

Malkmus dismissed the theory out of hand. “That’s not true,” he said, recalling Pavement’s time in New York, where “the scene we were in was really—well, at the time, I called it preppy-scum rock. That scene was populated by really rich people—Ivy League millionaire kids who were in punk bands and noise bands.” Malkmus would admit to being the middle class son of an insurance agent, but he pointedly noted, “… we always had jobs.”

Pavement, who bristled at the possibility of being the voice of a jaded generation of middle class college kids, found themselves stuck in an ambivalent pose between obscurity and success, the Baby Boomers and Generation X, and the crisscrossing conflicts of indie rock and popular music. It may be worth recalling that they emerged at a time when the media establishment was chiding the “losers” and “slackers” for their lack of ambition – a cultural moment typified by films like Reality Bites, where the college educated grads have found themselves folding shirts at the GAP. As Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain suggests, they may have been brainy, privileged, and white, but they were also disappointed with the opportunities of their era, which, as Malkmus said, “came too late.”