A Look Back at A Brilliant Mistake

Tsunami band
Somehow the guys are still out in front

Recently, the great historians at Nursing Clio issued a Twitter query: what’s on your feminist playlist? Along with many other Twitterstorians, the chatterers of ToM joined the debate with gusto. Ryan Reft gave a shout-out to Sleater-Kinney’s punk rock classic Dig Me Out and PJ Harvey’s seminal Rid of Me. Lauren MacIvor Thompson gave this writer a welcome blast from the past in citing Mary Chapin Carpenter’s epic anthem of working-class self-empowerment, “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” which I hadn’t heard in years.

I had a tough time picking my own. Patti Smith’s raw, swaggering cover of “Gloria” seemed too obvious, but I couldn’t resist putting it on the list. Ryan had already taken M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes.” Was Foxy Brown’s “I’ll Be” feminist? Maybe?

Then it occurred to me: what about Nineties indie heroes Tsunami? I had loved their final album, 1997’s A Brilliant Mistake, on which Jenny Toomey and Kristin Thomson spoke with ferocious courage about fighting for independence in the music industry.

tsunami a brilliant mistake

So I revisited the record—and the time when it was released. Growing up in a small town in the South, I had to look hard to find indie music. There were hip record stores in Charlotte, which was not too far down the interstate, but even knowing what to seek out was not so easy in a time before Napster, iTunes, or Spotify. Much of my musical education came from reading CMJ magazine and listening to the CD included each month, which featured a platter of tracks by indie artists. Tsunami was one of those fairly obscure acts that I almost definitely would never have sought out without some judicious nudging from the experts at CMJ.

Today A Brilliant Mistake feels like a relic from a lost era, like a novel or a family photograph from a time before a major, unforeseen event that “changed everything,” like World War I or 9/11. In the case of indie rock, that event is Napster. The emergence of file-sharing and digital distribution in its many forms has so transformed the record business that the “bad old” industry of yore seems almost unrecognizable in some ways. (I wrote about the roots of this transformation in my 2013 book Democracy of Sound, which is, appropriately, very easy to pirate online.) There certainly was no belle époque in the music business—as Tsunami never hesitated to remind listeners, things were not great for musicians in the 1990s, even if some artists today decry the economic impact of the new digital model embodied by iTunes and Spotify.

Behold a pale horse
Behold a pale horse

Indeed, Tsunami’s A Brilliant Mistake is practically a manifesto for musical independence at a time when the industry was devoted to scooping up defiant and innovative trends from the underground and defanging them as poppy pablum. These were, after all, the waning days of alt-rock, as young Americans began to take down their Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins posters in exchange for Jay-Z and Squirrel Nut Zippers, and ska and boy bands advanced like conquering armies or locust hordes. The album’s undisputed centerpiece is “Enter Misguided,” about as clear an endorsement of artistic integrity and disdain for commercialism as one can imagine:

Enter misguided
Aspiring mogul
He’s handing me a card
He wants to put out a single
And that’s the way it’s working in a marketplace
If you can talk a better mousetrap,
You’re buying office space.
And the world beats a pathway to your basement door…

Toomey pictures the silver-tongued execs thronging to her “basement door,” but she has more disdain, in a way, for those who are duped than those who do the duping. Indeed, she showers the poseurs and sell-outs—the people who take the deal, and prostitute their vision for empty promises—with a torrent of insults and rhetorical questions:

Is it something in the water, something’s missing in their eyes?
Substituting strategy for content or surprise
A singular obsession with a narrow sort of fame
Though everyone that came before them also had a name
They agree to these concessions before looking once around
and dig at their own pitfalls with gold shovels laid around
like the ends were just so marvelous as to justify a means
that depends upon anemic distillation of extremes

To my young brain, this was fried gold.

Of course, Jenny Toomey knew a thing or two about sleazy A&R reps and office space. For years she had run the spirited indie label Simple Machines out of Arlington, VA, an institution credited with not just providing a platform for Toomey and her friends’ artistic project, but also documenting much of the indie and punk scene in greater DC during the 1990s. (Indeed, one of the best lyrics from A Brilliant Mistake touches on feminism before alighting briefly on her chosen home: “It’s man’s luck to get to play strong but be weak; and it’s a woman’s lot, I gotta play weak but be stronger; it’s a wonder that I ever learned how to speak, and it’s a wonder that I’ve been hanging around here much longer in this small-minded, big-mouthed, well-read but half-dead government town.” Truer words have almost never been sung about Washington, DC, outside, of course, Magnetic Fields’ chipper song about the city.)

In fact, A Brilliant Mistake is a paean to the challenges of running a small label. The album’s moody, melodic opener, “The Old Grey Mare,” ends with a defiant call to listeners and, presumably other artists, “Don’t go drown in a shallow pool. We’ve got so much work for you!” Not partisans of the anarcho-punk spirit of “Fuck Work,” Toomey and Thomson instead subscribe to the more Protestant strains of punk culture that prizes integrity – meaning, a refusal to succumb to any control by capital-C capitalists, rather like Fugazi. They sing about labor. They want you to help in the cultural work of creating a utopian alternative to the despicable mainstream music industry that slathered the airwaves with Sugar Ray the same summer A Brilliant Mistake came out.  As Toomey asks, “In all this perfection, who’s gonna make a brilliant mistake?”

Fellow indie heroes Yo La Tengo were once described by a critic as “principled fuck-ups,” and the label seems to fit Tsunami well. While a lot of the band’s music may not sound like punk rock, it does boast an almost Puritan commitment to a producerist vision of aesthetic and economic integrity that is deeply punk. As Toomey sings on “Great Mimes,” interpolating Allen Ginsberg to vivid effect, “I’ve seen the best minds of my generation drowning in their best designer medications, perfecting a dedication to a lazy fix!” The fix could be Prozac or Ritalin or just the gossamer promises of a record label executive.

The best minds of my generation, and some of the other ones too
The best minds of my generation, and some of the other ones too

Indeed, the rip-roaring and righteous “Great Mimes” was the feminist song I thought to include on my list. But I gave it a second thought. The band’s proud, almost hortatory self-image as being above commercialism feels weirdly discordant in the musical world of the twenty-first century. The music industry may suck as much now as ever, or more so, but the practical difficulties an artist like Jenny Toomey or Ani DiFranco faced in getting her music out—setting up a proper record label, pressing records, somehow getting them distributed—do not seem as palpably real in a time of YouTube sensations. And in a world where physical album sales have tanked and even digital sales—which allow listeners to “unbundle” records and buy only the songs they want—have slumped, fans seem to be more understanding of artists making money any way they can. Indeed, the devilish old charge of “selling out” seems antique to contemporary ears.  When Papas Fritas or M.I.A. have a song in car or gum commercial, I do not think so many scenesters turn up their nose in disdain.

For my part, I always felt like fretting about “authenticity” was a losing game for artists, and this seems to be the case now more than ever. Just because something is popular or commercially successful doesn’t make it bad—look at the Beatles. Were they inauthentic? (Or as Jude Law’s character said in the underappreciated 2004 film I Heart Huckabees, “How am I not myself?”) This line of thought can get out of control, of course, in what I like to call the Bon Jovi Theory of Music: New Jersey’s finest can fill Madison Square Garden—he must be good!

The must have fashion accessory for this Fall's neo-Marxist
The must have fashion accessory for this Fall’s neo-Marxist

Indeed, as fellow DC-area punk icon and veteran Marxist bomb-thrower Ian Svenonius pointed out in his book The Psychic Soviet, punk has always had a perverse logic about success. To be real, an artist has to toil in obscurity; to become popular and earn a good living, one almost axiomatically has to compromise their vision, “selling out.” It is, he pointed, an anti-success ethos, as the music’s anyone-can-do-it, DIY attitude changes the relationship between listeners and artists from one of consumer-producer to one of producer-producer:

The quest for fame was inverted, whereby something was less valuable by virtue of its notoriety, creating a lose/lose situation. The audience was transformed from consumers into competitors, whose conceit was often that they could do just as well as the poseur on stage.

In Svenonius’s view, the plucky indie label has to not succeed—and the righteousness of Toomey and Thomson’s own struggle, as narrated on A Brilliant Mistake, fits his analysis of punk’s ascetic culture like a glove. As Thomson sings on “Double Shift,” “Is this all we get for going against the grain? Is this all it’s got to be? All I want is time… It’s not a job that pays, keeping the machine parts aligned… Can you blame me for feeling unsteady?”

Making music on your own terms is more than a full-time job—especially when you work for yourself. It’s like the inverse of Flight of the Conchords’ hilarious comment on living the life of an indie musician: “When you’re unemployed, there’s no vacation.”

Indeed, as Svenonius would be the first to note, the indie record label is, in the end, just a small business. This is where Tsunami’s message on A Brilliant Mistake—basically the Sgt. Pepper of small business management—seems so remote today. With Bandcamp, GarageBand, iTunes, Spotify and so many other ways for musicians to record and distribute their music, the old world of duplicitous record execs wielding sexy contracts and Tower Music, Clear Channel, and Target zealously guarding access to the narrow channels that once reached listeners on radio and in retail feels very far away. The problems of musicians remain today—notably, Toomey moved on to defending the rights of artists as head of the Future of Music Coalition—but in many ways they differ from the ones that Tsunami narrated on their ode to exhaustion, “Double Shift.”

Pop culture is arguably more open than ever before at a time when bands can build careers on YouTube or Spotify, even if a new elite of digital capitalists at Pandora or Google may reap many of the benefits. Artists as loopy and creative as Das Racist or Chance the Rapper can make mixtape masterpieces like Shut Up, Dude or Acid Rap, mix up samples with abandon, and get their music to millions of listeners with the push of a button. Notably, DR’s only proper label album, Relax, was notably less interesting than the several “tapes” that preceded it. Maybe Tsunami was right about not selling out after all.