Where tech aligns

Culture for Pigs

When hating clout and mediocrity betrays an obsession with clout and mediocrity.

The internet was much bigger twenty years ago than it is today. Considering how overwhelming and inescapable “being online” has become since, such a claim seems ludicrous on its face. But this is to confuse size with capacity. The internet today is crowded. It only seems large because the centralizing – or rather, monopolizing – mentality that has taken hold of it lends to it a certain vastness. But it is the vastness of the warehouse store, not of the village in which the older internet took shape. The old internet seemed smaller because we knew less of its scope. It was more closed off. For instance, mass online communication in 2000 was limited to email and AOL Instant Messenger. If you wanted to reach someone on those platforms you needed their address and screen name, which you had to get by asking them personally. If permission to these items was granted to you they felt like precious trinkets, or if you got them secondhand, like valuable intelligence.

This need-to-know basis rule applied well beyond that. Without the simplifications of a YouTube, a Facebook, a Wikipedia, a Reddit, or a Spotify, extra effort was needed to find what you were looking for. For funny videos there was eBaum’s World and Homestar Runner. For music there was CD Now and Napster. For time-killing games there was Newgrounds. For trading memes and more niche companionship there was any number of message boards. For information, however, you were on your own. For the naturally curious but also naturally solitary like myself, at once entranced and uneasy about “cyberspace,” you had to develop a craft for finding what you wanted to know. Or what you wanted to be.

I wanted to be cool. And I wanted to be a part of something. In 1999 I had become punk, or something approaching it. In 2000 I was immersing myself deeper into the local scene. Not that it was easy meshing with its other members. I was embarrassed of showing too much enthusiasm and afraid of asking stupid questions. I wanted to know without having to show my ignorance. Taking to the internet was the best alternative, and something of a gamble, but one that paid off.

The internet circa 2000 was when bands had “official websites” rather than social media pages. Today, it doesn’t take much effort to DM a relatively famous person and even get a response. (God help you if they DM you first.) But emailing a band was a novelty at the time. I took advantage of this more than once. It was to my good fortune that the people on the other end were very gracious, kind, and patient. One such recipient was Ben Weinman of The Dillinger Escape Plan. Dillinger’s members were twenty-five or so minutes away in the Morristown area, but they cultivated an unusual mystique that allowed for only the most basic information to be available. I emailed them – very presumptuously, I admit – about their lyrics. Weinman replied promptly, offering some generalities before providing two links to interviews he thought would be more helpful. One of them was to a site called Buddyhead. I’d never heard of it before, but once I clicked it was the beginning of a very intense, years-long commitment.

Buddyhead, like most web-based cultural enterprises, became popular in a two-step process. Step one was its modest origins. It was created in 1998 by Los Angeles-based photographer Travis Keller to showcase his work, mostly for skateboarders and bands. It soon evolved into doing interviews, record reviews, merch, an internet radio show, and a record label. They did so without trying, or at least seeming as though they were not trying. Step two, then, was its perfect timing.

1998 to 2002 were my high school years. They were, notable exceptions aside, the pinnacle of low-stakes stability and prosperity. At least if you lived in a suburb. Everyone likes to think that their span of high school was the most significant in the history of high school; a sort of decade within a decade. But I think I make no exaggeration for my own span’s uniqueness. Less for any single popular event than because of the abundance of activity. Alternative rock had collapsed. The surviving icons had regressed into some bloated ironic-but-not-really pseudo-glam rock godheadedness. This could be seen in Hole’s Celebrity Skin, Marilyn Manson’s Mechanical Animals, Smashing Pumpkins’ Machina/The Machines of God, Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile, and No Doubt’s Return of Saturn. I’m sure you could make some compelling contrarian cases for some of these albums, but at the time they seemed at once exhausted and desperate. This was responded to with a rapid, and seemingly random, succession of trends: boy bands, pop tarts, pop punk, the emo false start of 2000, the rock revival, the Radiohead revival, the swing revival, nü metal, Coldplay. It turns out that social stability makes for cultural chaos. It became so eclectic that MTV seemed to throw up its hands and give power to the viewers – for a few hours on weekday afternoons anyway. Total Request Live was an annoying but fascinating experiment in toll-free democracy, and it was the last time MTV had any real prestige as a cultural arbiter.

In fact it would be better to say that it was a period of lasts for old media as a whole. Television, magazines, and record labels were running on the fumes of their economic staying power and cultural influence. Napster was not a death blow, exactly, but the panic was genuine, everyone was caught off-guard and a significant shift in influence was taking shape. And this made a last of something else: the David-and-Goliath conflict between indie and mainstream culture. An old conflict Buddyhead gleefully fought using new media.

Buddyhead coincided with the peak of the post-grunge punk underground, the very scene in which I’d found myself, essentially the inflection point between late hardcore and early “indie sleaze.” Any band I listened to at the time, Buddyhead covered or promoted: The Dillinger Escape Plan, Botch, Cave In, Drowningman, The National Acrobat, The Icarus Line, Ink and Dagger, At the Drive-In. Even among the major hip brands like SPIN and Vice there was a dearth of coverage for these passionately followed acts, for which Buddyhead made up the difference. The interviews were not especially deep, being very much in the vein of Arsenio Hall’s casual chumminess spiked with unpredictable doses of irreverence. Their record reviews section was known for its rating system of photos of Axl Rose doing various activities. Their sex advice column was mostly a series of jokes and put-on. They sold a t-shirt that just read “HOMOPHOBIA IS GAY,” while at the same time spray-painting “$uckin’ Dick$” on the side of The Strokes’ tour bus. While playing a SXSW show at a Hard Rock Café, Icarus Line guitarist and Buddyhead cofounder Aaron North broke a case containing a Stevie Ray Vaughn guitar and attempted to play it. I saw it reported on MTV News by a hella stoked Iann Robinson.

The juvenility was very audience-appropriate, but so was its appeal to the sense of injustice at being overlooked coupled with the detached cool of being unacceptable anyway. This was never more passionately expressed than on the site’s erratically updated but always anticipated gossip section. The actual gossip related to the LA scene and the wider music industry – who was getting signed, who was getting dropped, whose ticket sales were slumping, etc. – was trivial compared to the interspersed invective and rants against Buddyhead’s declared enemies, all that were overhyped, inescapable, and appallingly mediocre: Courtney Love, Papa Roach, Dashboard Confessional, The Strokes, Interpol, Alien Ant Farm probably. I believe, but cannot confirm conclusively, that it was Buddyhead who always referred to the White Stripes as the “incest twins.”

But there was no greater foil for Buddyhead’s mockery than Fred Durst. At the time, the Limp Bizkit yeller was at the peak of his fame, and the most overexposed pop musician aside from Britney Spears. As such, he was a routine magnet for mockery and censure. The problem was that that seemed part of his appeal. He had what today is called “meme magic,” where every insult and criticism could be deflected or made to enhance his notoriety while the critics came off poorly. Durst made an easy scapegoat for the chaos of Woodstock ’99, for instance, even though the most intense fires and riots happened the following night during Red Hot Chili Peppers’ set. His macho posturing could send otherwise admirable artists like Trent Reznor into conniption fits that came off more like resentment. Buddyhead chose simply not to take him seriously. Indeed, all the scolding and mudslinging could not compare to the time Keller and North gained access to Durst’s office at Interscope to take a photo with his gold records and steal from his supply of red baseball caps.

I must have visited Buddyhead every day while I was in high school. Unlike most of my generation at the time, this was not about being a part of an online community, but about clarifying a worldview. The provocations validated my resolve to never lower my aesthetic standards or to settle for what was being handed to me by people who, by virtue of their sales figures and marketing budgets, thought they knew what was good for me. Durst was bad not just because he was a vulgar sexist dude rocker, but because he was a savvy businessman building a dude rock fiefdom with protégés like Staind and Puddle of Mudd. The mainstream flooded content into the suburbs as if it was a trough and its residents were pigs. Buddyhead showed us that pigs are capable of making and consuming their own filth.

It was a conviction that lacked nuance, at least in my mind. It drew a stark line between what was good and what was not. It became difficult to find even the faintest merit in something that was popular or had a high Pitchfork score. It meant giving ground in the great conflict against mainstream stupidity and hipster pretension and betraying your own standards. Logically it tracked. You could not say to yourself that The Strokes always followed a lame first single with a strong second single or that Glassjaw’s Worship and Tribute mostly forgave the errors of Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Silence and expect the entire edifice of your philosophical outlook to remain intact. But I did say these things to myself. I constructed a box of guilt in my mind and left them there for years, concealing it with rants about My Chemical Romance or whatever.

I had adopted a bogus stance, rooted in negative territory cordoned off by people whose hatred of clout and mediocrity betrayed an obsession with clout and mediocrity. Buddyhead was less Sub Pop Records and more Check Out This Fucking Hipster or Vice’s “Dos and Don’ts.” I had only myself to blame, though the affectation is not unique and lives on today. The podcasts you are told about, that you must listen to – Red Scare, Chapo Trap House, Cum Town, etc. – carry on the same appeal that so attracted me to Buddyhead: the irreverence, the unflappability, the lack of pretension, the sharp reading of the zeitgeist, the sense of being for the right things and against the wrong things. They are credited for not taking things too seriously, though listening to them implies a certain seriousness, of being tuned in to how society really looks, at least when contrasted against whatever trivial things eat away at the listeners of Pod Save America or The Argument. It’s an urge that seems to ever recycle itself and knows no generational distinction. Though Buddyhead shut down in 2017, it is intent on coming back, and may easily pick up where it left off.

It took many more years of maturity to realize what my mistake really was. I was never going to get on with the others in the scene because we were at cross purposes. They wanted to create a fraternity; I wanted to fill a spiritual void. And I was never going to be cool. What we call “cool” is not attained through acquiring goods but through refining judgment. It is where self-possession and autonomy intersect, something you apply or withdraw as your liberty and sense of responsibility see fit. But confusing coolness with consumption patterns or counter-consumption patterns is a great human failing with no mild remedy. So far as I know, pigs are contentedly oblivious to it, and I am sorry for ever dragging them into this.