PLAY MORE MUSIC
The earnest San Francisco industrial-rap band Consolidated have thrust their politics upon the world with a missionary zeal; and like most missionaries, they try so hard to do good that it hurts. The trio of Adam Sherburne, Philip Steir, and Mark Pistel strike the most radical of poses, but their politics, a mushy brand of left-liberal multiculturalism (they’re against “rising hatred,” firmly in favor of “hope”), are less radical than they think. They’re a bit more radical about their vegetarianism, and spend as much time worrying about the rights of cows and fish as they do about the rest of us. I don’t know if they’ve done any of their causes any good, but there’s no question that their do-good impulses have wreaked havoc on their, um, art. The press release accompanying Consolidated’s new album, Play More Music, describes the band as “the unrelenting voice of an enraged generation.” Unrelenting is right. To hear them go on about it you’d almost think they invented political music, that they were the most politically correct trio of white males since Marx, Engels, and Lenin; to read the press release accompanying their new album (not to mention the lyrics), you’d think Play More Music was the most important radical statement since Port Huron. The music itself–combining an industrial beat with some of the infectious enthusiasm of hip-hop–isn’t half bad, if you like that sort of thing. (I do.) If you tune out the lyrics and Adam Sherburne’s painful rapping, you can even dance to it. That, of course, is the last thing Consolidated would ever want; they seem annoyed that anyone could regard their music as fun.
Having engaged in more than my share of self-righteousness in the past, I’m pretty tolerant when I run across others indulging this particular frailty. But on their new album (as in the past) Consolidated overstep even my flexible boundaries; the utter vacuousness of their textbook radicalism makes me wince. Sherburne’s lyrics are incoherent, awkward, sometimes little more than a conglomeration of politically correct concerns tossed together without regard for logic or even much of a rhyme scheme–e.g. “Men rape women and man rapes the environment / And people with opposed religious views are violent.” Many of the band’s songs are more self-indulgent than self-aware, more narcissistic than revolutionary. In “This Is a Collective,” one of their early songs, the band explained at length that they really weren’t a band at all, but a democratic collective. (Excuse me for asking, but WHO CARES?)
Listening to Consolidated is painful enough, but seeing them in concert is about as enticing as a spell in a reeducation camp–or, for that matter, a high school civics class. When I saw them at Metro several winters ago, the band interrupted the concert for 15 minutes of “open” discussion. Sounds good, right? As it turned out, this part of the show was a painful and oddly authoritarian exercise: Consolidated gave the microphone to audience members to express their opinions but quickly took it back whenever opinions deviated too far right (or left) of their line–the discussion was about as open as a Pentagon press conference. Consolidated also stopped the music to show the audience short clips taken off TV–nothing very sophisticated, just segments from the nightly news. The band obviously think that Americans are too lazy to read the papers, but do they think we are so bereft of political gumption that we need to rely on them to turn on the TV?
Their new album, Play More Music, elevates this kind of aggravation, perfected in concert, to an aesthetic principle. It’s excruciating, interminable; it took me several attempts to make it all the way through the album in one sitting, and even now I can only listen to it in small chunks. Consolidated have always been a band at war with themselves, almost ashamed to be presenting their listeners with anything as mundane as mere music. The band take their aesthetic cues from the ascetic Marxism of Theodor Adorno, and seem to think not only that pleasure and politics are antithetical, but that ultimately politics are more important. It’s an inversion of the old Emma Goldman slogan: If I can dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution–an odd philosophy, particularly if you’re a dance band.
The members of Consolidated have somehow absorbed the notion that politics have to be humorless to be good for you, and that it is their duty to make the listening experience about as much fun as a spoonful of castor oil. Each song is packed full of factoids and jargon, “radical” cant, and plain bad writing. Swallow this if you can: “We did unity in 91 / It’s just begun / Until the battle is won / Your work is never done / In all their writings / Carol Adams and Marty Kheel / Discuss how it feels / When you’re made to kneel and deal / With the common oppression / Of women and the animals.” Run that by me again? (Even better, don’t.) Sherburne doesn’t even attempt to make his lyrics appealing–his job is just to get the message out. There’s no need for subtlety in the language or even in the message itself (the band has previously declared itself opposed to “deceptively complex” explanations of the world). Consolidated apparently hope that sincerity is all they need, that their own political virtues will be so evident that their audience will simply take their “knowledge” on faith, and will tolerate a great deal of pomposity along the way.
The album, it is true, has its moments. “Guerrillas in the Mist,” a reaction to the Rodney King beating and the “hate that Gates made,” is an often powerful track, mainly when Sherburne shuts up and hands the mike over to guest rapper Paris. (Most of the album’s better moments, not coincidentally, come when Sherburne is silent.) The most, er, memorable track is undoubtedly “You Suck,” featuring vocals by the Yeastie Girls, a four-minute plea (well, more than a plea) for cunnilingus-on-demand as a basic women’s right. The Yeasties deserve some credit for taking rap to new territories–for example, “You tell me it’s gross to suck on my yeast infection / How do you think I feel when I gag on your erection?” (It’s funny, more or less, but I can’t imagine that the Yeasties have a long career ahead of them.) Unfortunately, the good moments on the album are fleeting, and the bad moments are much more than momentary.
As on their last album, the band intersperse the music on Play More Music with snippets from the 15-minute discussion sessions at their concerts: it’s a war between pop and agitprop. A few of the comments are bizarre right-wing outbursts–not everyone in their audience shares Consolidated’s politics–but most of the comments are plaintive pleas to, well, play more music: “This isn’t a fucking press conference–play some music,” “I didn’t pay 15 bucks to listen to CNN.” The band display these comments proudly, wearing the frustration of their fans like a badge of honor. The band, of course, do get around to playing more music, but we’re supposed to feel bad for wanting anything so frivolous. “How about this?” a Consolidated spokesman tells a fan begging for another song, “you be quiet and we’ll play more music.”
It’s not that the members of Consolidated are incapable of humor–they’re just opposed to it. Their first big song, back in 1990, was the infectious and often funny “Dysfunctional Relationship,” a takeoff on television talk show psychobabble and self-help, but even then the humor was curbed by a certain self-righteousness. The musical montage, “Industry Corporate,” on the new album is a sometimes amusing poke at the band’s own hypocrisy, quoting at length from audience members angered by the group’s overpriced tickets and T-shirts; the band’s response to this criticism (also quoted at length) is notably, and often humorously, weak. These days even their humor is, well, humorless. They display their own hypocrisies dutifully, with the guilty conscience of Maoist self-criticism. (Q: How many Consolidated members does it take to screw in a light bulb? A: That’s NOT FUNNY!)
If Consolidated’s lyrics display a powerful suspicion of pleasure, musically the message is more complex and contradictory. The sound of industrial music is sometimes described as “fascist”–it’s dark, ominous, and relentless. Consolidated’s music–sampled, synthesized, and set to a jackhammer hip-hop beat–is not quite industrial, but it owes as much to the totalitarian aesthetic of industrial music as it does to rap; their sound is often suffocating. It’s an oddly and ironically appropriate backdrop to the band’s quasi-totalitarian top-down “radicalism.” But (adding irony to irony) the music makes at least a nod to the possibility of pleasure–you CAN dance to it!–which is a bit of a relief on an album devoted to the denial of fun.
There is something terribly frustrating about all this. What, after all, is wrong with pleasure? Political art doesn’t have to be as grim and humorless as socialist realism; it shouldn’t be. Critic Edmund Wilson once advised writers not to conduct their careers “under the impression that one is operating a bombing-plane. On the one hand, imaginary bombs kill no actual enemies; and, on the other, the development of a war psychology prevents one’s real work from having value.” Yep. But you don’t need Edmund Wilson to tell you that–just dig out a few old punk records, like, say, X-Ray Spex’s “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!,” an inventive three-minute rebuttal to the oppressions of the world that is far more effective (and much more exuberant) than anything Consolidated have ever attempted. Consolidated could even learn a lesson or two from someone they actually thank in the album’s credits–their friend and fellow San Franciscan Jello Biafra, who for years made brilliantly political (and funny) music with his band the Dead Kennedys–“Let’s Lynch the Landlord” was a particular favorite of mine–and who now travels the country giving political speeches like a punked-out Noam Chomsky. Biafra is pretty earnest, but he’s also marvelously entertaining, a terrific storyteller. His politics are as much of a mixed bag as Consolidated’s, but I’d vote for him in an instant; I know, at the very least, he’d make the world a much more interesting place. But I can’t imagine living in a world run by the commissars of Consolidated: their vision of utopia is dull, pinched, repressive; we’d probably have to recite their lyrics over and over like the Pledge of Allegiance. Play More Music gives radical politics a bad name.