Ruin Porn Re-Recorded

Outdoor concerts get real.
Outdoor concerts get real. // Creative Commons

“Listen.” Think that at once it is a command, a plea and a hush. Wonder, too, at the strange absence of worthy synonyms. Hear? Heed? Harken? No. Listen. To what, though? To harmony.

While most radio stations inaugurated “Blurred Lines” as the default darling of the season, I couldn’t choose one anthem. To start the summer, I worked at an “international arts gathering” in my Midwest heartland. Brochure-speak aside, it was just a local music festival -— a humdrum soundtrack to a humdrum home. As a strip mall’s musical equivalent, each night was innocuous enough, with the entirety nothing short of artless. By the end the summer, I trekked to Lollapalooza in Chicago. Three days, over one hundred bands, over one hundred thousand people. Somewhere in the middle of the summer, sitting on my bed, reading Zadie Smith and licking a spoon of hummus, my mother opened the door without a knock. Not unusual. Then, Hermes’ message fluttered to the bed sheet: an official, if passive aggressive letter, dictating our immediate move from Saline to West Bloomfield.

I scanned and found the bolded D-Day. August 2nd. In the narrative of my summer, the first day of Lollapalooza. Oscar Wilde once declared that life imitates art far more than the reverse. With that adage in mind, I romanticized the coincidence accordingly. Oh, Lolla! Leitmotif of my life! Joycean slap of a period on an unfinished sentence! Cookie-cutter climax to my trashy paperback existence! It was Stranger Than Fiction.

 

FEARFUL SYMMETRY

With German Romantics as my guides, I wound myself into wayward Weltschmerz. Predictably, I retreated to the familiar “why me?” of adolescence. The usual resentment I harbored for my small town became nostalgia. Yale, with its relative utopia, felt far away. But soon enough, my savior emerged. His name was Andrew Moore. A photographer based in New York, his work captured the decay and emptiness of my neighboring Detroit without apology. Empty schools, rusted railways, Dali’s clocks in physical form, warped and surreal. Beyond realism, it was romanticism. Of imperfection. Of filth. Offended townies decried Moore’s work as sensational, “ruin porn.” I was a fan at first glance.

Why limit the concept to pictures? I soon synchronized my media for symmetry. Eminem, with his eight-mile grit, became my favorite poet. Kendrick Lamar, whom I deemed his California counterpart, followed. Bitch, don’t kill my vibe. Stray highlighting of salient words furthered the trend. From The Marriage Plot: “It took courage to let things fall apart so beautifully.” At the ominous end of a New York Times article: “There’s no such thing around here as ‘in case of emergency.’” I cared enough to save the sentences. Repulsion, in paradox, bred attraction. My provincial music festival held a mariachi night (isn’t it a rule that every strip mall have a bad Mexican restaurant?) and I stared with wonder at a Latino man, about five-foot, as he danced with a pigtail-clad woman. She wore pink eye-shadow. He didn’t have a right eye. I cared enough to remember when he called me “sweetie.” The world became my porno, and, religiously, I watched.

End of tape. Glance up, instead, at the blinding clarity of Chicago. For five days, as I stayed with a friend from Yale in Lincoln Park, I played Nick Carroway. Reversing my ruin porn roots, I ogled instead at the complete absence thereof. At material saturation. Back in company, in conversation, I forgot all the dilapidated Dali clocks.

Soon enough, I stopped highlighting.

Climax comes from the Greek for “ladder,” and so, with stunning verisimilitude, Lolla sat atop a hill. I climbed my way up and, reaching the zenith, collapsed into the crowd. The seeming spontaneity of fellow festival-goers followed. Spandex, flower crowns, rainbow shorts. For two hours, it felt like I was set to maximum volume. After that, it felt only like the rest of the world had gone mute.

 

PLANNED PANDEMONIUM

For all its spontaneity, Lolla recycles a calculated chaos. It’s the musical equivalent of a well-rehearsed freestyle, rapped with impressive creativity but never straying from the script. For three days, I watched a familiar scene.  Flower crowns abounded, plumes of smoke swirled, cheeky shorts chafed skinny legs. Stumbling out of a concert, a muscular twenty-something followed me and a friend to the festival’s food court. We debated the burrito-versus-pizza dilemma, and our stalker squeaked, “Can I…have your…?” and then, exhausted, veered to the alcohol tent.  Every scene, every moment, was saturated in kitsch and color. Bikini-clad (yes, bikini-clad) teens wrapped bony arms around their hips, Kodak-ready and waiting. They imagined (I imagine) the caption under the moment, #cantstopwontstop #flowerchild #lolla #chicago #whatever. Or maybe they even imagine being splashed across Teen Vogue’s blog: “Sasha Frederick, 15, from New York, rocks the season’s trends in a tasteful mix of florals and edgy combat boots. Nicely done Sasha!” Wes Anderson, ever the aesthetic perfectionist, would approve.

In the first three minutes of any Woody Allen movie, the audience knows that it’s Woody’s work. Just as most fans of the filmmaker cherish his signature, devoted Lollapalooz-ers treasure the festival’s trademark, its carefully constructed alter to the “alt” lifestyle.

And then, amidst the conformity, I found diversity. As I played Margaret Mead, tribes emerged from behind the trees. Each of the festival’s eight stages have a “sound,” and, with that, a “crowd.” Lolla is large, even relative to other music festivals, and maps only confuse inebriated attendants. Despite each stage’s distinct character, all avoid the cheesiness of genre-trapping. There’s no “folk” stage that sits atop a bed of flowers.

The noted exception, if only to prove the rule, is Perry’s stage, an eager ensemble of incessant electronic energy. Like any badly cooked meal, it proves to be both under and overwhelming. Here, too, the cartoonish conformity of Lolla emerges in Roy Lichtenstein hues. To each beat, we must arm-bob. To each drop, we must head-nod. To each streaking light, we must gawk. Together. Expected eccentricity breeds conventionality. Wave a glo-stick, and – open sesame – welcome to the club. Head to Pitchfork’s website, and you’ll find a frosty critic who decries Perry’s and its counterparts as an example of “the youth culture’s obsession with excess.” Or maybe as “a testament to our generation’s short-term attention span.” But each commentary credits the tent with an undue cerebral relevance – we can opine the ominous death of Twinkies to the American culture, but that doesn’t mean that we should.

On Saturday, I clawed my way to a front-row spot for HAIM. The band, a sister indie rock trio from Los Angeles, had hype. Of the aforementioned Teen Vogue variety, equipped with tumblr-ready Polaroid album covers and flattering Fleetwood Mac comparisons. Only natural, then, for the performance to stumble and fall flat. Enter Este Haim, elder of the three and ruthless leader, creator of the “Este Haim Bass Face” phenomenon, in which the bassist contorts her face with acrobatic ability while rocking out. To the left: Danielle, brooding and leather-laced. And last: gyrating Alaina, the baby and the booty of the bunch. Together, they constituted the cronuts (New York’s latest croissant-doughnut hybrid) of Lollapalooza – idolized but derivative. HAIM convinced me, of our obsession, our adoration for imitation as an end, not merely a mean.

 

HALFWAY HOME

When I waltzed out of Lolla, heaving and mud-slung with euphoria, the festival’s bubble burst. Within minutes of regaining proper cell reception, the call came. Mom, heaving with a different emotion, confirming it – the final click as she locked our front door for the final time. Sayonara, Saline.

Newly nomadic, technically homeless – remember, D-Day had arrived that day – I submitted to a creeping sense of nostalgia. Not for Saline, Michigan but for New Haven, Connecticut. Because somewhere, amidst the sticky Bud Lights and the titian-tinted mud and the ceaseless stream of sparkles at Lolla, I found Yale. Not the dusty WLH part. Or the photogenic Sterling part. But the part that most matters to me. The part where listening breeds conversation.  The part where there aren’t many perks to being a wallflower.

To resurrect my “ruin porn” reference, here’s my point: pornography may be good, but sex is better.

 

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