By Huntress Thompson
When I was an uncouth youth (I am now an uncouth adult), I spent a sizable amount of time lamenting the fact that I didn’t have an older brother or sister. Not only would being a middle child make me instantly more interesting but, as many people who grew up with an older sibling can attest, I would have had a little spirit guide to help me navigate the treacherous landscape of 90s music. This gauntlet was no place for the uninitiated. I was always deeply regretful that I had missed the best parts of grunge and alternative like Nirvana, Alice in Chains, early Pearl Jam and Faith No More, by just a couple of years – I was 10 when Kurt Cobain died, by way of illustration. So by the time I was a little 13 year-old pop culture sponge, there was no one to tell me who I’d have loved, and who had just left the party.
There were all sorts of dangerous things that could befall an inquiring mind by then – post grunge had started, which was such a dark time for us all, and the age of the girl/boyband was upon us. If you claim to have emerged at the end of the millennium without at least one questionable poster on your bedroom wall, I don’t believe you. Most dangerously of all, there was your parents’ taste in music, which might actually make or break your personality. One of my friends’ parents were playing Leonard Cohen, Roy Orbison and The Byrds around the house: rich, darkly poetic, thought-provoking songs. Another of my friends’ parents regularly played Black Sabbath, Cream and Iron Maiden. At the other end of the spectrum, my dad was a DJ at night, and like most Indian dads at the time, he was fiercely into late 1970s/early 1980s A&R. This is easily the least cool genre of music since music began. Journey, Foreigner, Toto, Dire Straits, Chicago, Nazareth, REO Speedwagon… these bands do boast some accomplished musicians, but Cameron Crowe has nothing on them as ambassadors of The Uncool.
I know how useful older siblings are with music because I am one. I am still that cultural conduit for my younger brother and sister. When my sister was 13, she was listening to Arcade Fire’s first EP, because I gave it to her. When I was 13, I was listening to Hanson. I was listening to Hanson because I liked that you could see them playing their instruments in the Mmmbop video even though they were my age, and because I thought at the time that they had pioneered harmonising, because I’d never heard it before. Do you see what I’m driving at here?
I, like a lot of young music fans in South Africa around the turn of the century, was left to charter my own course across the musical landscape. Radio at this time was petering out its rock and alternative content in favour of the mainstream. Where once we could turn on the radio and have rock songs making up around 1/3 of the playlist (1/2, even, if you counted variations like pop rock), we became grateful to hear one rock song an hour. For example, 5FM DJ Barney Simon (despite having a face like a chewed toffee) hosted a nightly show on a national radio station and played strictly from the dark side of the catalogue every night after 10pm, creating a bastion for the increasingly undernourished alternative community. These fortresses for the weird were steadily eroded, and for some years now the 5FM playlist has been a vacuous dirge of the criminally boring, cultivating a taste in impressionable young listeners for aggressively overproduced, soulless songs (unless you happen to tune in to the only, brazen rock show on the station, which broadcasts for a few hours on Thursday nights only).
For years, I was determined not be cynical about it. I’d give every radio station in the country a chance every time I got into my car (whatever hour of the day that might be), and diligently listened to each one for a minute before switching to the next, just in case I happened to catch the tail end of something provocative, stimulating and brave. I persisted at that fool’s errand until this year, and then gave up and just listened to my own records without hesitation. Here’s why I’m completely fine with most national and major regional radio stations playing dire dregs of shit 24/6, and why you should be fine with it too:
I have faith in pioneers. If you have to earn something, you appreciate it more that if it were given to you. Before it became a cliché, that hipster tendency to claim that you knew about something before everyone else did was a pure, obnoxious, powerful impulse. It meant that you had worked to find out about a band or artist, felt strongly about them and had to tell as many people you could about them – as long as they remembered that you were where they heard ‘em first. That’s what a fan is, surely – liking some music so much that you want to be identified by it, and with it.
I’m not saying that if your parents had good taste in music, you won’t. But if I was surrounded, in my adolescence, by the obscure internet radio stations and healthily-funded alternative local music tv channels that we enjoy today, who did all the hunting for me and presented me with the spoils, it probably wouldn’t have done much to cultivate my need to forage for awesome things. If good music was everywhere, I wouldn’t compulsively tape every little shard I could find on the radio and on tv, lurching out of company and conversation across the room to the record button, compiling piles and piles of mixtape shrapnel to listen to and obsess over long afterwards.
As we learnt in Pleasantville and The Matrix and assorted other existential films with good-looking people, if you grow up thinking everything is a certain way, it really only takes the smallest indication that another way exists to get you questioning and poking at the whole house of cards before it all comes down. If all you hear for ages is shitty, insubstantial noisemakers clamouring for attention over ingenuity, when you hear the Sex Pistols, the foundations of your mind will be shaken and all the termites will come running out. And if you find the Sex Pistols yourself, and learn that epiphanies like that exist and are waiting to reward the inquiring mind, you’ll become a very specific kind of listener. You’ll become a music fan.
I persisted and I ploughed through. I took several wrong turns along the way, and no one pointed them out. And in the absence of an older sibling, I was ultimately guided by the music itself, because the good stuff does find you if you’re open to looking. Bit of self indulgent autobiography: When I was 15, I was at a music festival that brought the Goo Goo Dolls and various other international acts to the pit-stained flea market that my hometown, Durban, was in the 90s. I thought I was the most hardcore 15 year-old in the world. We arrived at 10am so, when the gates opened, we could be front and centre in front of what the concert ads had told me were the biggest rock stars in the world. I believed them, because that’s what being 15 is.
¾ of the way through the line-up, some creaking, badly aged British men in black took the stage – my friends and I had never heard of them. The lead singer joked with the rest of the band about how clear it was that no one in the audience owned any of their records. 15 seconds into She Sells Sanctuary, I was educated. There were layers and there was fuzz and there was a lyricism and harmony to the heaviness that I didn’t understand but I knew I loved. It knocked the wind clean out of me, front and centre in that stadium, and I haven’t stopped hunting down that kick in every song I’ve heard since. By the end of The Cult’s set, we had bruises from battering our bare arms against the iron rails in front of us.
Bad music and mediocrity does numb you, but if the good stuff gets you before it’s too late, it can sucker punch you with good taste and turn you into a hunter. And if you wait, listening, front and centre, there’s probably still time yet.
In the vacuum between dark and light, Siouxsie Sioux and Emmylou Harris, Amelie and Travis Bickle, Huntress Thompson is an idiot lost, and reporting from the field. If you’re after irrational rants about cupcakes and Johnny Cash (and you probably aren’t), she’s grumpy, but she’s your girl.