Atari Teenage Riot
"Let's hear it for America." As soon as the words seep through the teeth of A.R.E. Weapons' Brain McPeck, the kid in you wonders: Will he think I'm cool if I go ahead and assert my patriotism? Gloom-disco karaoke is thumping in the background, Space Invaders trills are laser-beaming through your aural cavities, and this überhipster has you so fired up about the red, white, and blue that you're prepared to...I dunno. Hawk your dancing shoes at Saddam's statue? Support the troops with your new camouflage tube top? Too many options, and not enough American Spirits to smoke while you're pondering them. So, instead, you tune in to McPeck's voice for an answer. It's a cracking, screeching, rumbling rally cry, like a pack of 13-year-old boys belting out the national anthem from the street corner. And that's when you realize: Maybe the best thing you can do for your country is to just listen to it sing.
At Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty shrieks punk rock. The only French chick endorsed by our government gave us the liberty-spike Mohawk, the Crass logo, and one of the greatest Descendents tracks of all time. As Yancey Strickler noted in these pages, A.R.E. Weapons' art-punk masterpiece "Don't Be Scared" extends Lady Liberty's famous welcome, offering "an open-armed invitation to the tired, the wired, the poor, the posh, the lame, the hip." But maybe it's simpler than that: To A.R.E., catering to the underdog isn't necessarily a form of populism or inclusiveness, it's a way to prove that New York is still Home of the Wretched. Even if the state of punk is being debated by the mainstream, McPeck reminds you that the misfit progeny of Dee Dee Ramone and Richard Hell are still the force behind its capital city.
The arcade junkies on St. Marks Place, the youth gone wild on Avenue C (or "Avenue Crazy")--they're all the Big Apple of McPeck's eye. Shouting through Gotham's back alleys, the dude squawks like a motivational speaker for Williamsburg slackers. "People think you're a loser, a drug abuser, 'cuz you like to get high/That's all right, mama/So do I!" he insists reassuringly on "Don't Be Scared." "People think you're a spaz just because you're a spaz. So what? Spaz on, spaz!" According to Brain (not Brian--it's Brain, like what dyslexic hottie Jordan Catalano used to call egghead Krakow on My So-Called Life), it's also cool to be a scuz, a jerk, a nerd, a sleaze, a retard. So give him your pregnant girls, your street gangs, your speed freaks, your meatheads, your prom queens, your athletes, your student council veeps. Send these, the outcasts and the in-crowd, to him, and watch them sing "Kids in America" together.
Forget the tired and the poor: Teenagers are the nation's biggest outsiders. They've got no right to vote, no representation in Congress, and no First Amendment rights whose exercise won't get them barred from Gilmore Girls-viewing for a month. Democracy doesn't exist for high schoolers, so what little power kids win for themselves is wielded against one another. McPeck, less than a decade away from being a teenager himself, remembers this, and he speaks their language.
Listen closely to "Don't Be Scared." Even as McPeck sings, "People think you're wrong, kid/But take it from me, you're doing all right," you have to wonder: If you're really doing all right, why does everyone think you're a spaz, a loser, a jerk, a sleaze? And how does this guy, who's been gracing Vice mag fashion spreads and running around with Chloë Sevigny, know that it's cool to be uncool? Like angel-skinned Dawson's Creek extras in a Clearasil commercial, all staring at that one tiny spot on your face, McPeck wins each follower by convincing him that everyone else thinks he's weird. Which leaves McPeck, the empathetic spaz, as their hero. It's the only true way to crown yourself king of the freaks: Convince all the fake-ID card carriers that they're losers just like you, and that that's okay--sometimes the losers are better than the cool kids.
The problem with art that's made "for the kids" is that the kids don't pay attention to it. For the underaged, music is a fantasy of no authority, a world of immortal protagonists who are free to smoke up, make out, and talk back, just like all the emancipated minors they see on MTV. And just as the NC-17 rating of Larry Clark's cult classic Kids prevented most people under voting age from watching it, A.R.E. Weapons' debut on U.K. indie Rough Trade kept it from being sold in that sanctuary from adults, the mall.
But perhaps it's better for older brothers and sisters to share the album with their younger siblings anyway. For the adults in A.R.E. Weapons, "the kids" are a cipher of missed chances, an opportunity to relive--or relieve themselves of--the lives they led when they were younger. Discussing his album with Melbourne, Australia's The Age, McPeck once noted: "You realize that you're, like, 27 years old and you've written this fucking, like, sort of like teen punk-opera or something. But, like, y'know, it's not like we're pretending to be those kids, it's kinda like, y'know, everything you've pent up and absorbed over the last 10 years that, like, ends up coming out."
Maybe all great music is also a way of resolving your youth. In a New Yorker article a few years back, Nick Hornby wrote about Radiohead: "You have to work at albums like Kid A. You have to sit at home night after night and give yourself over to the paranoid millennial atmosphere as you try to decipher elliptical snatches of lyrics and puzzle out how the titles might refer to the songs. In other words, you have to be 16."
I would argue that you can't be 16 to appreciate A.R.E. Weapons--you have to be 30 going on 16. The album ticks with the pacemaker pulse of adult life. Nightclub beats blast from the beater car stereo you listen to on the way to your techie job. Disco disintegrates into the sludgy, synth-wash aftermath of new wave--the sound of real-life nostalgia turning into a retro fetish. Repetitive electro gadget wankery expresses the malaise of a mechanistic, grown-up world. And it's that soundtrack to adulthood that helps you appreciate A.R.E.'s sophomoric lyrics. When McPeck sings, "Don't be scared, be cool," you'll want to leave the résumés unsent and the bills unpaid and spend the entire week bedroom-bound with a four-track, practicing shout-outs in front of the mirror. You'll find yourself remembering a time when you were so obsessive about devoting yourself to a particular album that you'd never buy more than one at a time, when you'd play that album over and over again until you knew the lyrics by heart. (Or until Mom came in and unplugged the speakers.)
Jim Carroll once asked in a review of Kids, "At what point, and by what experience, do we adults find ourselves so insulated by the artifice and purblind world-weariness of society that we not only lose the vision and freedom of youth--and, admittedly, its recklessness and misjudgments--but, further, find ourselves so fearful of youth and its particular subcultures?" Good question. One day you're just suddenly older, looking back, and thinking in the portentous words of Casper from Kids: "Jesus Christ, what happened?"
That's when you should slip A.R.E. Weapons into your CD player and let McPeck and his cronies make you long to be young, dumb, and not so numb. Somewhere between the video game bloops, the garage-band-practice guitars, and McPeck's manchild howl, there's a teenage riot for a new generation of punk. Let's hear it--for America.
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