Girls, “Broken Dreams Club,” released on Broken Dreams Club, November 2010
See this video? This is what modern indie rock has come to.
Pretty painful, no? Christopher Owens, formerly of the band Girls, sips coffee in a dimly lit restaurant and discusses his upcoming solo career. He’s not a celebrity in any real sense of the word — not even seasoned enough to act naturally in front of a camera — but he still comes across with a grossly inflated sense of his own importance, sort-of boasting about how another Girls record would have been the “safe” move for him. It’s an odd choice of words, as Girls was a band that 99.9999% of the public didn’t know existed, and Owens will have the same (if not a higher) level of media attention and festival billing by himself, so it’s not exactly Bill Berry walking away from R.E.M.’s Scrooge McDuck swimming pool or Jonathan Richman killing Modern Lovers when they were potentially on the verge of Cheap Trick-like success. Going solo is actually the “safe” move for Owens, as Girls had gone about as far as Pitchfork was going to take them and they didn’t have much to show for it. When I heard the news about the breakup, I thought, “Oh, he wants to split his relatively meager earnings fewer ways.” And I had more respect for that than I do for his egocentric view that he’s sailing off into uncharted waters because he’s an artiste and in it for the challenge.
And aside from that, he doesn’t have much to say in this interview, does he? “I met a girl at a festival.” And….? I mean, I get it; I conduct interviews and it’s not easy. They’re a weird and awkward form of conversation — you can barely call it conversation, really — and it requires a unique skillset to give a journalist and readership good material. Nevermind the skill and patience it takes to give enough journalists good material to meet the massive amount of content required to sustain so many print and online publications. For most artists, that skillset takes time to develop, and many young ones are thrown into this too soon. Before they extensively work a local scene or modest tours, and hit some smaller media outlets, they’re suddenly expected to be articulate and compelling to audiences the size of Pitchfork’s or Fader’s, and they come off really poorly. Part of what makes that Owens video so uncomfortable to watch is that he seems like he could be a nice guy; he has the gentle mannerisms and body language of many friends I had in my early 20s. He just seems like a young guy who has had smoke blown up his ass for four years and doesn’t know what to do with it.
This “thrown to the wolves” inexperience spills over into the band’s music, which is largely unprofessional, unpolished, and shoddy. I don’t think it’s a case where “loose and raw” is a punk-rock selling point, because the germs of their musical ideas sound bigger than that. Take “Hellhole Ratrace,” the song that broke them. I heard it and thought, “the guy’s got hold of a killer melody and hasn’t figured out what to do with it.” The idea of framing it around Jerry Butler-esque 1950s recording techniques was interesting, if underdeveloped (and he sure doesn’t have Butler’s chops). I thought he needed a tighter edit, and to swap some of the sad-sackisms for genuine gravitas and release. I’m an Oasis agnostic, but Oasis could have taken that melody and made it into the biggest song in the world. They had the vision and charisma (and, sure, budget) to do something great with their melodies, and the people of Girls don’t. Not yet. Instead, Owens is celebrated for the melody alone, which is like getting an award for participation rather than achievement. And this locked them into a cycle of self-satisfied pretentiousness, when real growth should have been blossoming.
So, yeah, they’re an immature band. I’ve reviewed some of their work — giving even-handed pans — and the songs that I’ve praised have been ones like “Broken Dreams Club,” which take that immaturity to the cartoonish extremes that best fit this box they’ve been put in. “There’s still so many people poor,” Owens sings, with the simpering tone of a college freshmen sobbing to his parents that he’s run out of money, “Can’t get my head around these wars / All of the senselessness / I’m feeling so helpless / So many live and die / They don’t even question why / All of their dreams are gone.” I mean, give me a break. The song title, give me a break. Yeah, let’s get fucked up and be sad. But it also kind of works, you know? If you’re going to be precious, be precious. As with early Bright Eyes, the best songs by Owens are the ones that embrace his inner enfant terrible; at least they’re honest, even if they need to strip-mine the most obvious signifiers from country music as shortcuts for easy sentiment.
Conor Oberst is an interesting point of comparison. He was one of the first young indie stars of the Internet, back before the Internet was home to this glut of music sites; his ascendance relied on Napster and message boards chatter moreso than blogs and online magazines. And from the interviews and albums of the time, it still seemed like Oberst had an ego the size of Nebraska. But he also channeled that ego into ambition, and Fevers and Mirrors and Lifted… are both ambitious celebrations of himself. They were wildly pretentious and confident records, but they reveled in it and gave us some art of substance (whether you liked them or not) as a result. Before the current Internet era and music industry, that’s what egotistical young talents did; they got cocky and looked to clear an ever-rising bar. Owens is just continuing with precious, narcissistic, self-deprecating mewing, offering little in the way of substance. And he’s not the only one.
But I hope for the best for Owens, I really do. It’s not his fault he was quickly lifted to wide exposure thanks to the great race for taste-making firsties, or anointed a genius when he really just has some fairly common gifts and (like Justin Vernon) a background story that’s ideal for music-journalism ledes. Owens sells just a few thousand records, tours small rooms, and still goes home, turns on his computer, and can read for days about how brilliant he is. Not even from fans, but people who are paid to write about music. How do you handle the lack of proportion between those two things? Badly is practically the only way.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, emboldened by the success of Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and Tracy McGrady, NBA teams made a frantic rush for talent straight out of high school. For their own “firsties”, so to speak. Unsurprisingly, many of these players didn’t develop their gifts very well (or at all) under the bright lights, their emotional maturity was stunted by the praise and expectations heaped upon them, and the overall product suffered immensely. The NBA corrected this mistake, forced kids onto rookie contracts and to stay in college for a year, and the product improved. There seems to be a similarity between the NBA’s problem and the developmental arc of new bands, particularly in indie rock. I suspect a big paradigm shift of music consumption and journalism is coming, and it will accomplish something similar to the league’s rule changes. The cycle is about to turn, and it feels likely that the system and the bands of 2017 will be drastically different from 2013. Maybe not. I can’t say if the artistic results will be better or worse in a general sense than the current product, but there’ll hopefully be more to it than videos of that sad guy talking about that one time he met a girl at a festival.
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yesterday shoot with CHRISTOPHER OWENS..