The Shield Around the K (1999) - PopMatters Film Review )

by j. serpico


The Mayor of Olympia, or, a Study in Calvinism

Late 20th-century pop music was arguably irrevocably changed by the late 1980’s-early 1990’s emergence of the Seattle, Washington grunge/punk explosion. But the town of Olympia — a little further south of Seattle — was also largely responsible for the national proliferation of bands who merged punk, pop, and DIY aesthetics into new, exciting conflagrations.

Olympia had a thriving music scene, cozy college-town vibe, and two tiny record label start-ups — K Records and kill rock stars — all of which provided for a hothouse atmosphere, rife with inspirations, co-operative visions, and built-in enthusiastic audiences. K Records and kill rock stars eagerly nurtured budding and wanna-be musicians and artists, all fortunately and mutually in search of artistic fulfillment and self-expression with little or no interest in financial rewards or profits.

cover art

The Shield Around the K

Director: Heather Rose Dominic

(Northstar Films)

The recently released video documentary, The Shield Around the K, seeks both to describe and define the unique position the Olympia music scene has carved out for itself in the past two decades. The video’s cover box art — with its K Records insignia placed on top of a road atlas of Olympia — immediately positions the documentary’s subject as vital and central to any cultural understanding and appreciation of the region. The title itself refers literally to the insignia’s design, while also alluding to the video’s apparent intentions; for this video work is first and foremost a declaration of the importance of the K Records dynasty, and the need to recognize this fact in any comprehensive analysis or historicization of the states of American music in the 1980s and ‘90s.

I do not use the term “fact” loosely; rather, my intent is to describe just what I believe to be the ambitions behind The Shield Around the K. Consider its basic narrative design. There is a minimum of background information given in the film’s introductory moments. Instead, we are shown raw, grainy footage of a tall, white guy on a stage showering the crowd with candy. This would be Calvin. The history of K Records then begins…

As is often the case with recent U.S.-made documentaries — and lamentably so, I might add — The Shield is structured in an extremely straight-ahead fashion, as a series of talking-head interviews. These sequences are occasionally spliced with music videos whose purpose seems to be to illuminate, and thereby serve as further proof of, the ongoing direct-address assertions. Such an approach typically seems a “documentation” in the literal sense, a visual documenting of verbal evidence or opinion. And just so, Dominic’s film would seem to chronicle a specific, important moment in time and the man who seems to be at its center. This story appears to require no more proof than footage of Calvin on a stage before a mass of people, various friends and members of the Olympia scene, all shot in a mode that recalls a form of personal testimony, along with some interview footage, where Calvin Johnson himself speaks at the camera.

Aside from Johnson, the video’s premiere talking-head is Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye, who opens up the video by recalling for the unseen interviewer (who is occasionally heard in whispering monosyllables), the first time he met Calvin Johnson, founder and leader of K Records. MacKaye tells his story casually, so that it appears unrehearsed and is relayed without introduction or contextualization. There is no attempt on his part or that of the interviewer (it’s unclear whether Dominic herself is that interviewer) to explain why his tale is significant, either within the world of the video or without. Rather, the point seems to be that, with this prominent figure in the non-mainstream music industry, the film has established immediately, the relevance of those who know Calvin and the significance that this familiarity implies.

Following MacKaye down the talking-head trail are Calvin’s various former bandmates, as well as music critics, studio engineers, Olympia insiders, and fellow label magnates. The bulk of these interviews delineates each speaker’s memories and impressions of Calvin. These are largely musical, personal, meta-historical, and incessantly celebratory: everyone loves Calvin. Yes, there is one nasty, sarcastic critic, whose skeptical comments run counter to everyone else’s ongoing accolades. Yet, the disbursement of his statements, which appear randomly throughout the video, has the effect of trivializing his views, situating him within the tiny space allowed for the token dissenter.

The majority of the video’s interviewees are male, and they all do seem to know, or have known, Calvin intimately for quite some time. This all-male intimacy further locates the video’s story within a cozy, loving environment of mutual admiration and acknowledgment which at times veers towards sentimental overload, particularly when a studio engineer recalls Calvin’s behavior after an intense recording session: “He put his guitar down and rode off into the sunset. It was so cowboy-heroic.” Such “insider” atmosphere precludes any form of critical analysis directed at K Records, the music it produces, or the scene it nurtures. Rather, the video’s function would seem to be the creation of a mythical figure by the name of Calvin Johnson, or as one friend coins him, “the mayor of Olympia.”

But Mr. Johnson does not exist in a vacuum. The friends and cohorts who surround him are also toiling away towards a greater philosophical and musical purpose. There are several segments allocated for Slim Moon, co-founder of kill rock stars, the other Olympia label, also known for its seminal bands and considered by many fans of the Olympia music scene as the foundation for the riot grrrl movement. But Slim’s usefulness here is determined mainly by his relationship to Calvin, and other details are simply not germane in a video that reads as more of a biography of Calvin than of a musical movement. kill rock stars is referred to only as a caption under the face of Slim Moon, valued not for itself, but for its relation to Calvin and K.

Midway through the film, Calvin and several others recall the first International Pop Underground Festival in 1991. Calvin remembers that the festival’s development and organization were easy and relaxed, but then his little-seen co-founder Candace Pederson appears (for the first time and halfway through the video) on camera, recounting the inordinate amount of work and stress the festival entailed. Candace doesn’t talk about the musical revolution and how fun it was, but rather, how much struggle and care it took. While the revolution is being staged, the dishes still need to be washed.

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