CMJ Music Marathon 2004: Day Three: To Be or Not D.C.: Making a Ruckus in the Nation’s Capital

Q and Not U

Photo: Shawn Brackbill

I think about D.C. a lot these days, but not for the reasons you probably think. Yes, of course D.C. is our nation’s capital in this, the most volatile of election years, and the nuances of its political and social climate have been up for display and critique ever since G.W.B said he was going to Tex-ify the White House. And yes, as a New Yorker I often contemplate what it must be like to live in the other terrorist target. But the issue about the District that gets my political panties most in a bunch is that is D.C. statehood.

For those of you who don’t realize it, the residents of Washington D.C. are disenfranchised on a federal level. That’s right — no congressional representatives and, until 1961, no votes in the Electoral College. Despite their literal steeping in government minutia in their day to day, when the people who live in the District get up in arms about national politics, they have absolutely no one to bitch to.

For me, this paradox of intimate exposure to politics on the one hand and limited channels for feedback on the other helps to contextualize the D.C. showcase I attended on the third night of CMJ. The music on display was a mix of displaced anger and feverish noise, high levels of awareness coupled passionate, almost frantic expression.

Manhunt are a duo of dudes who, before a table filled with electronic gadgetry, pumped out a stupefying array of pumping dance music. The sparse crowd — the Knitting Factory being sticklers on this particular night by not selling tickets early to save space in the venue for headliners Q and Not U — had plenty of space to whoop it up, and they did. The boys onstage were also wild themselves, flailing limbs about to their own rhythm. It’s quite an amazing feat, actually, to see musicians who seem to be doing so little end up so breathless at the end of their set.

But the most interesting thing about Manhunt was not their music — though catchy, it did not strike me as particularly exceptional. No: what was most striking was the puzzle created by watching these hombres dance. By the looks of them, they were hardly your typical danceclub wizards, seeming more Weezer than Timo Maas. In fact, all my years of showgoing have hardened my stereotypes of who even likes to dance, but on this nights those conceptions were severely challenged. Indie boys with thick glasses and girls with Mary Janes and A-line skirts were getting just as jiggy and the raver left overs and hip hop heads. Yes, it seems that, the marriage of dance music and postpunk that was brought forth by acts like The Rapture and Liars has moved from fad to fact, and dance music has not only obtained credibility, but also ubiquity. So much so that hipster types are even willing to dance to straight up dance music, no holds (or moves) barred.

Food For Animals followed, taking the theme of dance to its explosive end. A mixture of raucous rhymes, laptop noise, electrified violins and bass, Food for Animals have a postmodern grit that manically fuses previously disparate musical movements — thrash, electro, rap, etc. all rolled into one. Though their volume at times made it difficult to discern what exactly their songs were about (though I did hear a standard “Fuck George Bush,” as was to be expected) the magnitude of their music was in itself sublime. And I mean sublime in the dictionary way — transcendent and awesome in a way that is nearly frightening.

But like a protest march held in someone’s living room, there seemed to be something just a bit futile about the entire affair. Food For Animals belonged on the steps of the Capitol, not in a smallish rock venue in downtown New York. The confrontation suggested in their sound would have felt much more useful had it had people who had the potential to be offended by it. That’s the problem with music that pushes the margins these days, either musically or politically. Crowds have become so factionalized that there are hardly any boundaries to push. Even in a situation like CMJ — where there are literally hundreds of bands and as a result some jacked-up unions — the vast range of choices means that people can pick and choose what they want to see easily, and if they don’t like it, they can either leave or wait just a few moments and it will be over. CMJ is the indie rock equivalent of cable television, its teeming hoards no more in search of diversity than channel surfers. If you’re lucky, you stumble upon something that might electrify you. But you’re just as likely to spend your time a member of one of the endlessly preached-to choirs.