Yeah so I’m a day late, a buck short, etc, apologies to all those awaiting the chance to question my taste in the comment section, I’m a dink, let’s move on.
Let me start by telling you what Denver, CO’s Cop Circles‘s new EP is. It is an impeccably produced imitation of 80’s cop show soundtracks, like the incidental music from Miami Vice or Hawaii 5-0, or at least how VH1’s nostalgia programming led me to expect the music from those shows to sound. Apart from the first tune which is a bit of a dud (a note to songwriters with a sarcastic streak: I know we “millenials” love a bit of meta-irony, but there must be a more interesting angle on it than a “bro-down”), the music is seriously catchy and the arrangements are fucking smart. I’m the kind of guy who likes music he can climb around inside of, view each vista from each high vantage if you get me, and Cop Circle’s best tunes (particularly track two, “Waiting for Fun”) feel like riding backseat as a small child on a dizzying drive back and forth across neon-streaked speed-blurred highways, looking frantically out the window for familiar shapes on the skyline, out-of-state license plates on the road, and the occasional flaming wreck on the shoulder. Luke Leavitt, Cop Circle’s nom de mundane, is a guy who knows a goddamned thing or two about pop hooks, and his pleasingly creaky and off-kilter vocal delivery sails in somewhere between Ryan Olcott and Mike Dirnt (shut up Mike, we all know it was you). This ain’t a production gimmick or a hollow satire – this is pop music, and damn fine pop music at that.
That said, there are aspects of it that raise troubling questions. Leavitt was kind enough to contact us directly, saving me the trouble of a google trawl (happy birthday Debussy!), and in his e-mail which, sorry bud, gonna have to quote here, he described his music as “tak[ing] R’n’B and old-school R’n’B seriously but deliver[ing] it punk/performance art style.” A concise description and accurate in its own way, but possessed of many interesting (and most likely unintended) implications.
The apologetic tone is what struck me at first. Why the need to say that he “takes R’n’B seriously” rather than simply to say that he is influenced by R’n’B? Listening to the tunes themselves, I can’t help wondering what exactly is meant by R’n’B here – the sound more closely resembles the early-80’s synth pop that seemed to emerge naturally out of the new computer-rhythm technology as a toadstool out of a mossy stump, and lacks the sinewy sexuality of R’n’B stars of the 80s like Rick James or New Edition – though I s’pose these days R’n’B is different from R&B is different from rhythm and blues… Anyway the way these influences are invoked is not unlike a salesman coughing the number of miles on a pre-owned car. It could be because the aesthetic smacks slightly of Tim & Eric’s absurdist fetishization of VHS-era technology, and shares that sense of humor (“We are going out tonight, we’re gonna have some fun/We’re gonna see all our friends and kiss them one by one”) while perhaps not wanting to be defined by it. Maybe its an attempt to avoid the aura of cultural appropriation that could be inadvertently invoked through the mention of R’n’B, a genre rooted in African-American culture that did not see acceptance (by the market or the moralists) until it was sanitized by juvenile British speed-freaks. Or it could just be that R’n’B in the style that inspires Cop Circles is uncool, kitschy, retro, too much so to be appreciated on its own terms by the refined minds of our generation; taking it seriously, then, becomes sort of an act of defiance (nevermind that we as teenagers established the commercial viability of 80s revivalism through the Killers, the Bravery, et al in the first place).
Which leads us into the subordinate clause, “but delivered punk/performance art style.” The identity of punk and performance art is interesting, and I imagine it’s true, punk having molted so many times since its inception and yet remaining (for many of us wanderers) the heaviest emptiness in the subcultural solar system. But again we see Leavitt trying to cope with a pertinent problematic: if the justification for the R’n’B sound that is, by implication, the substance of the music, why would that be justified by the superficial, that is stylistic, association with punk? This isn’t a question of whether I think there’s anything “punk” about Cop Circles’ music – he lists Suicide as a reference point, so clearly Leavitt knows that synth music and punk were never entirely separate – but it does raise interesting questions about our generation’s conception of “performance art,” the most pertinent being, where exactly can we locate the “performance?” One may at first be tempted by the lyrics, which mostly take the form of deadpan recitations of young folks’ leisure activities, and it’s not possible to be unaware of the aesthetic distance between the dark, dry vocal performance and the warm pastel smears of the instruments. Then again, history shows us that synth pop of the sort recalled by Cop Circles has from the beginning embraced this very discord, and I give Cop Circles much more credit than that. It could be the implied performance of nostalgia for an era never actually experienced – no one of “our” generation can truly be said to have lived through the 80’s, but the decade’s aesthetics of excess and techno-grotesquerie have a firm grip on our collective imagination (see the aforementioned Tim & Eric, the soundtrack to Drive, etc). This is probably because, as surely dozens of crotchety baby-boomer pundits have mentioned before, we see echoes of the 80’s Wall Street culture in the chaos that envelopes our world (or at any rate our northwestern quadrant of it) today, the lack of regulation giving rise to a Wild West-style free-for-all among the business elite, the yawning disparity between the wealthy and less-so, the all-encompassing obsession with hi-tech gadgets designed to replace our brains. Then again, from what I can hear Cop Circles is never so crass as to comment on this directly, and why should he be? None of us need to be told that to be a young adult today is insane and overwhelming, and my throat remains unruptured by any message that may be present in Cowtwwn.
Jesus what a fucking minefield! This is where the performance is for me – the internet, the technology that, like it or not, entirely defines our so-called generation, has allowed kids like us to not only access literally any era of recent history, but experience it – any movie, any TV show, book, song, music video, all of the objects, cultural or aesthetic or technological or otherwise, are available to us to be appropriated, reconfigured, reinterpreted, as we see fit. But that’s not news to anyone. The problem is, despite or perhaps because of this incredible gift we’ve been given, we’re still caught in an exaggerated version of the culture cycle that draws and redraws the lines of what is “cool” (read: acceptable) with unprecedented rapidity. We have a greater variety of cultural elements with which to construct unique identities than anyone before us, and naturally that makes a lot of us afraid. It’s hard enough to weather the feeling of uncool-ness when you miss the reference to last week’s Girls, imagine what it’s like if last week’s hip TV suddenly becomes all of fucking cultural history. This is where we get words like “hipster:” it’s now easier than ever to opt out of the cultural mainstream, and the best way we Americans know how to prevent that is shame. Shame on you for being interested in something other than what the Greater We prescribe! Subculture, of course, is not immune to this ridiculous, which is what creates the sort of problem that Cop Circles tried to address in his e-mail. What with deviance being so easy and appealing to achieve, the tendency now is to reconfigure, to draw constellations on history in your own image. In a perfect world there wouldn’t be any fear of presenting this image to the whole big sky, but this is our world we’re living in, and now every symbol has its apologies that need to be made for it. “Sorry to those who think my taste is uncool, but it’s okay because I’m only performing it!” Don’t these fools know that all culture is a performance?
What I’m trying to say is, Luke, you have nothing to apologize for. You’re a fantastically talented artist with a clear and intriguing vision. Not that you ever believed otherwise, of course; your music is far too confident for that, game or no game. Everyone go buy the Cowtwwn EP right now; I want to see Cop Circles on tour and hear for myself whether I’m not totally full of shit.