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No Expectations 008: The Catalyst
'How to Make a Scene,'Måneskin’s whole deal, and the best band, Bonny Doon.
Thanks for reading. As always, you can expect a fresh newsletter from No Expectations straight to your email each Thursday at 9am cst / 10am est. Subscribe, share and tell a friend, you know the drill.
I had a few deadlines this week, which is great (I’m sure I will talk about them all in a future newsletter), but I came down with a cold for the first time in a long while (not great). So, if anything looks off here, please let me know. As always if you’re an editor seeking to hire a freelance writer for an assignment or a full-time position, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
What makes a good music community?
Living in Chicago is the best. I’ve been here since 2009, I have no plans to move, and I could see this city being where I end up for the rest of my life. The reasons why this place rules and the reasons I stay are manifold but one sizable factor is its music scene. Writer Devon Chodzin had me thinking about this when he posted a prompt on Twitter the other day that asked, “What does a city need to have a good music scene?” I responded with the obvious: “cheap rent.” While that’s immensely important, it’s not everything and some really smart replies were even better answers. Chicago guitarist Eli Winter wrote, “A big one—independent venues that program [and] support local artists and other sections of local music infrastructure.” Other folks mentioned motivated bands, record stores, music journalists, and more.
The whole thread is fascinating and it reminded me of a few things: 1). The fact that Chicago, in my estimation, boasts the most exciting and inclusive community and possesses the conditions for a scene to thrive. It’s the best place to be if you’re a working musician for so many reasons. 2). David Byrne basically devotes several sections of his book How Music Works to laying out all the forces that must come together to build a good music scene taken from his experiences being a regular at CBGB during the 1970s. There are many other places you can look for literature on this topic: Devon told me in a DM that he was inspired to tweet from reading David Browne’s 2008 book Goodbye 20th Century: Sonic Youth and the Rise of Alternative Nation as well as work about “24 Hour Cities” from public policy wonk and Philly DJ Michael Fichman. I’ll recommend Will Hermes’ Love Goes to Buildings On Fire.
Basically, good music can obviously come from anywhere but a good music community can’t just happen anywhere right away. Writing in How Music Works, Byrne recalls being asked if what happened at CBGB in the ‘70s felt like being part of something special and he said no, that sometimes you saw great bands and other times you saw bands you hated but were nice people. “We felt like a typical group of artists struggling to survive, as they always have,” he says. Sometimes being in a great music community feels special and other times, it just feels normal, unremarkable, and as it should be. So, I’ve compiled five things that must happen to build a great music scene.
This is the big one. While rents are rising everywhere, it’s still not too bad in Chicago if you know where to look. I still pay $1000 a month for a roomy one-bedroom in North Center. A friend, who is an artist with an album coming out this year, pays $900 for a two-bedroom apartment in Garfield Park. I know musicians in other cities like New York or Los Angeles who pay twice or three times as much and if they don’t, they have multiple roommates. There are arguments for living on the coasts: there’s access to industry and television opportunities and whatever that you can’t easily get in middle America. But, not paying most of your paychecks in rent allows you the free time to pursue your craft. As Byrne puts it, “[it allows you] to live without much income during [your] formative years.” Though I’m not comparing myself to any musician, there is no way I would’ve stayed a journalist or a writer for this long if I didn’t live in a cheap place. That said, inexpensive rent doesn’t make a scene: as much as I love visiting a place like Grand Haven, Michigan, and would save money there, I wouldn’t be able to see bands I like play every night, or at all, and would have to drive at least a half hour to find any marginal underground music community.
Small, independent venues
David Byrne has this as his first bullet point in the “How to Make a Scene” chapter of How Music Works: “there must be a venue that is of appropriate size and location in which to present new material.” In Chicago, there are several places that match these criteria: the Empty Bottle, Sleeping Village, the Hideout, Schubas, Golden Dagger, Subterranean, Beat Kitchen, Hungry Brain, Gman Tavern, and many, many more even bigger spots like Thalia and Metro. PUP’s first show in Chicago was at the Elbo Room while I saw Tyler Childers play Chicago for the first time in 2015 at Burlington Bar in Logan Square. At these places, you can see local talent and touring bands for $20 a ticket without exorbitant fees or having to deal with Ticketmaster/LiveNation. There are several other cities with great smaller venues like Nashville but thanks to unwanted real estate investment and rising rents, several of these gems are going out of business. Independent small venues should be protected and frequented, as long as bands (and the venues’ staff) are paid fairly and treated with respect.
Local arts infrastructure: press, record stores, and places to hang out
Going to shows isn’t enough! You need an active community with places to go buy local records, socialize and talk about local music, read about local music in zines, alt-weeklies, and newspapers, and patronize establishments that employ local artists so they can pay their rent and continue making music. In Chicago, it’s hard to think about the music that would not have been made without places like Rainbo Club or Hungry Brain or Gman Tavern keeping artists employed or at the very least, drunk. As far as music journalism goes, you need people who care enough to write about it but you also need publications who can pay for it. Right now, the only full-time music reporter employed full-time by a local paper is Friend of the Substack Leor Galil at the Chicago Reader. While so many people do excellent work here on a freelance or part-time basis, this city is too big for one full-time music critic (who rules!).
An inclusive and collaborative energy
In the “How to Make a Scene” chapter of How Music Works, Byrne spends a lot of time describing various ways an inclusive and collaborative energy can play out in a music community. He writes about how the owner of CBGB would let artists in for free and comp their drinks, he talks about how it’s important that “social transparency must be encouraged” and “it must be possible to ignore the band when necessary.” Before you get mad at that, he explains, without the rapt audience, “maybe not having to perform under intense scrutiny…is important, even beneficial” resulting in “more natural, haphazardly creative development.” In Chicago, many of the artists here seem generally pretty supportive of one another (even when they don’t love the music). You’ll see a bunch of local bands go on tour with each other, play on each other’s records, or even join each other’s bands. It’s a big scene here but it’s really much smaller than you think.
People who care
This is obvious but arguably the most important.
Greta Di Flotta: Måneskin’s RUSH!
Last week, I ran a Twitter poll about the Epic Records-signed Italian rock band Måneskin. I asked, “Have you listened to or heard of a band called Måneskin?” Of the 729 people who voted, 33.3 percent said no, while a whopping 39.5 percent claimed they’ve heard of them but not listened, leaving the smallest demographic, 27.2 percent, saying they’ve actually checked them out. By most metrics, Måneskin is the most successful young rock band in over a decade. They won 2021 Eurovision, their Four Seasons cover of “Beggin’” has been everywhere not just on TikTok, and is now over 1.2 billion streams on Spotify (the biggest Greta Van Fleet song is at 177 million plays). Their new album RUSH! will likely dethrone SZA on the top albums chart this week, they’ve gotten notable cosigns from rock icons Mick Jagger and Tom Morello, and, finally, are up for Best New Artist at the 2023 Grammys.
Måneskin seems poised to make rock’n’roll popular again or, at the very least, themselves. Outlets have called them “America’s favorite rock band” and have claimed they have “everything a rock ‘n roll band needs: wild glamor, exhilarating style, and unbridled sensuality,” which the latter seems to mean that if you want to be a successful group you should wear gaudy clothes and be publicly horny. Måneskin does both ad nauseam. They are a capital-R Rock band with muscular power chords, anthemic choruses, and singer Damiano David’s unnaturally affected snarl. While it’s easy to see their numbers on streaming, their many television appearances, and their resume as impressive, it’s weird that they do not dominate any of the cultural conversations at least in America. Though Rolling Stone wrote, “Måneskin do feel like the only major-league rock band making any dent in the culture at large,” they provide no evidence they’re making a dent besides racking up streams and television appearances. I admit a 729-person Twitter poll of one guy’s followers is not indicative of a culture, but it is strange that 73 percent said they’ve never listened to them. Even Greta Van Fleet generated a few takes and Twitter discourses despite not being nearly as big as Måneskin.
Some facts to know about Måneskin: they’re incredibly young, all conventionally attractive, and were runners-up in the Italian version of The X Factor in 2017. Their 2021 Eurovision victory was marred with unnecessary controversy when a Swedish journalist accused lead singer Damiano David of doing coke during the ceremony. (He didn’t—a drug test, which he had to take for some reason, cleared him of doing the coke that did not exist). These moments—the X Factor loss and that some guy asked if a self-professed hedonistic rock band was doing drugs—serve as the reasons the four-piece collectively has a chip on their shoulders. “People are so narrow-minded that they can’t see beyond the idea that if we went on Eurovision we must be shit,” bassist De Angelis said in the Guardian. “They can’t listen to our songs with an open mind and judge them based on what they really think.”
When it comes to Eurovision and that bizarre, fake news drug scandal clouding their win, David was apoplectic. On the most aggressive song featured on RUSH! called “Kool Kids,” which either sounds like Idles or Slowthai, David yelps, “Honestly, I don’t give a fuck / I’m addicted to rock’n’roll, yeah” over a driving punk arrangement. “That [was written] three days after Eurovision so our feeling was: ‘Fuck off, we won and everybody has to eat our shit,’” David said in the Guardian. “Before Eurovision we went through a very tough year; everybody was trying to stop us doing this kind of music and doing Eurovision. Nobody believed in us. So we had this feeling of being the underdogs that won.” I really respect that a successful rock band from Italy has note-for-note captured the way American athletes, even when they are clear favorites to win a championship, can effortlessly pull the “no one believed us” card on the media.
Listening to RUSH!, despite some over-the-top moments, you immediately realize it isn’t going to save rock music or revitalize a genre. But Måneskin the band? They’re going to make a lot of money for Sony Record executives and maybe get some Zoomers to wear John Varvatos or whatever. “They are a television phenomenon,” said Andrea Andrei, a journalist with the Rome daily newspaper Il Messaggero in the New York Times. “Without ‘The X Factor’ and the machine behind it that churns out products ready for mainstream success, Maneskin would have struggled for a lot longer, like other rock bands have.” They aren’t the platonic ideal of a rock band, they are Johnny Depp’s platonic ideal of a rock band. If you threw in “rock’n’roll fashion and songs” into one of the shittier AI services, out would come Måneskin.
Måneskin sounds better when singing in their native Italian but many of the songs on RUSH! are in English and totally ridiculous. One song, “Don’t Wanna Sleep,” finds David snarling, “I’m a lion tamer/Of indecent behavior/Making love with danger.” Elsewhere, songs like “Mark Chapman” seem forced “Bla Bla Bla,” with its meta lines like “You said I’m ugly and my band sucks/But I just got a billion streaming song/So kiss my bu-bu-bu–bu-bu-bu-butt” feel like a poor impression of Wet Leg. “We’ve always been very dividing,” David said in the Guardian. “There are a bunch of people that love us and are very proud of what we’re doing, and then there’s a whole other part made of conservatives and traditional rock’n’roll fans and fascists that hate us with everything they’ve got.”
I’m not quite sure which camp I fall into by not loving these songs (I hope I’m not a fascist) but I do know this band, while young, hot, and talented, is totally full of shit. Just be a band! Who cares! “The whole concept of rock music is not conforming to what society would love you to be,” Måneskin’s De Angelis said in the Guardian. “It’s ignoring those made-up rules and being yourself. We don’t think real rock music is about these stereotypes of the sex and drugs and rock’n’roll lifestyle. It’s about expression and creative freedom.” Gimme a break. Måneskin are marketed as non-comformists and sex symbol hedonists but they seem to be making up what they’re rebelling against as they go along. No one’s buying that you don’t believe in “sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll!” There is nothing compelling about the most successful young rock group talking out of their ass about how they subvert the “made-up rules” of society, man. It’s all been done before.
A short note on Beyoncé
It does not matter that she is responsible for some of the best pop music of the 21st century. It’s shameful that she reportedly took $24 million (or $35 million) to play an hour-long set at some hotel in Dubai, a city in a country known for its vast wealth and notorious for its various human rights abuses. Beyoncé is already worth hundreds of millions of dollars, not counting the assets of her billionaire husband Jay Z, so the fact that she’d choose to debut her live show after so many years here is telling. This is someone who so finely tunes her image, makes her collaborators sign NDAs, and runs the tightest ship in pop music—nothing’s leaked and no bad press overtakes the discourse. While this is considerably less evil than say, David Beckham taking $277 million directly from the Qatari government to promote last year’s World Cup, there is no way this trip and the implications that come with it are oversights. She’s spent her entire career pandering to gays and women, to only decide that money is green no matter who it comes from—even if that source is known for suppressing the speech, imprisoning, flogging, and even killing those two specific demographics. This is what the super wealthy do—their politics is having no politics except for whatever cements their already stratospheric position—and the fact that journalists and her fans are eating it up is embarrassing. Nothing will happen. She knows this and that’s why she did it.
What I listened to:
Report: Bonny Doon, Ulna, and Hazel City at The Empty Bottle (1/19)
Bonny Doon is my favorite band. As I wrote a few weeks ago, they’re Michigan Excellence and one of the best examples of that phenomenon. While I’d seen members of the band back up Waxahatchee at Pitchfork Fest in 2021, watching them headline the Bottle this past week was the first time I had caught them playing their own songs since before the pandemic. (I don’t think I’ve missed a Chicago gig of theirs yet). There was something about their first record that truly, deeply moved me back in early 2017—it felt exactly in tune with my tastes and the writing from Bill Lennox and Bobby Colombo was just so spectacular and relatable. I saw their early shows in Chicago, bought them their first Malört shots, and eventually premiered their song “A Lotta Things” the following year at VICE. This is a long-winded way of saying that I’m rooting for these guys and I’m so stoked for the new music they’ve been putting out on their new label ANTI-. They’re great folks, better songwriters, and they deserve it all. Seeing them play a Chicago show with a bunch of my friends, seeing them run through several cuts from that first record, and seeing Kevin Morby and Katie Crutchfield join them onstage for a cover of Silver Jews’ “Random Rules,” was just perfect. I’ve had a lot of perfect nights at the Empty Bottle.
Report: Dazy, Footballhead, and Graham Hunt at Sleeping Village (1/18)
Eagle-eyed readers of No Expectations will probably recognize Dazy from the inaugural blog post that went through my favorite music of 2022. While I received texts from friends about the many bands they discovered on that list, no act I wrote about got more love from people I care about than Dazy. It’s easy to see why: James Goodson’s songs are so immediate, likable, and fun, it’s like he unlocked a new level when it comes to catchy punk music. At Sleeping Village for Tomorrow Never Knows, he headlined a perfectly crafted bill (locals Footballhead and Milwaukee’s Graham Hunt) and ripped through all the hits in under a half hour. He got on a little before 11 and I was home by 11:40. Incredible stuff.
Núria Graham, Cyclamen
Núria Graham is Irish-Catalan songwriter who weaves together intricate and mesmerizing tunes on Cyclamen, her fifth album. There’s a song on there called “The Catalyst” that’s just jaw-dropping. It hits a zone that’s in the same realm as someone like Cate Le Bon but Graham carves her own spot throughout this LP. It’s pop music for the heads.
What I watched:
My girlfriend has been rewatching Lena Dunham’s Girls on HBO Max, which means that I’ve been doing a rewatch of Girls too. It’s fantastic. This is a series that came out in 2013, the year I graduated college and decided to pursue music writing instead of grad school for clinical psychology. I watched it then but I think because it hit so close to what was going on in my life at the time, I wasn’t as nice about it as I should’ve been. (To be clear, I never felt like a “voice of a generation” writing bite-sized music news posts for places like the A.V. Club—I was just happy to be there). Girls really holds up and is much funnier with the distance of being in your 30s now. I made this point to a friend who told me “that’s such a Ray thing to say,” which would’ve bothered me back when the show aired but doesn’t now.
A mea culpa about the Australian Open
So, basically every tennis player I wrote about last week in this newsletter is now out of the Australian Open. I think I may have learned my lesson about trying to tackle tournament sports as unpredictable as tennis in a weekly newsletter. That said, big shouts to Andrey Rublev who took down Holger Rune but couldn’t defeat Novak Djokovic, who will likely win it all again.
What I read:
Chicago icon and XRT radio personality Lin Brehmer died on Sunday after a battle with prostate cancer. He was one of the best to ever do it, a kind and affable person whose passion for music and people was ceaseless and infectious. He’s been with XRT and the face of Chicago music since 1991—the year I was born—and in our brief interactions he was always so friendly, supportive, and curious when he didn’t have to be. Rick Kogan writes his obituary here and it’s beautiful. A devasting loss for Chicago’s arts community.
Trick Mirror, by Jia Tolentino
I read most of this in 2019 but I do know I never got around to finishing it. Jia’s an incredible writer but I probably won’t write in-depth on this one because I may be the last person on my Twitter timeline to get around to this essay collection.