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No Expectations 009: See No Evil
RIP Tom Verlaine. I wonder why the internet sucks right now and try to become a horror fan.
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The internet just doesn’t really work anymore
Going online isn’t fun now. I’m not talking about the fact that websites like Twitter can sometimes be a hellish place full of trolls, political disinformation, and antisocial neuroses (though there’s a lot of that!). It’s more that things just don’t work like they used to. Think about the places you frequented 10 years ago. When was the last time you logged into Facebook that wasn’t solely to hate-scroll that one person from high school or gawk at townies’ bad politics? Sure, you might still be active on Instagram but do you truly enjoy that every second post on your main feed is an advertisement or a cute animal Reel? Even Google doesn’t quite do it anymore. If you’re like me, when you search, you have to add a qualifier like “NY Times” or “Reddit” at the end because most of the results seem to be ads or spammy-looking SEO content farms you’ve never heard of.
New York magazine’s Intelligencer had a fascinating take on why just going on Amazon dot com to order something is such a miserable experience. The piece, by John Herrman, sets the stage by explaining how surprisingly fraught it is to buy something as simple as a spatula. “Some of the spatulas you encounter first will carry brand names you’ve heard of before, like KitchenAid or Rubbermaid, while others will have names like IOCBYHZ, BANKKY, or KLAQQED,” he writes noting that all look alike and have similar SEO-friendly product descriptions. “Of the 81 clickable, buyable products on my first page of search results for “spatula” — product listings, banners, and recommendation modules — 29, or more than a third, were some form of ad.” While you’ll order it and it’ll arrive on your doorstep in a couple of days, it’s usually low-quality stuff from third-party sellers who are competing with each other to sell the same products as cheaply as possible all on one website.
As the article notes, Amazon has grown so much from its old mission of just being an online bookseller that it possesses “more market share than its next 14 competitors combined” and has a subscriber-based commerce site of 150 million people. This unchecked growth and expansion mean that things like quality and actual utility for real people become secondary to the growth itself. “If you understand Amazon as an aspiring megascale infrastructure company — a provider of systems, services, capacity, and labor — its junkification makes sense,” writes Herrman. “Amazon hasn’t been acting like a store for a while. In its ideal future, selling things to people is everyone else’s problem. And so is Amazon.” For a company that’s bigger than it’s ever been, it should be shocking that it’s on the heels of a product that seems to be getting worse. But honestly, this feels par for the course everywhere online.
It’s estimated that more than 60 percent of web traffic comes from bots. At one point in the last 10 years, fake bots took up most of YouTube’s views to the point that engineers there worried the site’s built-in fraud detection system would mistake real human activity as bots, a turning point they called The Inversion. “Years of metrics-driven growth, lucrative manipulative systems, and unregulated platform marketplaces, have created an environment where it makes more sense to be fake online — to be disingenuous and cynical, to lie and cheat, to misrepresent and distort — than it does to be real,” writes Max Read in Intelligencer on an article titled How Much of the Internet Is Fake? Turns Out, A Lot Actually. The only things that seem to be real on the internet, Read writes, are advertisements. While Twitter’s issues right now have very little to do with bots, Elon Musk’s cost-cutting measures have resulted in an irrevocably screwed-up algorithm and platform that frequently glitches and is without a support team so celebrities who are hacked continue to phish their unsuspecting fans for over 24 hours without any intervention.
It really feels like everything is in a race to the bottom. The wanton growth of tech companies and their ensuing cost-cutting measures is directly causing the crisis in media right now. As traditional models of journalism fail, tech companies and venture capital swoop in, misunderstand the talent they’re acquiring, use metrics that aren’t even accurate to sell advertisements, and figure out if a journalist is worth retaining. Layoffs are rampant. As cheaper and cheaper labor replaces the veteran, laid-off editorial staff, and when people are paid less and asked to do more, the quality of the work suffers. With cheaper content, arbitrary traffic goals, directives from higher-ups to dumb it down, and fewer resources to pay writers and promote excellent journalism and criticism, the less people will want to read it. So many websites that were once formative for me like Deadspin or central to my own career that sparked my interest in writing like The A.V. Club are shells of their former selves. Both iterations of Gawker (RIP) deserved a lot better.
I don’t really know an alternative to this. The now-obvious “junkification” of the internet has been such a slow but steady decline that it’s hard to notice it happening. I don’t want to spend my time on TikTok, which while immediately entertaining is basically the social media equivalent of vaping nicotine. You’ll feel like shit if you hit it enough times. Even the alternatives that some of the most gullible tech people tout as the future seem dystopian at worst, and useless at best. The Metaverse feels like a place to indulge in your antisocial, anti-human tendencies while AI might actually be a soulless and semi-apocalyptic way to replace workers and functionally eradicate thousands of good jobs. While I do think that the owners will attempt to replace journalists with AI (they already are at Buzzfeed and Cnet) I don’t think it can defeat writing or art or the human spirit. We’ll see though.
The most likely course is that it just keeps declining. The whole online world will be like Amazon or Netflix, the biggest streamer in the world that somehow has nothing truly great to watch and will try to surveil you to make sure you’re not sharing your password. The New York Times recently profiled a small group of precocious zoomers who read Kerouac in parks and solely use flip phones. While they call themselves something cringe like “The Luddite Club,” there is a sense among this tiny group of young people that this isn’t sustainable. Maybe, the internet will fracture. Our social communities are durable and people will form smaller, niche websites to stay in touch and form connections. If you’re using one of the bigger platforms, you’ll be private and only interested in keeping in touch with your immediate circle rather than the entire world. Maybe it’ll all be BeReal and Substack. I don’t know. This is why I mostly write about indie rock.
Scaring myself into loving horror
I’ve come to the realization that the idea of a given horror movie always terrifies me more than the actual film. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve considered myself bad with spooky things: a scaredy-cat, a wimp, a namby-pamby, a coward, and several other descriptors that probably shouldn’t be in a blog that my family and friends read. In my mind, this mostly has never been a bad thing. I know myself and I know that I prefer to not be scared to the point where I might embarrass myself in public. When I was little, I went trick-or-treating, a bigger kid in a pretty convincing Scream outfit jumped out and scared me so I decided I’d rather play video games and stay home on Halloween for the rest of my childhood.
Even though I’d see a trailer for a horror film and it’d haunt me for days, whenever I gathered up the courage to actually watch a scary movie I realized it really wasn’t that bad. The Blair Witch Project was basically a hangout movie until the final scenes. Rosemary’s Baby was definitely terrifying but despite being raised Catholic I wasn’t convinced it could happen. I made it through The Ring as well as The Shining but It (1990 version) made me hate clowns. Finally, 28 Days Later, for its lack of jump scares, post-rock soundtrack, and sneakily beautiful cinematography, became my favorite movie in high school. Still, I didn’t consider myself a fan of horror. Because I hadn’t explored the genre as fully as others, I figured that there were movies out there that were so terrifying they could break me and I felt fine sticking with the ones I already knew.
The older I get the more my trepidation toward horror is becoming a source of shame. It’s embarrassing that when my partner wants to see something like X or Skinamarink in theaters, I’ll delay until it either hits VOD (it’s much better to watch something spooky with the lights on and access to your phone in case it gets to much) and or she finds someone a little more sturdy to go with. (For what it’s worth: I know now that X and Pearl aren’t even that scary, just violent and campy—the jury’s still out on Skinamarink, which looks like my childhood nightmares come to life on grainy film). There are still movies I haven’t attempted yet: Hereditary, The Babadook, and even Scream still to name just a few.
I’m trying to be better by virtue of just sucking it up and forcing myself to watch scary movies. I’m thinking of it as exposure therapy. If I watch enough horror, I can retrain my amygdala—the fear center of my brain—to be able to sit through a horror no problem (without reading a pre-screening Wikipedia synopsis) and not wuss out when my girlfriend wants to go to the movies with me. It’s what some psychologists do if you’re afraid of spiders or something: the more times you’re repeatedly exposed, the less cared you’ll be. This has been a months-long project and so far it’s been great. Some of my favorite first watches over the past year have been It Follows, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, Saint Maud, Possessor, Climax, Bodies Bodies Bodies, and Nope. I could go on but none of those were particularly triggering or unpleasant viewing experiences.
If the story is good, it’s shot well, and I’m invested, I won’t notice that it’s scary and won’t mind a well-executed jump scare. A good movie is a good movie no matter the genre. It’s probably not the most groundbreaking realization but there have been so many times in my life when I’ve stressed myself out about something and it’s turned out to be no big deal. Every time it’s been something that causes me anxiety, if I just make a decision to jump right in it is never as bad as I think it will be. Even with something as small as getting yourself to immerse in a film genre that makes you queasy, there’s value in getting yourself out of your comfort zone and realizing it’s not just not bad but actually worthwhile.
I’m going to knock out those films I thought would be too much for me soon and I’m actually looking forward to it. It’s not that becoming a fan of horror will change your life or something silly along those lines, it’s that there’s probably something you’ve been putting off that you think might suck or stress you out. There are foods I thought were going to be gross but turned out to be lifelong favorites, skills that took work but are incredibly useful, and experiences that I thought were going to be grueling that turned out to be formative. Saying no is great but sometimes doing what you’ve been avoiding will be even better.
What I listened to:
Dari Bay, Longest Day of the Year
A couple weeks ago I highlighted Greg Freeman’s I Look Out from November as one of my favorite new albums. It’s basically catnip “if you’re one of the many people who counted the great MJ Lenderman LP among your 2022 favorites.” Well it turns out the Vermont artist is part of a really great small scene over there as he guests on Dari Bay’s The Longest Day of the Year, the best album that’s come out so far in 2023. Where the easiest reference from Freeman’s LP is Songs: Ohia, you can find hints of Big Star, Pavement, and Alex G in Bay’s fantastic full-length. Bay, whose real name is Zack James, is an excellent and efficient songwriter full of really memorable riffs and tight hooks that never overstay their welcome. It’s 10 songs and 24 minutes long. What more could you want?
Florry, Sweet Guitar Solos EP
Florry is a collective of Philadelphians who make the kind of ramshackle, punk-inflected country music you’d want to drink several beers to. Fortunately, their Sweet Guitar Solos is a four-song EP so you can’t actually overindulge unless you’re a total dirtbag. These songs seem like they’d be a blast live: they’re easily memorable and have enough energy to be a positively galvanizing force in a small, booze-stained room. While it’s obvious they’re stellar songwriters from just these tunes, they don’t seem to take themselves too seriously. My favorite is the woozy and snarky “When I Kicked You Out of the Band (I Didn’t Mean to Kick You Out of My Life).”
Crosslegged, Another Blue
Really impressed by this Crosslegged album. I first heard of Keba Robinson’s musical outlet because she was announced as an opener for Lala Lala a couple of years back. She has an EP and a 2015 LP but her latest, January’s Another Blue, is a pretty solid introduction to her left-field pop music. There’s a part of me that finds this really cutting-edge music and another part of me that thinks it could’ve been the biggest thing in independent music had it come out 10 years ago. It’s excellent either way. “Only In The” seems like the one after several listens.
What I watched:
You’re probably thinking, “I just read this whole essay about how this guy is a wuss when it comes to horror and now he’s recommending something made by a Cronenberg called Possessor? Is he for real?” I am. Despite the film being directed by Brandon Cronenberg, the son of body-horror auteur David Cronenberg, Possessor is less a horror movie than an occasionally gruesome psychological thriller. The film follows Tasya (Andrea Riseborough) a corporate assassin whose company takes over the bodies of unwilling participants to carry out the murders. While it’s a farfetched premise, Possessor nails the tech-induced sense of dread that permeates throughout its world, especially with its depiction of a data-mining company’s practices. This movie also has one of the best acting performances I’ve ever seen from Christopher Abbott aka Charlie from Girls. It’s on Hulu.
What I read:
Jayson Greene has a great tribute to Television’s Tom Verlaine in Pitchfork this week. Marquee Moon is one of those albums where you remember exactly where you heard it first. It’s an album where your life has a before and after. It’s that huge. “Verlaine didn't seem to belong to the punk scene so much as wander through it, brushing shoulders with greats and rubbing off more on them than they did on him,” writes Greene. “He seemed uniquely a man out of time, destined to make music that rang out long after the scene quieted.” There are also great tributes to Verlaine from Dean Wareham and Patti Smith. “What we saw that night was kin, our future, a perfect merging of poetry and rock and roll,” writes Smith in the New Yorker. “As I watched Tom play, I thought, Had I been a boy, I would’ve been him.”
David Berman was one of my all-time favorite writers and the day he died in 2019 hit me incredibly hard. Post 45, which is a site run by academics, has a touching and accessible tribute to the Silver Jews frontman and poet. There’s even an essay from Pavement’s Bob Nastanovich.