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No Expectations 002: Maverick
Some diseased takes, three great Chicago bands, a playlist, and what I liked this week.
No Expectations has been live for one week and the response so far has been kinda unbelievable, at least to me. Deciding to try something on my own like this was pretty terrifying but the fact that hundreds of people care enough to subscribe and dozens care enough to actually pay for it means the world. I don’t think I’ve been this excited about a writing project in years, so thanks to everyone who read my 2022 EOY list and pressed that subscribe button.
Because this is only week two and I’m making it up as I go along, I’ll need a bit more time to figure out what I’m going to do for paid subscribers going forward. My idea is to eventually have monthly and maybe even biweekly interviews with artists or interesting people as well as weekly short essays paired with capsule reviews about what I’ve been reading, watching, and listening to at that time. I’m not sure what makes the most sense for something under a paywall or if I’ll even need to have posts under a paywall.
Bear with me. I’ll know more in 2023 but for now, expect weekly installments every Thursday similar to this blog below. Thanks again to everyone who read, shared, and subscribed. (There will be at least one more subscribe button in this email, in case you miss this first one below.)
The Woke Mob is keeping Top Gun: Maverick off A.O. Scott’s year-end list
The ways people talk about art are honestly often pretty diseased. There’s a tendency to conflate consumption with virtue, project merit onto things based on popularity or commercial success, indulge in taste-based tribalism, and just generally not be able to understand that people are different, like stuff for various reasons, and don’t need to appreciate the same things you do. Maybe a couple of your favorite albums this year didn’t end up on a major publication’s year-end list. That’s a bummer, but wouldn’t you feel boring and middle of the road if you saw your tastes reflected 1:1 on a website? Discovering new things, the differences in tastes, and discussing them are what’s actually fun.
All of this seems pretty obvious but it’s clearly not if you pay attention to dumb pop culture dustups: A massive pop star gets a positive but not effusive review so their fans harass the critic online to the point where they either lock their accounts or deactivate entirely. An established director says something critical about superhero movies and it becomes a whole debate for weeks. A celebrity gets mad at an even-handed and thoughtfully-written profile and refuses to do press going forward. Not liking popular things or even just mildly pushing back on popular things can be scandalous, especially to the fans of those popular things. It’s on the surface bizarre but it’s also a reflection of how power works: the more entrenched your success, the more defensive you or your fans will be defending it.
Late last week, the former richest man in the world and current CEO of Twitter Elon Musk took a break from insinuating his former employees are pedophiles and responding “looking into it” to Ian Miles Cheong about why he’s stuck inside a toilet again, to wade into the apparent culture war brewing because of the New York Times Best Films lists. It all started when fellow rich guy Jason Calacanis posted a screenshot of NYT critic A.O. Scott’s Top 10 films of the year with an angry caption that read, “Please stay on strike if you’re going to leave Top Gun Maverick off this list @aoscott. seriously how many of these films have you seen/heard of… for me it’s 0 / 2 !” To which Musk responded, “Top Gun Maverick was great! NYTimes has gone “full woke”.”
Now, this is boneheaded for a lot of reasons, many of them obvious. For one, Top Gun: Maverick is by far the most successful movie of the year and it’s not particularly close. It’s grossed nearly $1.5 billion (about a half billion more than the second-place contender), currently holds a whopping 96 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and has been nominated for several Golden Globes including Best Picture. Thanks to it being a well-liked blockbuster and its $125 million marketing budget, Top Gun: Maverick has already won and its omission in one critic’s EOY Top 10 is hardly an injustice. Probably the biggest utility in year-end listmaking is recommending something great most people wouldn’t otherwise know about. Would you rather have a list confirm your own preferences or open up new things for you?
More nefarious than a couple of billionaires mouthing off about their favorite action movies not getting the respect they deserve from one random critic is the fact that they think this somehow has to do with being “woke.” Musk tries to use “woke” as a shorthand for “things I don’t like” pretty frequently, most recently when he joined Dave Chappelle onstage at Chase Center in San Francisco to a chorus of boos. He tweeted a couple of hours after the incident, “The woke mind virus is either defeated or nothing else matters” along with actually-laughing-not-mad and since-deleted followups about how, actually, only 10 percent of audience members were booing, apparently not realizing there was video of the incident. You would imagine that if you were one of the richest people in the world, you would have better things to do than to assign some bullshit culture war nonsense to the fact that people boo you and some critic liked 10 movies more than Top Gun: Maverick.
This kind of thinking needs to be fought and dismissed and not just when billionaires do it. Movies like Top Gun: Maverick, pop stars, politicians, and popular things, even if they’re good, do not need you being a simp and fighting their battles. They do not need you to harass critics or boycott artists who criticize them. You can be a fan without being an asshole. It’s very easy. Where movies are concerned, this is an industry where big blockbusters, superhero franchises, sequels, recycled IP, and remakes are crowding out small-to-mid-budget films from studios. That middle class of original films is endangered when streaming, the lack of DVD/Blu-ray sales, and post-COVID reverberations mean that the only films most people see in theaters are big-budget blockbusters like Maverick. A.O. Scott is a great critic and I can’t wait to dive into the rest of his list. I watch movies all the time and even I found out about something new here. One pick I have seen is the excellent, nostalgic, and thought-provoking Aftersun, it should be on MUBI soon and I recommend it 100 percent.
Report: Lifeguard, Cafe Racer, and Friko at Metro (12/08/22)
One of my most nagging fears as a music journalist is being washed. I’ve been doing this for over 10 years—first as an intern for the A.V. Club when I was 20 in 2012—and now I’m 31. That’s not old by most metrics unless you’re talking to a teenager or Jon-Carlo Manzo but sometimes in this line of work you can feel like you’re one “hearing about a buzzy hyperpop artist” away from feeling out of touch. I remember starting out and meeting some writers I admired and realizing that the image in my head of them as these endlessly curious renaissance person-types was totally off-base. Not going to lie: some of these folks were absolute chores to be around. They seemed jaded, bitter, and completely unconcerned with those around them. I’d wonder if they even liked music and I vowed that I would give up culture journalism before I ever got to that point.
Writing about music for a living can be a tough gig. The pay is unsustainably poor when you start out and “could be better” the longer you do it. If you stop caring even in the slightest, there is no reason to keep doing it, especially when so many people do care and never have the chance to break into the industry. Burnout happens, your dream publication can lay you off or be months late paying you, but as much as it can suck, you gotta remind yourself that you care. Last Thursday, a Lifeguard, Cafe Racer, and Friko gig at Metro didn’t just serve as a way to remember why I do this, it made me genuinely excited. Not just about music but about the future of Chicago’s indie rock communities.
I bring up my worries about eventually becoming out-of-touch because besides Cafe Racer, the two bands on the bill are significantly younger than me: the lead singer of Friko, Niko Kapetan, is maybe 23 tops, and the three people in Lifeguard are still teenagers (I heard that they were almost late to soundcheck because they “had school.”) The scenes they created here are basically totally independent of the bands, artists, and genres I wrote about in Chicago over the past decade and honestly, that rules. You invest your time and money during your twenties into a music community, you go to countless three-band bill Dollar Beer Nights, and you buy records and shirts. And then a group of musicians who were in elementary school when you started doing that come out cooler, more talented, and with better taste than most bands you thought were important back then. This happens to everyone who spends enough time in a music community but I’m just happy I’m embracing it. I’ve seen music journalists hit 30 and start to hate everything new, regressing back to only listening to what they liked at 21. It’s depressing!
Lifeguard, a noise rock trio, opened the show. They ripped. I first heard about them because of the band Horsegirl—guitarist Penelope Lowenstein is the older sibling of Lifeguard’s drummer Isaac—and later from a particularly kinetic and memorable Audiotree session. The other two folks in the band are bassist Asher Case (whose father Brian Case is in the great band FACS and I’ve seen play a bunch of times) and singer/guitarist Kai Slater, a zine maker and a member of the also excellent local band Dwaal Troupe. They cite bands like Unwound and Fugazi as influences and onstage they play exceptionally loud. While they’ve been remarkably prolific already, their 2022 EP Crowd Can Talk, which came out on my favorite local label Born Yesterday, is where you should start. It’s their best collection of songs to date with unabashedly abrasive tracks that careen into unexpected directions. I’ll bet they’ll be touring quite a bit in 2023, and hopefully releasing a full-length that’ll blow the doors off of everything.
Next up was Cafe Racer, a band I’ve loved since they’d opened up for NE-HI at the Empty Bottle several years ago, have seen dozens of times, and still put on their albums pretty frequently. I don’t really have much to say about them besides they were great, I enjoyed their new lineup, and you should listen to their 2020 effort Shadow Talk, which also came out on Born Yesterday. It was headliner Friko’s stage that night though—as great as all the other acts were. Lead songwriter Niko Kapetan is kinda the platonic ideal of a frontman: he’s unafraid to get theatrical and he violently throws his dynamic voice around throughout these gorgeous songs. As a singer, it’s easy to imagine him floored by hearing Jeff Buckley or David Bowie for the first time (Friko ended their set with a cover of “Life on Mars?”).
Indie rock lately can feel insular and claustrophobic but Friko isn’t afraid to make it feel huge, cathartic, and totally earnest. The rest of the band is stellar too: there’s drummer Bailey Minzenberger who also plays in my favorite new Chicago band Free Range (big shouts to Sofia Jensen) and bassist Luke Stamos. They also brought up a couple of string players carrying on the tradition of Chicago rock bands doing the same thing like Smashing Pumpkins and Whitney. They have yet to make a full LP but what they’ve released so far suggests they have a classic in them. Just listen to a track like “Holding On People” or watch their electric Audiotree session. It feels like they’re right on the cusp of having consistently sold-out shows, national tours, and rave reviews so the next time they announce a show, this is your warning to grab a ticket.
The future of Chicago music is in good hands. There’s a whole ecosystem of stellar artists born in the 2000s who are making essential songs, creating zines, putting on shows, and fostering a welcoming and kind community. That feeling of being a part of something special is vital and I hope it lasts for them. I can’t wait to see what they do.
What I listened to:
Above you’ll find a 16-song playlist of some tunes I’ve been digging. Many are artists who I mention in this blog like Lifeguard, Friko, Dwaal Troupe, and a few others. I finally checked out the new LPs from Little Simz and SZA (which I’ll probably write about next week) and this morning, the buds in Grapetooth dropped some new singles. To be honest, after compiling, writing out, and finishing my 60 albums of the year blog I didn’t keep up on new releases this week as much as most. That’ll change in weeks I don’t post 6900 words on a Substack.
What I watched:
Like everyone else, I watched the season finale of The White Lotus on Sunday. I’m a huge Mike White guy and hope this show makes people watch Enlightened but I sometimes find his stuff to be a little bit on-the-nose like in Beatriz at Dinner or a little meandering like the first part of Lotus’ second season. I think I liked it overall! There are much smarter critics to read on this show but I appreciated the way White subverted expectations for the finale.
Decision to Leave / Memories of Murder / Vertigo
Part of the reason I started this Substack is that towards the end of the year, freelance writing mostly dries up. You budget for it and work your butt off until maybe Thanksgiving and then get a chance to chill before the holidays. This period is what I like to call “the movie zone,” where I watch three or four things on the Letterboxd watchlist in between pretending to answer emails and tweeting things like “in my Mike Leigh era.” If you ever have an opportunity to just watch a ton of movies all day, jump on it. Some of my favorite first watches have happened over the past few weeks: Rebels of the Neon God, Corpus Christi, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, and the Sweet Smell of Success, among many others.
This past week, Park Chan-wook’s 2022 noir film Decision to Leave finally hit MUBI (my favorite streaming app which will likely be the subject of a future blog). I’ve been slowly making my way through his filmography and this one might be my favorite next to Joint Security Area. The cinematography is spectacular, the story excellent, and the two leads mesmerizing in their chemistry. Before I watched, I’d heard there were a lot of homages to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which bizarrely, is a movie I’d never seen before. It made for a perfect double feature (watch Vertigo first). A couple of days later, I decided to try out another murder mystery film, this time from Bong Joon-Ho in Memories of Murder. If you dug David Fincher’s Zodiac, this is the movie for you.
What I read:
David’s one of my favorite people in the world. He was an intern at the A.V. Club right before I was one of the interns at the A.V. Club and I trust his taste more than most people. Our taste diverges quite a bit: he’s an encyclopedia of hardcore, metal, and punk while I tend to be a little softer and more hook-based in my recommendations. But when we agree, we really agree. Out of our decade of friendship, I think 2022 is the year we had the most overlap in our year-end lists: Meat Wave, Dazy, Nnamdi, and a few others are on both of our wrap-ups. I’ve been really digging High Vis too for the exact reasons David describes in his writeup. So glad I checked it out.
My dream job is basically to just be an Aquarium Drunkard staffer. It’s the one blog I try to read every time they update and I’ve discovered some truly life-changing stuff in my decade-plus of being a regular reader. Their EOY packages are always the most essential of any given year and I’m discovering some things that were new to me even as a frequent reader on here. The Lou Turner LP here is really up my alley and this list served as a reminder that I totally snubbed Chicago guitarist Eli Winter in my own list. His LP is fantastic and I regret the omission.
Till next time.