Saturday, March 31, 2018

resonators 2018 - episode #003 - 'milo goes to college' by the descendents

So let's change gears for a bit on this series and talk about something light, something with a little more melody and upbeat charm - and frankly, this is a side of punk that you'll often get on the poppier side but I'm always a little mystified that it doesn't translate to the other subgenres as often. And it's also something I'd argue can drive a lot of people away from punk in the long-term, especially the more political stuff. Yes, punk often deals with serious issues and the furious intensity of hardcore means that it's naturally suited to emotions that are more negative or angry, but the truth is that said material can burn out a lot of listeners, especially when you consider the puritanical straight edge side that came out of hardcore as the 80s continued on. And yes, there is absolutely a place for that, and when I finally get a chance to talk about Minor Threat we'll discuss it in detail... but there's a reason why bands that at least seem like they're having fun have a little more longevity in popular culture. And while some will look down on that, it's hard to deny a sense of humor and raw populism might spread the message even further - even the bad or misguided ideas Dead Kennedys had have stuck around thanks to Jello Biafra's delivery and wit.

So let's discuss one of the more influential acts in that mold across hardcore and pop punk, who released their full-length debut in 1982 and titled it with the expectation that their frontman Milo Aukerman was going off to college, after which the band went on one of their many hiatuses. They had seen some groundswell a year earlier with the Fat EP - just to give you an idea of the sense of humor we're dealing with - and had actually been produced by Spot, the guy who worked in-house for most of SST and co-produced Black Flag's Damaged, among many others - expect his name to come up a lot more, especially when it comes the California scene. But this group was the furthest thing thematically from Black Flag - a band of hyper-caffeinated teenagers on the goofy side that in 1982 were actively looking to buck the serious, destructive, borderline anarchistic side of the scene... and in doing they made one of the most influential melodic hardcore albums of all time and inspired countless groups, especially the pop punk mainstream breakthroughs in the mid-to-late 90s. That's right, folks, we're talking abut Milo Goes To College by The Descendents, and this is Resonators!

Now before we go any further, a few things need to be placed in context, especially considering how influential it wound up being, because it raises a loaded question that I'm surprised it took this long to get to: how much a band should be praised or condemned for what they passed on into the genre at large. Because let's be real, in the early days of hardcore nobody could have expected records like this to inspire bands that would go on to tremendous success, millions of albums sold, and then pass along their permutation of these sounds and ideas. And that weight of legacy gets even harder to reconcile when you remember that Descendents made this record when they were in the early twenties and weren't exactly trying to convey heavier or more nuanced ideas - yeah, Henry Rollins was of that age too in Black Flag, but Black Flag was also aiming higher in the content, whereas Descendents were considered the lightweight, super-upbeat cousin to them on the double bill. 

And again, with records like Milo Goes To College it makes sense to place them in the context of the time: the Reagan years were stabilizing as the early 80s recession eased back, and he was a president from California, and the rightward culture shift was even leaking to suburbia there. And while the more politically minded left-wing hardcore was recoiling from this, Descendents weren't really making that sort of content on this record: they were writing about girls and teen angst and being angry at their parents and other bands and if there was political coding or subtext it's hard to feel like that was intentional. And considering this record is a blistering quick twenty two minutes, brief nuggets of concentrated teenage emotion, you can make the argument that it's not really intended to demand deeper examination - or take a step further and say the blunt framing of it all is part of the point. And there's definitely an argument there, one I've even seen the band support: they were barely in their early twenties, the record reads like a snapshot of those teenage emotions, and one of the reasons it's been so relatable for so long is that it connected with the angst on a blunt, visceral level, and if it reads as immature or crass or ugly, well that's because teenage guys that age kind of are immature, crass and ugly, and there's value in showcasing that.

And I make all of those qualifying statements... because if I thought the writing had aged awkwardly on Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables, Milo Goes To College may have aged even worse. I've seen critics make a comparison of this record to the movie Revenge Of The Nerds, and they are not wrong, because for as much as it might serve as a shot of catharsis for awkward, angry but overall nice nerdy guys of that era, it also contains a lot of the same ugly subtext that has made that movie a lot harder to watch over thirty years later. And this is where the broader influence question gets a lot more troubling, because you can definitely see a lot of the same creative DNA passed down to countless bands in melodic hardcore and especially pop punk, even down to some of the less comfortable details - it's not hard to hear a song like 'Kabuki Girl' here and then see the Asian fetish across the writing of Rivers Cuomo, for example. And that's not even getting to the songs about women, and again, it's hard for me to directly blame Descendents for the brand of nice guy projection that definitely sours and can turn mean-spirited - it can land as uncomfortable in the writing because it rings as coming from a real, dangerously relatable place - but at the same time Descendents weren't exactly questioning it, or framing the larger scene with the level of self-awareness to question how clingy and creepy and genuinely uncomfortable this could read years later, and you have to wonder if how much pop punk could have changed if they had asked those questions or had been confronted on it sooner. 

And what gets awkward is that Descendents did get called out for one song on Milo Goes To College, specifically 'I'm Not a Loser' where in a fit of fury against some privileged, pompous ass they scream insults... and then out comes the gay slurs. Again, I understand why this might have happened - they're white suburban guys breaking in 1982, calling someone gay as an insult is an easy way to prop up insecure teenage masculinity especially when they can feed into extended 70s backlash, it wasn't until years later when the rock critical establishment bothered to call them on it - but even the band has realized it wasn't really okay. But even nowadays it's hard to go back to songs like 'Myage' and 'Marriage' and 'Hope' and read them as the sort of friend-zone anthems that might be emotionally honest but reflect an ugliness that mostly went ignored, especially when it's paired with songs with the slut-shaming of 'Bikeage' or 'Jean Is Dead', where the song not only shows a thin example of how they think they could have fixed the depression to prevent the suicide, but then places all of the angst on their loneliness. And again, when you frame it against generally upbeat melodies it's hard not to get impression that Descendents aren't exactly being self-aware here... except when you get tracks like 'Tonyage' or 'I'm Not A Punk' or 'Catalina' or even 'Suburban Home', songs that drip with sarcasm but also do a decent job highlighting their own insecurities and wants, especially when hardcore was demanding its own form of conformity. It's one reason why 'Catalina' is a great damn song - it has our punk narrator blasting women as he just wants to go out in his boat off the shore... and then his boat breaks down, and even as he tries to pull up his Beatles and Doors tapes, it's not going to be enough to really get her out of his head. And some of the writing does come from a place of confusion - 'M-16' and 'Statue Of Liberty' show the mess of contradictions surrounding blind patriotism in the face of Reagan's America doing bad things in times of war - and the fact that we don't really get clean answers helps the adolescent framing.

And here's the really frustrating part: outside of my issues with the songwriting... I generally really do like this album, especially on the musical level. Milo Aukerman can really sell that unsteady balance between raw intensity and nerdy, teenage awkwardness, Spot's production drawing emphasis to bass melodies that have really solid interplay with the guitar work, and the Descendents are a maddeningly catchy group. And even if I have issues with the writing the songs blaze by at such a fast clip you barely have time to sink into the details, which is probably one of the reasons they got away with as much as they did. The phenomenal bass riffs and insane drumwork on 'Myage' and the irrepressibly goofy 'I Wanna Be A Bear', the bass spiking into the guitar lead on 'M-16', the melodic complexity behind the lead guitar on 'Catalina', and even despite my lyrical issues with songs like 'Hope' and 'Jean Is Dead', they're catchy as sin! And when you get songs that get a little slower and showcase more development, like the lead-in for 'Bikeage' or the bass interplay on 'Suburban Home' you see so much of the chops that would lead to the more developed punk sound they'd push on later records. Granted, how short many of the songs are you'll often find yourself wishing for a little more meat on these bones, but that's hardcore, and while Descendents didn't stick long in the subgenre, you can't doubt the talent on display across the board, especially in drummer Bill Stevenson and bassist Tony Lombardo - if you just consider the sound of the record you'd probably have no problem with them being influential, and you can hear their DNA in so many groups, especially in the mid-to-late 90s. 

The problem was it wasn't just their sound that became influential, but much of their framing and content, and considering similar issues have not gone away throughout pop punk and hardcore over the course of decades, that's a little harder for me to just ignore. And that can't help but somewhat color my views of Milo Goes To College, a damn good record but one that cooled on me the more I dug into the lyrics beyond just the ones the band regrets today. Product of its time, sure, but it's very telling for as progressive as punk and music critics covering it have claimed to be, its critical reputation is mostly unscathed. Still, I understand its appeal, I certainly get why it's as influential as it is... but for me it's a 7/10 and recommended, but most enjoyed if you ignore the lyrics and you understand what it was for its time. And hey, the Descendents are still active today making some great punk music and they're definitely wiser for it, so I can respect that.

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