THIS IS SO AWESOME
I would recommend reading the piece first before playing the above video.
This extended exercise is about VNV Nation. And it isn’t. It’s about framing, taking stock, self-knowledge, resonance. Above all, resonance.
Some points first. True fan confessions are plentiful and I’ve contributed my own amount to them over the years and will continue to do so, for any number of acts. There’s elements of that here but it is not the full amount. This isn’t about music changing your world when you’re young and then holding on to you for the rest of your life, fixing your baselines no matter how much you might deny it. Again, I’ve done that. This isn’t about rescuing a cult band or performer from oblivion and doing one’s best to paste said artist or artists into that amorphous beast known as the canon. I’ve done that too. (And I’m trying to again.) Besides, VNV aren’t in oblivion and they really don’t need my help, they’ve already reached more people with their music I ever will with words.
This isn’t really about music at base. This is going to be a whole lot about myself, I suppose, and I apologize for that. But if anything I hope this is something that touches a nerve among readers who might be my age and recognize something similar, who might be older and remember a similar feeling, who might be younger and not there yet but might not mind the portrait. It’s about recognition, realizing something core — it’s not even about apologetics, in the formal philosophical sense. I don’t apologize for the fandom I have, but neither am I going to spend any time trying to argue, say, why everyone should listen to VNV Nation. I’d love it, but I’m not expecting it, and I would expect even less people to care for them who did listen, though I’m glad I have introduced them to a number of people who do enjoy them profoundly.
I suppose if I had to sum it up, it’s the good fortune of connecting with something artistic that gets you right where you are at right now, that is being created in parallel with who you are. I’m not talking about being focus grouped to death — “Ah, you’re this age/background/etc, you’ll like this” — though inevitably there’s something to be said for others speaking closer to the experience and mindset you have. There’s nothing to pat myself on the back for in this realization — we let our thoughts drift and meld with those creations we encounter precisely for these reasons from the start. But if, as I like to tell myself, learning is constant, awareness is constant, then sometimes you surprise yourself in the best possible way, and what may start as an ‘oh, of course, I should have guessed’ turns later into a profound gratitude that you found something where and when you did.
And if you’re especially lucky, you don’t let that encounter comfort you. You let it remind you, again and again, that you don’t stop there.
In 2007, I wrote this piece as part of a series of introductions to my then new blog. I reference it here so as not to rewrite it, but I will offer this edited quote from it:
I was, simply put, a child of privilege. I do not mean I was raised in upper-crust surroundings or nouveau riche ones either. But in the grand scheme of things, especially given how the vast majority of people in the world, in history, live lives of, at best, constant worries about how to at least get by, I did not want. I am the product of a combination of fortuitous circumstances — a loving family to start with (something I have always tried my best not to take for granted — the few problems or concerns of my youth were so utterly banal and typical in comparison to the horrors some friends of mine lived through that they’re not worth talking about), financial prudence on the part of my parents….and no heart-shattering tragedies or events to disturb this solid state of affairs.
What this ultimately meant was a fairly stable cocoon to grow up in….and at large I can only think this meant an initially unconscious vesting of myself in ‘the system,’ whatever it might be termed or considered to be. It was hardly Siddhartha shielded from the woes of the world but it might have been close to it — and I still remember in particular the sharp words from a history teacher of mine on Coronado near San Diego [Coronado being the ‘ultimate suburb’ as I still see it — literally an island in San Diego Bay, but a million miles away in so many different senses] saying that, quite frankly, those of us who had had the fortune to grow up there for at least part of our lives did so likely unaware of just how good we really had it, and how our attitudes had been shaped as a result. And he was quite right, still.
Restating this kind of baseline doesn’t hurt from where I sit, as much for six years on me as anyone else. It’s part of the unspoken background behind the overt, namely that I’m white and male, and covert, that I’m heterosexual. To foreground that is to acknowledge it, not to apologize for it or feel special for noting it. It’s that live wire underpinning my thoughts and feelings at their bleakest when they happen — because I inevitably, usually pretty quickly, pull myself out of those ruts when I go, “Look, dude, remember how good you’ve had it, how lucky you are in this stupid world, when the system as a whole reads you as ‘normal,’ when you have never truly wanted once, when you’ve always had the roof over your head and food on your table.” An extreme example might be when I was dumped from six thousand miles away and had a mopey couple of days, then 9/11 happened. You get over your self-pity pretty damn quickly.
So feelings of angst, frustration, whatever else can be felt at the state of the world should always be underscored with the ‘problems you want to have’ pen, when so much else has been so relatively stable in comparison. Given how those past six years since I wrote that has been so up and down for a lot of people I know in turn, I can say it again, even with some of my own circumstances noted. It’s ultimately the slow, long-running simmer of annoyance at the world’s stupidities and cruelties had been underscoring nearly all my adult life, the type of thing where many I knew encountered them and had to deal with them, where I saw them on a larger scale throughout the world in turn. You just get wound up, and rewound. You also hope you question your own biases however unconscious. You really hope you learn to start listening more than talking or explaining to people who don’t need the explanation from you. You especially hope that you get to see their dreams come true
I say ‘hope’ because I’m not foolish enough to think I am doing my best. You always want to strive for better because that way you don’t rest on your laurels. There’s a part of me that can afford to be lazy and relaxed, and therein the problem. Struggling with spreading myself too thin is something I’ve had to deal with in a variety of ways over the years. Sometimes I think I’m doing too little when I’m probably not at all; when I think I’m doing too much I can feel guilty I’m not doing more. My own cocoon of contentment, however necessary I think it is, probably isn’t. I was once told I’m a fixer, that when I hear about a problem I figure it needs a solution. Great when it’s all under your control and you CAN fix it. Not so great when it isn’t. It can be macro or it can be one-on-one, but it ends up throwing me for a loop, and I get frustrated, or even angry. And I can quietly seethe.
It turns out that maybe I just needed an outlet. That same year I wrote the above quote, to my surprise but not totally to my immediate realization, I found it.
If it wasn’t for my friends Aileen and Deeps, both of whom separately told me about it, I wouldn’t’ve known about the VNV Nation show at the Wiltern back in summer of that year, 2007. I did generally know who they were, but I can’t remember where or how. Probably something around the time of their greatest initial burst of subcultural popularity around the turn of the millennium. Didn’t even know any of their songs, though, they were just a name — didn’t even know who was in the band, or who was the band. The tickets were cheap, the enthusiasm for them seemed infectious and I decided to go in cold.
By 2007 I’d spent something close to twenty years of building dedicated music obsession and interaction — more, really, but the end of 1987 is when I got my first CD player and I started building what at one point was a pretty daunting personal stash of music, followed a year later by starting at KUCI, reading Trouser Press, beginning to go in deep, and taking some first tentative stabs at writing about music soon thereafter. I’d moved from extremes of concerts day after day to a time of nothing but quietly sitting at home after work for weeks just decompressing and listening to nothing to settling into the sort-of balance I now maintain, all the while becoming more of a ‘known’ figure of sorts in the world of music discussion. (Only of sorts, I refuse to claim any more than that.) And one thing I’d decided was that I don’t need to know everything and anything, and sometimes the simplest thing to do is to just so ‘eh, whatever, why not?’
Now — I’ll stop here in terms of a certain progression forward that might otherwise be expected. I am not here to tell you about how that show changed my life — it didn’t, but I liked it a lot, and that led me to investigate further — or all the shows I’ve seen since, even though I could do so. Tickets bought, acquiring the entire back catalog, reviewing albums for the All Music Guide, meeting them at one point, much more besides. Take that as having happened as a result. Never followed them around on tour — never HAVE done that for any band at all — but I will never not see them when they play the general LA area now. The new album Transnational got a formal digital release this past week on Tuesday and I have already happily played it to death like I have all the others that have come out over these past few years, three full new ones plus a live/rarities compilation. Take that as background, as axiomatic.
Take it further, as I pretty well just indicated, that I like what results when Ronan Harris, as the center force of VNV, releases new music. In 2008, thinking back on a song that I had heard at that first show which had especially stood out to me, “The Farthest Star,” I said this as part of a large group presentation at REDCAT in Los Angeles, noting the preferred term that VNV had advanced for their particular take on industrial music as such, futurepop:
The feeling is immediacy, a combination of things that are obvious, from trance, from industrial. It’s a big part of why I love it….The words are….a combination of so many perfect tropes I still marvel at it, unironically – will to power, rising above yourself, confronting the ‘truth,’ self-motivation as reason for achievement….The imagery of the farthest star appeals to the astronomy buff in me, I admit – the one who watched Cosmos wide eyed as a young boy, listening to Carl Sagan speak on the reach and range of the universe. Electronic music formed the backbone of that series’ soundtrack, appropriately enough, but it was more of the contemplative variety, while elsewhere in my life disco rhythms could be heard all over the radio. So maybe everything about what VNV call futurepop is really just nostalgia, and I’m only reacting to a dead form – but then why were the thousands of people I saw at their show in June so whipped into a frenzy by the band, nearly all of them much younger than me? Why did I keep going back to their Myspace page and listening to this song again, and again, and again?….the future of futurepop comes to me, a sense of the future I dreamed of as an eighties kid, beats and synths and more somehow always looking ahead, driving outward. This song, more than any piece of art last year, reinspired me and reinvigorated me when it came to engaging with life, politics and more, a personal recharge that seeks to reach all the universe even though it never could. That the lyrics reference a ‘we,’ not an ‘I’ or a ‘you,’ may only be a dream of inclusiveness in the end but it’s a fantastic dream.
Five years on while other, newer songs have taken on more specific connections to me the basic explanation remains at base. Consider that as the impact it had, and it was that seismic, one of those things where it was the aftershocks rather than the shock that mattered, where I almost didn’t realize what was happening until it was unavoidable. I had this to say about 2009’s Of Faith, Power and Glory on release and this to say on 2011’s Automatic, along with this later. Let that serve as my critical reactions for the moment; if I have one for Transnational it will come as it does, but I hold it equally close now.
But I like a lot of bands. I like a lot of styles, of voices. There was never any specifically ordained reason why this band at this moment, which has turned into an extended moment, which is starting to feel more and more like a crucial reference point, an anchor. This isn’t me saying Harris, just a couple of years older than me, speaks FOR me as opposed to TO me, to make that clear. His thoughts are his in all things, and he writes and creates for himself in the same way I write for myself, and I’m not about to say, “Ah, just go read the lyrics.” After all, I’m kinda notorious for exactly how I feel about lyrics, as I said in 2001. But as I also said then, “sometimes some of the really most amazing moments of a song’s words burrow in deep because for me they really are great.” What makes greatness can always vary — and in this case, it is resonance.
Deep, deep resonance.
In his book Assimilate, a recent and perhaps about the only full history in English of what can be called industrial music up to the near present, S. Alexander Reed describes VNV’s overall thematic approach as part of an overview. Noting the militaristic and disciplined tone and content of much of VNV’s work, and how this can therefore draw comparison to something like Boyd Rice’s Non project — specifically his crypto-fascist, Goebbels-quoting “Total War” — Reed then distinguishes key differences. This quote is drawn from a larger series of paragraphs but edited and presented as one flowing paragraph for ease:
…in both, battle metaphorically depicts a struggle to assert one’s individuality, but for the leftist Harris there’s a world of difference. First, the hero’s fight in VNV Nation is to a large degree on behalf of the helpless. To Harris, battle is the tragic but necessary path to an enlightenment whose merest glimpse would awaken the sleeping to wisdom. Second, and much more importantly, Harris’s lyrics paint him as knowingly overconfident despite being insanely outnumbered. The tragedy underlying VNV Nation’s music is that the battle is a losing one. VNV Nation is perpetually stuck at the point of conflict, not because [it] glorifies violence or asserts dominance but because victory is such a distant hope. VNV stands for ‘Victory, Not Vengeance,’ but instead of eyeing victory itself the band holds fast to the idea of victory — it’s the closest they’ll ever get. The gap between present war and future paradise is so pronounced here that, much to the credit of all involved, fans nearly universally understand VNV Nation’s music as one of longing and peace.
I quote this at length precisely because this is my own general understanding of their music and my own fandom. These lyrical themes are as much the core of VNV to this day as is the combination of electronic music influences that underscored their breakthrough moment well before I became a fan — to be a fan, at this point, is to see and understand the constant throughlines. The general similarities between the albums are not bugs, but features — as much as any long-term fan of any act (or any artist in any field) responds to something core that is always present. To criticize it is to miss the point, and I say this knowing I’ve more than once reflexively gone ‘Jeez Louise’ at bands who I don’t like at all who are essentially doing the same thing with what they have. Planks in eyes are hard to remove in the end, and I admit doing less and less of that over the years in the case of music — it’s the same reason why I don’t expect to convince anyone already familiar with the band and not caring for it to change their mind in turn.
Related to that, though, is the corollary: that as much as there are general features, there are specific differences album per album as well. The reason I think that VNV has such deepening resonance for me over time is precisely that sense of difference as it goes. Part of it is musical — I sense increasingly stripped down arrangements at points, ballads that are calm and reflective, beats that can crunch and connect even harder. Part of it is definitely in the confidence audible in Harris’s voice — it has been increasingly foregrounded more and more with time in the mix, as well as incorporating a greater melodic flow. (If you need an instant comparison, consider “Darkangel,” the breakout song that has the same relevance to the band’s history as “Closer” did for Nine Inch Nails, and 2011’s “Space and Time.”) And a large part of it is an expansion of those themes beyond that of metaphorical battle. It is not a complete shift — the initial single from Transnational, “Retaliate,” is much like Automatic’s own initial single “Control” a bruiser of a number on all fronts. But it’s very notable that “Retaliate” is the only song like that on that album, and that only one other song, the slow burn instrumental “Aeroscope,” is anywhere near as sonically brawling. Arguably songs like “Everything” evince more of a happy warrior vibe if you want to call it that, but again, it is not just that.
Building off the observations noted above, specifically that drive towards an unreachable future paradise, Reed later goes on to note that one of the key points for me and a lot of fans — Harris’s aggressive positivism and use of spiritual metaphors, informing both musical lift and lyrical content — gets read by those not very impressed by the band as a sign that the band is too light, cheap and cheery. Or even — oddly, given Harris’s clearly stated stances on organized religion and the content of songs like “Endless Skies,” but still unsurprisingly — supposedly too conventionally Christian. (A friend offered that very claim as a negative criticism the other day, so it’s not as if it’s a strawman Reed is constructing there.) But as noted, that element and use of spiritual metaphor, recurring up to the newest album, is essential to the band. There’s also an increasing exploration of retrofuturism as nostalgic signifiers for a inspiring past as much as a drive into the beyond — something that was always present in the now long tradition of electronic music, as any Kraftwerk fan can agree with, blended with a temporally advanced version of what’s become the sprawling subculture known as steampunk. Songs like “Airships” and, in great detail on Transnational, “Teleconnect 1” are just some of the many examples.
What is also a strong element — present in “Darkangel” but more clearly used in another early defining hit, “Beloved” — is the use of romantic imagery, as regularly used as metaphor as battle. Transnational’s beautiful “If I Was” is the latest example of this, where the lyrics can be just as easily applied to an exchange between a couple as between other figures or other forces. Notably, Harris’s use is from what I can recall always very careful in terms of avoiding gender and specific physical imagery — something that, I think, underscores what I’ve anecdotally observed to be an extremely strong response to Harris and VNV among female fans in particular, above and beyond his own energetic charisma. While I’ve spread the word to many friends about them over the years, it’s been female friends who have responded to his work most strongly, while as noted above two female friends were the ones who encouraged me to check out the band live to start with, and the biggest fans I’ve met since through mutual friends are, again, female. Going further myself into this runs the risk of just mansplaining so I’ll stop here, but more than most bands in any genre, I get a rare sense of a male voice doing his best to actually reach out universally, and a response to this in turn.
At base, all I’ve pointed out is elaboration and explanation of a band’s themes. But I spoke of deep resonance.
Every morning, when I go to work, I get a little morning coffee after I arrive on campus. I get there from the bus stop I regularly use by passing by a 24 Hour Fitness, and in the large exercise room that borders the walkway, I usually see a large group of people working out, hearing something loud and thumping coming through — a lot of times a current pop song I quite like, whatever it might be — and loud hectoring ‘ALL RIGHT LET’S DO THIS FASTER!’ calls from whoever is leading the session for the location. (The fact that the guy often sounds like Dexter Holland from the Offspring is kinda disconcerting. Who knows, maybe it is him.)
Now I’m not a gym guy. Never have been. Hated p.e. when I was in school, loved it when I finally didn’t have to think about it any more after tenth grade. I tend towards private solitary exercise instead. I don’t need nor want large groups, nor somebody shouting at me to keep things going. So I pass by this, shake my head, and keep going. Yet I recognize that the whole idea is encouragement, not anger, to raise people up and get people going in a very specific context.
Calling VNV’s music and outlook as the equivalent to that is a bit glib, in terms of my mental outlook, in terms of something I needed for the mind and soul. As I said, glib. It’s not exact. I don’t want to say VNV is merely a kind of enforced internal exercise to keep my focus going on something larger. That translates to my mind as a reduction of a band to a crutch. We listen to and respond to art for all our multiple reasons in life, and not all need be articulated. It is not that I have NEVER listened to any band as a crutch, or regarded an author that way, or more — I’m sure I have more than I know.
The churn of ideas in the songs, matched with the music that drives it, works for me because it’s not an Up With People approach, it’s not, say, Mumford and Sons. (Thank goodness.) If it wasn’t exactly what it was in terms of the music, all electronic, I would not like it anywhere near as much as I do. That’s something profound that is extremely personal, arguably extremely selfish, but I know I’m not alone there. Ultimately the thing, I think, that VNV brings to me, that I’ve learned to recognize in myself, that resonates with myself — my lucky, privileged self, plugged into a system with built-in advantages excluding others for no goddamn reason in the world that makes sense — is not to rest calmly.
And when I say it resonates because it tells me not to rest calmly, it is not to self-flatter for making that recognition. This isn’t some sort of hyped-up ‘go me!’ drive I’m talking about, the kind of thing that I guess makes up the inspirational speaker seminar circuit of the world or whatever it is. What this is, what I think VNV gets exactly right for someone like me, someone who knows inside that there’s as much guarded cynicism as there is openness, but always figures the former side is prevalent, someone who never thinks enough can be done, someone who carries around more in my brain from things that have gone wrong than I can count, someone who just can’t believe what happens in the world sometimes, is that they reach out to those have been hurt and those have been burnt. Of course they’re not the only bands and only artists who can do that, who overtly dedicate themselves to that. But they’re speaking my language.
I connected with VNV at a time when I was feeling terribly exhausted. The world is no less wearying then than now. VNV aren’t the cause of giving me new focus in all things. But I hope we all have our lodestones we’ve discovered or will discover that give us something more in life than we could have guessed. I was just lucky to find mine.
This was a live transmission.
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School’s back in session so it was only a matter of time before our 16 year-old intern Marissa Wompler made her way back to the studio to help co-host today’s Comedy Bang Bang! Marissa gets schooled on Grimace, The Fat Boys and motor boating by none other than Rob Corddry! Rob also offers Marissa some expert advice on her recent heartbreak. Plus, we get one special turd of information about what’s to come up on the season finale of Childrens Hospital. Womp It Up!
THIS IS SO AWESOME
THIS IS ME