Hot Hot Heat at Irving Plaza
New York, October 13, 2003
Leaning against the balcony at Irving Plaza, I looked down into the crowd of approximately 1,000 people waiting to see Hot Hot Heat, and for the first time, I questioned my place at a rock show.
For years I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the anti-hipster assault. I laugh at the jokes, I make a couple more, I cringe at the ones that hit a little close to home. And although I don’t look like your typical hipster (minus Rivers Cuomo glasses, naturally), I feel an affiliation with my generation’s hipster scene because I closely follow the bands that are associated with it. I embrace the ones I like and discard the ones I feel are simply “it” bands of the moment. Overlooking the crowd from about 30 feet in the air, however, I felt as if the whole thing was kind of silly.
The floor was made up of a not-so-diverse group of people—college students mostly, few younger, some older. All of them dressed to kill, with one eye on the stage and the other eye watching the rest of the crowd to see who might be looking at them. When Steve Bays and company took the stage, it seemed as if everyone was too cool to care. Here, after all, is one of the hottest indie bands in the world—a band that is gaining fans with great shows like this and strong word-of-mouth. What better place to be to be seen by someone?
Throughout the band’s hour-long set, Bays constantly tried to get some sort of reaction out of the crowd, remarking before three songs that the subsequent number “is a dance song,” practically begging the crowd to move. It was no fault of Hot Hot Heat, who backed all the hype being thrown on them with a sublime set of their best material, digging from Make Up the Breakdown and their Knock Knock Knock EP. Bays handled singing, keyboard, and dancing duties surprisingly well, wielding the mic like a young Mick Jagger, while Dante DeCaro sliced through the air with his angular harmonies. Paul Hawley held the band together with his abrupt meter changes and complex rhythms, the piece that connected Bays’ decidedly d-d-dance influences with DeCaro’s post-punk sonique.
One look at the crowd during “Oh Godamnit,” however, made me realize not everyone there was appreciating the band’s effort. Or was even trying, for that matter. Which is a shame because Hot Hot Heat is a great band, Make Up the Breakdown is a great album, and this was a great show. Of course, the funny part is that while these twenty-somethings were doing their best to not look stupid, most came off looking just that—a gathering of people standing around, looking at nothing in particular. One thousand people with one thousand sticks up one thousand asses.
For anyone who has written off Hot Hot Heat as a novelty act, the power of the band’s performance should have easily reversed the notion. But anyone looking for more ammo against scenesters would have found it in spades. Music, ideally, is inclusive. It is created by those who would like to see it reach a large amount of people. It is not meant to be the mission statement of a ridiculous, pretentious clique whose sole purpose is to out-cool every other ridiculous, pretentious clique. I myself—at only 19—felt obsolete while maneuvering through the crowd after opener A.R.E Weapons’ set. I knew I wasn’t wearing the ironically hip jeans or the right shoes. But if I didn’t know it, I’d have figured it out by the 10th or 11th weird look I got. The looks of the anorexic models and heroin-chic guys could have just as easily been the same looks I’d have received at a police lineup.
A fashion police lineup, naturally.
Luckily, that sort of thing doesn’t bother me. More impressionable kids, sadly, might look at that group of people and think, “I want to be one of them.” And with enough money and time spent shallowly researching the history of the music, one can fit right in. For a scene that is supposed to encourage diversity and self-expression, a scene that ridicules the “preps” or the “jocks” for fitting into a cookie-cutter mold, I don’t notice much different other than the aesthetic hipsters carry. They may dress “alternative,” but underneath the image is the same philosophy that has become the downfall of many children: C-O-N-F-O-R-M.
I won’t get into a spiel railing against genres or sub-cultures, because it is natural of humans to group similar items together in order to simplify the clutter of modern life. However, I carry the perhaps naïve belief that (as the GloNo motto states) “Rock and roll can change your life.” It is a place where people can get together and escape life for a couple of hours, where people can focus on and enjoy the music, and nothing else. It is supposed to provide sanctity for anyone trying to escape whatever may be bothering him or her at any given time. For someone who is being made fun of at school for not fitting in, a rock show should be the place to go to make friends with common interests instead of being another place they are exiled from.
In September, I took a job at a label in New York. More specifically, in a very rich, fashionable area of New York. I consider myself really lucky because I’ve always dreamed of working in the music industry and for the first time in my life between being in college and working where I do, I find myself meeting a lot of people who love music. Coming from what could have just as easily been named Dave Matthews High School, it is exciting to find that the bands and people I’ve read about on the Internet actually exist, and it’s even more exciting that I am encountering them every day. But if this is what it’s really all about—exclusion, elitism, materialism, fashion—I’ll gladly give it back. In my room, with my headphones on, the dream that 1,000 people can get together with a shared passion still exists.
Someone tell me I’m not alone.