Hot Hot Heat: Get In or Get Out

Hot Hot HeatHot 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.

15 thoughts on “Hot Hot Heat: Get In or Get Out”

  1. I couldn’t agree more; at base, this type of passion-fuelled rock shouldn’t be about fashion and artifice. The reason a lot of us get into it is that we don’t have conventional rules to accepting and being accepted by our peers, whether its how you dress or how you look; this music has been the province of geeks and freaks, not fashionistas. I mean, when Paul Westerberg circa mid-80s is seen wearing flannel and jeans, it’s because it gets pretty damn chilly in Minneapolis. Richard Hell looked like he did because he was poor (and a drug addict). Husker Du was two fat dudes and a guy with a handlebar mustache; think they gave a fuck about fashion? At the same time, as soon as a phenomenon is “discovered”, the poseurs see the passion, the energy, and try to emulate it any way they think will give them that instant, ever-elusive sense of “cool”. Late 70s punk shouldn’t have been about spitting (and giving Joe Strummer hepatitis from it) any more than 90s grunge should have been about crowd-surfing, any more than trendy scenesters congregating at Hot Hot Heat or Wilco concerts who don’t give a fuck about the real reason *we* go these concerts: THE MUSIC!

    Fuck the scenesters.

  2. > 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.<

    Careful there. This statement treads on an elitism of its own. It is quite presumptuous to assume you are right; and they are wrong.

    Music doesn’t exist for one purpose or another. Sure, it pisses me off when some shithead fratboy is spilling bear on me all the way through my last deathcab show. But, part of what I have to remember is that for some people, rock shows aren’t about “changing your life.” it’s something to do on a friday night. a good place to drink beer. a way to try and get laid.

    Point is, this ain’t no dictatorship. i totally share your desire to have 1,000 people with a shared passion at a show. sadly, more often than not, that’s why catching a band with a crowd of 1000 is catching them too late.

  3. It’s easy to run into crowds of shitheads like that because most people are sheep. Walking around in an ignorant funk, they never see the forest through the trees. They are the unenlightened ones, and I don’t feel sorry for them. They suck!

  4. Yeah. I totally get the conformism stuff, it pisses me off too. But I go to a public high school and that’s the name of the game there, right? The same people that liked bubblegum shit music a couple of years ago are graduating into music like Hot hot Heat. And that’s good, you know, good music being more widespreadly heard. But chances are only a couple in a crowd will actually get the passion.

    Good article.

  5. Katrina, I went to a public high school too. Let me tell you, it is good that they’re getting to listen to a good variety of music. But now, at the risk of sounding “un-cool” I’ll quote some Steely Dan: “…all those day-glo freaks who used to paint the face….they’ve joined the human race…some things will never change..”. That’s the nature of things. If some music is good enough even your friendly neighborhood Britney Spears fan will like it, it doesn’t mean they’ll use it as a measuring stick and try to find similar stuff. But maybe that’s good in the long run. We’ll have our music to cherish and they’ll have theirs. And I don’t mean that in an elitist thumbing my nose down sort of way. Because at the end of the day people like what they like, and nobody gives a hell.

  6. Tom –

    For a 19-year-old, that’s great writing and insight. Critically chronicling and critiquing youth music and youth culture as a youth is no small feat. As a 21-year-old obsessed with music and writing, I’m trying to do the same thing. Most modern fanzines featuring young writers are stubbornly fixated on the music and the artist, leaving journalism and solid writing by the wayside. Music journalism needs to revert to the level of criticality of its heydey in the 60s – Lester Bangs, Ralph Gleason, Ben Fong-Torres, etc. They got into the culture through the music rather than giving a surface treatment of their idols (although they loved music as much as we do). Anyway, good job and keep it up. Let’s start a rock journalism revival.

  7. Sorry Tom, I get what you’re saying but your writing sounds kind of pompous – there’s a difference between cultural insight and “I believe” sermonizing, because that comes off alienating. Write from your gut, not from Kurt Loder’s back pocket.

  8. Speaking as someone who’s had their own writing criticized on this site (ahem), how important is it to bash individual composition style if it’s irrelevant to the content? It may suit your own opinion and possibly others’ but it detracts from the articles and what they’re trying to say. Change the weather or buy an umbrella.

  9. What I do not understand is why these people bothered going to the show, if all they were doing was thinking about themselves, how they looked, and how others think they looked.

    There is no perfect way to write a review and most of the time they are more subjective rather than objective. So why criticise how he wrote? I.e. thinking that it is pompous and in a way hypocritical.

    Considering that Tom is young, is doing what he loves, is doing it how he knows to, and as it appears, doesn’t care ‘too’ much what people think about him in general, he is doing well. He’s landed himself a job which most people only care to dream about and in terms of his writing ability – it is quite remarkable.

    My point – You can only go up from here if you choose to.

  10. Ever stop to think that maybe all of those people you write off as scenesters are the same as you? They happen to glance up at you, sardonically observing the crowd yourself, and think “man, some people are here just to look at the crowd…”

    Your piece is well-written, but kind of hypocritical – going to a concert to watch people who are watching other people.

  11. I enjoyed the article a great deal, but I also agree with Read Roberts a bit. I think too often we generalize about the other members of a crowd at a show. You have to admit you really know nothing about these people. I think feelings like the ones you’re describing often come from our own sense of feeling out of place. I’m not suggesting you change yourself at all, just become more comfortable with who you are.

  12. I would agree with sraparelli: If you are feeling uncomfortable and out of place, I would recommend getting drunk and dancing to your favorite songs. I know you said you are 19, but hey, there is no age limit on flasks! I know that there is a natural impulse to write about non-conformists conforming, but it seems a bit cliche’. There is a level of elitism running through this thread that says that some people deserve music more than others. That is ugliness that keeps a scene insular and makes the people on the inside seem like pricks.

    Summing up: Go to shows drunk, don’t be such a pussy.

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