Albums of Our Lives: Moxy Früvous’s Bargainville
I was twenty when Moxy Früvous’s music found its way to my dorm computer through the copious file sharing we all participated in after the death of Napster. I had just completed the tenth issue of my feminist zine as the drumbeats for war accelerated from Washington. Barely two years out from 9/11, it didn’t seem like there was much we could do to halt the war march. We millennials didn’t have our generational markers yet. Occupy Wall Street was waiting in the wings. Web 2.0 was still germinating up at Harvard. Very few of us had heard of Barack Obama, and I myself had yet to discover The Daily Show.
What did I turn to when I needed to channel my frustration with this corporatized Republican state against which I could only kick my small angry feet? The music of Gen-Xers from another country. Moxy Früvous, an indie college rock band hailing from Ontario, Canada, heavily covered by undergrad a capella clubs and played on late-night caffeinated campus radio stations. Not at my university, of course. At some other liberal schools long ago and far away.
It didn’t matter that Moxy Früvous’s discography was closed by that point; they were new to me. They had stopped touring and hadn’t released an album in four years. But I didn’t care. I was in love. This is the story of missing the boat but swimming after it anyway.
The four whip-smart, crass, sardonic lads of Moxy Früvous pushed all my buttons. They sang pun-filled satire. They sang love songs. They sang French ballads and Bee Gees covers. I was convinced they were the best band in the universe and instantly became a loyal disciple to this folk-rock group that barely existed anymore.
The band’s first studio recording, Bargainville, is quintessential ’90s. Released at the onset of the Clinton era, it’s packed with references to Gameboy, VCRs, the Cold War, fax machines, Yeltsin, “Be Kind Rewind,” Pat Buchanan, NAFTA, Dollywood, Billy Ray Cyrus, and Nintendo. Although the zeitgeist had changed by 2003, I found Früvous’s political satire fresh and relevant to my newly radicalized campus-activist life. My friends and I marched weekly against Bush and Cheney’s saber-rattles, fielding snowball shots from frat boys. I vacillated between Zen-like flower-child tolerance and seething contempt for the bigoted, calcified populace of my college town. I wanted to save the world through peace, but I vibrated with rage.
Bargainville’s closing track, “Gulf War Song,” a meandering question posed during Desert Storm, was a staple among me and my best friends, a “Why can’t we all just get along?” plea written from the powerless, pained perspective of youth. We thought it was genius. I thought music would solve everything. The morning after George W. Bush sent the first bombs to fall on Baghdad, my best friend and I cried on the floor of her dorm room, listening to “Gulf War Song” on repeat. Despite all our efforts to stop the war, we couldn’t. “But the trying was very revealing.”
Though I preferred Moxy Früvous’s more musically mature albums to their debut, Bargainville started it all for me. Steeped in springtime nostalgia, its sound is the smell of fresh-cut grass on the quad during finals week, walking back from the dining hall on warm nights, singing “River Valley” in the echoing wind tunnel between the library and the theatre building. Bargainville was a gateway drug into dozens of other bands I found between 2003 and 2006, as illustrated below.
This is the story of the magic that happens when you find your best friends in college and cultivate your own insular, zany language. My friends and I were a juxtaposed pile of political discussions and nonsense words on dorm-room floors scattered with Sharpies and poster board for anti-war signs. We debated nonviolent methods for smashing capitalism. We fantasized about moving to Canada, where they provided universal healthcare and where nobody locked their doors, according to Bowling For Columbine. And since we were in college, we talked about sex all the time. Or rather, my friends talked, and I listened with trepidation.
Late bloomer that I was, I longed for a boyfriend but was nevertheless terrified that coupling up would signify an erasure of self. Guys in my dorm pursued me by “negging,” insisting how much cuter I’d be if I weren’t so nerdy and liberal. The sexual economy of college only made me dig my heels harder into the shores of girlhood, fearful of the inevitable day I would have to let a man flatten the contours of my personality like a backhoe.
But at twenty years old, I would listen to Moxy Früvous and feel hope that brighter, sensitive suitors were out there somewhere. I was in love with all four of them: their gentle Toronto accents, their deadpan humor, their dorky flannel button-downs, mullets, and Brad Renfro flop-tops. I loved the restless male energy of their stage banter and their moonshine-clear tenor voices. Jian Ghomeshi, the hot long-haired drummer, was far and away my favorite, but I would have married any one of them.
Bargainville’s opaque, tender, often cheeky lyrics about young relationships involved bookish women who were “a tangle of questions.” I began to see the possibility of someday becoming the clever partner-in-crime for some witty English major who would never ask me to give up my poetry or feminism. Maybe I could be somebody’s baby and still love a bunch of authors.
Bargainville served as the soundtrack for my political education. It was the first time I discovered the power of art to effect change, and it was all I wanted to write about. On a whim I emailed Jian, Moxy Früvous’s drummer, and requested an interview for my zine. When he replied with a yes a few hours later, I danced around my kitchen, then called my best friend and shouted, “GUESS WHAT!!” I spent the next week carefully crafting questions about the role of politics in art.
When Jian and I finally talked on the phone, we discussed the war in Iraq, political music, right-wing propaganda and the artist’s responsibility to speak out against injustice. He humored my wide-spread docket of inquiries and offered thoughtful and verbose responses. I didn’t want to betray my breathless enthusiasm, or the fact that I was thinking, “I can’t believe this is happening!” throughout the whole interview. At the end, he asked me how old I was.
“Twenty!” I said proudly, with a hint of flirtation, relieved to finally be free of the “teen” suffix.
“Okay, so you’re not too young.”
I gave a short laugh, the breath knocked out of me.
“Cause you’re really smart,” he continued.
I pretty much died right there.
After a year or two of intense Früvous devotion, I found new bands to obsess over, but none delivered quite the same electric thrill I experienced that first season I absorbed myself in Moxy Früvous’s harmonies. And the farther I get from my college years, the more I believe none ever will.