The Saturday Rumpus Essay: 69 Love Songs


Everything around us we optimize. Think of the humble MicroSD card for too long and you lose grasp of the laws of physics. Everything, each iteration, smaller—cars, engines, computers, phones, laptops, TVs (depthwise), any kind of personal electronics, cables, connectors—small is beautiful. We are all hastily applying Moore’s Law to everything, doubling and redoubling as we reduce, overclock, maximize, minimize. One can buy a TV the size of a wall for a price one can nearly afford, new 747s can seat 600 passengers, our explosions on film are grander and more deeply moving, and a few Super Big Gulps can drown a small town. What we are, really, are optimizing machines—a back-formation of optimist, from optimus, i.e. best. The implication of Moore’s Law isn’t just that things will get faster or smaller at a predictable rate, but that the trend of all cultural output is towards optimizing, and it is only art that lingers in the space of uselessness. Good or bad is outside of this conversation—with each cycle of production, we’re making things the best at what they need to do.

Arthur Palm, fourteen years old, writing in 1901, about the year 2000:

You will see a tube stretched across the city called, “The United States Mail Tube.” The House-keepers will have an easy time; the dishes will be washed by electricity. […] You will not see a single horse on Broadway, New York and only autos will be seen. In war the nations will have submarine torpedo boats which will destroy a whole fleet. […] The locomotives will travel about 300 miles an hour, but I think it is not necessary because, before you know it, you will be killed by a locomotive. The people of the Earth will be in close communication with Mars by being shot off in great cannons. The cannon ball will be hollow to contain food and drink.

1/1/00, 12:00 a.m.: At this point in time, I’m a dweebish fourteen-year-old, which means my New Years’ celebrations are watching the ball drop on TV then a mouthful of cheap champagne. But I’m fourteen at the end of the 90s, which means every moment of my existence is filtered through MTV, and despite family protest the channel switches away from it only briefly. Thirty seconds into the future and ringing in this moment for me is Carson Daly, MTV’s savior post-Kurt, alongside the impossible-to-kill Christina Aguilera, on phase two of her reinventions. Carson looks not-so-secretly miserable like always—a punk kid who grew up with a boy-band name and was cut a little too clean, always an interview away from finally snapping, a life most people would dream of making him progressively unhappy (itself the insane and overblown story of the 90s white male, now playing in Fight Club, American Beauty, The Matrix, Office Space, Lost in Translation, and basically the entire grunge scene). MTV had started a tradition of bands covering songs for their midnight New Year’s performance—Marilyn Manson fantastically/phantasmically covers Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” and there’s a regrettable nu-metal imagining of Prince’s “1999” by Limp Bizkit, before it all spins off into the even more frightening “you’re-not-the-fucking-demographic-anymore” territory (Hilary Duff, etc).

Strangely, years later I’ll find myself on set at an MTV New Year’s show, subjected to AFI’s limp performance of Blur’s “Song 2,” riding the coattails of my sister’s very cool MTV internship, and feeling about as out of place as is manifestable by the human experience, surrounded by people paid to be pretty in establishing shots in a schlocky and very sweaty studio. Still, one performance stands out from the pack, the one I’m watching in the first beats of the new millennium—No Doubt taking on the uncoverable “It’s The End of the World as We Know It” by REM, Michael Stipe’s 600-word essay crammed into four minutes, a calculus that otherwise only makes sense to teaching assistants and adjuncts. For a millennium cover, on the eve of a dreamed-about computer meltdown, on the wake of our best-chance-at-apocalypse, No Doubt’s song choice is so perfect and so obvious that it makes an alternative unimaginable. Gwen Stefani, soon to rise from the ashes of No Doubt in the new millennium (and, who everyone knew, was no doubt the star), mostly navigates her way through a song Michael Stipe admits makes no sense. No sense might be the smartest choice for a moment we had hyped beyond any conceivable reality. Anyone who tells you 2001 is the real new millennium is a joyless pedant.

Stipe: This means no fear, cavalier, renegade and steering clear / A tournament, a tournament, a tournament of lies / Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives, I decline

The Y2K bug, as it was known, was not the result of shortsightedness: very early computing, with machines responding to punch cards, an eighty-column piece of stiff paper used for data processing, made bit conservation a priority on massively expensive, massively slow computing hardware. Omitting the ‘1-9’ saved vital space at the time, and this practice continued as computing evolved. To give some sense of scale, the amount of storage on my phone is roughly the size of 400 million punch cards, which would be roughly the weight of three Boeing 747 airplanes, and lengthwise would cover the circumference of earth nearly twice. The wrath of the Y2K bug ended up being small—some slot machines in Delaware broke, minor banking errors were quickly fixed, but that’s after almost $300 billion in preparations—nothing sells like doom. Were we excited, even breathless, thinking about its destructive potential, still twenty-some months removed from our first real engagement with terror?

Stipe, again: That’s great it starts with an earthquake / Birds and snakes, an aeroplane, Lenny Bruce is not afraid

Lenny Bruce is dead, though, of a morphine overdose forty years ago, so let’s rewind a bit. By 11:30 p.m. 12/31/99 my mind is lost in apocalyptic fantasy—I’m imagining the stupid crystal ball exploding, stock tickers short circuiting in a hail of neon spark, Mr. Peanut climbing out of his creepy Times Square billboard to squash revelers. Six years later and I’ll be flinching at each shot of a three-volley salute to a friend KIA in Afghanistan, but right now my barely teenage self can only glorify the idea of destruction, and my grim hope is for us to watch our own vanity and excess collapse inward with Times Square our black hole. What’s more exciting that a demolition in time lapse, on a 27” Trinitron TV?

Stipe, once more: World serves its own needs, listen to your heart bleed / Tell me with the Rapture and the reverent in the right, right?

Lauren Berlant:

What is cruel about these attachments, and not merely inconvenient or tragic, is that the subjects who have x in their lives might well endure their loss of object or scene of desire, even though its presence threatens their well-being, because whatever the content of the attachment, the continuity of the form of it provides something of the continuity of the subject’s sense of what it means to keep on living and to look forward to being in the world.

Me: Our optimism, and things for which we are optimistic, shapes us, and are as hard to undo as any vice, binding us to our greatest joys and most tragic flaws.

Conan O’Brien featured a segment on his show called In the Year 2000, in which, with flashlight shined in his face campfire-ghost-story style, Conan and guest would offer bizarre predictions of life in the mystical year of 2000. These are almost always cheap jokes (“Gas prices will get so high, they will start hanging out with Snoop Dogg.”), affirmations that celebrity punchlines will outlive us all. The segment continued, still called In the Year 2000, until 2009, intro’d still by Conan: “Let’s look to the future, all the way to the year 2000!”

Everywhere people are shoving things into the ground—time capsules not to be opened until the year 2100, the more optimistic postmarked for 3000—letters to the future in the language of the now. There is a National Millennium Time Capsule, with all of the things that make America great—a Twinkie, Corningware, The Grapes of Wrath, the double helix. The Detroit Time Capsule from 1900, opened on its correct date in our new millennium, predicted that Detroit would have 5000 manufacturing plants and transport prisoners through pneumatic tubes—slightly off. A newspaperman, however, foresaw a way of instantly transmitting an image of the news to every home. We seem to balance our wild misses with stunning foresight—the French imagined something a whole lot like Skype and something a whole lot like a Roomba, but also saw us doing underwater sea battles on something like giant metal seahorses, a true testament to French military planning.

It’s hard to set a start point on the cultural dream of the year 2000. Maybe it’s because the number itself belies a kind of futurism—Lever 2000, Grecian 2000, Windows 2000, 2000 Flushes. A pathway into something new, a clock resetting, a rebirth, a clear demarcation of being in the future-present. As a number it’s kind of boring. For any math nerds, the recent three years, 2013, 2014, and 2015 are all sphenic numbers, the product of three distinct prime numbers (5 x 13 x 31 = 2015)—the next set of three, the most it can ever be, won’t happen again for more than 600 years.

But let’s skip a year: In Kubrick’s 2001, we were supposed to be living in a kind of kitschy retrofuture, with interior design by some tripped-out IKEA madman and ho-hum everyday space travel. What he definitely got right: the future doesn’t seem strange to us in our infinite present. That’s how I like to see the single greatest match cut in film history—the primitive man’s bone refashioned as weapon spinning and becoming the orbiting nuclear weapon satellite passes through time like a blink, our futures always-already our present. For all the dystopia, science fiction is often our greatest source of optimism, an imagining of the future so much further beyond anything we manage. This is something that will be self-fulfilled each time something new feels natural.

Stipe, finally: Team by team, reporters baffled, trumped, tethered, cropped / Look at that low plane, fine, then

DeLillo, on sunsets caused by airborne toxins:

If the special character of Nyodene Derivative (added to the everyday drift of effluents, pollutants, contaminants and deliriants) had caused this aesthetic leap from already brilliant sunsets to broad towering ruddled visionary skyscapes, tinged with dread, no one had been able to prove it…Cars speed beneath us, coming from the west, from out of the towering light, and we watch them as if for a sign, as if they carry on their painted surfaces some residue of the sunset, a barely detectable luster or film of telltale dust…It is not until some time after dark has fallen, the insects screaming in the heat, that we slowly begin to disperse, shyly, politely, car after car, restored to our separate and defensible selves.

When our technology finds its greatest destructive potentials, we, as narrative-seeking machines, make sense of it. Oppenheimer reaches back to the Bhagavad Gita—Reagan, addressing the nation after the Challenger disaster, lifts a poem by John Magee Jr.: “I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth … / and touched the face of God.”

A brief outline of things I’ve forgotten about:

  • NATO air strikes cause massive civilian casualties in an attempt to end the Kosovo War, most notable for years of international apathy to Milošević’s genocide and repression of Kosovo Albanians
  • Earthquakes, typhoons, tornadoes, and plane crashes seem to accelerate, or at least our attention to them does (somewhere Don DeLillo looks on, nodding knowingly)
  • Brandi Chastain wins the US the Women’s World Cup in an utterly dramatic penalty kick shootout, and is remembered mostly for taking off her shirt in celebration
  • George Lucas commits franchise-icide with The Phantom Menace, inspiring a new generation of youths to be skeptical of and dissatisfied by the things their parents loved and setting up millennials for an age of lukewarm disappointment

A good friend of mine, whom I respect deeply, is a self-fashioned philosophical pessimist. It’s never sat well with me. Rousseau, history’s pessimist, writes that “our souls have become corrupted to the extent that our sciences and arts have advanced toward perfection.”

There is some persuasiveness to it all—but when was my soul ever uncorrupted? And what guarantee is happiness as a result of our freedoms? And by whose measurement is progress an improvement? Yet—who, even at their most optimistic, sees anything bordering on perfection in our dumb stumblings toward progress, or would argue for anything other than a hopelessly imperfect world? Moreover, who feels those imperfections, not just as affect, but as social, political, psychic, and economic realities, as the human costs of inequalities, and who then could argue for an embrace of the absurdity of human existence? Let’s flip Rousseau: in our search for a less imperfect world, our separate and defensible souls optimize.

Ernst Bloch:

Not only hope’s affect (with its pendant, fear) but even more so, hope’s methodology (with its pendant, memory) dwells in the region of the not-yet, a place where entrance and, above all, final content are marked by an enduring indeterminacy.

Me: Our potentials are an indeterminate link of hope and fear—they anticipate each other. Just as we were fearful of Y2K, we were hopeful of a future run by people and not machines. Just as we fear the awesome potential of technology, of DeLillo’s corrupt sunsets and our vast technology of destruction, we hope for the less imperfect world it may create.

If we can, think back to Limp Bizkit: It’s always bugged me that they got Prince’s “1999” wrong—“Two thousand zero zero party over oops out of time / tonight we’re gonna party like it’s nine-teen-ninety-nine.” Think it through: the present of the song is where No Doubt finds themselves, midnight on the year 2000—time’s run out, the clocks have all ticked over. Prince’s party is to hold back time, to reach back like it’s our last moments on earth and push back against the future. You can sneak in any bullshit bromide you like here—“treat each day like it’s your last!”—but the feeling is all the same. Pull from your disappearing past the only hope you can to make this new time seem not so foreign and not so unbearably lonely. As sufficiently trained postmodernists, we’re especially skeptical of any grand narrative, keen observers of the multiplicity of experience and instability of representation. Yet, as Dick Clark et al cycled through different time zones in celebration of 2000, there is a kind of univocal joy found in this arbitrariness—an Earth in celebration of its continued existence, a global carnival as the only-half-seriously held-breath is released.

Think back again, if we can, to REM: any grammarians would note the adverb clause and conjunction: it’s the end of the world as we know it. We’re modifying it, the thing we know, the terribly named definite pronoun. It’s not an end or an apocalypse, only a change to the it that we knew—not our death knell, but something close to an anthem.

Now, without a hint of irony, we can buy Woody G’s “This Machine Kills Fascists” sticker as a decal for our laptops. We spend millions on don’t-text-and-drive campaigns. Our so-hip dinner parties put out a collection basket for smartphones so we can just talk. Our self-driving cars look like koalas and with every turn they take us, we want more.


Notes on quoted texts:

Lauren Berlant quotes from Cruel Optimism.
Ernst Bloch quote from The Principle of Hope.
Don DeLillo quote from White Noise.
Arthur Palm quote from Yesterday’s Future: The Twentieth Century Begins, Edited by Michael E. Stevens.

Ben Wirth is a writer living in Seattle. He received an MFA from the University of Washington, where he is currently pursuing a PhD in English. Find him @jbwirthless More from this author →