By Bryan Menegus
Generic Insight Radio Fest and the Shape of Punk to Come
"The world's a better place since I chose music. I like the physical aspect of it, the volume and the intensity of it. It's loud and hard. I like all that because inside me I feel like screaming." –Henry Rollins, singer of Black Flag.
In the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, under the noisy shadow of the elevated M train, Party Xpo yawns out of its single dark-tinted door, letting in several more 20-somethings in dark sweatshirts. It shares a block with Enrique's Unisex Salon, which advertises $20 Brazilian extensions & human hair. Big Boy Deli, caddy-corner, bears a handwritten sign above their glass case of cold cuts, cheeses and condiments: sandwiches cannot be paid for with food stamps.
Inside, long tables position themselves near the narrow entrance-- people hawking homemade baked goods and rare 7-inch vinyl records. The occasion is the second annual Generic Insight Radio Fest: a two-day long affair of 35 up-and-coming bands loosely associated with the punk scene. Generic Insight began as an alternative web-based radio show and blossomed into a full-fledged showcase, hosting such acts as Algernon Cadwallader and None More Black last year. This year, Iron Chic took Friday's top slot, and Saturday was headlined by Grey Area.
Generic Insight is a chance for young groups to split a bill with more established acts, like the aforementioned headliners. T-shirts, pins, demo CDs and records are sold for the betterment of committed and starving bands' future tours. But mostly, Generic Insight exists to impress two-hundred or so blasé Brooklynites over a collected eighteen hours.
The second floor where the smaller bands play is shellacked in an academic sort of graffiti- not the product of vandalism or tagging so much as an intentionally gritty art installation. Checkerboard patterns along the first floor walls made from squares of old carpet recede into similarly rugged couches and lay-z-boys.
Five-foot-nothing with a "Live Once" tattoo behind her right arm, Barrie Cohn, Generic Insight founder and festival organizer, scrambles to keep things on schedule. The barrier between the audience and artist is easily broken with enough enthusiasm from either party. Suddenly, microphone stands are toppled, a careening fan sends PAs crashing down, a guitar string pops in contact with fists. Dark bodies writhe joyfully against the wood or linoleum flooring and disembodied arms zero-in to pull them back into the fray and feedback.
This is the spirit of floor shows, their collective giddy energy and sense of community. At Generic Insight, it was a spirit that only made fleeting appearances: toes were tapped, heads nodded along, and in the luckiest cases the band had a few friends in the crowd who knew the words.
Usually the artists simply fed off their own energy. Ben Kruger, singer of Like Wolves, gives out a guttural shriek and falls into the crowd, bouncing against human molecules before landing face first on the rotting floorboards, microphone still in hand. Earlier he'd explained that the song was about women's reproductive rights.
Two hours in, the lead singer of the band Mayflower thanks the crowd for any financial sacrifices they had made.
As day one of Generic Insight wound down, each successive act began to sound suspiciously similar, a trend which continued into the second day's twelve-hour scramble. The structure, the vocal cadence, the sing-a-long choruses: there was a well-worn formula to playing this breed of ‘punk'. The only factor which separated bands like Censors from Spraynard, or Stereo State from Timeshares was whether or not people knew the words.
How long have you paid your dues? Have your members been in any bigger projects?Do you have a split 7" with anyone who matters?
This was the audience's checklist of questions to tick through before making the leap from ‘observer' to ‘participant', or god forbid, ‘fan'. A genre with a rich history of non-conformity was being redefined as a popularity contest, a playground where the entitled can play at chic poverty while maintaining their natural, comfortable judgmentalism.
Even the few cover songs-- culled from truly influential punk bands-- were met with confusion or boredom. Highlites' renditions of "Never Talking to You Again" by Hüsker Dü and Black Flag's "Nervous Breakdown" both fell flat. Even Mayflower's version of "Rock ‘n Roll Highschool" by The Ramones seemed to inspire no recognition.
If the two-or-three-hundred individuals who paid to enter Party Xpo that day represent the state of punk to come, they're cookie-cutter kids-- sanctimonious, ignorant of their own past and excited by nothing.
The performers who did stand out were those who were debatably or tangentially punk. Groups like Oak & Bone, Slingshot Dakota, Restorations, We Were Skeletons and Snowing displayed extraordinary passion and originality. Their ethic was indelibly punk, but their concern was not in being recognized as such. The weird kids came out of the woodwork. They showed their support audibly.
After the last act of day two, the warehouse's high ceilings swallowed a round of polite, nostalgic applause. Some of the older fans sang along, eyes visibly scanning the ceiling as they struggled to mentally substitute the gaps in sound left by absent band members. Each nodding head said, irrevocably, "I know what this ought to sound like," the same problematic statement that seemed to extend to every band on the roster.