About a week and a half ago, the sports-and-culture website Grantland crowned OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” the “Best Song of the Millennium,” an accolade awarded just before the tenth anniversary of the song’s release this past Monday. This was the end result of a bracket that ran from August 22 to August 30, in which tens of thousands of people voted for their favorites, and — as we tend to do on the internet — gnashed their teeth, grew incredulous, and got all emotional about whatever song from whichever formative personal experience didn’t make it. Whenever these sorts of things come around, they’re inherently a bit ridiculous — as those involved in the creating usually acknowledge, even if those involved in the reading get a little carried away. But because of that way in which we can intellectually analyze music but also have the most visceral, ineffable reactions and connections to it (in a way, I’d argue, that just does not occur for movies, TV, etc.), people care about lists. They react.
The “Best Song Of The Millennium poll was delivered with a wink — the subtitle for this particular bracket admitted it was “totally arbitrary, completely ridiculous, [and] utterly infuriating.” But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worthwhile. These lists or brackets or whatever teach us things. They tell us about how people make the associations they do, how others experience music, and the world at large. Following the results of this poll, I thought about how I have grown up in an era during which we seem ever more fixated on assigning one thing that hallowed status of single-handedly defining or encapsulating a time and a generation just as the task becomes increasingly problematic. I thought about LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends,” but we’ll get to that.
“The word of the decade was ‘shuffle,'” Jarvis Cocker told Rolling Stone for their retrospective on the first ten years of the millennium. That observation’s straightforward enough, almost quaint when talking about music alone — that’s a decade that saw the sudden, shuddering pains of a record industry and a gradual drift from the idea of a hegemonic music narrative as illegal downloads and iTunes and Spotify began rearranging how we perceived and accessed music. In a larger sense, though, shuffle is how we consume pop culture in general; shuffle is how we now live our lives. People now have access to pretty much anything they want, whenever they want. Entertainment manifests in people’s lives in new ways, becoming entirely randomized and personalized. A person’s anecdote for why a particular song is important to them becomes all the more precious now that they might be having that experience in a vacuum.
This is that now-classic double bind of the internet. It brings you further from and closer to everyone else at the same time, and you’re supposed to love it for both of these qualities. With the digital free-for-all of the ’00s, generational experience is a lot more fragmented and varied. To a certain extent, that was always more true than we might believe — people like to talk about the old monoculture a lot now, and some people like to argue that there was never such a thing, that this was just the master narrative the media ascribed to a certain era. But it was real in certain ways and moments; the Beatles wielded the kind of cultural significance and universality that no single artist could replicate today. We all experience vastly different realms of pop music at different times in our lives now. Any music fan living during the ’00s — whether they were coming of age then or simply existing — has had the ability to experience everything at once. You no longer need to rely on a well-stocked local record store or that one good radio station in town to explore an artist for the first time. You can just YouTube anything you want regardless of era, style, or how popular or niche it was.
Taking all that into account, when you’re trying to define the so-called Best Song Of The Millennium, what’s the criteria for choosing? Is it even possible today to sum up ten or thirteen years in a list of 64 songs, let alone a single one? A lot of people seemed to hold a fervent belief that R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)” could (and deserved to) be named the Best Song Of The Millennium; I, on the other hand, experienced that song through a Chappelle’s Show skit, and otherwise spent 2003 reading about and listening to grunge bands online. This is the sort of landscape in which even the biggest narratives are looser strands than they used to be. In that context, “Hey Ya!” is an agreeable result — a great pop single that was ubiquitous, even if it didn’t capture what it felt like to live through the ’00s in the same way as Radiohead’s “Idioteque,” or OutKast’s “B.O.B.,” for that matter.
LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” was on Grantland’s bracket. It got easily shut out in the first round by Usher’s “Yeah!” by a score of 41,491 votes to 17,322 votes. Yet “All My Friends” might be the best candidate out there for capturing the sensations of 21st century life, whether it’s the specific generational experience of Millennials, or the broader ways we experience culture. Many great pops singles are built up from a paradox, immediately emotive but smart enough to warrant revisiting for years to come, the kinds of songs that can be sad or happy depending on how you approach them. Since 2000, though, being able to contain those paradoxes is a skill that goes beyond making a song a memorable or continually rewarding. It’s what makes a song like “All My Friends” feel as if it has its finger firmly on the pulse of the times, like its whole being is a perfect representation of an era characterized by its fragmentation, and thus by endless paradoxes we live alongside daily.
James Murphy, as both a co-founder of DFA and frontman of LCD, is one of the most important artists the ’00s gave us for how well he traversed all this. By creating a record label whose express purpose was to mash-up seemingly irreconcilable genres (Punk v Dance; “Us v Them”), Murphy was one of the individuals you can directly credit with some of the genre blurring that has come to define how a lot of people are making music, and how a lot of people are writing about music. People readily discuss Murphy as a savvy songwriter who hasn’t entirely dispensed with his DJ roots, characterizing his catalog more as a jukebox filtered through his very personalized Soundsystem than a band with its own identity. Which is true — there’s Davids Bowie & Byrne, Brian Eno, post-punk, art-rock, and techno all present and traceable within his music. And of course Low and Remain In Light had their own mash-up behavior going on, so fast-forward a few decades and an artist like Murphy starts to seem — to quote the new Arcade Fire song he produced — a reflection of a reflection of a reflection. Because of and in spite of that, there’s also no other band that sounds quite like LCD Soundsystem.
As an artist, LCD Soundsystem seemed to perfectly contain enough seeming contradictions as to be a sonic distillation of the times, a representation of what occurs when all the different strands crash together, and they seem to create something new, even if you can’t quite put your finger on it yet. “All My Friends” is their greatest achievement: arguably their most recognizable song, containing all of the various complexities that could be attributed to the band at one point or another, while also being an even further distilled version of the times. It’s hard to say whether it’s supposed to be happy or sad, naïve or disillusioned. Whether it’s supposed to make you feel twenty again or forty before your time. Maybe both, and maybe it carries all the corresponding years in between with it. So once you’ve weighed it down with everything it might be, or is supposed to be, does it still move? Can it?
If “Losing My Edge” was a rush and a push of an opening salvo, “All My Friends” completes the mission statement, refines and clarifies the manifesto. It’s one 7-minute summation of the experience of the millennium, the sense of wanting everything all at once, having access to everything all at once, and ultimately not feeling so much freed as paralyzed at the inescapable weight that comes with carrying all that with you. On one hand all our immediate access is great, but it also denies us a collective experience in the same way as older generations. So it produces nostalgia: for simpler times, or ’80s music, or vague notions of a past that seems easy to wrap your arms around. And it produces a detachment, a sense that there’s this big messy culture out there that you can try to touch but ultimately feels impossible to understand in its entirety. That’s why a band like LCD Soundsystem, and a song like “All My Friends,” capture that zeitgeist-y feeling: they sound singular, but contain the sorts of multitudes required to define an era during which we live with the pop of every era at the same time.
“All My Friends” is about aging, feeling disconnected, simultaneously reckoning with and missing your past. James Murphy turned 37 the year it was released, and it should appeal to people in their 30s. And yet Murphy’s impressionistic verses evoke more widespread experiences than chronologically approaching middle age. This millennium was kicked off with 9/11, and as it progressed we became able to carry entire decades of pop culture and history in our pockets. All of this ages us before our time, whether these were the years in which we grew up, or whether these were the years where we ourselves had children.”You spent the first five years trying to get with the plan/ And the next five years trying to be with your friends again,” Murphy sings. That could be about the struggles of aging and figuring yourself out, but it could also be about the seeming impossibility of navigating the people and culture around you when 2010 suggests 2001, 1987, 1964, and 1999 as much as it suggests itself.
It’s too overwhelming to face that all at once. Is it then any wonder that perhaps the two defining behaviors of our era have become nostalgia and ironic detachment, that we prefer our world through the perfectly faded haze of Instagram or the performative quips of Twitter? Even if you’d argue that the last thirteen years have been primarily characterized by a push and pull between irony and earnestness, it all stems from a sense of disassociation from our time and place — we intentionally say things we don’t mean so we don’t have to bare ourselves to all the noise that comes with infinite digital voices, or we overcompensate and overshare as a proposed salve to the supposedly corrosive effects of ironic living. Murphy buried some of the most earnest pop songs of the last ten years under a veneer of ironic wit. “All My Friends” taps into that same disassociation. It’s like, to paraphrase an old Don Draper quote, watching your life, knowing it’s right there, and futilely trying to break into it. That’s the engine behind “All My Friends,” behind its oscillation between sentimentality and one-liners. Thanks to the speed and abstractions through which we live our lives in the new millennium, you no longer need to be 37 to feel that way.
As there’s a wistfulness hanging over “All My Friends,” there’s something bittersweet undercutting that Grantland bracket, and the entire franchise of list-making, of trying to sum up the feeling of being alive in a particular time. We are so aware of so many things now that we need to organize our experience by numbered points or rankings. That doesn’t mean there isn’t still value in it all. In a broad sense, this impulse to compartmentalize is a product of the speed of modern times. But it’s also a product of fractured times. By putting history into all these bite-sized chunks, we make the big shaggy thing digestible, but we also see the overwhelming expanse that is compression after compression, retrospective after retrospective, each successive one seeking to define your life experience in some fashion. They’re pleasurable, but they’re also daunting, making us acutely aware of all that human experience we can just barely touch.
Now, in this millennium, the idea of universal musical experience is a thing of nostalgia itself; the idea of there ever being a generation- or era-defining song again seems impossible. Don’t get me wrong: multiplicity is great. Nobody should bemoan all the options we have at our fingertips in 2013. But it’s one extreme we’ve tumbled into, and we haven’t entirely adjusted yet. Look at these most recent VMAs. We craft our snarky-but-I-don’t-care-enough-to-even-hate-them 140-character denunciations of their intrinsic meaninglessness, and then we spend a week talking, and writing think pieces. We still crave our universal experiences, to have monolithic markers with which to relate to those around us, to see all our friends tonight.
Part of living in this millennium means accepting all the competing informational and experiential detritus flying at you 24/7. It means not being paralyzed by all that has come before you waging war within you, but to tap into the juxtapositions and the dissonances and the confusions, and do something with it. It means believing for six years that “All My Friends” is the greatest song of your youth, the song that says everything there is to say about living today, but also accepting there’s only a measly 17,321 others playing on your team against Usher. It means accepting that a song you deem generation-defining might be just that, but explicitly because it exposes how impossible such a title is anymore.
So, then, in celebration of paradoxes. “All My Friends” is happy and it’s sad. It’s naïve, but also disillusioned. It can make you feel twenty again. It makes you feel forty before your time. It makes you feel twenty and forty at once. It spirals into drug-fueled escapism, and it spirals into nostalgia. It’s mature. It’s the sound of sobering up. It’s the song you play as the party peaks. It’s the song you put on headphones when you walk home in the early hours of the morning, and some nights you triumphantly reminisce about all the experiences of your life, but maybe the edges are haunted and just as you step up to your front door and Murphy’s last refrain echoes “If I could see all my friends tonight” you also know you’re searching, too, that you feel all the dejection and isolation that’ve been as much a part of these last thirteen years as a new online version of community, or as much as anything else. It’s a song about 1987 and 1997 and 2007 and probably 2017. Even weighed down by all of this, it still moves. And because we have no other option, because this is our new millennium life: We still move, too.
[photo by Matt Biddulph]