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I Have a Favourite Band

‘But baby, you know me
I don’t read a damn thing
Don’t read a damn thing.

Work Out, Rainbow Kitten Surprise

I.

Here’s a truth I’m comfortable with: I am from a less ardent tradition; my mother’s side of the family. I was stuck in a long car ride with my grandfather once — he used to be a history professor and is a sonorous, effective orator and writer — and I asked if he’d ever thought about singing when he was younger. He laughed, shook his head, and said he would give up his powers of oration, his talent for stories, his ability to write op-eds in minutes and not hours; give it all up for the the ability to sing. I knew immediately that he didn’t mean it — he was laughing at the suggestion.

There’s a long tradition of people writing about their obsessions with their favourite bands, from that guitar nerd who won’t shut up about John Mayer to the freshly obsessed rock band girl who jumps on the counter for AC/DC. It’s almost as if twenty-somethings feel that life is somewhat incomplete without tastes that are rare, precious, and overlooked. We feel the need to conspiratorially share niche tastes in warm corners of pubs, crave the false sense of uniqueness that surfaces as we let someone visit our secret possessions (‘I think you’ll love this band’). We also require that others have their own possessions, and that they define themselves on demand. To fail to do so is to become a cultural freeloader; someone who lacks taste. Until recently, I used to evade such a self-definition (‘I listen to all sorts of stuff’). I’d never heard music where I felt spoken-to, personally addressed. I would have been slightly disappointed if I had, because I vainly internalised my lack of preferences as proof of my distance from cultural cliches, from consensual agreements about the types of guy and their specific tastes.

I’m rarely obsessed with a piece of music in the way that I know many people are. There are brief moments when music becomes truly awe-inspiring, the tension reaches a crescendo, and there is something obviously impressive going on. But these moments are only experiences to me, like go-kart racing or paragliding. They don’t occupy my imagination after the fact; this is aphantasia, but for music. Instead, I have literary earworms: sentences, quotes, rhythms of phrase that I cannot get out of my head. I’m configured differently, satisfied with my literary inheritance of books and bedtime stories. I am memetically receptive to text, not sound or image.

Here’s a truth I’m uneasy about: transition and cultural shock have convinced me that I will never fit in, never acquire group identity. And since I did not have a group identity, I needed to acquire a personal narrative. We are the stories we tell about ourselves and mine was missing a lot of parts. I was short of answers to elementary questions (‘what kind of music do you like?’) and void of somewhat rudimentary personal opinions (‘what do you think about this shirt?’). It takes time to find out who you really are, and what you really think. My failings in this department have sometimes made me feel inferior and self-conscious.

II.

Rainbow Kitten Surprise

Photo by Aubrey Denis

I first listened to Rainbow Kitten Surprise when my best friend sent it to me during the pandemic. We were in a depressive euphoria of undoing our pasts; in therapy by decomposition. We went for runs every morning, arguing about which playlist we’d listen to. One day, he sent me It’s Called: Freefall. The song is a conversation between the Devil and the lead singer, Melo, who complains (charmingly, refreshingly) about fickle friends, about their predicament, about their existence — only to be met with a stolid but impatient Lucifer who will not take any more of their bullshit. There’s no intro, just a hint of the drums that cover barely four syllables before Melo’s exquisitely rakish voice arrives, asking ‘do you like cigarettes, dominos, rum?’ The devil answers, disappointingly, “only sundown, Sundays, Christmas,”’ with the Moloch-like gravity of an exasperated archangel. But I will not digress; this is only the first song, not the most important.

Self-hatred and self-disgust are repeated themes with RKS. First Class is probably one of the saddest tracks in the discography of a band that makes a performance out of melancholy and melancholic rebellion. To say that First Class is a “what could have been” to your ex-lover seems to understate things a little, leaving metaphors on the table. The song has four verses, each line starting with the anchoring ‘Say’ as in, ‘Say we’ll get married on a porch in Vegas.’ It’s left up to us whether Melo is pleading with a receding lover (i.e. ‘Tell me we’ll get married…’) or whether Melo is doing something altogether different and more impressive: conjuring possible futures, castles in the air, and confessing her insecurities by wondering if any of those futures are quite enough. But regardless, the effect is the same: one of unattractive desperation and self-absorption. ‘Am I enough for you?’ Melo asks, pleadingly.

American Hero’s narrator brings this into sharper focus; she is more plainly pathetic, more elaborately egotistic. ‘Real talk: do you read fuck-up in my walk? Do you see fuck-up on my face? Do I mean anything at all?’ For a person utterly lacking in self esteem, filled with disdain for the present moment and their present selves, what possible future could be enough? Love is poisoned at the root by self hatred. She goes on, desperately: ‘I would do anything to hear you say / There goes an American hero, darling / Call the press and tell ‘em all / “He’s got a front-page picture face with all of the amenities”.’ She does not know the first thing about how to love unselfishly, and so does not believe that anyone else loves unselfishly either. RKS’s characters walk the earth possessed by the desperate desire to be someone else.

My absolutely favourite song is called Cold Love, and I invariably listen to the live version, recorded in Athens, Georgia:

‘I’m just a page unwritten on the pavement,
You needed ‘til you left
But I’m more than a need or a thing you believe
That you leave unsaid

Just before the seeker hits 2:55, the tension rises to a crescendo, the reverb is on, and there is something impressive going on. Their music understands that feelings are not susceptible to distillation, cannot be reduced like red wine. Self-hatred and doubt are not unidimensional, they are not without context, not wholly absent of meaning, not without their attractions.

III.

My case, here, is not that RKS is special or unique in some way. For all I know, the Chainsmokers have deep psychological truth nestled in their songwriting and Maroon 5 is a lost offshoot of an ancient band of travelling bards. For all I know, RKS could be entirely without technical merit, unimpressive except for their writing.

That doesn’t matter so much to me anymore. Identity, like love, is about a moment where you give up on calculation or analysis or judgment. Of course, you could always do better, meet someone else, find better music. But part of deciding who you are is to trade optionality for acceptance, finding value merely in the fact that the feeling is yours, and no one else’s.

I guess I have a favourite band now; a little slice of false uniqueness just for me. When I listen to Cold Love, I feel like existence has been clarified in some simple way. This is my name, this is my favourite band; like a missing piece jammed into the jigsaw of my smalltalk. I like the way it makes me feel when I pick a side.