Do adults ever genuinely overcome the ultimate paradox of teenager-hood: Wanting to belong but simultaneously wanting to stand out? If you’ve ever dined out with a bunch of women (in particular), you know what I mean: People rushing to find the best spot at the table (definitely not the end, and without a doubt as close as possible to whoever the “leader” is), then trying to wrangle the conversation their way as they luxuriate in their “uniqueness.” Does it sound like I’m bitter? No, not really. Despite the fact that I am human, and therefore have to on occasion fight the lonely experience of feeling left out, I mostly don’t let people’s need to “push to the front” color my days. Here’s why: I have met the most interesting people by letting others do their thing and hanging out with the “remnants.” It also means that ever since I was a young girl, I’ve been a pretty keen observer and can suss out a social situation and get a read on the people present pretty well. As a ‘non-shy introvert’ (you see, I’m actually a pretty great conversationalist and have a knack for including others…guess I can brag with the rest of them), I can see the inconsistencies in the way people act and the lengths that many will go to be the center of attention. I see it in local interactions, in politics, and certainly in social media. FYI: The more interesting people are often the ones hanging back because they know they can’t win at this game so don’t exert as much energy trying.
But this isn’t a blog post about me, even though I’ve just given myself a big, ironic ego boost. It’s a post about fitting in and standing out, maybe the ultimate conundrum of the human experience. At its core, territorial fighting and power-strutting – all while searching for like-minded folks – is how our world works. There are those who are “in” and those who are “out” – and the “outs” often have to work at creating their own worlds.
I read two books recently that touch upon these topics in different ways: Destroy All Monsters by Jeff Jackson and Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. The one – admittedly random – reason that I’m writing about them both together is the recent 25th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death. My dad is from the small, depressed logging town where the Nirvana frontman grew up. I myself didn’t grow up there – instead, I grew up in the affluent suburb where Amazon was founded – but I suppose I’ve had an intense fascination with his life because on a very, very basic level, I could understand his background and understood why he was looking for an escape. Like a (nostalgic) sucker, I recently bought the Rolling Stone “commemorative” issue marking the 25 years since Cobain’s death. It’s an interesting read, filled with the articles that originally debuted in the publication in the 90s. His hometown, Aberdeen, WA, is given a fair amount of airtime, mostly because “Compounding the problem of his [troubled] home life was the fact that this home was in a trailer park in the belly of Aberdeen, a dreary logging community not known for its compassionate attitude toward delicate, artistically curious misfits.”
We all like to think that Cobain found his “people” in the music world. Maybe he did. But of course the vast majority of us will never know. Will Hermes of Rolling Stone had this to say in the introduction to this issue: “The singer-songwriter [Cobain], who wrestled with medical problems and the drugs he took to keep them at bay, was also deeply conflicted about his fame, craving and rejecting it, calling out sexism and homophobia and music-industry bullshit but uninterested in being a generation’s voice.” That’s the conundrum of an “out” – someone who rarely gets the attention, feels like he has something important to say, but then isn’t sure he really wants the spotlight.
Destroy All Monsters is a “music” book. It’s a smart novel that takes a very of-the-moment news item – mass shootings – and applies it to the music world: Musicians are being murdered at a rapid clip in venues across the country. The book – with its clever A-side and B-side – revolves mostly around a group of teenagers and not just how they cope with this strange phenomenon, but how they cope with life in general. It is filled with “outsiders who nurse a perpetual grudge against the world.” Jackson sets up the stereotypical scene straight away: The people in line to see the Carmelite Rifles, a homegrown band playing a “homecoming” show: “The strip-mall goths, the mod metalheads, the blue-collar ravers, the bathtub-shitting punks, the jaded aesthetes who consider themselves beyond category. Everyone in line has imagined a night that could crack open and transform their dreary realities.” Music provides their alternative world; the place where they feel “like themselves.” (Or at the very least it’s a platitude they’re telling themselves.)
“Accepting Music Scene” is a bit of a trope, and I think Jackson knows this. What happens if what is perceived as a subversive scene is really just like any other old scene? (See: Grunge kids falling prey to the same figurative table scrambling as the ladies who lunch.) In Destroy All Monsters, perpetual fan girl/groupie Xenie says, “Most of the people I know are in bands. All these so-called creative people are always telling me to join their group or start my own. They’re always trying to get me to see their shows, listen to their songs, buy their stuff. It’s like everything has to be public, everything has to be validated by a crowd, or it doesn’t exist…Everybody craves the spotlight…but then they’re so mediocre. It’s pathetic. These days, it takes more guts not to be in a band.” Xenie’s got y’all’s number and, to me, Jackson’s book is partly about how the true “outs” are always going to be searching for their place. According to Xenie, “Eventually I memorized every note but I was disappointed the songs didn’t live up to what was happening in my life.” Even her beloved music scene seems at times to cast her aside.
On the other hand, Geek Love is decidedly not a “music” book – it’s a book about a home-grown freakshow, which let’s be honest, maybe some concert-goers might readily identify with. Geek Love made me mighty uncomfortable, I have to say. Dunn, who died in 2016, had no problem dabbling in the grotesque, the taboo, the sideshows of life. (Just to provide some color here, I’ll mention that Tim Burton bought the rights to the book in the 90s, although at some point Dunn says that perhaps Geek Love is perhaps “too horror” for him!)
Despite the oddball nature of this book – a National Book Award finalist after it was published in 1989 – Dunn gets straight to the heart of the push-pull of human dynamics. Why try to fit in when it’s not a winnable quest? As I alluded to above, the offspring of Al and Lillian Binewski are “freaks” – because their parents (their “norm” father who grew up in a traveling carnival and their uppercrust, Boston-bred mother) – decide early on that a ready-made spectacle is a surefire way to financial stability. As Lillian says, “What greater gift could you offer your children than an inherent ability to earn a living just by being themselves?”
Dunn takes readers through some nutty scenarios, but about a quarter of the way through Geek Love, she does something brilliant: Arturo (aka Arty aka “Aqua Boy”), one of Al and Lillian’s “freak” offspring has flippers for hands and feet. But that doesn’t stop him from becoming a Tony Robbins-esque motivational speaker/cult leader. Women are drawn to his tough love – and Machiavelli-esque hunger for power over others – because of speeches like this, to a severely overweight woman who looks to Arty for advice:
“Because people would love you if you were beautiful? And if people loved you, you would be happy? Is it people loving you that makes you happy?…
“Or is it people not loving you that makes you unhappy? If they don’t love you it’s because there’s something wrong with you. If they love you then it must mean you’re all right. You poor baby. Poor, poor baby.”…
“So, let’s get the truth here! You don’t want to stop eating! You love to eat! You don’t want to be thin! You don’t want to be beautiful! You don’t want people to love you! All you really want is to know that you’re all right! That’s what can give you peace!
I don’t think that the people who are a little different than the stereotypical majority are looking for everyone to be like them – then the world becomes a little boring and we don’t like boring. And I don’t think they’re looking for trite “acceptance” the way that both Hollywood and Western parenting culture suggest. (Torch songs like “This is Me” from The Greatest Showman or the numerous “kindness campaigns” we teach our kids are wonderful starting points, but creating lasting unity is a little more complex – and perhaps unattainable?)
Toward the end of “Side A” of Destroy All Monsters, Xenie, a genuine music lover, declares “Not everything has to be a performance…That’s what ruined music.” I think that’s it: Not. Everything. Has. To. Be. A. Performance. I’d say the same about these two books: They are not “performances” in the way readers expect books to be. They’re a bit uncomfortable (in the case of Geek Love, downright weird) and they don’t necessarily showcase the heroes that we’re conditioned to want to emulate. But they have something powerful to say about how human nature works.
So did Kurt Cobain, even when he admitted, “It just so happens that there’s a bunch of people that are concerned with what I have to say. I find that frightening at times because I’m just as confused as most people. I don’t have the answers for anything.” RIP.
A fascinating oral history of Nirvana’s “historic performance” on MTV Unplugged in 1993.
The New York Times review of Destroy All Monsters.
A fantastic piece in The Oregonian about the late author Katherine Dunn.
‘The Man Who Sold The World,’ Nirvana’s cover of the David Bowie song on MTV Unplugged.