Nineties Rock began and ended with a shotgun blast.
In the indian summer of Grunge, Kurt Cobain’s trigger pull and the ensuing kick drum of lead forever cemented the generation’s music as a celebration of alienation, serving as stark contrast to the myth of American prosperity. Five years later on an April morning in Littleton, Colorado the low-end growls of a pump 12 gauge and the glitching staccato of a Tec-9 heralded the death of edgy Rock and the delegitamization of anger.
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were ordinary enough. Disaffected? Yes. Demented? Ultimately. Distinguished? No. They worked shitty jobs at a pizza place. They weren’t in the cool crowd. They commiserated with other self-labeled rejects. They embraced heavy Industrial and Hard Rock music. They knew that theirs was a world where one either belonged or didn’t. In short, they endured a rather typical American adolescence.
Once the dust had settled and the bodies of fifteen students and educators, including Harris and Klebold, were removed from the bullet-pocked halls of Columbine High School, nobody thought to blame the drudgery of working at a Blackjack Pizza franchise. Nor did they point fingers at entrenched societal isolation. The focus shifted immediately to culture and the variety of powerful and deeply vitriolic late 90s Rock that saturated the musical landscape and had a particularly fond place in Klebold and Harris’ hearts.
In the ultimate advocacy of life imitating art, the moral majority and veterans of a censorship generation were quick to blame the only aspect of the boys’ lives that could otherwise be construed as positive and empowering: music.
The intense brand of popular Rock that littered 1999 was custom fit for the outsider demographic. Rage Against the Machine, System of a Down, Nine Inch Nails, Tool and of course, Marilyn Manson, all embodied a sludgy dystopic vibe. Their sheer raucous volume and inaccessibly brutal licks lent a notion of ancillary agency to those disaffected listeners who identified with it. It was the sort of music that not only made being different O.K., it made you somehow superior if only for being able to identify with the emotional torment embedded in the sounds and lyrics and enjoy the physical punishment of the high gain recordings.
Contrary to popular accounts, the genre’s disaffected lyrics — “your anger is a gift,” “there’s no time to discriminate/hate every motherfucker that’s in your way” — did not evolve out of a vacuum. There was no cabal of sinister artists plotting to induce pariahs across the nation to shoot up schools. The potency and relevancy of 90s Hard Rock existed in dichotomy with popular social narratives. An era of unprecedented financial growth and international dominance lent the American decade a gilded quality. The nation experienced success that seemed to affirm American exceptionalism. The winners of the trickle-down lottery led the nation through a period of rational growth and ever-pervasive commodity marketing that promoted a sense of happiness through conformity and consumption. This prosperity bubble depended on a streamlined nation that sanded down sharp edges lest they pop the silky surface of the national mythos.
Rock music defined the sharp edge that flourished on the perimeter of American culture despite the constant threat of eradication. Aesthetically and sonically, Rock musicians embodied the stance of willful unbelonging. Artists like Brian Warner, whose wormy, morbid appearance stood in stark counterpoint to ubiquitous Abercrombie catalogues, refused to be vertically oriented into the system and took pride in a certain disenfranchisement. Acts like Rage Against the Machine questioned everything sacred about the American state in a violently confrontational blend of overdriven Rock and illicit Hip Hop.
After Columbine, pundits pointed to this craggy precipice of culture as if to say, “that’s the edge sweet little Eric Harris fell off of.” Maybe they were right. Harris seems to have worn his outsider status as a badge. Music constantly reinforced his views and hardline vindictiveness. But the culture he surrounded himself with certainly didn’t birth Eric Harris, a teenager who educators would later label as a likely sociopath. If Rock was the edge from which he fell, he took a long running start.
One wonders about Dylan Klebold though. Harris’ aloof and awkward sidekick begs the question: is the edge something you fall off of or something you hang on to? If you’re looking over a chasm, surely the edge demarcates the point of destruction. But if you’re learning to swim in a public pool, the edge is the thing you cling onto for safety. In a school setting where belonging and popularity were made to seem like everything, Klebold came to see himself as too ugly and too strange to belong. One pictures Klebold drowning in a sea of insecurity as others swam confidently around him.
The rhetoric of 90s Rock and the dissonant chords of its churning musical movements was as a sort of pool’s edge for Dylan Klebold. By embracing the sharp edge oozing from the music, a fan like Klebold was entering a cultural world free from appearance-based judgment and one in which the outsider was inherently strong. The edge for him was a safety line. He latched on to the only thing he could in the slick world of modern adolescent identity: Hard Rock. When his grip slipped no one thought to blame the chasm that swallowed him. They vilified the only refuge he had.
In the years after Columbine, Hard Rock slipped out of vogue. Violence preparedness consultants and angst experts labeled youth displays of anger as “warning signs” of ensuing catastrophe. Anger was no longer tolerated as a legitimate emotional expression. Consequently, the music that embodied anger was relegated to the pop canon margins. The heavy festivals and their mosh pits disappeared as the Rock headliners that profited from the outrage ethos wilted under the Columbine stigma or shifted into the abstract introspective realm (a la Tool and Nine Inch Nails) or heightened politics (Rage Against the Machine).
Early in 1999, Klebold was accepted to the University of Arizona. Had he declined the invitation to perpetuate a massacre with Harris and attended U of A that fall, things would have been undeniably different for him. What about Rock though? Would the decline of the angry, vital form have occurred had it not been associated with mass murder? The answer is a resounding no. If 90s Hard Rock died on April 20, 1999 it had been terminally ill long before. What began as an embodiment of angry disenfranchisement for statement’s sake became a self-glorifying smear of destruction that advocated childish anger for anger’s own sake.
A mere three months after the Columbine Massacre, Hard Rock’s definitive swan song occurred at the Woodstock ’99 festival at Griffis Air Force Base in Rome, New York. A who’s-who of mid to late 90s Rock outfits presided over a crush of humanity. The kindling and chord wood of retributive anger was stacked early as concert promoters pocketed mass profits while grossly inflating food prices and leaving the concertgoers to camp in sub-standard conditions. When Fred Durst admonished the crowd during “Break Stuff” to “take all that negative energy and put it the fuck out” he provided the spark for a two-day blaze of rape and destruction that would nail the lid closed on Hard Rock’s coffin and affirm the post-Columbine suspicion that American culture was out of hand.
Music became an unwilling victim and unwitting participant in the vilification of anger. The complex question of anger’s roots in American society found a simplistic answer in the marginalization of a genre and an essential emotion that has existed since the dawn of time and will continue to exist one way or another.
The truth is that Rock, like anger, can never die. It can only evolve the forms of its expression. A look at the major festival lineups in 2012 reveals scant few Hard Rock outfits or black clad moshers. DJ sets, loyal bloggers and diminutive expressionless keyboard jockeys have replaced their Rock forbearers on the societal periphery as the purveyors of new American edge.
Like Rock before it, today’s Electronica has the ability to subvert the clean digital lines, technological source noises and brisk ambiences of the 21st century and morph them into glitch apocalyptic washes. These new sonic arbitrators deconstruct the real world and recreate it on extremely loud, fast recordings and live sets that seem to mimic the amplified bitterness of Hard Rock with a powerful pathos of possibility. The computer has become the new realm of Rock.
Had Dylan Klebold gone to the University of Arizona, he would have studied Computer Engineering. There’s not so much ground between the school shooter archetype and the position of the Internet troll or hacker today. Where the smart and disaffected turned in the past to public violence to gain notoriety, today an empowered adolescent with a good computer and an Internet connection can wreak havoc and express anger at a system of belonging by destroying its infrastructure. No death required. No suicide pacts. Moreover, if the modern hacker gets good enough at his form of instruction, a lucrative job at a tech firm could await him. The edge is evolving.
For Klebold, the story is written in stone. Events have transpired and the point of no return has long past. Though as an emblem of something sinister and not altogether unavoidable, Klebold continues to serve.
As the same shades and familiar scenery of American mass shootings appear with shocking regularity, we have grown accustomed to the tropes. Quiet, loner, isolated, angry, disenfranchised, insane. All of these descriptors coalesce with such cunning ease around each localized spot of horror in the minutes, hours and days after another Gollum of our polarized culture loses his grip on the edge and falls.
The ranks of the punditry close around the conundrum and the angular attacks and accusations of pompous perspectives wonder aloud vindictively if less guns or more guns or happier music and more assertive social discipline could have nipped this in the bud.
The ugly truth is that media is in many senses to blame. Through aggressive advertising, the conduct lessons imbued with such subtle guile in primetime television and romantic comedies and that great crusading national ethos of cleanness and prosperity, our culture establishes from a very young age a dual sense of belonging and exile, hope and doom and helplessness and power.
For people like Dylan Klebold, a society of binaries increasingly segments and isolates. As people live out their bonded isolation behind the velvet comfort of screens and tablets and other digitally hermetic seals, it’s remarkably easy to see oneself as alone and weak and victimized. And for that perilously disempowered lifestyle and its accompanying mindset, a minute of power comes at the simple cost of an atrocity.
For the media, beneath the blaring artificial light of high tech studios and the pristine layers of designer makeup and form fitting pant suits, it becomes their responsibility to avoid the false sanctity of condemning darkness.
The edge is a terrifying place and it is no longer sufficient to point out the fractures and shadows of our society without being willing to step into the darkness and battle hard not only to pull those in peril up from the edge, but demand that the world beyond isn’t sloped to ensure an inevitable slide backwards.