Here we are now. Entertain us: The politics of boredom

Late 1991. A couple kids from an affluent family gets picked up by their parents from soccer practice and are chaffered to their safe suburban home. While the youths are waiting for dinner to be ready, they turn on MTV. But instead of MC Hammer dancing around in really baggy pants denying them even the chance to touch…this…they see something different but at the same time familiar: kids that are waiting for something to happen. Kids that are disaffected and bored. Kids just like them. And then there’s a guy with a guitar on the screen, not wearing Hammer pants or dressed like Gene Simmons or Vince Neil or even Axl Rose.  Hold on  a second – he’s just like them. And he’s screaming out the words, “here we are now, entertain us.”

It seemed like in an instant, these kids finally had a soundtrack for how they felt about their lives.

The beginning riff in the Nirvana video for their song “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the exact moment that the politics of boredom hit the mainstream. They’d been around in the underground for ages before that though. Let’s go for a listen through history and see what that tells us.

copyright John Mostrom 2003

The politics of boredom. Sound profound doesn’t it? I thought I’d coined the term myself, but a quick google search just told me there are literally thousands if not millions of people that thought of it before me. Nevermind though, cause the more important thing is that it existed, and continues to be expressed today.

These politics belong to the generation that followed the baby-boomers that came of age in the 1960s, Generation X. In her book On the Road to Nirvana, when Gina Arnold is describing her and her siblings’ upbringing, she is also describing her generation:

Our lives were of grim suburban excess, all wide green streets and big beige shopping malls and three square meals a day plus lots of loose change for after-school snacks as long as you remembered to strap on your bike light before you rode home from swim practice, in which case your mom would kill you and that would be the end of your so-called happy life.

As my brother used to put it, we suffered from a tragically happy childhood.[1]

This was the generation that on the surface appeared to have everything, at least in term of superficial comforts provided to them by their parents. This was, however, not really the case. For example, they may have had lots of loose change for after school snacks, but they were also more likely to be children of parents that divorced than ever before. Furthermore, they may have grown up in suburban comfort, but they would not have the same economic opportunities as the baby-boomers once they moved out; namely, their parents were given the chance to self-actualize in the 1960s and they were not able to do the same. This spawned a different kind of grievance. When musician Mark Arm of Mudhoney fame was criticized for his lyrics being angry when an affluent middle-class man had nothing to be upset about, he replied by saying “you can be pissed off and bored anywhere.”[2]

Traces of this attitude can be found back in the heyday of the baby-boomers, in the Pacific Northwest (of all places hey). A band called the Sonics, wrote a gritty ditty called “Strychnine” in the mid-1960s. Here’s the chorus:

“Some folks like water/Some folks like wine/But I like the taste of straight Strychnine.”

If saying you like the taste of poison isn’t nihilistic, then I don’ t know what is. Additionally, this uncaring attitude expressed yearning for something different, something exciting. And don’t think the kids didn’t notice. Later punk bands like the Cramps covered this song. And the Ramones, well, consider this side one, track one, of the politics of boredom:

Sniffing glue = something to do.

This sense of boredom went into the 1980s, and from NYC into the interior of America. Enter the Replacements, with their self-sabotaging, mopey and then upbeat and then mopey again style of performing. Here’s an anthem they wrote about their generation (just as most of their songs were):

By the time we hit the late 1980s/early 1990s, Nirvana certainly isn’t the only band expressing these feelings. Remember way back near the beginning of this post, when I quoted Mark Arm about being bored? We’ll here’s a song he sang:

Granted, these songs don’t all spell out boredom directly. But they express the feeling that something is wrong, both personally and with the wider world – in terms of living up to societal expectations…if I’m not happy being groomed to live up to the American Dream, why, then there must be something wrong with me, right?

Well, no actually. So it’s a good thing that these musicians wrote songs to express how they felt. In doing so, they were protesting things about their lives they didn’t like, but couldn’t perhaps quite put their finger on. Until “Smells like Teen Spirit” hit the airwaves of course…

If you don’t believe me, then maybe the Arcade Fire can convince you. Their Grammy winning album (no big deal) is a nostalgic look back at the politics of boredom in the lives of youth. And the video they made for the title track of the Suburbs with Spike Jonze is arguably the pinnacle example of this.

I’m getting bored. So just watch.

I’m so bored with the U S A

[1] Arnold, 7.

[2] Azzerad, 426

Explore posts in the same categories: noise from the underground, Punk and Politics, Punk and Protest

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5 Comments on “Here we are now. Entertain us: The politics of boredom”

  1. MVH Says:

    Hot Post – well Done!

  2. Lee Chamney Says:

    Good post!

  3. William Gilgan Says:

    Indeed! Very well done.

  4. […] As mentioned before on this here blog, there was another Replacements’ song, “Bastards of Young,” that tapped into the self-deprecating mood of Generation X, exclaiming “we are the sons of no one/ bastards of young” as an anthem. Furthermore, their song “Kids Don’t Follow,” exemplifies the dichotomies between the baby-boomers and Generation X, as well as those with power and those without it. […]

  5. […] This was combined with other innovations, and of course, a rocking message in the form of the line “here we are now/ entertain us.” The popularity of the music video and the subsequent success of everything Seattle was initiated […]

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