Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix "GVSB*on*ica"

Girls Against Boys go up in smoke.

By Carly Carioli

JUNE 15, 1998:  Although it was recorded at a Minneapolis studio called Seedy Underbelly, Girls Against Boys' major-label debut, Freak*on*ica (Geffen), was written in a practice space just outside Times Square, while New York City's symbol of institutionalized sleaze was being converted into a sanitized entertainment and shopping zone. This is GVSB's home turf: the bustling intersections of style and substance, the overloaded synapses between the romance of art and the vagaries of commerce. "Disneyland, NYC/We got Mickey Mouse, we got pornography," Scott McCloud croaks on Freak*on*ica's "One Firecracker," with the unwavering cosmopolitan disaffection that's become the band's signature device. Their tone -- a dry, scathing deadpan that never loses its cool -- often sounds deceptively amoral, as if they were simply casual chroniclers of NYC's seedy underbelly, without any personal stake in its ultimate successes, failures, or compromises.

But beneath GVSB's façade of sexy abstraction and detachment has often simmered a more complex soul. You could hear it on "Cash Machine," from their previous (and still best) album, 1996's House of GVSB (Touch and Go). McCloud is transfixed by the gleaming visage of an ATM terminal -- fascinated and maybe vaguely repulsed, he stares at the thing as if it were a monolith dropped out of the sky, a foreign artifact he can't make sense of. But at the end he's seized by a terrible clarity -- "Invisible hands control everything," he says, though his exhausted resignation is what comes through. The city's moral ambiguity evaporates and its crass anatomy is suddenly and unexpectedly laid bare.

McCloud has described Freak*on*ica as being about "entertainment and the speed of life." Like the album's title, the music here is a somewhat clunky and ill-advised tweaking of electronica, a music-industry-enforced trend that was stillborn last year and is currently rotting past the point of passé. "You're so now/You're so over," McCloud sings on "Speedway," fully aware of the risks inherent in trend surfing and groove riding. So what are GVSB doing? To paraphrase critic James Howard Kunstler, one of the side effects of the accelerating speed of entertainment and its attendant culture of advertising -- more images and slogans and pitches crammed into fewer seconds -- is that we're all learning to speak in the abstracted grammar of television advertising, a shorthand of "simplifications and lies," and we're resorting to symbols and signs in the creation of cartoonish and ultimately misleading façades, in order to convey meaning in a world of drive-by attention spans.

The Disney-fication of Times Square becomes Freak*on*ica's defining image because it so precisely mirrors GVSB's own gentrification. They've adopted the surface adornments of electronica: certain now-familiar disco beats, house-DJ samples, the overdriven guitar sounds of various industrial grave dancers, some ubiquitous and quickly abandoned turntable scratching. We're meant to conclude that the product known as GVSB is new, improved, and compatible with the future. It's paint-by-the-numbers, straight-to-remix rock. Where GVSB once used a two-bass foundation and measured doses of dissonance to conjure the eerie vacancy and loss sometimes felt in well-peopled places, now swirly melanges of indeterminate electronic origin blink on and off like a neon sign for displacement and disorientation.

One of the stories GVSB have always seemed good at telling (though up to now it's only been implied, a tale rendered in vocal shadings, like the one on "Cash Machine") is about being overwhelmed by the rush of modern city life: its innumerable mundane indignities, its flashy come-ons and trashy dropouts, its hourly bombardment of images. Sometimes the band have told it in their covers: the Frank Sinatra standard "My Funny Valentine," in which the city swells with suave, sexy urban sophistication; and Joy Division's "She's Lost Control," in which the streets come unraveled in the personification of a madwoman. On Freak*on*ica's "Vogue Thing" this tale achieves its ultimate meltdown. McCloud, besieged by billboards and sweet-smelling glossy magazine ads, finally cracks and starts wandering the streets babbling unadulterated ad-speak: "The look by trash/Ass by Armani . . . Gucci forever," and so on. "I don't care what's real, I only care how it feels," he chants at one point, though you're not sure whether this is his own cynical declaration or whether he's just reading it off the side of a bus.

The surface messages on Freak*on*ica find GVSB wallowing in the feel-good slogans of consumer culture. The ever-so-slightly sinister dance beats ("Disco kill-style," goes the opening slogan on "Exorcisto") champion reckless abandon, as McCloud's voice urges on the tempests of desire. "Pleasure's everything" is the refrain on "Pleasurized," where McCloud eats up the spotlight, proclaiming, "I've got a taste for the hype."

In a press bio, McCloud describes "Push the Fader" as the band's answer to the Spice Girls' "Spice Up Your Life," a GVSB manifesto to "turn up the volume on everything." At this point, they've become everything they once promised they'd never be: a lifestyle advertisement disguised as a band. And since they're so adamant in flaunting their newfound plasticity, I'm almost loath to suggest that it's all a ruse -- an inexplicable ruse, and a fairly irrelevant one at that. GVSB's destiny from here on out probably rests on their ability to personify their feeble façades in the marketplace. Yet on "Push the Fader" and in various concealed corners of Freak*on*ica, they seem to be telling a disturbing story about what happens to people who, exactly as GVSB have done, try to embody the decadence of mass-produced culture, who try to match the speed of entertainment.

For every call to disco ebullience on Freak*on*ica, there's a fading echo. Halfway through, on "Roxy," McCloud starts having second thoughts -- though along with the rest of the band he keeps making watered-down machine music, each tune less interesting than the last. "What pleasure? What cost?" he asks. "I know everybody/Don't even know myself . . .  you get to feel unreal."

"Life's too sweet to eat like candy," he warns on "Black Hole," and by the time GVSB get to "Push the Fader," the whole band sound spent -- as if the album's faster-newer-more had finally caught up with them. "Yeah, push the fader, I'm tired," rasps McCloud, like a junkie on a bender with a stash that's running down at six in the morning. "You got 10 more minutes," he gasps, with the band struggling to muster a martial, morbid dirge. It's almost painful to listen to, hollow and doomed and fading.

For a band who've owned one of underground rock's most distinctive sonic blueprints to abdicate in favor of a flimsy, prefabricated knockoff seems a story less about selling out than about giving in, a Method-acted costume drama of the price of assimilation: chasing the American dream of responsibility-free excess, you risk being swallowed up and spit back out as a digitalized virtual facsimile of yourself. It sounds as if McCloud were leaving clues to the effect that over the course of the album he's disappearing, becoming more like an assembly-line product and less like anything he recognizes as himself, just as the band's identity goes up in a puff of electronic smoke. He can't stop spouting the rhetoric of mass consumption -- turn it up, louder, faster, more -- and he can't help being eaten away by it, haunted by the pieces of himself that keep vanishing.

"This is no apocalypse," McCloud sneers on "Park Avenue," but I don't quite believe him. And every time I hear the song on the radio, I hear the line that follows as GVSB's epitaph, their only option: "Just burn like you don't exist."


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