The algorithm, I have grown fond of declaiming – in bars mostly, though not only – is as much of the inapprehensible hand of God as we are likely to know in this sorrowing mortal world. I’m thinking of course of whatever abstruse sequence of code it is that operates the “shuffle” function on your phone, iPod, whathaveyou. The shuffle algorithm is getting me through.
God knows we’ve had need enough for fantasies, however delusional, of benign enveloping powers – and need, too, for declaiming in bars. Like everyone I’ve taken my solace where I can find it: in the classroom not a little, in old movies, in novels, in the delicious absurdity of Run the Jewels gigging at NPR, in the genuinely inexhaustible pleasure of watching Nazis get punched, again and again and again, in sync with a range of pop gems. Following the wise counsel of Sarah Miller I watched “Call My Agent” with a devouring intensity, as though if I stared at it hard enough I would be transported, Star-Trek-like, directly onto the winding stony streets of Paris.
I’ve been going to bars a lot too. Did I mention that?
But the best solace by far, the greatest of these, has been the algorithm. It is a thing of mercy and of grace. In grief, it delivers unto you bright shafts of unforeseen solace. In delight, it amplifies. On car trips, or bus rides, or standing benumbed in one of the many interminable queues of modern life, it condoles and distracts and involves, sending out sparking little flares of memory, imagination, desire. I confess I am never less a critic of techno-modernity than when held in the altogether voluptuous embrace of the shuffle algorithm, convinced once again of its benevolent clairvoyance.
How could it be otherwise? What’s more warming than encountering some track long-buried in your playlists, some mislaid gem that opens up, the instant it declares itself to you, such a richness of thought and sensation? It gives you so, so many of the things you might want right now: a reminder of the possibilities for beauty, say, or for brilliance. A spectacle of sorrows made radiant, of paralytic rage leaping into form. And it can remind you too, the way songs are forever doing, of the closeness to you of people, a world of people, from whom you might just then be separated by work, the day, or by geography, by age, by life. Here comes a track from Hejira, or a Scissor Sisters song, and all at once, in a swift inflooding rush – there they are, those distant comrades and loves. Restored to you.
If you have an unmanageable quantity of heartsick rage or stupefied despair on your hands, let me recommend a protracted descent into the errant generosities of the shuffle algorithm. It makes nothing happen, of course. But it can be replenishing.
That, anyway, is how I reencountered one wholly demographically predictable song from my distant youth that, as soon as it got slotted into randomized rotation, lit such a fuse in me that I played it maybe 87 times in the few days that followed. It’s not the best song of all time, or even of the indie-rock 90s. It’s not even the best song by North Carolina’s own Archers of Loaf. (Though I can recommend the whole record on which it appears, Vee Vee, as a great conduit for, and intensifier of, your underutilized fury.) It’s fine. It’s fine. But holy mother of god did it go instantaneously into my accumulating playlist, currently titled ANTIFASCIST BATTLE MUSIC.
A couple of days into my renewed shuffle-sponsored obsession with the song in question, I was riding the train home from work to drop my stuff and then meet some friends to head out to the airport for a suddenly-convened protest – yes: that day – and as I did, the chorus, the repeated barked-out chant, sang right the fuck through me.
It’s called “Harnessed in Slums” – the elderly among you may remember it from the Lounge Axes of your youth – and these are its anchoring phrases:
With thugs and scum and punks and freaks
They’re harnessed in slums but they wanna be free
In a hoarse, strangled sort of yelp, that’s how it goes – thugs and scum and punks and freaks, again and again – repeat til page is full, printer.
And listen, I know what it is: a 90s rocker amped up by velocity and bile and not a whole lot besides. But it is also, I swear, perfect. Forget the anthemic righteousness of its opening phrases (Snuff the leader with the badassed plan / Take what you want from the palm of his hand); forget the frazzling spazzy hyperkinesis of it. That sequence, that Whitmanian litany! It’s like the conjuring of a dreamed-of coalition. The note of racialization in thugs, that keyword of asshat racists nation-wide; of snarling contempt for the poor and the downtrodden in scum; of an explicitly sexual perversity nested in punks; and then, and then, the great democratizing breadth of freaks! The racially-despised, the impoverished, the queer, the joyously unreconciled. It’s a motherfucking roll-call, is what it is, beamed from the trough of the 90s to the glowing furious heart of 2017.
I know it’s not for everyone, this aggro-ish whiteboy rocker, truly I do. You may do better with the sharpened gorgeousness of Solange, or the new-cut soul of Anderson Paak, or with a million other things culled from your personal canon. But oh, oh the vivifying magic with which this one found me, and lit me up.
Later that night, standing with maybe a thousand Chicagoans mobilized on the spot against the fresh-sprung obscenity of the Muslim ban, I felt the cadences of the song once more, coursing through me the way songs do: a sprung compression in the shoulders, a surging in the blood. I looked around me and it rattled in my ears and I felt, for one long seizing moment, an upwelling love for everybody there, strangers and friends, punks and freaks, all of us doing together the nearest thing we could think of to interrupt the progression of awfulness. And here’s what’s best about this little gift from the algorithm: the feeling of that gorgeous cold night – of mobilized solidity, of massed opposition, of a communal turning in the direction of ungovernability – burned itself right into the fucking sinews of that song, that long-ago three-and-half-minute spasm of jumped-up rancor and delight. I maybe don’t play it quite as much now. But when I do? When I do the same thing happens: I reencounter the feeling of being in the world, on the street, in solidarity, with uncountable beloved others, known and unknown. And, as the song coils and uncoils, I get itchy to be back there again, soon, now.
We’re all doing what we can. This, I can tell you, is getting me through.
Pete Coviello: The Best Barfighter Around