FRITZ Erases Generation Gaps With Timeless Fuzz Pop

A possibly controversial opinion I have is that it should be illegal for anyone younger than me to have talent or experience success. When I was one of the only people to not really like that Phoebe Bridgers album last year, I did consider the possibility that it was a result of petty ageism and part of my ongoing transformation into a grumpy old guy who spends his days yelling at kids — not to get off my lawn, since at this point it’s unlikely I’ll ever own a lawn, but just generally yelling at them about nothing in particular. On the other hand, I haven’t really grown up in any meaningful sense, so in theory I shouldn’t have a problem enjoying music by young people about young people things, right?

Pastel, the new album by FRITZ, is the type of young person music I’ve been yearning for. Instead of cultivating a false sense of world-weariness or a weird, otherworldly maturity, 21-year-old Tilly Murphy sings songs about growing up and not having everything figured out. The title track is about dying her hair blue and developing her own confidence and identity; the ode to young friendship, “Die Happily,” tells the aftermath of a teen sleepover, where “Froot Loops and soda covered the floor.” “Jan 1” ends the album with a rush of guitar adrenaline, and its lyrics are a relatable portrayal of end-of-year anxiety and the desire for self-improvement. For all the talk about generation gaps, Pastel makes a decent case that a lot of these feelings and experiences don’t really change.

The construction of a memorable pop song doesn’t really change, either, and Murphy’s most prodigious gift is her ability to write catchy riffs and soaring melodies that fit into a classic framework. Pastel‘s fuzzy, occasionally jangly sound is a throwback to more pop-centric shoegaze groups, or early twee pop like Tiger Trap and Black Tambourine that made loud guitars seem sticky sweet. She buries her voice a bit beneath the wall of sound, but it’s still easy to pick up on most of her lyrics, which are simply written, intended to evoke authentic young feelings instead of reading like a soliloquy. That’s part of why Pastel has a distinctive voice and personality to it, which is often the missing ingredient in shoegaze or fuzz rock, and a lot of what’s making me happy about this album is its ability to modernize these sounds while also understanding what makes them appealing to so many listeners in the first place. There’s a delicate balance of old and new ideas on here, and also a blend of moods (angst, anxiety, happiness, sadness) that reflect the carefree days of youth and the bittersweet feelings of growing up.

“The Queen’s Gambit” is a Different Kind of Sports Story

One of the classic sports movies scenes is from Rudy, where all of Rudy’s teammates put their jersey on fun-hating coach Dan Devine’s desk and refuse to play unless he lets the undersized go-getter dress for their game against Georgia Tech. The film is allegedly based on a true story, but this scene is fiction; in reality, Devine was perfectly fine with letting Rudy play, and he later called the scene “unforgivable” and “untrue.” I probably think about poor Dan Devine more than the average adult: the man did nothing wrong, but because of this hokey movie, tons of people think he was an ass who got in the way of Rudy chasing his dreams, and when he died in 2002, I’m sure many Americans cheered for the demise of Sean Astin’s antagonist.

The scene in Rudy is indicative of the tension between entertainment about sports and the way sports actually work. When I was a young sportswriter a few years ago, one of my internal struggles was how to make games seem interesting without inventing drama where there wasn’t any. Often, narratives about “rivalries” and teams “hating each other” are just that — they’re ways to make a basketball or football game seem like a story, when really they’re just athletes competing at a high level and focusing primarily on their own performance and execution. Of course, there is still some human drama and sometimes players and teams really do despise one another, but I rarely think games are won or lost based on those emotions. But on film and TV, sports often demand a more “compelling” story, which is how people like Dan Devine end up getting portrayed as contemptuous monsters.

So when I decided to watch Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, knowing it was about a young woman chess prodigy, I expected a similarly heavy-handed approach, with a lot of scenes of evil men sneering at her before losing and various characters yelling “WOMEN DON’T PLAY CHESS” at her. Instead, I was blown away by just how darn nice every character was. As Beth Harmon rises the ladder, going from a young kid playing with a janitor in the basement of her orphanage to world champion, every opponent she topples takes their loss graciously, sometimes to a surreal extent. Her initial foes, state champion Harry Beltik and U.S. champion Benny Watts, are defeated and become something between mentors and lovers to her. In her final showdown with the Russians, I would have expected a lesser show about sports to portray her opponents as cruel; instead, one compliments her as the best player he’s ever seen, and her final “nemesis,” Borgov, raises her hand at the end and says she deserves her ultimate victory.

Leaving aside the debate of whether chess is a sport, The Queen’s Gambit shows an unusually deep understanding of how high-level competition really works. Beth’s real opponent isn’t any of these chess masters, but herself: she battles addiction throughout the series, which at times derails her life as she loses her motivation and goes into self-destructive spirals. For viewers, it’s always apparent that Beth is good enough to win as long as she can keep her composure and play her game. Sports is full of stories like this that aren’t based on imaginary conflict, but on plain unsexy hard work, of players grinding every day and trying to fix their flaws or find the next technique that can take them to the next level. Putting in this work often requires a single-minded, bordering on deranged obsession with the game, and The Queen’s Gambit shows Beth’s fixation on chess from the very beginning, with her love for the game dominating all aspects of her life. She struggles to relate to “normal” people, preferring to devour a chess strategy book, and her mental state often hinges on her satisfaction with her in-game performance.

I’m sure the conventional thought with these sports narratives is that they make the otherwise boring games interesting — that, without the conflict, there is nothing to hook viewers in or make them care. But some of the best scenes in The Queen’s Gambit still are able to tap into the primal joy of watching sports. Her early games as an underestimated orphan who topples unsuspecting men in her path are like watching a perceived underdog you believe in dominate a game you knew they could win; later games that show her at the height of her career are more like when you watch an amazing athlete like Lebron James do the impossible. It’s clear a lot of thought went into how to make chess scenes fun to watch, and the show uses music, montages, and visuals of chess pieces on the ceiling to add intrigue to Beth’s games. A lot of this also lies on the performance of Anya Taylor-Joy, who is able to let viewers understand the character’s thought process through her expressions and movements. She helps make viewers root for Beth, who risks being a little too perfect of a protagonist. Greatness and being hated often go hand-in-hand — just ask Tom Brady — but the show is still able to make Beth’s wins worthy of a fist-pump without portraying her rivals as dickheads.

And in portraying her opponents as so respectful, The Queen’s Gambit ends up making a feminist point in its own sly way. At a certain point, the lack of abuse or suspicion Beth faces for her gender starts to feel utopian, and I think that’s the idea: the show is subtly asking what our culture would be like if women like Beth were respected for their abilities and treated equally in a male-dominated world like chess. A New York Times article called “I Want to Live in the Reality of The Queen’s Gambit hit this nail on the head, describing the fantasy of the show — how Beth gets to achieve greatness in part because she is allowed to focus entirely on her skills instead of on being a woman, dealing with harassment, etc. The thrill in The Queen’s Gambit is watching Beth accomplish greatness in the same way that men are able to in real life.

A Trump Retrospective and “The Seduction of Kansas” Appreciation

Donald Trump’s presidency is finally ending, which means it’s time to survey the blasted landscape he’s left this country in. While there is too much wreckage left behind by this catastrophic president to talk about in one post, what I’ll always associate with the last four years is the irreparable damage he did to art/artists and the way he made communication completely insufferable for almost everybody. I’ll repeat a common observation about Trump: he was so cartoonishly bad that it became impossible to make any kind of cutting satire or commentary about him, which made almost any politically-focused art or humor in the last four years laughably inert. One of Trump’s unfortunate powers was his ability to drag down all communication to his level, and since he dominated the news and headlines so much, pretty much everyone ended up in the dirt with him.

Everybody became a grifter during Trump’s presidency. Of course, there was the cable news stations, which fed addicted viewers 24/7 hysteric coverage of his every move; while Fox being State TV got the most criticism, CNN and MSNBC were almost equally as bad, as they targeted scared liberals and made every day sound apocalyptic because their ratings and jobs needed them to. There was an entire industry around anti-Trump writing and tweeting; the replies under any Trump tweet were an ecosystem of strange leeches who would tweet about “covfefe” and somehow got thousands of RTs/likes. Trump’s own niece even got in on the grift, along with the James Comeys of the world, publishing bestselling books that amounted to “he’s not a great guy and is not someone who should be president, probably.” The word I used a lot the last four years was “obvious.” There was nothing you could say about Trump that wasn’t right there in the open already.

This particularly hurt music. Trump was so garbage that most artists understandably felt like they had to “use their platform” to “speak out” against him, and not doing so for some felt like contributing to his power. There were fantasies early on about all the vital punk music that would come from a Trump presidency, but he wasn’t a worthwhile or interesting target for rage. A song like “God Save the Queen” can work because the Queen has dignity and a presumption of purity, which makes it at least a little shocking and subversive to insult her. That didn’t work with Trump: he didn’t even pretend to be honest or morally upstanding, so there was no hypocrisy to expose, no veil to pull back. I made fun of some punk bands the last few years like Idles, whose songs about Trump to me just came off as like “murder is bad, you guys!” I became generally less interested in punk and started appreciating music that wasn’t necessarily apolitical, but that tapped into deeper emotions and imagination instead of the ugly pettiness of politics in the Trump era.

Only a small handful of punk bands succeeded during this time for me, and there was one album in particular that I praised much more than anyone else I saw: The Seduction of Kansas by Priests. It is hard to define the terms of success for an indie album like that, but I think by most measures it was a flop. It received mildly positive reviews, didn’t end up on many year-end lists (and wasn’t high on any), and at the end of 2019 the band went on an indefinite hiatus, which might have been unrelated but I doubt the reception to this album helped. At the time, I identified the album as one that was underrated because of the context I just discussed: everyone wanted that Great American Punk album they had been fascinating about, and they had a certain idea of what it would sound like and how its ideas would be expressed. When Priests delivered this unusual album, it alienated a lot of listeners, who wanted something with more rage and venom.

I loved the album, though, because I was so uninterested in hearing a punk band yell “REPUBLICANS ARE BAD” at me when I was spending so much of my day already thinking about how bad Republicans were. Instead of engaging in the simplistic and unproductive Trump-bashing, The Seduction of Kansas looked for answers to the bigger questions, like how our country got in this position and what the possible escapes were. Lyrically, the band embraced ambiguity, and it conveyed these themes through vague character studies that were told from different points of view. The roaring opener, “Jesus’ Son,” puts me in the mindset of someone who would storm the capitol because they were full of self-mythologizing bravado. “Good Time Charlie” used the story of womanizing congressman Charlie Wilson, who “weaponized the forgotten,” providing a clear but unspoken parallel to Trump’s behavior in the present.

“68 Screen” was the best song I heard about how the internet allowed everyone to start living in their own reality where they were never wrong. The “bright light that obscures my being” is a line I associated a lot with the online discourse now, which is often based on bad-faith readings where everyone assumes the worst of people they communicate with. “I’m Clean” covers somewhat similar material with more of a feminist bent, putting the listener in the shoes of someone who says she has “no agency or complexity, not a single feeling inside of me,” which I take as a commentary on the way men objectify women, or as a critique of a lot of one-dimensional women characters in entertainment. The title, The Seduction of Kansas, is evocative itself — the Wizard of Oz reference ties together a lot of this album’s themes, which are about how innocent, normal people can be lured to the dark side, which was a defining theme of the Trump years (unless you assume all of his voters are just naturally horrible people, which I was never comfortable doing).

Those lyrics and themes put Priests at a level beyond simple punk (I guess literally this was post-punk), and its sound was also varied, with influences ranging from Prodigy to Stereolab and Electrelane, especially on “Carol,” which was my favorite song on the album because of its addictive rhythm. The musical creativity was also part of what resonated with me, and I appreciated the diversity in the songwriting to match all of the different angles of the lyrics. More than anything, I loved that the band recognized the value of quieter subtlety in a time that dared and rewarded artists to be as obvious as possible. These songs used vagueness to their advantage, allowing for numerous interpretations and applications to the state of the country, which made it so much more fun to listen to than the instructive, moralizing tone of a lot of contemporary rock. The Seduction of Kansas was the work that most captured my feelings during the Trump era, and I’ll always be a little miffed that it didn’t get credit from others for what I thought it accomplished. On the other hand, I’m also learning to accept that I love albums like this in part because of how they do the unexpected and break away from trends, even if it means getting less recognition.