Last weekend I read that somewhat convoluted if evocative feature
on the Tampa band Merchandise, newly signed to 4AD Records.
The magazine called Tampa "America's corniest town,"— its author, Jenn Pelly, who's written about the band more than once
opted for the British spelling of "favourite" and
characterized lead Carson Cox as "the crooning 28-year-old frontman with old-soul charm and razor-sharp wit."
Corn is in the ear of the beholder, I suppose, and before I launch into my own diatribe, allow me to say congrats. I am genuinely happy for Merchandise and their hard-earned successes. I've always been a supporter of local bands — since the boys were still playing with their Ninja Turtles. Before my A&E gig, I interviewed local bands for TBT every week, in person (for the most part), for five years.
On Sunday, a friend tagged me in a comment on a Facebook post related to the story "Merchandise: tearing up Tampa" in Dazed
, I had just spent two hours at the dog beach at Honeymoon Island with my boys (read: paradise on Earth). The story had a slew of questionable remarks about Tampa. I was more frustrated at the shortsighted naivete of the comments than any perceptions of my hometown being dissed.
The biggest offender: "I'm proud of the fact that we did this in a cultural wasteland, that we made something we think is intelligent in a place where they just don't want anything intelligent."
Though I felt nauseated from this special bit of text and too much sun, I couldn't muster more than a few minutes of interest in the verbal slugfest on Facebook from readers outraged at the dismissive, condescending and backhanded tokens of affection Cox expressed about Tampa. I commented that SNL should make a digital short about the band, narrated by a topless Lena Dunham.
Initial irritation now subsided, my sentiments echo local musician and friend Jeremy Gloff: "I’m gonna go against probably what everyone feels and say I love fucking Tampa with all my heart, and I love that these guys are part of it."
Cox isn't the first high-profile type to make unfavorable remarks (however they were intended) about Tampa. Dunham, Jon Stewart, Tina Fey and even hometown boy made good Aasif Mandvi have characterized the city as a dreaded burg and the worst place on Earth. Tampa has been the Kim Kardashian butt of many a joke. Our orange trees and banana hammocks aren't all that bear low-hanging fruit.
Back when the band was starting out, Merchandise and my paths never crossed. I think I was transitioning to my new gig when they were beginning to play gigs locally. When I wrote about live music, I searched in all of Tampa's nooks and crannies and covered noise and experimental bands. The notion that Tampa didn't understand or snubbed Merchandise is ludicrous and is part of some ridiculous PR pablum perpetuated by Cox. It's a line of propaganda that's been repeated in more than one interview. It's false, unfair and utterly frustrating. If anyone was going to find this band, it was going to be me. Merchandise didn't want to be found. The "cultural wasteland" they imagine Tampa Bay to be is born from reading too many Burroughs and Hiaasen novels.
These careless sentiments land on the national radar while positive stories don't, which becomes justifiably annoying to local artists, restaurateurs, musicians, writers and others busting their hump to make all the towns and neighborhoods of Tampa Bay a better place while not necessarily earning the six figures of their medical and IT friends. It's, dare I say, how Mr. Cox feels, about not being recognized by the music scene.
What the rest of the U.S. doesn't know is how multifaceted Tampa is. It has more than beaches, flora and a couple of pockets of cultural diversity and history, from the brick roads of Ybor to the ethnic mom and pops of Armenia Avenue to Strip clubs, loud sports fans and pirate-costumed fat cats.
I live in Clearwater now, where I grew up. Here I geek out on numerous bird species and an almost ever-present breeze.
This is personal stuff here. Nerves have been touched.
As much as I can view this all objectively, the "ugh Tampa" attitude of Merchandise's fan(s) rubbed me the wrong way on the wrong day.
And while I generally avoid following the herd or being sucked in by a mob mentality, I took up a torch and (regrettably) commented
in response to a lament that CL didn't feature Merchandise in our Live and Local spotlight instead of Mojo Gurus. I was so full of ire, I shared my comment on my Facebook page.
As a journalist, I regret it. I should review the facts and weigh in elsewhere, in an editorial or a blog like I am doing now. Not on a comment board. It's not my place; it's the readers' territory, and I am regretful that I trespassed (though I do not take back my sentiments back even if I may have worded them more carefully).
The reactive experience of Wednesday, and all of its attendant distractions, offered a chance to connect and discuss something and indulge in a shared moment, even if disgust was at the center of it. We bitched, we disagreed, we qualified, we clarified, we emphasized and we shared some much-needed endorphins from it all.
My coworker Scott Harrell characterized the reaction
as "apeshit," and I too had flung some dung.
A knee-jerk reaction should never be condoned, but let's not play manner police, squawking about how people should or should not conduct themselves on something as trivial as a social networking platform.
Not everyone is a pillar of restraint, thank God. Sometimes people need to stick their neck outs to get a good view of something outside their worlds — lest we come across as an outer-limits rocker who cannot rely on his "own world for entertainment."
Some chestnuts from the Dazed
story (thanks, David Dye, for compiling):
"When we were young, we couldn't just pay for fun, so the way we did it was just raise hell—a classic story of restless youth."
"I feel kindred to people who live in disenfranchised places."
"America's pretty corny, but Tampa's super corny."
"I want to make music for the next fucking consciousness. Everyone recognises the change, but we don't have a word for it. We've found power in being nothing—there isn't a school worth being a part of. So I just say New Consciousness."
"For me, the only kind of adventure left was one without logic. So I went through an absinthe wormhole, and it led me to the Belle Époque and weird Armenian music and Charles Manson. Part of my problem with the information age is that it's too easy. Why is no one fucking up information? It's such a straight line to the answer. That's not interesting to me."
"I don't think experimental necessarily means difficult, and at this point, it doesn't matter how angry or distorted you are; it becomes a mask, it doesn't really express anything." Instead, Merchandise have gone for sincerity: "Now, it's more about this deep-seated honesty—who can be the most honest in their music?" he says. "I can't just say, 'I am happy, I am depressed, I am smart, I am dumb,' the music has to prove it."
"(Seminole Heights) is where everyone moved to because they wanted to feel like they're culturally important."
"I feel like we're creating our own society within this one."
"If I had to rely on the world for my entertainment, it'd be really bleak."