(2004) dir. Scott Crary
Documentaries vary drastically in quality and vision and ability, but usually if the original subject is interesting enough, they are almost worth sifting through to an extent. Kill Your Idols is on the low side of mediocre in its quality and its subject matter might be more compelling in a better contextualization, quite frankly. Austensibly about the New York “No Wave” scene which sprung up in virtual parallel but moderate opposition to Punk, the film focuses on the early artists of the late 1970’s – early 1980’s who created a dissonant and noise-based sound, an opposition to traditional music.
The real No Wavers, Suicide, Lydia Lunch, DNA, Theoretical Girls, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks and their later counterparts the Swans and Sonic Youth were certainly more performance and art focused than commercial. To me, the sound of the groups, which feature often screaming vocals over glare or dirges of sound with fractured beats rather than syncopated background exemplify the meaning of Punk. As I got introduced to Punk and other “alternative” music styles, I was never one to actually classify them all that much. Goth, Punk, Hardcore, No Wave, New Wave, it all appealled to me. And in many ways, the sound of No Wave is what I would have considered quintisentially Punk, especially at the time. It went against everything essentially and was often challenging to listen to.
What’s interesting, after watching Made in Sheffield (2001) about the avant-garde in Sheffield, England in a parallel track was how radical these movements were. In the Sheffield scene, everything morphed into Synth-Pop essentially for some reason. But the No Wave scene, with the exception of Sonic Youth, really never came anywhere near commercial success. And though the film doesn’t really analyze the dissipation of the initial scene, what really happened to it, it does make a pointed criticism of contemporary nouveau-retro New York noisemakers and the scene that exists in corporotizing, marketing and productizing all of it. And that it’s all style and fashion and without meaning.
Actually, this is not an uninteresting point, but it takes away from the story of the original No Wave artists. They criticize the contemporary bands, who appear in the film, too, and largely sound like dopes (Karen O. of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, so cool and amazing on stage and in the band sounds like a typical young person with nothing interesting to say, just lots of “y’know’s”). I do have to say that I think that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, no matter how they have been capitalized on, are an excellent band. Clearly they write songs that have radio-friendly poppy-ness, but they are awesome to me. The only other contemporary act that seemed cool was Gogol Bordello which was like some gypsy-punk thing, strange and creative.
This film has some interesting aspects, but the point of comparison between the “then” and “now” seems like a more empty argument than a specific analysis of one or the other. Interestingly enough, Sonic Youth seem to be having a resurgence with their latest album, proving that they (who went to a major label themselves in the late 1980’s and were considered “sell-outs” at the time because of it) truly bridge the gap between the periods, but more so, still making relevent and interesting music while they must be pushing 50.