I watched Pump up the Volume the other day. Just for old time’s sake. In 2012, when the movie turned 25, it sort of re-entered the collective consciousness of geekdom with several retrospective articles.
I haven’t bothered to sit down and watch the whole movie for maybe 10-15 years, though. Which I think is a little sad, actually, considering that everyone should be required by law to take a moment and watch 20-year-old Samantha Mathis’ topless scene at least once every 7 months.
Equally important as Samantha’s elf-shoe tits is the impact the movie had on my life, way back in 1990. The movie followed Mark, a painfully shy high school kid. He ran a pirate radio station, broadcasting every night at 10pm, where this shy, bookish writer who couldn’t connect with anyone became Happy Harry Hard-On and generally went insane to a soundtrack that, in 1990, was rather earth-shattering.
In 1990, I was also a shy, bookish high school kid. Awkward, full of hatred and self-loathing, I had just discovered zines – the blogs and social media of my generation. I made my own zine and I hung out with any zinesters who would talk to me. In these little Xeroxed rants that, usually, would be free at the front counters of record stores and tchotchke shops, I found voices and thoughts much like mine. Here were the weirdoes and the geeks screaming out to the world.
When Pump up the Volume hit theaters, the tale of youth-culture gone mad tapped right into my brain. In fact, it’s thanks to Happy Harry Hard-On that Nacho Sasha was born. An alter ego who could say and do anything and not give a damn.
But, wow. That was a long time ago. As I sat down in my mid-40s and watched Pump up the Volume on a TV with a screen clarity I wouldn’t have even imagined 30 years ago, I realized two things. First: In high-def, you can see just how much back acne Christian Slater had. Gross. Second: I’ve gotten old. I’ve gotten tired. Somehow, I willfully removed myself from the sense of rebellion and freedom that I once had long ago. I’ve become another sad cog in the wheel, working for small-minded tyrants who are going to die in their windowless offices, their last act to send out an email scheduling a meeting to discuss the agenda for tomorrow’s meeting. I’ve become one of those people. Dedicated to the idea of living paycheck-to-paycheck, even when those paychecks are worth more than anyone should reasonably spend each month. But, no, I need that pretty city townhouse that eats up 60% of my earnings. I need the finest craft brews for $10 a pint. I need the goddamned super computer in my pocket that I only ever use to take pictures, check the headlines, and tell me the time.
I didn’t realize it. I didn’t set out with this goal. For the longest time, my goal was to run, to remove myself from society, to never – never! – play along. But, slowly, as the years marched on, I started to become someone who accumulated shit. I found myself buying into this stupid world.
My core promise to myself has always remained the same – if I can get ahead and get paid enough I’ll be able to improve my position and, ultimately, escape the rut I’m in. Somehow, though, I’ve blinded myself to the fact that I dug the rut in the first place. I am the one who has enslaved myself.
I think I fell from the grace of youthful naiveté when I started to get tired. Not just physically, but in that cosmic soul kind of way. A small part of me figured, well, this is it. This is how the world works. We get older, we settle into our shallow graves of salary-serfdom, we put on a smile for the fucking neighbors, and we behave ourselves until we die too young and too fat.
When it comes to laying blame for this way of thinking, though, it’s hard just to point the finger at myself. If anything, the message from Pump up the Volume remains the same. It’s been nearly 30 years since Christian Slater mugged for the camera and delivered his monologue on the death of our culture:
You see there’s nothing to do anymore. Everything decent’s been done. All the great themes in life have been used up, turned into theme parks. So I don’t really find it exactly cheerful to be living in the middle of a totally exhausted decade where there’s nothing to look forward to and no one to look up to.
How sad that so little has changed. Or, perhaps, it’s changed so much that we went wildly to the other end of the spectrum. From a dearth of culture to too much culture. By the mid-90s, our cultural outlets started to explode. No longer did we rely on whatever was playing on that groovy UHF channel, or the videotapes at the ma and pop video store, or printed zines on a rack at the record shop. As the 90s progressed, we were encouraged, more and more, to not think for ourselves. To conform. To toe the line. Then, one fateful day in 2001, we were taught true fear. We were told – and we saw – that we were no longer safe. And, by then, you could watch the beginning of the end of an era on demand. With the new century, our cultural outlets are so diverse and so accessible that it’s impossible to focus on any one thing. Our culture became fractured, fragmented, reduced to a soundbyte. The on demand, instant gratification lifestyle doesn’t allow for any sort of zeitgeist. It’s every person for themselves, locked away in their rooms, or huddled over their iPads and mobile phones. Trapped in their brains and more distant from each other even though the very nature of this culture-killing world is to put us all instantly in touch with each other. But…everyone knows this. I’m echoing the words of many people right now. Which makes it even worse. We’re killing our souls and exterminating our happiness…and we know it.
But we are just so afraid, and so exhausted by that fear, so maybe we welcome the distraction even though we know the cost. One thing’s for sure: Not only have we forgotten to question the system that controls us, we’ve forgotten how to question it. Worse, we’ve forgotten that we always need to question it. Our particular system is founded on the principle of saying, hey, we’re not gonna take it. You could apply the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence to King George or to the modern day personification of corporate entities. Our overlords have changed their style and approach in the last 250 years, but it all boils down to one thing: We are brutally enslaved to an indifferent, greedy master and God and Nature demand that we overthrow them.
To free ourselves, we need some sort of momentum. But all of our great themes have been raped and warped and twisted, and we still have nothing to look forward to, and no one to look up to. And we’re still in the middle of an exhausted decade. Our third or fourth one, depending on whether or not you’re an 80s apologist. I think we’re all very tired. How can you not be? There’s just so much. This post is just over a thousand words and yet I’ve struggled to finish it because the Steam Summer Sale is on, and Netflix has 32 new movies today. Plus, I have to check those headlines to see who’s dead and if Kate Middleton is dressing like Diana again. The fractured culture calls me, but only to eat my soul and waste my time so, when next I look down at the clock, it’s 5pm, the day is gone, and I’m one step closer to oblivion.