Silk: “Freak Me”
If you lived through the paradigm shift of The Internet, it is still almost beyond belief that information is so nakedly accessible — that the functional distance between you and any cell of the corpus of human knowledge can be machine-reduced to a single point. Saying this makes me sound, I am sure, like an old man dribbling mushed peas onto a Kozmo.com bib, but it is likely to be the only global sociocultural paradigm shift I’ll ever be privileged enough to experience both sides of as a conscious living being, and so I relish reliving it.
BEAR WITH ME, sorry, I am going to talk about fuck jams in a minute.
Because: I think the much more interesting perspective one can have of the internet—my own bias, of course—is basically the one I had of the microcomputer when I was growing up; a culture-secreting machine that was simultaneously ubiquitous and capable of magic. Technology so useful and so pervasive weirds things; that all other technology doesn’t resemble it seems utterly backwards. And so I love to look at this culture of infinite, instantaneous data retrieval from the opposite angle; to view the past as an environment in which knowledge necessarily required pursuit.
Which can be problematic! One huge danger in rubbernecking the reverse chronology of cultural evolution, FOR EXAMPLE, is ascribing false nobility to actions which once were and are no longer standard practice. It is mind-blowing to think, in a surface-level way, that there have been millions of people who have built their own homes with their own hands — but when you get a little closer to the reality of the process you begin to understand that what it is, is merely difficult, but necessary, work. The same is true for the conception people in their late teens have now, I would imagine, about a pre-internet culture; that we were not marinating in graspable data did not make the pursuit of such romantic so much as it meant, at least in my experience, that you just speculated a whole bunch.
Where the power of naïveté came most into play, were you a pre-teen glued to the R&B station, was in the interpretation of—and here we are—the fuck jam.
SCENE THE FIRST
I’m sitting on a microbeach the size of a sedan’s shadow. I am eleven years old and have a crush the size of an exploding star on a girl whose first name and surname are synonymic. In fact, in the summer of 1992 the entire world is, basically, this girl, basketball, Nintendo, and the tiny plastic boombox I have carried with me to the microbeach. Casey Kasem is introducing the #1 song of the week, and for the first time since I’ve started listening to the radio, he sounds audibly disappointed in the title of the song. “Freak Me,” he overenunciates.
I am still sheltered enough that I haven’t yet caught on to the fact that something can be experienced by millions, and yet still be distasteful to adults, so this shakes me out of my proto-pubescent bummer reverie. “Freak Me?” I try catching the words as they ooze, perfumed, out of the speakers, and spread into the air. Something completely ineffable is fundamentally different between this and the song I’d tuned in to hear (“Jump,” by Kris Kross). I get serious. I stop mooning out over the lake and focus all of my attention — if I don’t listen with all my might at this instant, I could forever lose this song and its weird totemic power, gone to time. For the first time in memory, the boombox has edged out Nintendo for third place.
SCENE THE SECOND
I’m playing basketball by myself in the middle of the woods, where my parents live. The amount of pavement available for me to dribble on is two-thirds the size of the key and at a ten-degree angle, and every ten minutes I brick a shot so bad it careens down the driveway. The boombox is shoved up against the house, positioned in a spot I hit with relative irregularity, and is tuned to a radio station that has recently switched formats and is, unbeknownst to me, actively imprinting me with a love of the Yamaha DX7. (Good.) The DJ crossfades into “Freak Me” and it’s like a gift. “Baby don’t you understand,” I sing along, “I wanna be your next man.”
The lyrics are, in fact, “I wanna be your nasty man,” something I would not realize until 2012, maybe two weeks before I wrote this very sentence. When I realize it — and it happens not as a result of even some cursory research, but in my own head, as I’m washing the dishes — it seems momentarily impossible that it could ever be heard any other way; the “next man” interpretation requires that you ignore an entire syllable. It is only plausible, I later decide, if you are a being to whom “nasty man” is a descriptor that makes no sense, and to whom it cannot.
The internet has solved the problem of “How can I access all music, in order to select some music?” to such a spectacular degree, that it thereafter had to invent a further solution: “I cannot cognitively process my desires when wielding the power of infinite choice. Can you select some music for me?” But it can never emulate choicelessness, so anathematic is that to the stream, and that state was a perfect Petri dish for naïveté.
It is difficult to revisit the state of naïve youth, even as a memory. I have to try. First: to exist is to take in information, constantly, without the faculties to determine which information is useful, or even true. Second: that dizzying intake paints a sheen of plausibility over any self-generated notion, no matter how improbable. Third: between birth and adulthood exists a period where thoughts you have yourself are exciting by the very virtue of being yours alone, and these thoughts can metastasize into actions, which can become rituals.
Now imagine that, as this protohuman, there is a single* device in your life, this radio, which is capable of delivering to you music that you’ve never heard — music which can be yours alone. It is, for that matter, responsible for reifying your realization that music is worth paying attention to in the first place. That it is powered by choicelessness makes it not a tool, but a conduit, in the way you couldn’t call a lightning rod a lightswitch, and trying to wish specific music out of it feels religious, in a way that visiting an actual church never had. Now you are hooked; your hope structure becomes entangled with the dial.
And when a perfect song juts out and strikes you? When you hear something you must hear again? You are stuck ricocheting its memory around your insides until your radio prayer takes. Your recall of the song mutates and evolves it as you obsess over its fading chemtrails: bridges leap from one song-memory to another; a rhyme which sticks out to you was, in fact, self-generated, in the idle downtime of a long bus ride, but is now neatly bookmarked in the second verse of a pop single.
Sometimes, actually even hearing it again could feel like too much, which now sounds absolutely insane—but when you spend months clutching the onionskin-tracing of a song you had one on-the-fly pass to sketch, the actual artifact is terribly holy when it finally shows its face to you again. But often enough, when you compared the two, you’d find that the version you’d kept differed in some fundamental ways to the genuine article; sentiment and faulty recall had modulated the memory over time down another evolutionary branch.
Here in the present, I cannot claim that this is better than unlimited access to the real thing; Youtube comment tween-spam-memes go a long way towards proving that obsession symbiotically mutates to pair with new hosts. But this past habit of song-worshipping has forever intertwined real objects with this frozen iteration of myself, inseparably. Is “Freak Me” my favorite fuck jam? Unquestionably. But that is because I co-wrote it.
* We didn’t have cable yet.