1. Best Coast - "How They Want Me To Be"
2012 wasn't the year dominant culture ceased to exist, but it might have been the year where we all became most keenly aware of it. A creeping relativism, unleashed during the previous decade in music with the release of Garden State, the ascendancy of the Seth Cohen and Zooey Deschanel tropes, the quirking of cool, finally came home to roost. Subculture, in the old Hegelian sense, lost its way. How could you march against the edifices of a fake empire if there were no edifices against which to march? How could you march at all if everyone was in step with their own proverbial drummer? It was finally unclear who was in charge, and the project of postmodernism was sort of complete. The walls and gates of the inner parts of the cultural empire were down; the center had exploded before Foucault and Derrida got to stand triumphantly in the inner chambers; the center now lay in a million little pieces and everyone seemed to hold a part of it.
Some of this certainly marked an improvement. Dominant culture and its relationship to subculture always proved a little abusive: the popular kids against the literate ones, the cool kids against the kids who were into cool things. This fever dream, it seems, passed in the last ten years. Cool now seeped from everywhere, packaged and marketed by a million different companies and adopted in every possible form. Rap kids could wear studded belts and skinny jeans, and skaters wore flat brims. Hipsters rode a rising tide of cultural contrarianism and irony, and adolescents possessed a veritible buffet of acceptable cultural signifiers from which to choose. The xx even made a case for the coolness of introversion and baggy black clothes in the past three years, a fact that would have labeled you a school shooter during the knee-jerk, binary 1990s. Cool could now be virtually anything, a hyper-inflation of cultural capital where everyone was rich and poor at the same time.
So when Beth Consentino of Best Coast sat down to write "How They Want Me To Be," the most haunting and pregnant song of the 2012, it was a little unclear who, exactly, she meant. Who was this "they"? Further, given Consentino's sort of annoying position as an arbiter of "cool" and her myriad failings for being wantonly commercial and personally petulant, was she even the right person to be making a case against "them", even if we were to figure out who "they" were? Consentino was not the most adept or archetypical
revolutionary for this confused age. In fact, she will probably be
remembered as one of the more cynical artifacts of an incredibly cynical
era of indie rock. But her argument on "How They Want Me To Be" took an inward twist that was as thought-provoking as it was gorgeous.
The signature lyric and idea, "I don't to be how they want me to be," proved to pleasantly outdated, a sort of walking, talking bit of nostalgia for a time when parents just didn't understand and friend groups wielded group-think like a cudgel. What was most charming in Consentino's argument was that she still felt penned in, even riding a self-made tidal wave of solid-color Wayfarer sunglasses. No one was chasing her, flannel shirt and full of tattoos, that irritating Los Angeles cool spilling from behind her maybe ironic t-shirt, and still she ran. It was the grand American tradition of restlessness, a sense that all was not well, and that the cultural police still might be out there somewhere. "They" weren't dead; "they" still wanted her to be some indeterminate way. She wanted nothing to do with it. "How They Want Me To Be" was one of the only rock songs of 2012 that so openly admitted to being culturally uncomfortable, that this era of wide-open social and cultural mores was no panacea.
The answers were not to march against new cultural standards or search for more and more bizarre counter-cultural movements; the answers were probably in your bedroom or in your immediate social circle. The revolution was waking in the middle of the night and finding reassurance in another person who felt the same way about this era of cultural fragility, a multivalient dystopia outside and a cocoon within. This was not the breezy fun of "The Only Place," the intensely marketed and marketable single from the record of the same name. "How They Want Me To Be" reflected a deep and delicate, not to mention new, set of anxieties.
Something wasn't right, and it was now impossible to say who or what was responsible. "How They Want Me To Be" illustrated Consentino spending money recklessly and against the better advice of her friends, revealed her mother "just wondering", asking "a lot of questions", the gentle pressures that Consentino necessarily turned into the enemies of her freedom. These were the anxieties that haunted her nights and early mornings. It couldn't be a nagging adult or even a judgmental group of friends, these were her fictions. No one was chasing her and no one would be. In a world that was once organized by who you were for and against, Consentino woke to find that everyone was for everyone. We were, finally, terrifyingly, alone.
The answer to this new cultural anxiety lay next to her. The song took a final twist on its last line, Consentino wailing into her own duet, "You don't want me to be how they want me to be/I don't want me to be how they they want me to be." No one used "to be" verbs with more poetic license and impact than she did in 2012. The scary realization that "they" didn't exist didn't deter Best Coast. "How They Want Me To Be" proved both a beautiful love song, a plea for refuge from all these swirling cultural decisions, and a new set of marching orders against an age that thought it killed the notion of marching orders. Solace in finding new enemies, in reinvigorating the old conversations, in resisting these new anxieties, in finding someone who also didn't want you to be like they wanted you to be, it was a plea for individuality and partnership in an era that did the mostly former.
We could find ourselves again, she argued, with another and against new cultural enemies, maybe even ones of our own making. Our freedom would not lie in breaking out, but rather in breaking in, finding another who nervously scanned the room and wondered who "they" were and what, if anything, "they" wanted you to be. As an existential statement, "How They Want Me To Be" crafted itself in the negative. We all clutched physical parts of the destroyed cultural capitol and the subcultural Molotov cocktail that destroyed it like little bits of the Berlin Wall, artifacts of a bygone era. The revolution was now past. These battles were over, but "in the morning and the middle of the night," the fight raged on within.