The Dandy Warhols - Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth
I was totally unaware of this song when it came out in 1998 — the Dandy Warhols never hit as big here as they did in Europe — but looking at it now I can’t imagine anything more quintessentially 90s. Obviously, there’s video director David LaChapelle’s Saved-By-The-Bell-to-11 aesthetic, but the Dandies’ too-cool-to-even-think-about-school song does a lot of the heavy lifting.
The tongue-bursting-through-cheek assertion that heroin addiction can be something as banal as “so passé” is equally hilarious and awful, and the track is a perfect mesh of late century American rock sensibilities, combining the self-loathing nihilism of grunge with the bright tra-la-la peppiness of the 90s garage band some-hit-wonders (those Doctors of Spin and Blossoms of Gin). There’s something undeniably heartbreaking about the notion that the only hope of saving your friend is by somehow convincing him that the drug to which he’s cripplingly addicted is no longer hip, but, it being the 90s, everything is slathered in a thick sheen of smirk— “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if I actually cared about this?”
The whole production is drowning in smirk. You can’t escape it. Just look at the lead singer’s face. He’s so over everything while simultaneously so over the whole “so over everything” thing. Courtney Taylor doesn’t give a shit if you like his song or his dopy pun band name. A year later he’ll change his name to Courtney Taylor-Taylor because fuck you. In this video, you can watch the blasé 90s curdle and rot. This is front row tickets to irony eating its own tail. Everyone is laughing but no one is happy. Everything’s so important but no one can be bothered. It’s one big smothering shrug. No wonder we embraced pure uncomplicated bubblegum pop for the next five years. Good God we needed air.
The making of this $400,000 video is captured in the documentary DiG!, which can be watched in 12 parts on youtube starting here. What does LaChapelle have to say about his work?
Take my name off of it. I talked to Courtney last night. He doesn’t want any closeups in it. He wants it to be a ‘performance spectacle.’ He wrote me this moochy-coochy letter; he compared me to Salvador Dali, and Man Ray, and like ‘You do whatever you want’ and this and that. And then as soon as I’m done with the video he thinks he can start screaming at me at the top of his fucking lungs, like acting like a huge spoiled Baby Huey? Uh-uh. He’s not like an alternative rock star. He’s a pop star.
In the 1990s, alternative rock was pop, and this is a so 90s pop song, a kitschy earworm that’s simultaneously about something and like, whatever, man. The track is a lovingly antagonistic mash note from the Dandies to their friends in the Brian Jonestown Massacre who in turn found the song and video cheesy as fuck. BJM percussionist Joel Gion had this to say while mooching off craft services at the Junkie video shoot: “I think I’m beginning to grasp the concept here. The theme is… passé things? Things that are passé! The whole thing!”
The whole thing is a snark feedback loop. The BJM recorded a response song called Not If You Were The Last Dandy On Earth, which Courtney Taylor-Taylor found hilarious. I don’t even know anymore.
“I don’t even know anymore,” by the way, is a generation-defining quote from The Simpsons. In the 1996 episode Homerpalooza, Homer becomes a side show freak in a traveling music festival. As he walks on stage during one concert, a bored teenager says flatly, “Oh, here comes that cannonball guy. He’s cool.” His friend asks, “Are you being sarcastic, dude?” and he answers, “I don’t even know anymore.”
Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth is very “I don’t even know anymore.” Or to put it more bluntly, as an A&R executive does in DiG!, “The Dandy Warhols are the reason people get laid off of record labels. People spend so much money on these bands, and they make ridiculous videos, and when it doesn’t all pan out, somebody’s got to pay for it, right?” When it doesn’t pan out?! Who thought this ghoulish candy nightmare was going to pan out?! In the last fifteen years, record labels have wised up. I can’t remember the last time a major label made a push for a pop song that you needed to “get.” This video is the last bastion of the Too Too Clever, the last time it felt like a band was getting one over on the people trying to sell them.
The Simpsons episode was about Generation X, but the “I don’t even know anymore” sentiment applies just as well to my generation— I don’t want to speak for others; it applies just as well to me. When I was a kid there was a series of Apple Jacks commercials in which some adult would hassle a group of kids for liking the cereal. “Why do you like those things? They don’t taste like apples.” And the kids would roll their eyes at the old fuddy-duddy and laugh and say, “Don’t ask us why we like them. We just do!”
For me, the lines have blurred between irony and sincerity. I can’t put things in boxes of “this I like because I like it” and “this I like because I don’t like it.” I watch Mad Men and I also watch Pretty Little Liars, and I enjoy them both and that’s okay. I don’t believe in guilty pleasures, because what kind of an asshole move is that, to like something and also feel superior to it? As a general rule I just like the things I like. It’s all Apple Jacks.
Earlier this month, my sooo talented friend Julia organized an art show in honor of her favorite actress Kristen Stewart. One article described the art as “poking fun” at the star, and claimed the opening night gala would “surely be attended ironically by many” (the article’s headline asked, “Have hipsters gone too far?”), but in a followup interview, Julia clarified that the show was actually meant as a sincere tribute. I believe her intentions, but I think the resulting collection of art is a little more complicated and a little more interesting than either qualifier “ironic” or “sincere.” There’s something undeniably dehumanizing about a room full of mythic representations of the very human Stewart, ranging in styles from the fawning to the grotesque. This kind of exhibition isn’t at all bizarre in the context of the LA art scene — in the past year I’ve gone to similar shows dedicated to Jurassic Park and “Weird Al” Yankovic, as well as one, if memory serves, about the word “moist” — but I can see how to an outsider the very concept might seem like an elaborate insult. When viewing the work, you can’t help but be aware of the inherent vague inappropriateness of such a K-Stew overload, but that doesn’t make your enjoyment of it malicious. Like everything, the show is both sincere and ironic, but that’s not supposed to be confusing; you’re just supposed to get it, because that’s the way we live now.
I watch this Dandy Warhols video for Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth, and I see the sincerity buried in it, but I also think that this kind of suffocating irony doesn’t really exist anymore. Nobody tries this hard to not try hard. Some people called 9/11 the Death of Irony, but I think irony was already on its way out, at least the kind of unfettered cynicism that produces a $400,000 technicolor ode to the boringness of smack addiction. The harsh irony of the 90s didn’t really die though; it just evolved into something more interesting and nuanced, the rich complexity of the “I don’t even know anymore.” That’s where we live, like it or not. Because knowing things anymore is so passé.
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