American Football: The Sound of Going Home
Posted on September 2, 2014
September 2, 2014
by Rebecca Ungarino
In her tribute to Lou Reed in The New Yorker last November, Patti Smith described a memory of her friend Reed, seeing him in a New York hotel while she carried a book of poetry. “He took the book out of my hand,” she wrote, “and we looked at the poet’s photograph together. So beautiful, he said, so sad. It was a moment of complete peace.” In 2011, Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers was perhaps, unexpectedly moved by the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along some of his favorite bands. He recalled for The Los Angeles Times a young Slash, not yet of Guns N’ Roses, sneaking into Flea’s rehearsals with an earlier band when they were just kids, even though Flea was “more from the underground punk world. At the time, it was worlds apart.”
Though sometimes we can’t name it, we know what it means to feel what is no longer: a familiar whiff of perfume in a revolving door, hearing a stranger’s name called and thinking of a past lover, an old friend. You try to avoid a sentimental song and years later you hear it again, cities and cities away, and feel transported. We naturally feel what is a distant memory and attach to that feeling a song or an album that completely absorbs the sadness or depth. Assign a tune to a memory, and there it is kept.
The caustic force stoking one generation’s nostalgic fire, creating an entire amorphous brand around the past, forging 8-millimeter film and tinted photographs for the love of having something to hold onto in a dreary, digital world, has been the Internet. At the emotional intersection of a culture obsessed with nostalgia and the Internet as a means of preservation is American Football, an Illinois band who produced one full-length and one EP worth of music – 51 minutes – between 1997 and 1999, followed by a short string of intimate shows before splitting.
Though American Football have remained inactive for fifteen years and its members have moved to other projects, their music – most notably songs like “Never Meant” and “When the Summer Ends” – has never died, and the Internet has kept it alive. The band’s sad, dreamy music may have been able to stand on its own, but it has enjoyed a decade and a half of praise, love, and yes, apathy, and most of all the intense yearning of its audience, by way of the Internet.
Though many of American Football’s fans never attended their live shows, they wish to have been there, in what looks like a simpler time: moments we wish to encapsulate in songs and video recordings, forever digitally shelved on the Internet, soaked in faded photographs and scanned Polaroid film. Who remembers Title Fight’s “Head in the Ceiling Fan” video released last year, recorded on scratchy Hi8 film?
And, of course, music lives on the Internet, a curse and a fortune; it is there ever preserved, untouched, where there is no dust to seep into jewel case inserts, no sunlight to fray vinyl sleeves. And there is a sweetly vague X-factor each “timeless” band enjoys: we know the bands that have written the songs that transport us and make us long, though sometimes we can’t put a finger on it.
There are different concepts of what defines a “timeless” band, one that evokes visceral emotions in its listeners and what standards its discography, sound, and members’ personas must meet in order to remain a classic name. Some bands provide us this nostalgia, this auditory glimpse into what we cannot hold onto anymore, and we know to hold onto these bands and their discographies and stories very closely.
“Why do people watch scary movies? They allow us to experience fear in the absence of any real threat. Sad music provides a similar form of emotional exploration,” said Meagan Curtis, assistant professor of psychology at Purchase College in White Plains, N.Y., whose research includes musical regulation of emotional responses.
One song, “Never Meant,” from American Football’s self-titled LP, contains an element that composers call “deceptive cadence.” Curtis explained to me that the song’s structure allows for a mix of joy and sadness: performed in a major key, played at a moderate speed, though lingering “on a sad minor chord instead of resolving to a happy major chord.” This musical deception and combination of major and minor chords within one four-minute composition quite literally creates the “type of mixed, bittersweet feeling that we associate with nostalgia,” she explained.
American Football sold out three consecutive nights at Webster Hall in New York this October, after the shows—in conjunction with a deluxe reissue of their lone full-length via Polyvinyl—was announced in the spring. Heath Miller, vice president of the venue, told me he was expecting to sell out one show, and though there might be a demand for a second show, “that was TBA. As soon as the first show went on sale, we knew were definitely adding a second show – and shortly after that we knew we could definitely add a third show as well.” He called the demand for tickets “pretty insane.”
“We could likely have added a fourth show, but we decided to stay at the three shows,” Miller. The October dates had materialized through American Football’s agent and manager, who Miller works with often. He had previously spoken with the band’s manager about “being into doing it, if the reunion dates actually happened,” and here we are.
Of course, we associate songs and bands with meaningful moments and sincere times of depth and disgrace and love. American Football surely aren’t the only band classified as emo to have their musical legacy solidified in their respective communities by the Internet, but the band’s very short active period and lack of production is a testament to the way the Internet has embraced their lovesick lyrics, sprinkled with regret we know nothing about.
I’ll be at Webster Hall this October to see the band I first learned of from a friend’s MySpace playlist in 2006, though I was a kindergartner when their self-titled album was first released. I’ll probably post a picture of American Football to Instagram, and on the subway ride to the venue, listen to their Spotify archive, readily available to those who love hearing “Honestly, I can’t remember teen dreams…”