Far and away, the most embarrassing thing about me that I can think of (save that I’ve failed my driver’s test twice) sits about four inches above my forearm: an AFI tattoo. As a kid with an older friend fresh out of tattoo school, the ink lines seem to defy any notion of “accuracy,” so not only is it a sketchy, shitty-looking tattoo, but it also relates to a band, aesthetic, ideology, and sound that I find totally cringe-worthy. Yet despite all of this, I haven’t thought about covering it yet — partially because I’ve worked for minimum wage in four different states through and out of college, partially because I have a healthy collection of shirts that cover it, and partially because I don’t exactly understand why I got it and why to this day it still embarrasses me so much. Only one person in the real world has called me out for having it, and it even helped me make a friend. Once while having a conversation with another friend about bad tattoos, I tried to console him by summarizing our decisions as “a step in the right direction on the wrong foot.” As a kid with a fairly conservative upbringing, I was told that the best way to not get a job was to get a tattoo. But of course, things change, as they do, and now the act of tattooing has almost been completely drained of its outsider history and transgressive appeal, thanks to its more “artisanal” existence among post-youth as myself. In terms of who I was, it seems to be pretty simple: that AFI were loud and expressive, and among all of the misplaced angst, the emergent need and effeminate fashion’s lack of transgressive being, the whole honesty without reflexivity. In short, the blanket “emo” thing.
But it’s kind of incorrect to describe AFI as an emo band (though this was a frequent descriptor being tossed around both now and then). Now, before I get every genre purist breathing down my neck about Tim Kasher and American Football (the less ornate, less mall-appealing side of the emo spectrum), I have to assure that I understand there is a difference. Sort of. About a decade ago, it was about half of the “emo” qualities of the band that attracted me to it, and as far as subject matter goes (whining about your breakups), AFI at least addressed the manner (very paper-thinly, mind you) with some matter of abstraction, and it was that abstraction that I was attracted to. Your less mall-/anime-looking emo tends to deliver straight to the point, but back then I was more interested in curtailing around the issue rather than straight delivery. To this day, it stems as the same reason why I still don’t like everything under the umbrella of emo — Cursive, Saves The Day, et al. — is that I don’t trust honest expression without abstraction as a simulacra of Honesty or Truth. But in a state of reflexivity, it’s easy enough to understand why I liked what I did in the past, how those things appealed to me, and how I grew out of them.
However, when I listen to Burials, I find that I can’t quite grow out of the embarrassment. Thinking that it was either my own misperception that might have perceived this to be much, much more transgressive than it ever actually was, what’s most embarrassing now is that a decade later this band is still doing the exact same thing, except they’ve traded in some of the shtick for a more “straightforward” representation. AFI have ditched both the Danzig look and philosophy of being the same obstinate douchebag in fishnets for eternity to a much more hetero-normative version of the same shit they’ve been doing since 2003. Last I heard/listened from/to this band, Davey Havoc looked like he was trying more for Madonna than the Nordstrom’s model look he now procures, the biggest change over the years being his voice, having gone from Eric Cartman without the dentist’s cotton balls, to post-core yelling bark, to on Burials coming stupidly close to Nickelback angry-guy growl territory. Track titles enforce this: “I Hope You Suffer,” “No Resurrection,” “Heart Stops,” etc., a same manifestation of the same sentimentality minus a few loose abstractions.
All this amounts to what makes bands like Nickelback and Three Doors Down so fucking hard to deal with in the first place: incessant self-attention without placement, reflection, or even the grace to take an uncomfortable aesthetic choice and stick with it, insisting on its camp qualities over its self-absorbed notions of expressivity. They sing about wanting to “love and kill like 17,” and for all intents and purposes, there is a fine paradox within, as growth seems to fit everything about them except for their songs. I’m not in a position to call out this paradox as a form or proof of inauthenticity, because I’m guessing all four grown men in this band have a firm belief in whatever this is that they’re still doing. And good for them. I’ve taken my shots, and we can dump as many mall-punk Hot Topic jokes on them that we could possibly muster in one breath, only to set the stage for the obvious backlash. But what leads me back to the notion of embarrassment is watching the exact same sentiment play out a decade later, wondering if there isn’t something more noble for them to do. Like wondering why that dude from Bad Religion with a PhD doesn’t just give up on phoning it in with his band and focus on evolutionary biology. As much as the rock & roll dream is still part of the American landscape, the dignity of the profession has been drained. This brand of emo/screamo is more or less hair metal, but for people who have “feelings,” and as outlandish as it may seem, a lot of late-punk derivative stuff like this holds an intensely conservative creative cycle (much in the same way that hair metal is), which for AFI took a career to fully develop.
And this might be largest facet, the most persistent executor of my embarrassment. In some ways, I desire the death of this band, this gut-unnerving aesthetic, primarily to satisfy my narcissism. If they were to fade into the back of collective memory, maybe they would fade into the back of my own memory. It seems like a trap, a perverted reversal of the Proust “fixity of memory” thing, where memory desires to be changed but the people do not. Or maybe this is a misinterpretation of that act, a loss of both memory and time, fragmented against understanding. As much as I want to criticize this band, I want to understand why they desire to exist in their unchanged state. But maybe, like emo, garage rock, jazz, salsa, folk, etc., some things just don’t ever go away. Ideals don’t die, and genres (broad, blanket statement genres) now carry less the idealization of purity and more the idealization of existence — poetically, in Stephen Crane speak, as a way to justify existence to the indifferent universe. Not to say that AFI will admit to an emo existence, but they do consider themselves an American rock & roll band (A band said to the universe, “We are American rock & roll!” The universe says, “so?”). But both for ourselves and for bands, we use genre as a means of declaring and supporting existence; it just so happens that the ideology is different from the creator to the recipient. Maybe that is why AFI continues to produce overly compressed albums, tour, make unwatchable music videos, and continue their practice for good old-fashioned rock & roll. Perhaps. In any case, I suspect whatever this truly is to be at both the heart of my nagging sense of self- and outer-loathing.
Unfortunately I can’t even draw any conclusions from or for myself, my past, or AFI. This kind of music will have its fans, its importance will wax and wain and wax again in the critical landscape. People will either reconcile their past through ignorance, acceptance, or both, and bands that are hallmarks of certain facets both wonderful and ignominious will exist all the same.
Sorry I didn’t review the actual music, but I honestly can’t make it through this horrendous album. Here’s a much better review:
01. The Sinking Night
02. I Hope You Suffer
03. A Deep Slow Panic
04. No Resurrection
05. 17 Crimes
06. The Conductor
07. Heart Stops
09. The Embrace
11. Greater Than 84
13. The Face Beneath the Waves