James Ferraro Skid Row

[Break World; 2015]

Rating: 4.5/5

Styles: urban documentary, dystopian glamor
Others: The Sims, Robert Ashley, David Cronenberg

We’re in Los Angeles. We’re in a simulation of Los Angeles. A hyperreality.

Have we awakened? Or is this sleep again? Another form of sleeping? Highways, gated houses, LA Fitness. Million dollar smiles, lattes, police brutality. We’re awake now. The sunlight is painful: too much for one life. And on our lips come questions: Is this place real or not? There or not there?

We inhale polluted air in the shadows of palm trees in a backyard, poolside, with all the soundtracks to those L.A.-based TV shows from the 80s and 90s condensed into an album: Skid Row.

But fake. Make it fake. Make it plastic. Fake and plastic and after-the-fact. Over-exaggerate it. Jeff Koons it. Milli Vanilli it. Porn-film it. A dildo, fake massive breasts. Make it of newsreels; Rodney King, OJ Simpson’s white Bronco speeding down the freeway. If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit, heard on a TV through a wall in a dream. So make it not fit. Then make it fit. Sincerely or insincerely. Glitter, confetti, lights, camera, action. This is a story of Los Angeles in the late 20th century, so extreme in detail — so photorealistic — that we feel nauseous about how we perceive place. We vomit our Starbucks and In-N-Out onto the scalding asphalt of Santa Monica Boulevard, then go back to our Airbnb, act like nothing dramatic happened because no one was on the sidewalk, and play Grand Theft Auto V.

That’s what’s happening on Skid Row. It’s an album about a place, with the faux factor turned way up. It lights up like a movie set as an album, or a porn film as an album, or a forgotten daytime TV show as an album. Ferraro sings like he does on NYC, Hell 3:00 AM, but with a street hustler’s glamor; sunshine gets in a little bit more. But it drips with dystopian superficiality, causing claustrophobia and nausea, but also centering us, giving us a vision of Ferraro’s world, presenting the thoughts of multiple characters, song-after-song. He sings not as a singular voice, but in voicings: RoboCop, arcade-going nerds, millionaires, panhandlers, a pretty girl on the beach, a rioter, cocaine lizards on the hills, a homeless man, an actor, an actress, a surgeon, a cop. This music, we soon realize, is for the city freaks, by the city freaks. It’s a drama without a protagonist, an obituary without a death, a documentary without a camera, a poem without words, a historical narrative that disturbs the picturesque, tourist-friendly version of L.A. This city, in Ferraro’s voice and production, is the one the movie cameras don’t film.

But here’s the thing. This is the L.A. shot on cameras. This is the L.A. everyone knows, even someone like myself who has never been there. How does Ferraro formulate us around this buzzing, multicultural sphere?

As a musician, he decides to work as a documentarist. On Skid Row, Los Angeles absorbs us with its myriad portals of exits and entries and fake and real scenes. Where does he start us off? The intro begins with a female robot voice bluntly stating various SoCal symbols before casually slipping into a sales transaction for an iced latte (with soy milk) with a male robot barista. That’s how we begin: with money, dollar signs lighting up in neon green, entering the Customer Care Island with cars zooming on the other side of windows and violin strings stirring in a minor key, the menacing shadow of some unseen power slipping over us. We begin with robots staring up at us from our screens with a grotesque intimacy. We begin with newsreels describing danger. We begin with a face-off with ourselves, the conflict of our social identity spotlighted, the cameras zooming in. While we pleasure ourselves with our digital self on our phones and computers, on the streets we act like cagey brats afraid to challenge our privilege, so instead we cling to the closest idea of a human we can come up with, both in fashion and in personality. But it’s okay, because the world mimics our software now, and memory and aesthetic details have disappeared; there is no transcendental future. So we enter this enmeshed root system filtered by highways, struggling to breathe.

A documentary, yes. Not with a camera, but with sound and words. Visuals come out in Ferraro’s jazz-fusion/hair-metal tones and descriptive language, illustrating a city with so much culture that it almost has no culture. And everyone everywhere vamps on it. Tanning salons in Wisconsin and Seattle; palm trees in Alaska. The stereotypes of the universal Angeleno cling to us, oversaturate us, exceeding their own domains. Ferraro dissects them, polluting us with their presence. In doing so, more questions come to our lips: Who the fuck are these people? Why do they want what they want, and why do they embody the personality that they display in such a hackneyed way?

Maybe they aren’t real. Maybe they’re grandiloquent. Maybe everyone in this city, without knowing it, is an actor or actress, playing a role they didn’t even know they had to fulfill. Maybe L.A. is a simulation of itself. Maybe you can’t live here without being typecast, like the man who embodies the monologue on “Million Dollar Man.” Maybe what sounds overblown and dishonest at first — Ferraro going hard on an American Psycho-type character, who is “so conscious of water all the time” — isn’t far off from the real way a handsome, young, rich, white man thinks. Maybe Ferraro realizes that our personalities always undergo an endless construction and deconstruction depending on our situation, in roles we often have no idea how to embody on time.

It’s like, everyday on repeat, in my car, in my car, in my car, with my coffee, with my coffee, with my coffee. I’m in the LA Fitness. Text me, I’m there. Text me with my rock hard abs. I am there. But am I? Is he? That guy on Tinder? Really? Newsreels cut us off from these intimate soliloquies and then suddenly, suddenly it’s not 2015 anymore and we find ourselves in 1992.

In L.A.’s history, one moment that was too real, too shockingly front-loaded, was the South Central riots. Now we can experience (and sample from) them on YouTube, where even through a distance they still possess the rough texture of life.

Another: OJ Simpson’s trial. Another: Rodney King’s brutal beating by the LAPD.

This trifecta of events paints a picture of 1990s Los Angeles far removed from its shopping malls, long stretches of beaches, and opulent luxury.

What does it say to be reminded of Rodney King in 2015, to hear his heartbreaking speech for peace on “1992”? It means that police brutality still lurks inside the precincts of big cities, spilling into the streets. It means that black men can still fall victim to destruction and the cops will still be acquitted. It means that those riots have a contemporary twin in Ferguson. It means that we shouldn’t let Instagram and Twitter immobilize our anger. It means that it goes, it goes on, perhaps even worse today in our post-Snowden Age of Transparency. It means that digital riots embodied by a hashtag can unite a body of people underneath a singular identity. This purpose, I think, is a hidden political subtext of Skid Row.

Now we live in end times, where gentrification eats away at low-income neighborhoods and global warming eats away at the sky. Ferraro accepts the multicultural dynamic of the city’s periphery. He gets inside the mind of the weirdos hanging out in Skid Row, an area of L.A. that’s long been abused and out-of-order. He lets the voices of the low, of the forgotten, of the overlooked, of the beaten and bruised, shine as much as the voices of the high-end, the consumer-grade, the showroom-worthy. Fusing a thousand disparate lifestyles and beliefs and wishes into a single narrative of personality, from picaresque to elegy, he sings, he kind-of-sings, in hopes to combat the racism inherent in the city’s infrastructure. In songs like “Pollution” and “Thrash & Escalate,” it’s almost like he’s providing word commentary, treating humans like wildlife in a Robert Ashley opera, instead of actually trying to craft a pop hit. (That being said, “Doctor Hollywood” is the catchiest song on this record and will definitely get in your head.) The alien distance of his vocal can either turn you on or turn you off to his vision. His lyrics, which go from talking about hand-sanitizer to acid rain, and which dig deep into almost every single L.A. stereotype known, are, without a doubt, poetry: you could even call them spoken word.

So when we go riding around in our car in the big city, we look out to the sidewalks and look at all the fashion out there — those shoes with that shirt, that dress with those heels — as its own ecosystem, its own mechanically automated system, withdrawn from total human access. We are blind to the true nature of reality, but still notice patterns, ways people subtly or explosively show us who they are, what ideas they have, what makes them dream, what makes them die. Those patterns turn into cultures, those cultures get recycled by the lower or the upper or the middle class, and suddenly an article of clothing, or a simple day job, becomes a complex choice, a choice that has to be rethought every time you step outside the door. Is this me? Am I doing this right, and right now? We vanish, lugging our ontic accretions with us, wondering what to do now that we possess them.

Skid Row, at its deepest core, is a critique on how the never-ending scrollability of social media, arguably more popular than IRL phenomena, gratifies our desires while disguising our anxieties, nullifying us into clichés and ghastly patterns. This isn’t music made to show the trajectory of Ferraro as a musician. He’s doing social work here, putting himself on the backburner for a moment. He’s writing a feature in a magazine or reporting on the beat, using the tropes of L.A., a place whose disorder seems sustained by the logic of a dream, to highlight the problems of the US in general. It’s a sad, chaotic, asymmetrical report, but it’s honest. We glamorize ourselves, falling into habits, struggling to get out. We drive in our car, contributing to the smog and the drought. We spend money to feel good, and eat fast food without thinking about the horror of factory farming and industrialization. We exist too far away from the idea of celebrities but feel wrapped in their permissiveness, as if they were a source of energy. We log onto our platforms, and in the glow of their ghostly spectrality, we feel refreshed, embodying our life designed in code, which, for a second, feels like what we were born to experience.

Links: James Ferraro - Break World


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