It has to be the best part of being a quote-unquote adult – getting to make decisions. Given the glut of obligations associated with being a productive adult in society (queue Jack Arnold getting a bill in the mail), this can often be overlooked. You have to cherish the sweet spot – bachelorhood. The I-have-my-own-car, I-possibly-have-disposable-income, single, adult life. Easy to lose sight of, but then it kicks you in the teeth. You’ll be at family Thanksgiving and your nephew will be decrying the amount of green beans on his plate. Lean over and say, “Wait ’til college. No limits on dessert or soda,” and watch his eyes widen.
Choice! It’s what made birthdays so great, when you got to choose the meal or restaurant or between chocolate and white cake. King for a day! Being catered to. You got to experience the life of an only child, and all it took was making your own decisions.
Bettie Rocket Records was the B-team, depending on whom you ask. Possibly the C-team, if you grant they were the B-team within their niche, which often paled in their genre by tossing up carbon copies of mainstream acts under the guise of “sanitized alternatives.” (This was the bane of the Christian market, and not Bettie Rocket herself.) This wasn’t about advancing the cause of music as much as sanding off the edges of secular culture and offering a subtle spiritualism, and at worst just an absence of lyrical offenses.
When you had worked your way through all the best music, you started to filter down to the lower branches searching for food. Face Value, Noggin Toboggan, Sick of Change and Watashi Wa were some of the bands to grace the budget brand label that was Bettie Rocket – the punk rock bargain bin. But in spite of a captive market, there were definitely (and defiantly) gems on their roster.
My favorite of the batch was Face Value, a band whose basic lyrics of juvenile attraction played well into my worldview, where shy, homely boys won out over the socially engaged, charming ones. Over two records released in 1999 and 2000, the boys of Face Value relentlessly pummeled their instruments, making hard-hitting but melodic punk with little deviation.
This was back in the age of 16- to 20-track punk albums. There was a mentality that valued quantity over self-editing, where the best songs mingled with the chaff on bloated albums, unworthy of their run times. (Half these bands would release B-side albums that were virtually indistinguishable from their A-side counterparts.) This lead to what I coined as “Bettie Rocket fatigue,” usually prevalent on the second half of front-loaded releases where the songs blend into a single tempo with same-y distorted guitar tones – you know, the guitarist stops bothering to write leads for the three-chord progressions and the drummer’s efforts to distinguish the rat-a-tat-hyper-beat usually means clicking on her floor tom instead of the hi-hat.
That’s not to say there weren’t some stand out songs on Face Value’s albums that could stand alongside the best of minor Christian punk. There’s Always the Radio kicks off with “Buckle Down,” which combines a memorable glam riff with break-neck punk while the lyrics plead for something more – depth through intellect and concentration. “Whatever it Takes” starts off with a Goonies’ sound bite before launching into a shuffling beat, which swings with the help of guest trombone and organ. Overall, the author calls for a deeper life through challenging the mundane, tackling social issues like responding to sin with acceptance instead of hate and calling for a reliance on Christ. There’s a grounded teenage spiritualism that takes a real stab at substance, and sometimes, stumbling sincerity is more affecting than rote competence.
The most well-intentioned and earnest product can fail to resonate with a wider audience, or worse, just be plain bad. It’s artistic intention versus artist merit, and really, there’s little correlation. Our culture seems rife for both extreme ends of the quality spectrum, where amazing talent is praised, while inept, delusional artistic attempts are viewed and shared on par with the master class, sometimes more so. (“I hate you” is the Internet’s “I love you.”) With the abundance of media channels vying for our attention, we only have time to appreciate the 9s and 10s or point a condescending finger at the 1s and 2s. The middle ground is a wasteland where a generally poor effort might as well be a pretty good one, but neither will attract the telescopic ears of the listener.
I’ve seen it the other way, where someone believes so much in their product, they think you’re missing something by overlooking them based on their songwriting merits, instead of the unseen blood, sweat and tears that went into its creation. It’s the “Pulp Fiction” syndrome: Don’t see this as just a pocket watch, but see it as something that was clenched in Christopher Walken’s butt for 20 years. That’s the story – not the inherit value of a timepiece. I actually saw a band, quite recently, who were so proud of the fact that they wrote and recorded their new album in a room without climate control that it was a major piece of their press release, not just a liner note or trivial aside. When someone passed off the album – and I actually witnessed this – the lead singer defended his work because it got really hot in the room of their inspiration. So what? Listen to your middling album without the A/C on? Why are we called on to care because the craft was cared for? Because we want to believe in a mindless mainstream where everything is corporate driven and devoid of humanity? And we’re deep because we had our hearts broken once and appreciate Calvin and Hobbes?
Passion for the future product is a starting point and understandably necessary to approach a subject creatively and with revelation – far from unique, though, that passion comes stock on most models. More often than not, we’re just the mothers of ugly, charming children whose face works on a greeting card because, if anything, it tells us something about ourselves. On this walk through memory stereo, I keep thinking here we have a 6 on our hands – a fairly ordinary, run-of-the-mill, punk-for-God-and-teenagers label, but they have my relistens and my affection. Maybe just because of my limited options (and only for the front half of their run times), but maybe that alone reflects me all too well.
I use to not have a choice when it came to music. I was one of four siblings, and I didn’t control the radio. Secular music was strictly forbidden (although, rumor had it, my mom once subscribed to Beatle-mania). My freedom was restricted to narrow lanes – and poorly stocked aisles in the Christian record store. (It’s true – there was a chart in the record store that countered popular mainstream artists with the cookie-cut, sanctified songs of the redeemed.) It may have seemed like I exhausted all of the genres I thought were worth listening to, but Bettie Rocket, for all of its wobbles in quality, was still about kids picking up guitars and starting bands in their garage – and that was the best choice I ever made.