Critical Backlash: On 285 Kent And Spectacular Nowness

285 Kent
Inside shuttering Brooklyn music venue 285 Kent. Photo credit: Nate Dorr

Music scenes are always like summer camp, brief, blissful and better in your memory. But what if those memories are from last week?

We live in a moment of spectacular nowness. You may be reading this between scrolling through Instagram and favoriting tweets, standing like the Watcher or A, the mastermind of Pretty Little Liars, as the lives of friends and frenemies update in front of you. Moments are recorded and, in that act, altered, a story you or they might have told 6 months from now captured instead in the hashtags of a VSCO-filtered image.

Rather than see selfies and humblebrags as wholly narcissistic acts, I find them a natural and even healthy response to a national mood. Global warming is on the verge of ravaging the world; the president who ran on hope has failed to push past a horrific Congress and, in his civilian drone strikes and NSA security state, done poorly enough on his own steam. An economic disaster and the corporate abandonment of the American middle class in favor of dizzying CEO bonuses and exported labor has left young people with little optimism or long-term career prospects. The Millennial generation’s greatest success, Mark Zuckerberg, is a conniving liar who has accomplished the wonderful achievement of connecting us, only to sell our every thought down the river for further commercial exploitation. Efforts to turn the tide — Occupy Wall Street, for one, and voting for Obama, for another — have been largely futile. What’s left is the moment before us. Let’s not even start on the music business.

It is no coincidence that the social media era comes soundtracked by music insistent on not only living in the moment, but stretching it into a shield. Led by Drake’s “The Motto,” recent hits by Ke$ha, One Direction, Avril Lavigne, Daft Punk and Miley Cyrus have all embraced the existential finality of Tonight Only, a period of freedom and pleasure that can, that must, last forever. The timeline of these songs is generally lengthened by drugs and alcohol, methods of erasing the past and present and only leaving nowness — or numbness, as more pragmatic writers such as Frank Ocean have observed. Only Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night” — in retrospect, the wistful exclamation mark to her gleeful party-girl period — allows for the possibility that all this has happened before, and with luck, will again.

These are silly pop songs, yes, but we are scared of dying, and by extension, all endings. Each represents a small death, a inch lopped off of the string of youth. This, I think, is why the closure of Brooklyn venue 285 Kent means so much to people. For the young and less-young people who experienced it, it must have surged with the excitement and opportunity of unpredictable community and experience. Twitter and Instagram are not only means of sharing or bragging, but of owning: of proving that a scene or image or instant happened to you, and by its newfound permanence, meant something. Honestly, all mobile photos are selfies. All scenes are, too.

Devon Maloney’s Pitchfork piece on the venue’s two years is thoroughly reported and straightforward in its narrative: if it errs, it is on the side of hyperbole, calling a venue Internet-famous (…in Pitchfork) for hosting hugely successful national artists such as Grimes and Odd Future “one of the most influential Brooklyn DIY spaces of the past 10 years.” There is no artist pictured in the feature whose name you will not recognize. Perhaps the venue’s legacy will live on as proclaimed, but surely that’s better left for a 2024 essay on the matter. It’s not a surprising perspective, though: Maloney and 285 Kent’s supporters are mourning its nowness; they are mourning the piece of themselves which has flickered out and may never burn as brightly, or in the same way, again.

I have a cynical response to all this, too, which is that 285 Kent will have a legacy: another battle lost in the underground’s endless war with corporate America and the less healthy end of Internet brag-culture. While we won’t buy their records, there are few commodities more valuable than access to musicians: to be feet from Grimes or Ocean or A$AP Rocky in a DIY warehouse is to be kissing the feet of kings and deities in our own humble village. Being there at the secret show is a stand-in for knowing the band from Day 1: from a cred perspective, it is false and desperate, although from the perspective of a person who enjoys music, cred is a bunch of bullshit, and I won’t deny the sheer pleasure of being at a show like this. Still, it can and does coexist with the lesser demons of Instagram likes and marketing boosts for artists who have broad exposure but need deeper ties to their distanced, digital fans, or at least their influential ones.

From any angle, 285 Kent is a tool for these artists, even as the acts are a tool for bookers to fill up 285 Kent between nights of unknown quantity. It’s a relationship played out yearly at CMJ showcases and SXSW parties, where emerging musicians run second or last behind the album cycles of gargantuan pop stars and established indie acts flying in for a paycheck. Perhaps it is a necessary relationship, and the audience will trickle down; more often, though, they cast too long a shadow. Listening to new bands is a risk; it takes work. In our moment of nowness, it may be a gamble we can’t afford to take, much less one outlets like Pitchfork, with its increasingly high financial stakes, can devote themselves to. But the big bands can always go elsewhere, and other artists, the ones for whom “DIY” is less a lifestyle than the only possible option, cannot. Listeners in attendance at Ocean’s next club gig should remember that before thinking themselves entirely special and unique.

285 Kent put on hundreds of shows, and many of them served bands who needed a place to start, to experiment, to try something new. The scene was undoubtedly real. But entropy changes everything, from gentrifying neighborhoods to music venues with shitty toilets to planetary temperatures. When something’s great, we’ve been left with no other choice: whatever it is, enjoy it while it lasts.