I’m not sure when a baby boomer or Generation Xer first called me a millennial, but I know that I certainly didn’t call myself one in 2008, the summer I graduated college. There’s a lot that separates us “older millennials” — those of us born in the ’80s — from the younger end of our generation, those scary “digital natives” who can get the Instagram filters to work on the first try, but a big one is being called a millennial derogatorily by someone who’s mad that you don’t go to Applebee’s. But the more I think about it, the real generation gap in millenials isn’t, as has been posited, the ability to remember 9/11, but is instead how you remember the financial collapse of August and September 2008.
For younger millennials, the financial collapse of 2008 is as abstract as any number of sociopolitical misdeeds done to them, one event of many that has both literally and metaphorically fucked them before they even settled on a reliable haircut. For those of us graduating college before and immediately after 2008 (let’s say through 2011), the economic collapse was more existential. We’d been told since we were in Underoos — like the Gen Xers, it should be noted — that we could have anything and everything we’d ever wanted if we did well in school, went and got a college education, and worked hard. We were a worked Hulk Hogan promo, sold a bill of goods from an infrastructure that promised us the world but couldn’t deliver. The financial collapse happened, and majoring in anything other than business became something to mock; that degree in Comparative Russian Literature didn’t even mean a job teaching Nabokov to college kids anymore, it meant being “overqualified” to work at Red Lobster. It meant working the desk at the local bank for $8.50 an hour. You can paint millenials as entitled if you want, but you try to deprogram from the notion that your dream job is going to be waiting for you at the end of your four years at University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh overnight.
The summer I graduated, I started music blogging for a site that doesn’t matter to this story, a place that paid me, at the start, $2 a post and $5-10 a record review. It was the only paid writing job I could find, particularly since I moved to St. Cloud, Minnesota, because the rent there was cheaper to split with my friend going to St. Cloud State than my friend going to University of Minnesota in Minneapolis (moving to New York was never going to be possible for me; my parents told me they couldn’t even finance me moving to Minneapolis). Before Bear Stearns did whatever they did — you know, I’m still not even 100 percent sure why my generation got fucked, except to know that Bear Stearns probably gave money to people who couldn’t pay it back, which seems like their problem not ours? — I got hired as part-time seasonal help as a Men’s Department salesman at Macy’s at the mall. I went through the training — I learned that the Macy’s corporate nomenclature called all of its customers “She/Her” since women bought like 90 percent of everything in Macy’s — and I had to have my dad FedEx me a suit coat to wear as a uniform. My final training day was September 28. I was told to come in on October 15 to get my schedule for October and November. The market crashed its biggest crash on September 29. In the two weeks between me checking my schedule and September 29, Macy’s told its stores to slash labor costs, because everyone was saying it was going to be the worst year for Christmas sales in memory. I was told I’d have a “call-in” shift on Black Friday, as in I’d call to see if they needed me. Otherwise, I’d be out of work for the six weeks till then, and potentially out of work even longer. I told the HR manager I’d quit and see if anyone else was hiring. I walked out of Macy’s and got in my 2002 Saturn SL1. I pressed play on my CD deck and listened to The Rhumb Line as I went to every retail store in St. Cloud looking for work. No one was hiring, not even McDonald’s. I ate a lot of $2 frozen pizzas that year.
In its broadest definition, a rhumb line is a line on a globe or map that allows a plane or a vessel to follow the same compass direction throughout its voyage. Not to draw too fine of a point on it, but that metaphor is central to The Rhumb Line, which turned 10 this past weekend. It’s there in the way the lyrics here are trying to find a path to meaning and personal fulfillment despite all odds and against apathy, and how personal belongings can’t fill the hole when everything feels wrong. And it’s there in the way Ra Ra Riot soldiered on to release The Rhumb Line, following their course, despite losing founding member and drummer John Pike to a tragic drowning death in between finishing their debut EP and working on their debut album.
Ra Ra Riot started in house parties around Syracuse University sometime in early 2006; erudite from the beginning, they piled strings and literary references into indie rock spaces like waves of over-educated overachievers since. Led by singer Wes Miles, the group was filled out by drummer John Pike, bassist Mathieu Santos, a strings section of Rebecca Zeller and Alexandra Lawn, and guitarist Milo Bonacci (who if he had made a different life choice, would have been in Spin talking about being a founding member of Gym Class Heroes and having an encounter with pornstar Shyla Stylez). As happened in those days, they blew up on the blogs, played CMJ — the New York SXSW — six months after their first gig, and toured the States before they had put 12 months between themselves and playing for beer money for fellow Syracuse Orangemen. Early reviews and notices from music blogs hit upon the same thing: No one knew exactly where they fit in, but coming after five-plus years of New York bands like Interpol and the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, this was different.
The window for bands to drop a debut project was so narrow in the blog rock era — in which bands could go from “WE FOUND THEM” to washed in a span of weeks — so Ra Ra Riot recorded their debut EP in early 2007. They had studio sessions set for late in 2007 to flesh the EP out into a full-length. On June 1, 2007, the band played in Providence, Rhode Island, and afterward, Pike went to a party in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, and disappeared. Searchers found his cellphone sometime on July 2, and on July 3, his body was found in Buzzards Bay. He was 23.
The group’s debut EP came out five weeks after Pike’s death. The band didn’t have time to pause; they went back into the studio later in 2007 — this time in the Washington state locale of their eventual label, Barsuk — and finished The Rhumb Line, re-recorded four of the six songs on their EP, and filled the album out with six more studious, beautiful songs that crackle with uncertainty, and go in one direction: forward.
The spectre of Pike’s death is the ghost in the machine of The Rhumb Line. Pike has a songwriting credit on five of the album’s 10 songs, including “Dying is Fine” and “Ghost Under Rocks,” two songs that unimaginative reviewers (my own 22-year-old dumbass self included) treated as talismans like Pike knew his time was short. That couldn’t have been easy to deal with from a band perspective; imagine being grilled by every music blog about your close friend dying. Particularly when “Dying Is Fine” is largely drawn from an e e cummings poem that was half-ironically thanking god for the science of death, and when “Ghost Under Rocks” — still maybe Ra Ra Riot’s finest song — was about the hope of trying to find purpose and meaning when you think you’ve lost it. They were songs about life and how to better live it, and the urge to carry on, not about death.
There was one song directly about Pike’s death: “St. Peter’s Day Festival,” with its verses directly mentioning the album itself and Massachusetts, where Pike drowned. “If I go to Gloucester you know I will / Wait there for you / The Rhumb Line is waiting there too / You know it's worth the nights we wait there / It all falls apart, apart,” Miles sings over stately string arrangements. The song that would point the way forward for Ra Ra Riot — who increasingly became more synth-pop heavy than orchestral — “Too Too Fast” captures the feeling of trying to move on after trauma, but it also captures what it was like to be 22-24 in 2008, where you “can’t tell if [you’re] asleep or awake,” and where you litigated personal strife over the telephone (we’re the last age of people who had to call our friends to talk to them; texting was too expensive back then).
The Rhumb Line is an album by and about being over-educated and restless, capturing the feeling of early adulthood, when you feel like you know so much, but actually know so little. You can explain your world with e e cummings poems, and Harper Lee mysteries (“Each Year”) and Kate Bush songs (“Suspended in Gaffa”), but only because your own existence can be made tidier when applied to these touchstones. All you can think to do is get out and do it, whatever “it” is; being 22 is like being shot out of a cannon into the vastness of space, your possibilities are seemingly endless but your survival seems controlled by a series of gravitational pulls you can’t visualize. You keep going because to stop is giving up, and if nothing else, our generation has been thoroughly programmed to treat not trying as worse than failing.
Ra Ra Riot were shot into that void by the death of their founding member, and they made The Rhumb Line. They made three more LP’s — all of them great in their own way — but none of them captured the same emotional strife, ennui and restlessness like Rhumb Line did. But you can’t expect them relive the years of their early 20s, and honestly, who would want to?
I was out of work — except for the music blogging “job” — for a whole year after I left that Macy’s. I was able to pay rent as a music writer, but I bought groceries and toilet paper on a credit card for 14 straight months. I eventually got a job working as a cashier at a Target store in Madison, Wisconsin. The workforce was a lot like me, then; something like 60 percent of my co-workers were people between 20 and 25 who were working at Target in some vain hope of carving some fat off their student loan debt. We all hated it, but we became a family of misfit toys; we got drunk after work at bars that offered $1 taps of Wisconsin beers, and told each other stories about which customers we dreamed of punching in the face. We got up everyday and kept going because what other choice did we have?
You can buy our edition of 'The Rhumb Line' right here.