This is the third installment in our editorial series: Can the Millennial Dissent?
We’re always saving things these days, it seems. Save Emory Village. Save Criminal Records. Save WRAS. Soon it will be Save Thunderbox, a sacred intown space where the majority of Atlanta bands cut their teeth and rehearse the songs that make this city’s music scene one of the best and most vibrant in the country. To review, we’re saving the record store where local bands can actually sell their music, the radio station where these bands can actually get some decent airplay, and now the very building where they pay rent to practice. Should we just take the hint? I’ll quote local luminary Myke Johns again: “ARTISTS: We have got to stop improving this city.” Save this. Save that. Save it.
This three-pronged attack clearly shows that this city doesn’t give a shit about its music scene, only the cultural capital that comes with it. I’m already cringing at the thought of some Wayne’s World Rob Lowe-type douchebag in his condo (which no service industry-reared Atlanta musician could afford), extolling to some unassuming co-ed over fine champagne how his swanky new pad lies in the very spot where Mastodon used to rehearse. NEWS FLASH: We already get you assholes laid. That’s what the shows are for. But you don’t get to fuck us too. Think of it as an unspoken social contract. If you go and take the space where we make the songs sound good, you’re screwing yourself along with us. (But seriously, while you’re at it, go fuck yourself.)
Let me be clear. I’m not directing any of this venom or vitriol at the dissenters. I am one of the dissenters. What I’m expressing is simply the fundamental, bedrock resentment of having to save an institution like WRAS or Thunderbox in the first place. It’s also worth mentioning that those of us who bear the onus of this salvation are generally in the worst position to do so. We’re not typically people of financial means. We have no real political clout to speak of. In fact, the only demonstrable power we have is the same social and cultural capital we find ourselves having to defend.
Save Criminal Records was a successful attempt to save the store, not from a corporate takeover but from itself. More specifically, there was the financial overhead of a space three times its former location’s size, and in a considerably tougher economy to boot. There was also the less tangible but equally vital matter of its owner’s discouragement in the face of these struggles. And who could blame him, really? We love to love places like Criminal—we’re in love with the idea—but most of the time we’re too busy buying (read: streaming) music online to bother driving, parking, browsing, what have you. If we’d all just shopped at Criminal all the time in the first place, it never would’ve needed saving. Still, the bands rallied valiantly, and the customers came out to support and buy vinyl just in time for the holidays. We stared down the barrel of a deadline—albeit a self-imposed one—and today the store still stands. That was three years ago, but it was within mere months that some already began to question just what exactly the movement was all about.
Remember Empire Records? Empire Records, coincidentally enough, only needed to be saved from its own rogue employee. Joe (Anthony LaPaglia) was set to buy out his business partner and thwart Music Town’s attempt to convert the store just fine all on his own—all, that is, until his plucky, ill-informed underling (Rory Cochrane) took it on himself to blow that money in a crap game. That’s the only reason the movie happens: bad intel. “Damn The Man; save the Empire,” indeed.
Sometimes stores close because their owners—who are completely competent and of sound mind and body—want them to close. It’s patronizing of us to behave otherwise. We should patronize the store, not the owner. What we end up with instead is a condescending captivity myth that would cast the small business as a distressed damsel bound to the railroad tracks. Only we can’t find the mustachioed villain because we are the mustachioed villain. Still, let there be no mistake, the saving of Criminal Records was brilliant. The outpouring of community support reminded us all what we’re capable of when we come together, just as it reminded a neglected Little Five Points institution how well-loved it really was. It was Atlanta at its best. It was the ending of It’s a Wonderful Life. But once the tinsel lands and Zuzu’s petals hit home and the final strains of “Auld Lang Syne” die out, a store as great as Criminal deserves to know where it stands. Otherwise it becomes like the long-forgotten childhood toy you only want when it’s about to be thrown away. These businesses deserve better than to be strung along. If the customers have moved on, they shouldn’t keep these places open for sheer force of nostalgia, whim, or fancy. That’s not a hashtag; it’s a hostage situation.
We read this captivity myth into these situations largely because of movies like Empire Records and its many 80s predecessors—fundraiser films, let’s call them. I want to discuss these films and the media’s role here in a future post, but first let’s look at a case that follows this myth to the letter. I’m referring of course to Save WRAS, a story with villains much more clearly defined.
Most of you are already familiar with the story of Georgia Public Broadcasting’s takeover of our beloved WRAS. I’ve already mentioned the back-room nature of the deal and the fact that none of the students were involved in the decision. There’s also the insanely suspicious timing of the announcement. Slightly less hay has been made over the role of Chip Rogers’ departure from GPB.
In brief, Governor Nathan Deal gave Rogers a cushy GPB position in a fit of cronyism after the latter disgraced the republican party with some well-publicized remarks about President Obama’s alleged mind control tactics. A year later, Rogers lost the gig, primarily because of his having kept a second job on the side (and on the sly). Also controversial was Rogers’ GPB salary, which even the Chairman of the Board denounced as lavish. That salary was $150,000—the magic number—now freed up in the budget and coincidentally the same exact amount offered to GSU for its stake in WRAS just a month later. Of course, much of this is old hat by now, but the fight goes on. And that’s the part worth talking about.
The Save WRAS campaign is an important recent model of well-directed local dissent. It has clearly defined goals, strength in numbers, and social capital to spare. Save WRAS is also well-organized, demonstrating a well-balanced approach which combines a viral media campaign, online petitioning, fundraising protests, and frequent updates to its 10,000+ supporters. Perhaps most importantly, it has endurance. On these merits, Save WRAS clearly deserves to succeed, yet that success is hardly guaranteed.
This brings us back to the frustration that I mentioned earlier—the resentment of having to save these things in the first place. In the next part of this discussion, I’ll be exploring the role of the media (and films in particular) in shaping our current understanding of dissent and, more importantly, our expectations of what it can accomplish for us. ‘Til then, be good.✊