Salem’s Hidden Valleys

Nestled among deliberately amateurish photos of blowjobs and hipster junkies at the Museo Universitario del Chopo was a cluster of photos entitled “Hidden Valley.” Ugly teens rode BMXs, fucked around with paintball guns, popped pills and smacked one another with a stick in a barren field between a parking lot and a housing development. Suddenly, in the middle of Mexico City, I was back at home in the suburban wastelands of the Midwest. I knew this “space of anarchy” well; not specifically of course, but generically, and absolutely. Away from parents, teachers and cops, Hidden Valley is the type of place you can experiment with adolescent stupidity as you futilely resist the first onset of Middle America ennui.

I think the wastoids in Salem know it too. They’re officially from Chicago, but I know better. White kids are rarely “from” Chicago. Instead, they’re usually refugees from crappy Midwestern suburbs and dying towns, desperately in search of culture but finding only public transit and better drugs. Salem’s music — a hazy, loping, lo-fi electro — fits that rudderless Rust Belt existence as guilelessly and artlessly as a glassy stare. I can’t say it’s good per se, but it speaks to me. And probably others — there are many of our breed, born under Reagan into a world where our destinies have already been mortgaged. Not “no future” in the cool Johnny Rotten rallying cry sense, but “no future” in that withdrawn, hopeless, Gummo type of way. Not sexy or cool. Not even sad. But maybe a little scary.

They’ve got a couple EPs and singles out, and enough buzz that later this month when their album drops, you’ll probably hear about it. The hype references My Bloody Valentine and DJ Screw — the only way we can talk about cultural products is like the pitchmen in Altman’s The Player, Cool Thing X + Cool Thing Y — but nothing they’ve put out so far approaches the sublimely hallucinogenic heights of either of those acts. Instead, what I hear most distinctly in the drag-tempo 808 beats, cheap synths, and dark druggy atmosphere is vintage Three-6-Mafia. Not their more commercial stylings since Memphis’s finest became the Motion Picture Academy’s token nod to hip hop. No, they made their best stuff when they were only releasing cassettes like the lo-fi masterpiece Smoked Out Loced Out: out-of-tune samples from horror movie scores, lumbering percussion, and chant-rapped lyrics about grisly murder bereft of any levity. I felt vindicated when I read an interview with Salem’s John Holland in BUTT magazine (oh yeah, they’re gay) in which he mentions Triple Six when asked about his favorite music.

In their pre-Oscar days, Three-6-Mafia figured prominently in my own forays into the Hidden Valleys of suburban Ohio. We were a little older than the kids in the photos at El Chopo — shitty used cars instead of BMX bikes — but we were on the same mission: finding those gaps away from the surveilled world of work and shopping (both located in strip malls) so we could savor a little bit of what freedom might taste like. A quixotic journey through empty fields, neglected parks, and low-rent condo developments, I tilted at windmills of suburban dreams that were already crumbling under deindustrialization, aided in this task by my McDonald’s coworkers and the bad weed I bought from them. The grim, opiated horror-rap of another declining metropolis, with beats that don’t bounce so much as churn inexorably, was the perfect soundtrack for a directionless summer in a directionless region in a world where the future is terrifying when it’s not simply unthinkable. Salem jettisons the samples and the gangbang fantasies for the fuzzed-out synths more befitting of three young art-school dropouts, but the vibe is remarkably similar.

This is why the music of Salem speaks more to me than that of more polished, professional and literate indie bands to which my white college-educated self should be demographically attracted. Instead of presenting a simulacrum of a time when people believed that rock could offer world-altering truth, change hearts and minds, and soundtrack youthful romances, Salem delivers the starkness of what neoliberalism has left us — drugs and death. Instead of nostalgia, whether painful or idealized, you’ve got numbed verses like “It’s hard to remember / What we did last November.” There’s not even any sex: Salem’s music is too slow for the club and too weird for the bedroom. As Holland says, “Sex has nothing to do with making music,” and anyway, the antidepressants have robbed him of his libido. I think Salem’s conscious of the distinction between their music and the more entitled upper middle class fantasies of their peers. At a disastrous show for the privileged Twitterati of SXSW, they played their music from a recording while smoking a cigarette in front of footage of a car-crash. This isn’t simple épater le bourgeoisie, it’s more inward-focused and nihilistic than that. When the ruling class is as insulated and unresponsive as it is today, why bother with a fuck you? Might as well get high.

And so, if despite the resolute shittiness of their recording technology and concert personas, Salem manages to conquer a corner of the indie market, maybe it’s because their sexless, artless, undanceable electronic lurch resonates with a post-crash youth that increasingly recognizes its own rapidly declining fortunes, taking refuge in its remaining Hidden Valleys — their own narcotics-infused headspaces.