The New York indie rock scene of the 2000s has already faded into legend; as ever with music, “fading into legend” means that someone wrote a book about it (Lizzy Goodman’s already-seminal Meet Me in the Bathroom) and most of the bands involved tour the hipster nostalgia circuit now (or Bernie Sanders rallies in the case of The Strokes, so essentially the same thing).
Some have aged gracefully: take Karen O, the squealing art-punk gutter rat of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who has matured into an Oscar-nominated elder stateswoman of indie rock. Some have faded into obscurity; when was the last time you’ve given much thought to The Rapture? But almost none of them are as vital or as vibrant as they used to be.
It’s an inevitable part of any music scene that defines itself through its youthfulness and its sense of cool. Youth is fleeting, and coolness is perhaps the only thing more fleeting than youth. People will grow older. Tastes will change. The frontman of the hot new band will grow a salt-and-pepper beard and start writing songs about his kids. Another band will break up, reunite, and make an album that you’ll pretend to like as much as their first one. Condé Nast will buy Pitchfork. Nothing will stay the same.
James Murphy knew all of this in 2002, when his group, LCD Soundsystem, released “Losing My Edge”. From the start, Murphy was a unique figure in the New York scene. He was thirty-two years old in an environment ruled by twenty-somethings. He was chubby, scruffy, and unkempt, a far cry from the male model looks of Julian Casablancas. He had cut his teeth as a DJ in the 90s, which put him at odds with the garage-rock and post-punk revivalists who dominated the scene at the time.
Most crucially, he knew firsthand how quickly cool could pass you by. Murphy had achieved some success as a DJ, his unorthodox selections and endless library of deep cuts making him an in-demand hire for parties that wanted to cultivate a sense of underground cool. When he heard another, younger DJ playing one of the songs he played, his first reaction was fury. Who the hell was this punk stealing his sound? He was going to go out of a job because some twenty-two year old played his records!
Then, self-awareness kicked in, and Murphy became intensely embarrassed. How could he call them his records? He didn’t write them or record them, after all; he merely owned them, and he certainly wasn’t the only person in the world who did. The anger and the fear began to mix and expand in his mind. Was he a true tastemaker, being pushed aside by new pretty faces? Or was he just an aging hipster, fending off his inadequacy by passing off other people’s achievements as his own? As Murphy put it, “I was angry, but I was also pathetic for being angry.”
That was the incident that inspired “Losing My Edge”, a dance-punk classic and a miniature character study of the exact person Murphy was afraid of becoming. The song’s narrator is an underground music lifer, an inveterate name-dropper who claims to have been at the forefront of every trend, forever chased by “the kids coming up from behind”. He’s defiant in the face of his approaching irrelevance, insisting “I was there!” at every turn before bringing things to a climax by listing off his record collection.
The first thing you notice about the narrator of “Losing My Edge” is that he’s an insufferable asshole. He’s a smug, self-important hipster who scorns anyone he deems uncool (which is to say, everyone but him). There are also hints that he’s exaggerating his experience, if not outright lying. He claims to have attended the first Can shows in Cologne, which took place two years before Murphy was born, and told Captain Beefheart that he wouldn’t make a dime doing things his way (which, considering what a famously non-commercial artist Captain Beefheart was, would be like telling the Butthole Surfers that they’d never perform on The Tonight Show with a name like that).
Having such an obviously repellent narrator would be a hindrance to most songs, but here it’s clearly by design. In a virtuoso performance, Murphy perfectly and knowingly inhabits every bit of the narrator’s flagrant douchebaggery. He humblebrags about how people thought he was crazy for playing Daft Punk at CBGBs. He makes a meal out of turns of phrases like “borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered 80s” as though he’s patting himself on the back for coming up with it. He pronounces Ibiza like “ih-bee-tha”, like your pretentious roommate who spent a semester in Spain. No one has ever said the phrase “you wanna make a Yaz record” with such sneering disdain.
If there was little more to “Losing My Edge” than dunking on an easy hipster archetype, there would still be plenty to recommend. James Murphy has a gift for pacing, for building a song up from a simple catchy loop and taking it to a fist-in-the-air climax, and you can find that skill on display here. Dance-punk rarely ages well, sonically speaking, but “Losing My Edge”, with its crisp sounds and sudden snarls of distortion, sounds as exhilarating now as it did when it first came out.
But what makes “Losing My Edge” a truly great song is that the main character is not just an easy archetype to dunk on. Beneath all that cooler-than-thou posturing, our narrator is terrified. He’s beginning to realize that saying “I was there” doesn’t make him any more accomplished or noteworthy or deserving of respect. He’s glancing over his shoulder at the next generation: younger, cooler kids from all over the globe who, he bitterly notes, are “actually really nice”. He’s desperately clinging to a reputation he knows, deep down, he doesn’t deserve. When the song’s climax comes and he rattles off all the hippest artists in his record collection, it feels like an incantation against his own obsolescence.
LCD Soundsystem, by contrast, are not obsolete; in fact, they’ve only grown in significance and acclaim since 2003. They’re considered one of the definitive bands of the 2000s, with three classic albums, an instantly legendary farewell concert at Madison Square Garden, and a reunion album that was good enough to keep the whole thing from feeling cheap. While other bands of the time have faded from view, Murphy’s legacy remains.
The reason for that is simple: to paraphrase Coco Chanel, coolness comes and goes, but bangers are forever. Murphy knows that people who spend their lives chasing coolness end up like the narrator of “Losing My Edge”: old, out of touch, and trying to convince themselves that it wasn’t all a waste. No, his primary goal was to create catchy, addictive, immaculately produced music with bite, humor, and heart; if that ended up making him cool, so much the better. James Murphy might have been motivated by his insecurities, but he couldn’t lose his edge if he tried.