Friend Rock
By Sufjan Stevens
Wednesday, March 14th, 2007

Rosie’s my friend. And she rocks.

I remember Hard Rock, Punk Rock, Emo Rock, Alternative Rock, Classic Rock. I remember going to see Lee Renaldo and Thurston Moore make a lot of noise with a gaggle of guitars and a few props at CBGBs (Experimental Rock). I remember seeing a show in someone’s basement and there was a great deal of pushing and shoving (Mosh Rock). I remember the Moody Blues playing with a string ensemble (Symphonic Rock). I remember a band from Chicago that played jigs and reels (Celtic Rock). I remember seeing Deerhoof play at Luxx and after one very complicated song someone whispered, “Math Rock.” I remember Petra (Christian Rock). I remember seeing one of my songs categorized on iTunes as “Folk Rock.” I remember, recently, playing a whole tour in formal, seated theaters and thinking “Soft Rock.”

There are a lot more terms flying around today: New Rock, Ironic Rock, Situational Rock, Crotch Rock (don’t ask). But have you heard about Friend Rock? It’s very simple: you are going to a show not so much as a fan of the music, but as a fan of your friend, the musician, on stage. There are various incarnations, of course: you may know the singer, the drummer, or the bass player; you may have dated the keyboardist years ago; you went to high school with the trumpet player; one of them is your housemate, your office mate, your soul mate; or it may be “friendly-professional.” Perhaps you’re booked by the same agent, share the same lawyer, the same label, the same shoe sponsorship; there are various scenarios: your cubicle mate at work starts a band; you want to support her; your dentist is a celebrated tuba player; he gives you free tickets to his show; your brother divorces his wife, leaves the kids, starts a band, is coming through town, playing at Maxwell’s, can you make it to the show? Friend Rock stirs up all kinds of moral conundrums. Do you go out and show your support or stay home and watch The Simpsons? Even worse is Friend of Friend Rock. A close relative is Colleague Rock. Family Rock is usually the worst (unless you are Danielson). For the sake of argument, I lump them all together.

Friend Rock is a nebulous genre, often difficult to define. How does one isolate the variables? The first step to recovery is recognition; self-inquiry is key. Consider carefully your motivations for being at the show in the first place. Are you bringing to the performance an anxious, pathological obligation (by sheer, relational proximity) and an unfaltering, unquenchable desire to chatter, gossip, and talk about said friend onstage, capsizing your ability to enjoy anything about the music at all? If so, you may be in the midst of Friend Rock. But there you are, biting your tongue, with an iron will, the will to love, a stoic cheerleader, a loyal comrade, a cheap listener, you are sticking it out because that person onstage is your Friend.

Here are some other cues, in no particular order:

1) you are on the guest list

2) you know more than 40% of the people attending the show

3) you have a backstage pass

4) you have drink tickets

5) you brought a book and/or The New York Times Magazine to the club

6) you watch the performance with your arms crossed

7) you know the set list (you may have even helped write it)

8) you have loaned gear–amps, mics, a drum kit, a tambourine, an oboe

9) you are selling merch (How did you get suckered into that one?)

10) you would like more than anything in world to leave before the encore, but you stick it out and wait around backstage to say, “Oh my God, that was great, thanks for putting me on the guest list!”

11) the band asks if they can crash on your floor

12) you make up some story about your cat having a terrible yeast infection (can’t sleep, howls all night, pees all over the kitchen, etc.)

13) you agree, at least, to meet them for “breakfast” (lunch, really) at Kellog’s Diner

14) you go home, tired, relieved, a little bitchy, a little boozy (all those drink tickets!), an armful of promo CDs that you will try (unsuccessfully) to sell to Other Music later that week (shrink wrap still intact).

Lest we confuse this essay for criticism, let me say there is such a thing as good Friend Rock. The term is non-evaluative. Your old college roommate really can sing, after all. Your neighbor writes great guitar licks. Your best friend’s girlfriend knows her way around the piano. The world is full of talented people, your friends included. But that’s not the point. The predicament with Friend Rock is not the music, but the context, yourself included. Is the show weighed down by your own self-consciousness, nervous chatter, inside jokes, every onstage anecdote met with a knowing sigh? Do you find yourself comparing this set (at Piano’s) with last weeks (at Pete’s Candy Store)? Do you find yourself drinking too much? Do you find yourself writing imaginary reviews, editing the songs in your head (“ax bridge, cut to chorus”), suggesting different stage attire, humming alternate harmonies? Don’t you see?! The problem isn’t the music. The problem is you. Be a good friend and get out of there, go home and spend some time in quiet self-examination, silently venting, meditating on your role as a friend, reading a good self-help book (Dale Carnegie, anyone?), or writing your own thoughts in your diary, something like this:

“Oh friends, friends-of-friends, friends-of-colleagues, friends-of-distant-relatives, upstanding, good looking, perfectly nice people with masters degrees who want so badly to be on stage: it’s not so much that we don’t like your band, or your songs, or your hairstyle, or your promos, or your one-sheet, or your website, or your flying-V guitar. It’s just that you were our friend first, and an aspiring musician second, and, honestly, in the end, we would rather be having coffee with you, or flying kites, a picnic in the park, cross-country skiing, something active, aerobic, conversational, therapeutic, enriching, interpersonal, paint-by-numbers, dodge ball, falafel sandwich, sunset, holding hands, human touch. Can we still be friends?”

Sufjan Stevens is a failed writer, an expert folder (he can wrestle a fitted sheet into a perfect square), and an admirer of Brahms symphonies. He is currently reading (very slowly, painstakingly) Robert Caro’s biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker. Sufjan admits to having borrowed the concept of Friend Rock from his good friend Sonny Aronson, who admits to having stolen it from his friend Cheryl Botchick (former editor of CMJ New Music Report), who may or may not have gleaned the term from the gossipy pages of NME Magazine, the editors of which often claim to have coined every fleeting and faddish term in the music industry since the 1970s, although we know that just is not true.

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