Poverty of Spirit
A new IFC series comes gawking in Baltimore
Published: March 30, 2011
The basement of the Bell Foundry, a squat building in a sort of no-man’s land on Calvert Street by Penn Station, looks and feels like it should be contractually obligated to host hardcore shows. Bare metal beams, unfinished concrete walls, odd crumbly nooks, a natural state of “dark”—there is, naturally, no real stage, just a meek platform toward the front or back or side of the room. The staircase down suggests equal parts fallout shelter and a place you really, really don’t want to trip. It is a classic scene of Baltimore’s current-day underground.
As with its Copycat building cousin a few blocks over, you find out about shows here via fliers in Baltimore’s meeting grounds and stores, Facebook invites, and word of mouth. Most of the shows in the Bell Foundry are punk in lifestyle and politics, if not in the sound tagged as “punk” on MySpace. Charm City Art Space sorts of things—shows where you won’t find many gawkers and establishment types. Shows/bands off of Rolling Stone’s radar. Floristree this isn’t.
But tonight—tonight is something different. Maybe it doesn’t look all that different on first glance from a good old-fashioned Wham City warehouse show/party. The faces are all pretty familiar underground sorts, more made up of people involved in something other than the legions of kids/fans that might come out for a Dan Deacon show on a regular night. But this isn’t a regular night: The round-robin style performance (Deacon, the Creepers, Santa Dads, Ed Schrader, Blue Leader) was a last-minute Facebook announcement, supposed to last only an hour and end before 10 p.m. Early enough to be early for a normal show. The reason for this performance, and all its attendant weirdness, is television’s Independent Film Channel and a guy who goes by the sobriquet “Broke-Ass Stuart” (real name: Stuart Schuffman).
Broke-ass Stuart is to be a host of a new IFC show titled Young, Broke, and Beautiful, set for premiere this summer, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Six cities are slated for this new spotlight, the others including fellow Rust Belt hard-times locale Detroit. In marketspeak, it’s geared to the “alternative culture enthusiast” demographic, or what used to be called indie culture. Despite repeated approaches to IFC and Schuffman himself, no comment or response to questions about the show from either were offered before press time.
Broke isn’t the first time someone from out of town has dropped into Baltimore to gaze lovingly at the city’s recent underground community—Vice was in town doing separate docs on Wham City and Matmos (disclaimer: this writer works for Vice)—but there’s something more than Baltimore infatuation working with this latest TV crew. There is something uncomfortable, and maybe even dirty.
The feeling comes first just with the idea that artists are setting up ad hoc secret “underground” shows for a cable television network. However anyone rationalizes it away, something is askew. There’s nothing at all underground about IFC, which is proving these days to be the cable channel analogue of The New York Times’ hipster-culture obsession. You know, Portlandia.
The bands are very real, and so is the crowd. So, what about that can you actually call fake? Something, that’s for sure. And I’d wager that something is crucial for a scene that thrives on its own undergroundness, its isolation from the bad stuff of money-grubbing rock clubs, expensive studio space, liquor laws, shady bookers, the taint of music-as-commerce in all of its many forms. Maybe the mistake is applying an ethos or ideology in the first place. And you can’t really fault anyone for saying “yes” to free publicity, can you? (I am well aware that City Paper isn’t exactly an underground newspaper at this point, so take from that what you will.)
But let’s assume for a second that there is an ethos involved, and artists join an underground culture because they see something profoundly wrong with the overtly commercial, commodified, and bought-and-sold culture industry of the surface world. In these shows for the TV cameras, what, exactly, the thing is being sold out—for nothing but attention—would be too vague to comment on if it wasn’t put into sharp relief by the IFC show in question. Because this Broke isn’t just a documentary show. It has a concept.
A browse through Broke-Ass Stuart’s web site gives some idea of what is meant by “young, broke, and beautiful.” Turns out the new sport of the white and privileged known as “playing poor”—imagine Atlas Shrugged through the veneer of a private liberal arts colleges—has reached the mainstream, and “broke-ass stuart’s goddamn website” looks to be gaming it marvelously.
Boasting a staff that appears to be entirely hot, white twentysomethings and focused on New York and San Francisco (’cause nothing says “broke” like . . . ), you can find vapid-ass pieces on things like “How to Sleep on an Airplane,” “Are Rock ‘Gods’ Really That Bone-able?,” and how not to spend $80 on a haircut and drink for cheap in Greenpoint. Neat. There’s a finance section too, offering, “A penny saved is a penny earned. . . and one that you can later spend on booze.” Double-neat. Or “Broke-ass Porn,” featuring hilarious pics of things like a drunk guy passed out on a subway, old couches on a street, and 40s. Triple-neat.
Maybe you get the idea: It’s the bubble, that too-special culture insulated from what the rest of the planet/country/city of Baltimore would ever consider “broke.” It’s the broke of an recent NYU grad too good to “settle” for an office job. Reality Bites broke. And seeing this all play out here is just gross. Some broke-ass stats: Nearly a third of the children in Baltimore grow up below the poverty level, double that are living on food stamps; 20 percent of the city lives below the poverty level; a tenth of the city survives on less than half of it. And things have gotten better in the city, but in large part because Baltimore’s poor are slowly being forced into the suburbs. Quadruple-neat.
The night before the Bell Foundry round robin, Double Dagger (which features occasional CP contributors Nolen Strals and Bruce Willen) played another, similar early-evening IFC warehouse show. “When I was asked [in a Broke-Ass interview] if Baltimore was the perfect place to be ‘young, broke, and beautiful,’ I had zero clue how to answer that,” Denny Bowen, DD’s drummer and resident crank, writes in an e-mail. “I told him it was just as good as anywhere else. I had no choice in being born here, so I didn’t really understand the question, and thought it was kinda trite.
“I really don’t like this fixation on the cost of rent in Baltimore,” Bowen continues. “Firstly, I feel that’s kinda personal and, secondly, I feel it’s exploitative and almost an open invitation to ignorantly gentrify the city further. Rent is cheap here for a lot of not-wonderful reasons, but artists/musicians can make this area work for them in great ways, and that was always the success in Baltimore.”
Asked about his experience with the show, Dan Deacon responds via e-mail, “It was a weird experience, but most of my contact with the media is weird. No offense.”
After about a week’s worth of back-and-forth with Stuart and his IFC handlers, I was never able to get an answer to the simple question of what “broke-ass” is supposed to mean, and to whom. Or what makes the tens of thousands of largely African-American families in Baltimore surviving on basically nothing not beautiful enough for IFC cameras. Or how long he thought he could go before someone finally said, What the fuck is wrong with you?
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