When A.J. Liebling nicknamed Chicago "the Second City," he was referring not so much to an inherent inferiority to New York, but to a mindset. Chicagoans, he claimed, were quick to assert their city's superiority in a way that bespoke not of confidence but of a severe lack of it, especially when being compared to the Beast of the East.
Liebling's impression dogged me liked a hangover when I attended the Brooklyn, Sweden Festival in Malmo, Sweden. The event was sponsored by Brooklyn Beer—which is, apparently, unusually popular in Sweden—and its mission was to bring the finest live music the hippest borough has to offer right to two of Scandinavia's cultural centers, Stockholm and Malmo.
I am covering the event because a certain auspicious web magazine, allegedly based in Brooklyn but with a suspiciously European name, has an editor with an idea about Brooklyn's international appeal, live music and beer being ingredients for an award winning article. I'm an inexperienced journalist but a pretty good liar, and I swaddle myself in coats of joy in preparation.
On Friday evening, the inaugural night, I confidently stride up to the pretty blonde working the door, a smile painted on my face.
"I am on the press list," I say. To my knowledge, I have never been on any list, ever. This is a Big Moment in my life, and I remember to push my shoulders back, signifying my status as Press.
"Oh," she replies, and hands me my pass, probably admiring just how far back my shoulders stretch. She doesn't ask for ID, or a name, nothing. I look around Debaser—the Swedish answer to Brooklyn's Bowery Ballroom or Chicago's superior Metro—and see that it is conspicuously empty, despite the fact that it is 9 p.m. and the festival has been offering non-stop Brooklyn authenticity since 4.
"Has the show sold out?"
"No," she says, and quickly—too quickly—adds, "but the people that are here are having a really good time."
This is not a good sign for Brooklyn, Sweden.
My next move is to get a beer. Beer prices in Sweden are absurd. A bottle of a semi-designer beer, such as Brooklyn Lager, will cost 60 SEK, or just under $10. But I'm happy to have this press pass and instead of trying to mooch free alcohol, which I think might be against some journalistic code, I consult the prominently placed Brooklyn Festival Beer Menu. It has all the "perennials," or normal offerings—the lager, the brown ale, the pale ale—at all the normal, exorbitant Swedish prices. It also has special offerings of some the premium Brooklyn beers (the "Big Bottle" selection), the names of which, like most microbrew names, are so self-consciously memorable that they are utterly forgettable. The prices for these extend from hyper-exorbitant to insulting.
I order a bottle of brown ale, which costs 64 SEK, or $9.50. "Are you sure that's what you want?” the bartender asks.
"Yes, pretty sure."
"Ah, come on, we have that in stock everyday. Why don't you try one of the premium Brooklyn beers, which we will carry only for the festival?" I wonder if she feels as awful doing this as I feel for denying her. I imagine a Nordic manager, casually dressed in a linen suit, and a pack of New York lawyers wielding brown leather briefcases commanding the bar staff to push the expensive beers, the ones that cost $15 for a wine glass-sized taste. What did they threaten this employee with to make her push product like this? Banishment to Staten Island? Imprisonment in the snow fortress that is Northern Sweden?
I give her an "I'm sorry" look and wait for my brown ale. By American standards, her hard sell might be soft peddling, but by Swedish standards, she just about held me down, poured the fancy stuff down my throat, and charged double for the effort.
I’m not off to a great start, but I remind myself that even if the music festival is sponsored by a brewery, the beer is secondary to the music. The first band I see is Dum Dum Girls, a Ramones-inspired all-girl band. High energy but totally uninteresting, the crowd loves it. Even though the venue is not even close to capacity, the area in front of the stage feels full. This is probably due to the flailing arms and legs of fans, which strikes me as rather enthusiastic, and therefore totally un-Swedish.
I may be the wrong person to attend live music, though. I spent much of high school with my face pressed against either amplifier at the front of the legendary Fireside Bowl stage, and high decibel levels frighten me into the conviction that I stand on the precipice of total deafness (even with ear plugs). Also, the Fireside spoiled me. The best underground bands, the kind that the Fireside hosted, play with a defiance that enhances performance. They tend to shout a little louder, jump a little higher than the standard fare indie rock groups that fill-in-the gap between headliners at Brooklyn, Sweden. Or maybe I just need to be 15 again to appreciate three chords properly. Either way, this uninspired Ramones-cover band doesn't move me like, for example, The Queers once did.
My ears ringing and boredom setting in, I decide to sample one of the fancy beers and order a glass of the Sorachi Ace. It’s foam-heavy, so my 110 SEK ($12), wine glass full of beer quickly withers into a half-empty wine glass. I give a dirty look to the bartender who does not give a shit because he knows there won't be a tip, whatever he does, because nobody tips here, ever.
I would love to offer up some sophisticated comments on the taste, but I’d be faking it. I've a palate like a member of the nouveau riche. I suspect the taste is pleasantly complex; it's a hoppy beer, but the bitterness is twisted by a flavor I can't quite place, and though my tongue and gullet are warmed by this nectar, I don't know enough to trust that it isn't the cost guiding my judgment. (See what I mean about the faking it bit? I just used the word “nectar.”) In any case, the glass is finished before the night's headliner, The Hold Steady, takes the stage.
Roughly half the crowd leaves before the band plays, which is a shame because The Hold Steady is professionally excellent. Craig Finn shakes and stares intensely into the distance, the band surges and lurches with the music, and the whole performance feels deceptively simple in the way that all creations born from hard work do. The Hold Steady, I am aware, feel no attachment to this crowd and probably do not feel any attachment to any crowd, being veterans. It doesn't matter, though, because they are a) very good at playing their songs, and b) they fake it so well.
I haven't listened to any of their records this side of Boys and Girls, which strikes me as a slightly updated, mildly more interesting reconsideration of Bruce Springsteen. a record that sounds like it would be great live. True, the lyrics are the work of a high school laureate, but substantial lyrics tend to be the element that translates least well to live musical performance. It’s the vocals that make the album interesting, Finn delivering the lyrics in a hopped-up Beatnik ranting. The band's sound, though, seems to be evolving through the entirety of the 1980s; starting with The Boss, they now seem to be applying the template to mid-to-late 80s cock rock. The guitars bang a little more, and the rhythms jump in a way that is vaguely reminiscent of Van Halen. The vocals remain unchanged. I'm not sure how this new stuff sounds on record, but it gets the crowd up.
Day 2 of the festival, and I am bored by live music.
I interview Cole, the singer of the band Diiv. Their performance was unimpressive but endearing, in part because of the gaggle of fans near me, dancing furiously and shouting along to the lyrics. I intend to interview Cole about Brooklyn and the commercial angle of the show, but we both quickly agree on everything.
"There's no real Brooklyn scene, you know. I mean, there's no particular sound or anything. It's just a place where a lot of people that want to make it go." He's from Manhattan, lived in Brooklyn for a few months and then bolted to a cabin in upstate New York, a move of surprising intelligence for a burgeoning indie rock star (Pitchfork gave Diiv's debut record a rating well over 8, and named it "Best New Music”). We mostly talk about 80s punk rock bands. He's a big Bob Mould fan, but seems a little skeptical of my assertion that Minneapolis is the most underrated music town in the US. He doesn't have to agree. I'm a little skeptical of the assertion he makes after asking what I do for a living. "You're living my dream, man," said the rock star to the high school English teacher.
I wander into the crowd, by now ignoring the music, all of which sounds startlingly mediocre. Am I old, do these artists not care about this show, or did the people that booked this thing choose bands at random? Blonde Redhead is the second night's headliner, which might have been almost exciting in 2005. Armed with my recorder, I ask random people trivia questions about Brooklyn, with plans of asking the same questions to random people in Brooklyn, with vague hopes of proving that the average attendee of the Brooklyn, Sweden Festival knows more about Brooklyn than the average person in Brooklyn. Alas, the average attendee at the Brooklyn, Sweden Festival knows nothing Brooklyn. A few think that Queens is a neighborhood in Brooklyn, though.
This makes the Chicagoan in me happy. At least people aren't here because they are really into New York City.
That last point is driven home by the fact that, of the 15 people asked, not a single one would prefer to live in Brooklyn over Malmö. One, somewhat crazily, included "You can see Blonde Redhead in Malmö" as part of his reasoning. I stopped asking people questions after approaching a lone man on the patio, smoking a cigarette and wearing dark sunglasses (in Sweden, in late-August... I should have known better). When I ask him where he's from, he mumbles. When I repeat the question, he looks at me like I'm retarded and mumbles a little more. Beginning to suspect that he is the rare Swede that doesn't understand English, I ask him, in Swedish, if he speaks English.
"BROOKLYN," he says, in his best caveman voice. Now I'm confused, and he reiterates, "I AM FROM BROOKLYN," delivering the words as if he were speaking to, I don't know, an LA Dodgers fan (do people from Brooklyn hate LA Dodgers fans, or do they just suck it up and root for the Yankees?). I apologize for disturbing him, and move on. After conducting a Google Image search for Blonde Redhead, I'm pretty sure he's the drummer.
It seems that Brooklyn, Sweden did bring some New York surliness to Sweden, anyway.
I was tired, the beer was expensive, and I didn't think too much of Blonde Redhead in 2005. Ready to leave early, a sound caught my attention. Could it be? Yes, it was: decent music.
It turned out to be Au Revoir Simone. They had three massive synthesizers and sex appeal. If they didn't have sex appeal would I have enjoyed their set as much? I wouldn't, but I like sexy things. The aesthetics add to the equation, don't they? I don't know why I feel guilty admitting this, it's not like anyone would refute this opinion if I commented on good stage lighting, or clever costume choices. It's all part of the show. Catchy and with a touch of the psychedelic, just enough to keep things interesting. "We are starting the psychedelic part of the set, now, so drop your acid an hour ago," they say to a crowd full of good Scandinavian boys and girls that probably have no idea what the band is talking about.
Brooklyn, Sweden did not take Sweden by storm. I can't help but think that if it were the "Miller Lite, Sweden" festival, the commercialism would feel more pure, but maybe it's safer to view Brooklyn, Sweden more as a beer commercial than an attempt to cash in on Brooklyn coolness. I had expected a 2012 equivalent of 1991 flannel, something like a "Seattle Sound Comes to...!" tour. It wasn't that. It was just business as usual.