Indie

The LCD Soundsystem Doc ‘Shut Up And Play The Hits’ Has Aged Weirdly

If it’s a funeral, let’s have the best funeral ever.

These words, printed in white type against a black screen like a social media apology, open Shut Up And Play The Hits, the 2012 documentary directed by Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace. When the film premiered 10 years ago this week at the Sundance Film Festival — it later played theatrically in the U.S. for just one night that July — the epigraph had an unmistakable meaning: Shut Up And Play The Hits is about the “final” concert by LCD Soundsystem, held at Madison Square Garden in the spring of 2011. In the movie, we see performances from the show intercut with footage of head LCD James Murphy before and after the gig, including a long, philosophical interview with the cultural critic Chuck Klosterman. (You can stream it for free here.)

The emotional climax of Shut Up And Play The Hits comes when Murphy, who has expressed uncertainty throughout the picture about whether he’s made the right decision to shutter LCD Soundsystem, is invited to take one last look at the band’s gear before it’s sold off and scattered to the winds. On paper, this is an unusual trigger for a cathartic moment — in fact, one might even call it a strained contrivance for a movie without a strong ending. But as it’s portrayed in the film, the sight of keyboards and sequencers and microphone stands sets Murphy on a Proustian reverie in which the life of LCD Soundsystem flashes before his eyes. And, like that, he breaks down dramatically into tears.

I can’t say how this played at Sundance in 2012. But in 2022, like so much about Shut Up And Play The Hits, this scene is so preposterous that it registers as unintentionally hilarious, like a This Is Spinal Tap for early 21st century indie rock. And the reason for this is obvious: LCD Soundsystem did not break up. They went on a five-year hiatus, and then returned in 2016 to play a series of lucrative shows, including some high-profile appearances at Coachella, Bonnaroo, and Primavera Sound. And then they released their fourth album, 2017’s American Dream, their first for Columbia Records.

To break up and then reunite is hardly unprecedented in popular music. But most bands don’t go out by booking the biggest concert of their career and explicitly marketing it as a “farewell” show. And it’s certainly uncommon to immortalize that show with a self-mythologizing film. Yes, it’s true that The Band continued after The Last Waltz set the blueprint for Shut Up And Play The Hits, but they carried on without Robbie Robertson, the guy who conceived the breakup show and pontificates the most in the film about how he’s eager to escape “the road.” James Murphy theatrically mourned the loss of his gear on celluloid and then procured more gear (or maybe even the same gear?) a mere half-decade later.

Again: He had the right to bring back his band! But LCD Soundsystem’s subsequent “reunion” (if we should still even classify it that way as this point) has transformed Shut Up And Play The Hits into a completely different film. This is what fascinated me most when I revisited it recently. So much of the movie plays in retrospect as unwitting self-parody, and therefore is far more revealing now than it was likely intended to be 10 years ago.

Some of this has to do with how “extremely early 2010s” Shut Up And Plays The Hits seems now, like when Murphy expresses his ambivalence about the band’s end by doing an extended analysis of a Kanye West tweet. (Times were so simple back then!) Some of this has to do with the jarring incongruity between Murphy’s self-serving rhetoric about what LCD Soundsystem “means” (such as aligning the band with a romantic DIY punk-rock ideology) and the reality of what’s on screen (Murphy conversing with his British manager as he sits surrounded by indie-famous luminaries backstage at MSG).

But mostly the accidental satire of Shut Up And Play The Hits stems from Murphy’s relentless push to make this concert (and LCD Soundsystem by association) historically significant. This is conveyed both by how the film is shot and edited — specifically the focus on the audience, who we see basking the band in worshipful adoration in frequent slow-motion montages, which is precisely what you don’t see in films like The Last Waltz and Stop Making Sense — and Murphy’s endless ruminations on whether he’s doing the right thing by ending a band whose legacy is putting out three pretty good albums in the aughts. When you consider that R.E.M., an exponentially more consequential group than LCD Soundsystem by any metric, broke up just five months after this concert by issuing a press release (and then stayed broken up), the self-importance of Shut Up And Play The Hits becomes even funnier.

Not that I’m interested in only laughing at Shut Up And Play The Hits, because I actually believe this film is historically significant, just not in the way it was intended. When viewed with the benefit of hindsight, it really is an “end of an era” film in the vein of The Last Waltz, it’s just that it doesn’t come across as triumphant.

To be fair: There are some genuinely exciting performances. “All My Friends” is an undeniable anthem. “Someone Great” still tugs at my heartstrings. The cover of Nilsson’s “Jump Into The Fire” is expertly rendered. But this was a moment when aughts-era indie was peaking, as signified by the guest-star appearance by the members of Arcade Fire, just two months removed from winning the Album Of The Year Grammy for The Suburbs. Never again would life be as good for either band.

It’s clear now that this period of time, when a middle-aged NYC group could command the culture’s attention by staging a grandiose curtains-closing arena-rock concert, ended soon after the last weeping hipster exited Madison Square Garden. Shut Up And Play The Hits not only marks this denouement, but also the end of “breaking up” being a thing at all in rock music. The relative lack of blowback to LCD Soundsystem’s return proved that the public now understands that any band’s future return — save for possibly R.E.M. — hinges on a combination of sentimental longing, boredom, and stupidly generous festival offers. But that wasn’t the case just five years earlier. Back then, it was still possible to suspend disbelief just long enough to buy the idea of a farewell concert, even as Murphy counterintuitively insists over and over that LCD Soundsystem isn’t even a real band.

It’s no surprise that the central anxiety that animates Murphy in Shut Up And Play The Hits is his self-conscious fear of appearing uncool. This seems to be his main motivation for staging the farewell concert in the first place. It’s his stab at a “let’s just do it and become legends” moment. As he explained to the New York Times in 2017, “The idea of it being ‘next’ was just unappealing. I didn’t want to be that band. I liked being the band that was relevant to me. I felt like we were about to be the band that was not relevant to me.”

Watching the film now, it’s inarguable that the fate Murphy feared is precisely what happened, which gives Shut Up And Play The Hits a poignancy that it didn’t have a decade ago. It’s become very easy (maybe too easy) to take shots at LCD Soundsystem. This is the band who has been pilloried recently for supposedly spreading Covid and co-conspiring with evil corporations on corny holiday specials. Meanwhile, the canon of cool-guy late 20th century music with which Murphy is closely aligned has dimmed in critical favor. As a result, it’s become increasingly difficult to explain to younger generations why this band was ever at the center of indie culture in a way it’s not for, say, The Strokes. (Grouchy bad-asses in leather jackets have a long shelf life.) It’s not that Murphy has “lost his edge,” to quote his most famous song. The kids are no longer coming at him from behind; they’re in an entirely different lane. They no longer care about guys like him.

The critic Larry Fitzmaurice recently wrote an insightful piece about LCD Soundsystem that helped me understand my own distance from their music since that fateful 2011 concert at MSG. Like many music writers engaged with indie rock in the aughts, I was an avowed LCD fan, especially of the self-titled 2005 debut and their landmark second record, 2007’s Sound Of Silver. But I was barely interested in 2017’s American Dream, and I rarely reach for the old records these days.

Fitzmaurice writes:

As a white man prone to white T-shirt wearing and varying levels of unkempt facial hair, there was something about James Murphy in my late teens-early 20s that made me think, “Hey, that could be me, maybe.” That sounds stupid, and it is stupid, but I was far from alone in that aspirational belief. (Anecdotally, I heard other white male critics say the same around the time, nothing accurately quotable though.)

Allow me to fill in the blank left by the parenthetical: I was one of those critics. At the risk of horribly embarrassing myself, here’s an excerpt from a column I wrote right before the Madison Square Garden concert, presented in the form of an open letter to James Murphy (shudder):

Like a lot of music critics, I feel a special kinship with you, because we are you. Or, rather, you are a better, smarter version of us. The relationship music critics have with you is similar to what film critics have with Quentin Tarantino, who, like you, started out as a know-it-all fan who, unlike most critics, took all the trivial, microscopic specificities he absorbed from every corner of his fan experience and found a way to create something new with it. But even if you guys are big-shot artists now, you’re also still critics at heart; you did it like Godard, critiquing art by making better art.

To be clear, plenty of people thought this frighteningly sycophantic screed was a bit much at the time. Writing for Slate, Jody Rosen called my piece a “deranged fanboy’s cri de Coeur,” which I knew was a devastating burn even before I looked up what “cri de Coeur” meant.

Reading my own words confirms that LCD Soundsystem appealed to a certain subset of music critics by essentially flattering them. We appreciated the “meta” nature of what he was doing — the way he wrote songs about listening to songs, and then cataloguing songs, and making this seem like something that could make you the center of attention at a party. (Rather than the person people avoid at parties.)

Ultimately, I don’t think I was wrong to observe that Murphy was a kind of critic-musician who instead of writing reviews made records that reflected his aesthetic ideals. The problem (and this is what Rosen nailed me on) is that I bought too much into the mythology of the “farewell” concert at the risk of ignoring simple logic: Of course a man in his early 40s wasn’t actually retiring. It was always the move of an intensely self-reflexive artist who wanted to engineer the “perfect” ending for his band based on how future generations would theoretically revere him for it.

In the space between Shut Up And Play The Hits and LCD Soundsystem’s return, I grew up a lot. I became a parent. I wasn’t going out to bars every night. I like to think I am a little less narcissistic and more inclined to define myself not by what I like but by things that actually matter. You remember that episode of Seinfeld where Jerry dates a woman (played by Janeane Garofalo) who is exactly like him? At first, he loves it. But eventually he comes to a pivotal realization: “I can’t be with someone who’s like me,” he wails. “I hate myself!” My relationship with James Murphy is a lot like that. But my problem isn’t really with James Murphy. It’s with the James Murphy I see inside of myself.

I wonder if James Murphy, in some way, feels the same. Whatever you want to accuse him of, you can’t say that he’s still overly concerned with looking cool. You don’t reunite your band, put out your worst record, and then collaborate with Amazon if you’re still worried about shoring up your punk bonafides. If that’s the case, I’m actually happy for him. We all could stand to be liberated from our inner James Murphy, even James Murphy himself.

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