The Sound of Motor City: Ruin Porn, Popular Memory, and Protomartyr’s Vision of 21st Century Detroit

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For the past couple years, one of the most vital sounds in music today has come out of that ruined city of the middle west, Detroit.   “Before recorded time, in some suburban room, see the devil in his youth,” Protomartyr’s Joe Casey croons over a rapid postpunk beat. “He grew up pale and healthy with the blessings of his father.” Indeed, Detroit’s residents might recognize the suburban devil depicted in the opening song of band’s third album The Agent Intellect. “His privilege came before him, the promise of adoring, the devil in his youth.”

Anyone familiar with the Motor City’s postwar history knows the critical place race has played in Detroit’s rise, fall, and current but perhaps not permanent, cautious revival. Protomartyr’s youthful Mephistopheles—distinctly suburban, white and privileged—grows bitter over time: “The women didn’t love him, the races all ignored him, his proclamations failed, so he screamed ‘Now you bend!’”

Few events highlight the disparity between suburban and urban metropolitan Detroit like the now 41-year-old Supreme Court ruling Milliken v. Bradley in which the court ruled that de facto segregation, though regrettable, was not illegal, therefore busing schemes meant to integrate suburban schools and save urban residents from crumbling educational infrastructure were unconstitutional. The city bent to the will of declining federal expenditures, fleeing industry, and waning suburban interest or perhaps more accurately in regard to that last one, growing metropolitan fear as what Eric Avila and others have described as the development of “vanilla suburbs and chocolate cities.”

Today, African Americans make up over 80 percent of Detroit’s population.  “They city’s true heroes,” noted former executive director of the Detroit Branch of the NAACP Heaster Wheeler in 2014, “were the African Americans who had a choice to leave Detroit, who had the means, yet stayed.” Even their numbers, however, have been declining. Between 2000 and 2010, 25 percent decamped for new digs. Over the decades between the automotive industry’s decline and the present, structural racism succeeded in undermining its economy, housing and schools, while feeding white resentment as demonstrated by historians like David Freund and Thomas Sugrue. “You will feel the way I do, you’ll hurt the way I do,” the devil concluded—and so it went both metaphorically in the “The Devil in His Youth” and literally in urban history.

Detroit’s story has been told many times over now, most recently through photography. In 2012-2013, the National Building Museum featured two concurrent exhibits on Detroit’s decline, Camio Jose Vergara’s “Detroit is No Dry Bones” and Andrew Moore’s “Detroit Disassembled.” Online features such as Detroiturbex.com’s Cass Tech Now and Then, the photography of Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre in The Ruins of Detroit, and Vergara’s The New American Ghetto are just three examples from a legion of others that depict Detroit’s crumbling industrial architecture as Romanesque spaces of collapse.   In 1995, Vergara even pitched the city on transforming its downtown into a monument to industrial dystopia: a “sky scraper ruins park” spanning a dozen blocks in which visitors could traverse wide eyed with mouths agape. His 2012 exhibit sought to respond to critics of this sort of ruin porn, describing Detroit as a site of both dystopia and utopia; its once proud infrastructure damaged but still used for raves, paint balling, and as sites for homeless to find shelter, though he still believed his 1995 suggestion to be “not so insane after all” and even included a video interview attesting to the wisdom of his now two decade old vision. [1]

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Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, image from “The Ruins of Detroit” (2005)

To critics of Vergara and like-minded photographers, the problems with these images stem from several factors. They ignore residents, focusing on abandoned infrastructure and thereby portraying Detroit as a land without people or community. In addition, it locks the city’s popular memory into place, immovable collective reminiscence entwined with the irresistible force of an unending proliferation of ruin porn photographs. “[T]he continued photographic emphasis of the decay of the city negates the many positive efforts and reformative measures that work toward sustaining and improving the experiences of” Detroiters, noted Sarah Arnold in a recent Journal of Urban History article. This has a tendency, she continued, “to produce an identity of the place that becomes more widely believed or experienced than the social reality of Detroit itself.”[2] Sure, Detroit’s struggle persists, but to depict it as a dead city, stuck in one place really overstates the case for writers like Arnold.

Then there is the drumbeat of news coverage that tends to focus on the more sensationalistic; to be fair however, in recent years more nuanced takes on the city have emerged. Regrettably, Detroit’s fortunes remain opaque and framed by despair.”Yet even amid [downtown’s] rehabbed Beaux-Arts and Modernist towerrs, hardly a sightless doesn’t land on a building going to seed,” wrote Ben Austen in July 2014. A sharply written and fair piece in the New York Times Magazine , Austen’s article still carried the title, “The Post-Post-Apocalyptic Detroit” which in the era of the Walking Dead, conjures visions of Neo-zombiehood.

A more recent piece in the Economist, “Living in Detroit: Surprisingly Expensive”, highlighted the fact that though housing maybe cheap, transportation and maintenance is not. Detroit’s expansiveness requires car ownership and insurance can cost as much as $10,000 annually. “This is partly because of a Michigan law which forces insurers to pay up regardless of who caused an accident,” noted the magazine. “Mostly, though, it is because so many people drive uninsured bust-up old cars in Detroit, often without licences, pushing up the cost for everybody else.” Thievery makes it hard for groceries to persist thereby creating large food deserts while forcing citizens to band together to protect their property and neighborhoods since Detroit’s “hollowed out” infrastructure cannot. “For the city’s few remaining affluent, life is a frontiersman’s dream. For most, it is a struggle, pursued only because other options are unattainable,” concluded the British periodical. Of course, a flipped reality exists as well. “If the scale of Detroit’s failure is unprecedented, then so (the local reasoning goes) is the scale of opportunity,” wrote Austen.

Setting aside such news coverage, however fair, images carry a heavy burden as well. Undoubtedly, photography casts a powerful shadow in the minds of observers. The fact that many Americans’ only connection to the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl resides in the images produced by Dorothea Lange or Walker Evans attests to this power. Today, the weight of “ruin porn” sometimes overwhelms other avenues through which observers might know the city. “One might equally consider the creative talent that has emerged from Detroit despite or because of the city’s landscape and identity,” reflected Arnold, “for example the continued production of popular musical talent.”[3] Piggybacking on Arnold’s suggestion, post punk band Protomartyr proves its image of the city is equally evocative and in some ways more descriptive than photography of the past two decades that purports to capture modern Detroit.   Moreover, the band’s lyrics when paired with its spare driving rhythms serve as a counterpoint to the images that have come to define Detroit.

Detroit’s Protomartyr Welcomes You.

Even in its heyday, music formed a central part of Detroit’s identity. In the 1940s, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie defined the scene; the 1950s and 1960s ushered in the Motown sound and artists like Diana Ross and the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder seemed to embody the city’s success and its place as a destination for African Americans during and after World War II. The 1970s welcomed the rough edges of proto-punk legends Iggy Pop and the Stooges, the radicalism of the MC5, the insanity of the Nuge, and the theatrics of Alice Cooper along with the troubled soulful songs of the aforementioned Gaye and the joyous but tough-minded Wonder as deindustrialization took hold.

During the 1980s, the classic rock stylings of Bob Seger gained greater popularity and a certain pop chameleon named Madonna surfaced as well, though most people associate her with New York. The 1990s and 2000s brought us Insane Clown Posse (ICP), Eminem, and rap-rock something Kid Rock (it’s possible Detroit owes some apologies for two of these, you figure out which two). The White Stripes also emerged and brought a certain indie/blues rock sound back to the city. Admittedly, Eminem’s star performance in 8 Mile (and of course Michael Moore’s documentary Roger and Me, though it focused primarily on Flint, Michigan) probably did more to capture the tough position of Detroit in this era than any of his albums or these later artists, but music as much as photography has helped shape Detroit’s image. Over the past decade or so, the weight and proliferation of the latter overwhelmed the former. Yet for most of these artists, their music captured essential aspects of the Detroit they inhabited.

To be fair, how much a modern listener associates Smokey Robinson to 1960s Detroit or MC5 to its 1970s equivalent seems almost unknowable. For example, Marvin Gaye might have captured the troubled pathos of the city’s black population with “What’s Going On” and “Sexual Healing” but he might be more remembered for his iconic performance of the “Star Spangled Banner” at the 1983 All-Star Game at the old L.A. Forum or his unfortunate and tragic demise.

Still, in their day, Motown artists embodied the opportunities available to and aspirations of Detroit’s African American population before the hard and fast decline of its auto industry. Likewise, proto-punks like the Stooges and the MC5 felt like documentaries of decline; Cooper the escapism and theatrics one might pursue in the face of the same. Bob Seger perhaps tapped into Reagan era nostalgia that, when it came to urban America, promised more than it delivered. Kid Rock and ICP harnessed the hybrid nature of late twentieth and early twenty first century music marrying hard rock and hip hop that appealed to suburban ears. Eminem emerged as a legitimate purely hip hop force, arguably embodying the evolution of rap and hip hop as the lingua fraca of youth culture such that a white performer of a traditionally black musical form no longer seemed blasphemous. If Iggy Pop had been produced by trailer parks in Ypsilanti and had grafted onto the most exciting and aggressive sounds of his day, so too did Eminem emerge out of Detroit’s African American community and absorbed the most dominating music of his time, in one of the nation’s toughest cities. One could go on but you get the idea.

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Over the past three years, however, few bands have channeled Detroit’s vibe like the postpunk band Protomartyr. Over the course of the three albums—2013’s All Passion No Technique, 2014’s Under Color of Official Right, and this year’s The Agent Intellect—the band has symbolized twenty-first century Detroit: anxious, struggling, and troubled, but vibrant and determined.

“I’m going to tell you a story about how it was when I’m asleep and I do dream,” Joe Casey sings on the driving “How He Lived after He Died” from their debut effort. “I see him there sitting in that chair and when I’m awake and I’m walking through the day I see him there sitting in that chair in a house of books, blow smoke from a pipe, but the picture blurs and the clock is rewound”; lyrics like these convey a stout humanity but could also be a coda for the city’s existence over the past two decades. As a memory locked in time or worse, alive undead, Detroit remains but the images that dominate the public mind suggest stasis at best, a metropolitan Zombieland, at worst. “The clock needs to be wound, the clock still needs to be wound, that’s how he lived after he died.”

As evidenced above and throughout their three albums, memory plays a recurring role in Protomartyr songs. Old recollections hold particular power over the mind. “New memories are strangers I will never meet, rheumy old thoughts are constant companions,” goes “I Stare at Floors” off of Under Color of Official Right. Predictably, as the old saying goes, we might be done with the past, but it surely isn’t done with us: “Nipping at me, Nipping and barking at me, Nipping and barking at me, All them.”

These aren’t abstractions either. Casey has spoken at length about his grandmother’s dementia and his mother’s death this year. His deceased grandmother and father even make an eerie appearance on the second album (see “I’ll Take the Applause”) in a conversation recorded long before their respective passings; adding a depth and perhaps darkness to the proceedings. “It’s sad, but it’s nice to hear them now,” he told Pop Matters in 2014. The penultimate song on their latest album, “Ellen,” stands as a touching testament to his mother and role of memory and remembrance: “Beneath the shade, I will wait, for Ellen, though I have gone before, I will wait, for Ellen, I’ll pass the time, with our memories, For Ellen.” The song that precedes it, “Why Does It Shake?” is named for an off hand remark his mother made about her developing condition: “Why does it shake? The body, why does it move, the fear”. Lines like “Sharp mind, eternal youth, I’ll be the first to never die, nice thought, and I’m never gonna lose it,” underline the harsh irony of the disease.  Furthering this line of though, if Detroit could forget its once glorious manufacturing heights of the early to mid-twentieth century, it could more resolutely move forward into whatever its future shape will be.

Nor does Protomartyr shy away from Detroit’s difficulties. In 2014, it recorded the second highest crime rate in the nation and “blexting”, texting a photograph or other information related to blight, is a real thing.  In interviews, Casey and the band have acknowledged the city’s dark straits. Crime, they note, touches everyone. “I don’t know anybody in Detroit that hasn’t had their car broken into or stolen multiple times,” Casey admitted in an interview. In a review of The Agent Intellect, Sound Opinions co-host Greg DeRogatis concurred, noting the band doesn’t “romanticize the plight of Detroit … [or its] faded industrial glory yet” the band’s music and lyrics express a “pride that native Detroiters know well.” This attitude is no put on. When a commercial area of Livernois Avenue, once dubbed Avenue of Fashion in its heyday, opened up about 10 pop-up enterprises in September 2013, 3,000 people turned out in the rain. “In a city with an outsize underdog pride, residents seem desperate to participate in the rituals of revival,” writes Austen.

Still, Protomartyr isn’t rushing to get out, as Casey asserted “you get used to it.” This mix of resiliency, stoicism, and resignation makes an odd but intoxicating combination, particularly on All Passion No Technique. Machinists fill themselves with bottle after bottle of “High Life” on the weekend, but hardly remain confined by such an existence: “There are things that are built in the skulls of men.” On “3 Swallows,” Casey finds a place between desperation and hope: “Uninvincible, close but not pitiful, I discovered to drink it slowly, the great unfolding, and wait for their arms to hold me.” On their second effort, the opening to “I Stare at Floors” begins with a wall of sound and simple statement of the anti-climatic: “The day comes same as before, it goes out again, the television a concave window.” Life might be filled with “lawyers and murderers” but “the law is confusing, the order makes no sense.” The daily plan? “not to die.” The solution? “The cure all is always over ice.” You go to “sleep when the sun goes down and awake when it rises,” Casey intones on “Principalities” the last track on their first album. Be aware and be true: “Be aware of the system, be honest with all the victims.” Survival necessitates a certain lived ambivalence mixed with self-preservation, empathy and stoic resolve.

The occasional drink doesn’t hurt either. In their ode to mid-town Detroit watering hole Jumbo’s, the band throws in some synthesizer alongside heavy Wire-like guitars, while Casey half screams, “I won’t touch that screen no more, I will not have a drink,” then soon after demands the barkeep “pour us a shot, pour us a shot,” finishing with a declarative statement: “Every night at Jumbo’s, every night at Jumbo’s, every night at Jumbo’s.” It’s the sound of resolution amidst post industrialism. “[T]here’s a humanness and empathy to this material that’s increasingly rare in rock songs,” reflected Pitchfork’s Evan Minsker. These are not broken people, damaged, like the city perhaps but determined to live.

Their follow up album sounds almost like a Stalin-era statement of purpose, Under Color of Official Right (it’s actually the title of the law that prohibits municipal malfeasance/corruption in public office, an issue with which, Casey has pointed out, natives are familiar). Sonically, it veers more toward tighter, stripped down postpunk. Whereas its predecessor embraced the Stooges and dashes of hardcore punk to a greater degree, the guitars sound fuzzed out and loud on several tracks, their second album simmers with tension but features far less fuzz: guitars ring and reverb far more often.

Lyrically, the band clearly looks askance at plans to save the city or the presence of new arrivals from Portland looking to make a stake. Punk goddess Patti Smith might have hyped Detroit as a new destination for bohemians and artists, but Protomartyr exhibits a clear wariness. “I’m a little suspect of it, but there’s nothing I can do about it,” Casey told an interviewer in 2014. “Smug urban settlers,” “upper class slummers,” and “bad bartenders” (among a long list of others) come in for equal amounts of derision on “Tarpeian Rock.” This sentiment comes through further on one of Under Color of Official Right’s signature songs, “Come and See.” “Have you heard the bad news, we’ve been saved by both coasts, a bag of snakes with heads of gas, the complicated hair cuts ride in on white asses.” When Casey asks, “Count their money with broken arms, come as friends, are you ready to be capitalized?” it’s hard not to see a critique of the entrepreneurial impulse at the heart of urban governance today.

The song “Violent” (off the same album) tells stories of “prairie bandits” shooting snoring men, wives poisoning husbands, and sailors living in fear of stealthy sea monsters on the Strait of Hormuz. Children tales of city cats, country mice, governing dogs all fighting tooth and claw while “suburban rats would fall down and laugh,” add to the band’s tendency to play with Animal Farm-like allegory when describing Detroit’s modern day reality. The song “Feral Cats” from All Passion No Technique serves as another example of this: “Most things are frightening through lace curtains as I stoke my fear and barely breathe … Just like feral cats, just like feral cats.”

On their second opus, the band even wades into direct if darkly poetic commentary on municipal politics. Casey, a one-time supporter of former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, wrote “Bad Advice” about the disgraced public official. “Sing a sad song, you filled him full of confidence, over confidence is a parasite,” he intones. The tragedy of Kilpatrick isn’t the band’s disappointment in him but rather what it means for the city: “And there’s no one left, to bury the dead, and clean the bones … And guard the tombs, where we all live.” On “Want Remover,” one of the few songs with the more fuzzed out sound of All Passion and No Technique though also balanced by stretches of cleaner, more straightforward guitar lines, the narrator receives an “oblong box, plastic made, mostly tin, cheap electronics” that when plugged in operates to remove desires: “And I’m free free free free from want, And I’m free free from fear, drain me out and I don’t care, machine is working for me.” Kilpatrick could have used such a device and it would seem living in Detroit, a city struggling to deliver services to residents, a want remover has its uses. That said, the song’s conclusion suggests too much removal has a cost and might not be sustainable: “And I’m free free free free from thought, And I’m free free from action, as it starts to leak I worry about the carpet.”

This brings us to their third and most recent work, The Agent Intellect. “On Right, songs arrived in brute slashes, but on Intellect they’re textured and spacious,” reflected one reviewer. The band “delivers jabs so precise … [and] powerful” noted DeRogatis’ co-host Greg Kot that they were “resurrecting [this] art form” of traditional rock bands. One might suggest their lean reconstruction of the traditional four-piece mirrors the city’s own slow regeneration.

Again, however, the band sugarcoats nothing. “Cowards Starve” recalls the troubling fires (in 2014, Detroit averaged 14 arsons a day; 8 Mile depicted some in action) that spread across the city’s vacant housing: “I had to show them that the weakest hands can still make impressive fires” as the narrator promises to “drown them in the breakers” and “tear the mountain down” as he or she “goes out in style.” Moreover, Detroit’s desperation means not all growth is good. “The dope cloud, that’s descending, on this town, is blowing gold dust, into the pockets, of the undeserving,” Casey sings on “Dope Cloud,” a song that one could argue serves as critique of renewal efforts. “The oligarch lenders’ guile, the largesse of the Lombard Bank… the halls of gold are theirs, you’re only renting space.” As Casey tells his audience, “It ain’t gonna save you man.” As hipster restaurants proliferate, shiny, idiosyncratic and unaffordable for local residents, “I Forgive You”’s narrator rejects even free food: “Artisanal handouts Thanks a lot! I’d rather outcrop with palm flashes.”

Yet Protomartyr wants everyone to know, whatever conclusions you draw from “ruin porn”, news reports, and its newer out of state arrivals, Detroit remains a city of Midwestern natives even if they seem to have become apparitions figuratively and literally, as demonstrated on “Clandestine Time”: “The proof we are here, is the dust that they’re breathing, the proof we’re apart, is the fact they’re still living, they don’t see us.” Car theft comes up again on “I Forgive You” – “Crawl through life, who stole this car and why are we in it and where do we go again?” – while throwing in local inside jokes like Joumana Kayrouz’s ubiquitous presence on billboards across the city or the “harrowing” drive on “Outer Drive and 6.”

Perhaps “Pontiac ‘87” captures Protomartyr’s viewpoint best. Several reviewers have noted the song’s timing couldn’t be more perfect as its first half tells of Casey’s experience seeing Pope John Paul II at the Silverdome in 1987. Like Jesus in a temple full of money lenders, Casey sees less religion and more commerce: “Money changing between hands, outside the Silverdome.” As one might expect, the Pope’s ’87 visit proved no small event as it drew almost 100,000 spectators, one of the largest audiences in history. However, its conclusion turns ugly as “afterwards a riot broke, old folks turned brutish, trampling their way out the gates, towards heaven.” Interestingly, Casey’s lyrics and the brooding tempo convey not only the city nearly 30 years ago, but the demographic shift we’ve witnessed as a nation. White ethnics were a ubiquitous presence in ’87, yet this year’s visit seemed much more about youth, immigration, and the burgeoning Latino American population. Like any struggling Catholic, Casey seems almost relieved to have experienced such a calamity, “that fall from grace, knocked me on my knees, don’t tell anyone that’s what I wanted, the god of change, knocked me on my knees.”

In the song’s second half, the band returns to Jumbo’s, the day after Christmas for what has become their annual post holiday show. Much like his let down after seeing the Pope, one could argue that after Christmas, when the family gatherings end and the presents have all been opened, might be a bit of an emotional let down. Half sober faces “fill up the bar” while a new coating of snow covers the city. The purity of the image and the reality it obscures returns to a persistent theme in Protomartyr songs: “all new white, with new money and false friends, I don’t like it.” Then again maybe, he just doesn’t know how to handle all the new fans. Whatever the case, Casey admits, however, that anger and indignation can be invigorating “but I miss it, the way it was, before the scales, fell from my eyes.”

Perhaps, it should be mentioned that the band’s phenomenal drummer, Alex Leonard is Elmore Leonard’s grandson. The elder Leonard, a long time Detroit native, documented the city through his 20 some novels, arguably best captured cinematically in 1998’s Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight. The film took advantage of legendary haunts like the State Theater and Kronk Gym, but also in its climatic scene captured the urban-suburban divide when the final heist goes down at a palatial estate outside the city. Out of Sight did not romanticize the city, but nor did it dwell on its collapse. It presented the city as it was, struggling but alive. Protomartyr does the same. What’s gone is gone; what remains, remains. Remember the past but don’t be imprisoned by it. “There’s no use being sad about it, what’s the point of crying about it?” Casey concludes on “Pontiac ’87.” Detroit lives on; listen to Protomartyr and you’ll know why. In its own way, the band’s output begs a simple question: if a picture is worth a thousand words, what are three albums worth? In the case of the Motor City, a lot.

[1] Wes Albrecht, “Decline and Renaissance: Photographing Detroit in the 1940s and 1980s,” Journal of Urban History 41.2 (March 2015): 308.

[2] Sarah Arnold, “Urban Decay Photography and Film: Fetishism and the Apocalyptic Imagination,” Journal of Urban History 41.2 (March 2015): 328.

[3] Arnold, “Urban Decay Photography and Film,” 328.

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