black kids

by jon bosworth
When you hear Black Kids’ singer Reggie Youngblood croon out the gender-distoring lyric “You are the girl that I’ve been dreaming of ever since I was a little girl” in their hit song ‘I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance with You,’ you probably don’t think about that seed of Jacksonville Jesus they have deep down inside.
People all over Europe probably don’t realize that somewhere on Jacksonville’s Southside there is a youth pastor slowly shaking his head and wondering what happened to his flock. This youth pastor looks up at the YouTube screen and sees Reggie writhing around under a guitar solo at a music festival in Europe and tries to remember the Reggie Youngblood that led a Christian ska band back in the day.
Somewhere else there is a young man just finishing seminary wondering how Owen Holmes, the bass player in his favorite Christian punk band, Lugnut, could possibly be in a group that seems to lyrically admire casual sex and is the flavor of the month on the Logo Network.
Most of the Black Kids’ European fans wouldn’t appreciate rich and complex irony of Owen Holmes and I participating in a focus group that was trying to find a way to influence kids away from premarital sex only one year ago. In fact it was only a couple of months after I dropped Owen off at the offices of Folio Weekly following a focus group experience that he quit that job to pursue a career in retro-eighties dance rock.
I spent a long time trying not to write an article about Black Kids. Last summer I just thought of them as TSI Discotheque’s house band. Their shows were always sort of a drunken fiasco. By that I mean by the time they took the stage, I had already made my way from Burrito Gallery to Mark’s to Dive Bar and then finally to TSI. The fiasco was always whatever craziness was happening when the Black Kids were on stage.
“We’re just a party band from Jacksonville. Alcohol is a huge part of our equation and if you’re not with the program (laughing) you’re probably not going to get as much as you can out of it,” singer and guitarist Reggie Youngblood told me back in 2007.
Another thing most people don’t know about Black Kids is the origin of their name.
“It started with a blurb that Owen wrote for Folio Weekly. In this blurb a woman wrote an email to the city and she used a euphemism, that euphemism being ‘kids who play basketball.’ Really she was talking about young black men. There were these young black kids who were playing hoops and I guess it was kind of rowdy and she wrote this email about how the sound of them at play was ‘more than I cared for.’ So we thought about calling ourselves Kids Who Play Basketball, and then someone said to just call it what it means, which was Black Kids. Something about that struck, but I can’t say anyone was comfortable with it… I’m not a superstitious man, but it was a weird, cosmic thing. The term just kept popping up places. The book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, the Hefner song that mentions black kids. It kept going on and on, so I was like, fine, I’ll take a hint from the universe. We’ll be Black Kids,” Reggie said.
“It’s not self-referential, it’s just two words put together,” added Owen.
I’ve known Owen Holmes for nearly seven years, beginning when he played with an old riff rock band in town called The Dirty Birds and practiced upstairs at the pizza place where I worked. He always had the best old school rock T-shirts that looked older than he was at the time. Reggie Youngblood and I were acquaintances around the same time, when his and drummer Kevin Snow’s old band, Cubby, used to play shows at the same pizza place. So when they appeared in Rolling Stone last October, I was surprised to say the least.
When I again spoke with them, they had just signed on with Quest Management even though they didn’t have a record deal and hadn’t professionally recorded a single song.
“We were getting a lot of emails and it got to a point where we couldn’t handle it. Let a manager come in and do this shit for us, we just want to play music,” said Owen.
“What I love about Quest is that they are very adamant that we give our input. They won’t make decisions for us, they line up the options and let us pick. So we said, yes please! We’ll go with that for sure.”
Here is where I got excited about Black Kids. With a management company like Quest behind them, I felt certain that they could be the prototype of the band that doesn’t need a label. Here, while Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead were in public wars with their labels or just leaving the old institution in their trails, a young startup band with adequate support might be able to cut the label element out of the equation and bring the music industry to a whole new place. Finally, the Internet will have triumphed and the music industry wouldn’t be able to hold a monopoly on our ability to enjoy music!
Then Black Kids signed to Columbia Records and I thought all hope was lost. But when the record came out, everything changed. I mean it, everything changed for me. I listened to Partie Traumatic once and realized I didn’t not like it. That is to say, although I was hesitant to celebrate it, I found myself listening to it over and over again.
Just like Wizard of Ahhs, Partie Traumatic starts out with ‘Hit the Heartbrakes.’ This number didn’t strike me as anything special then, and even the enriched recording captured by producer Bernard Butler (guitarist for Suede), which was tighter but less spacious, it wasn’t a spectacular song. The first difference I noted was how much more mature Reggie’s voice sounded. It had a unique texture that was more reminiscent of Simon LeBon of Duran Duran than Robert Smith. It is odd to think of that as a good thing, but even Duran Duran is better than The Cure on my list.
My dilemma is that I have spent the past twenty years insisting that I deplore ninety percent of the music made in the eighties. Listening to Partie Traumatic reminded me of listening to an eighties radio station. On the surface, I hated every bit of it. It was shallow and cheesy and uninteresting. But when no one else is in the car and the radio is already playing it, I might drive/dance to some Thompson Twins. It wasn’t white guilt – it was Black Kids as guilty pleasure.
Pitchfork Media, the online music magazine that pretty much praised Black Kids into their careers after their Athens PopFest performance, gave the new album a strange review. They showed a photograph of two pugs and the text: “sorry”. Reggie addressed the review on MTV calling it one of the coolest album reviews he had ever seen. He knew the love couldn’t last forever. And as quickly as that I saw why Black Kids leapt into a recording contract with Columbia. The people are too fickle to sustain a band without such marketing prowess.
Oh, and also because it allowed them to record a superior record. Partie Traumatic isn’t the low-fi novelty gem of Wizard of Ahhs. That EP was stylish, for sure, and it served them well through reviews by NME, Vice and Village Voice. It got them into Rolling Stone and onto satellite radio. But the full length somehow tied the disparity of listening to genre-colliding eighties radio into a unique sort of consistency.
And there is still some Jacksonville in there.
The monster mash jam of the title track is by itself an impressive feat of rhythm, lyrics and instrumentation, but it retains a disco ethic that can’t be attributed to Jacksonville. However, listen close and Reggie offers you some grits. How Jacksonville is that? ‘Listen to Your Body Tonight’ is a fun romp with claps and synthesizers and a Beck circa Midnight Vultures vibe that gets lodged in your head like a bad Debbie Gibson hit. In this number they “swear it on the Bible.” Jacksonville? ‘Hurricane Jane’ is twice the jam when produced right, but the real ditty on the album is ‘I’ve Underestimated My Charm (Again).’ I don’t call it great simply because of it’s distinctive fifties style, rather because of lines like “you’re too much sugar for my sweet tooth.” Even this song references someone “betting the hounds.” Does that happen anywhere other than Jacksonville?
As I pieced together my new Black Kids addiction and how it conflicted with my disdain from the era it lauds, I realized that the last local bands I saw set off into the limelight were so terrible, that it was embarrassing. What a great relief to see it happen to good people that are doing their own thing.
Although the band name isn’t self-referential, it is another layer of irony that a band called Black Kids has taken over the whitest genre of music (eighties pop) and brought a fresh energy to a stagnant and floundering music scene while another black kid is stirring up the possibilities in the presidential race. Is it possible that equality can just be attained without anyone noticing the precise moment that it happened?
But soon it will be commonplace for the hipsters in town to turn on the band. And then the words “I hate Black Kids” will finally be spoken in the halls of Jacksonville’s academia again. Won’t those disenfranchised ministers be so sad?
I told Owen when I saw him at Square One recently, after their gig on Letterman and before their show in Belgium, that the album reminded me of listening to eighties radio, for good or for ill. He rather graciously replied: “That’s the best compliment I could get.” Of course, Owen is such a nice guy he would have said that no matter how I had described it. And that’s why I love Black Kids!