It’s the promise of the frontier. That feeling of excitement when you see the wide world spread out around you, that desire to escape into it, to live in a space of expansiveness and freedom: this is a desire for the frontier. And the desire to live on the frontier goes hand in hand with a desire to seize a piece of it for yourself—to better your condition (as our nation once “bettered” its own condition) through territorial expansion. Open world games almost always take place in frontier spaces of one kind or another …
In the Western, writes Jane Tompkins, “the desert flatters the human figure by making it seem dominant and unique, dark against light, vertical against horizontal, solid against plane, detail against blankness.” …
The frontier is a potent dream. That’s why we keep dreaming it: in video games, in movies, in political rhetoric, in the collective unconscious of the American mind. … All progression is stasis. All expansion erodes the soul. You can ride out to the edge of the world, but to reach it is to realize that you’re trappedMatt Margini, Red Dead Redemption (Boss Fight Books, 2020)
I barely remember why I highlighted this excerpt from a book I read about a game I’ve never played that so stuck with me that I curated a playlist around a quote from it that, as it turns out, I pulled together from different parts of it. Maybe it’s because I read this book during the early days of the pandemic, in an apartment I had just moved into and instantly could not leave, feeling a variety of displacements and thus drawn towards a disassembling of a fantasy, of the world, of cultural construction, of agency, particularly to a fantasy about going somewhere.
Revisiting my highlights on my Kindle now, I am drawn to 1) what a poorly designed device this thing is, speaking about the stasis of progress, this ubiquitously dominant eReader that I keep hitting the button to bookmark a page instead of the button to pull up my highlights, and 2) another quote that seems somewhat plausibly why “a desire for a frontier space” stuck in my head as a mystery explained but not untangled, that “what makes [the cowboy] desirable is also that he doesn’t seem to desire anything—and seems, in fact, to be actively pursuing pain and discomfort … Yet he doesn’t seem encumbered by it all; just the opposite, he seems purified by it … he seems to have achieved contentment in the conditions of terminal, unending discontent.” I can imagine that, with the fallibility of memory, I conflated this quote with the first, the latter as something of a response to the former’s call.
In this stoicism that appears demanded of a frontier space, there’s something of (brace yourself) Camus’s (I’m sorry) theory of the absurd (hear me out), described in The Myth of Sisyphus (just like two more sentences I’m sorry) by observing that “The world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart.” Timed rather ironically just prior to the pandemic, there was a bit of Western revival culturally that others have unpacked similarly, albeit also without evoking Camus, at least by name:
But “yeehaw” as it’s used was never meant to translate to the real world, or signal anything beyond absurdity. “Yeehaw” exists in a liminal space, bound to and beyond the divisions imagined between blue and red states. Even as cultural and social forces alternately champion plugging all the way into our AI futures or unplugging and going back to a rarefied, more “honest” way of life, most people will never have the means to actually change any aspect of their living situation. Maybe I’ll get that cat cowboy hat; maybe I won’t. But my American dream has borders, and for everyone except a select demographic in America, it always has.Lilian Min, “What we yee about when we yeehaw”. The Outline (2019)
Despite my humblebrag that I’ve read Camus, I don’t have anything smart to say about any of this. This playlist isn’t somehow a deconstruction of the western or the American dream or colonialism. It’s merely a playlist of a specific flavor of alt country/indie folk, not exactly a subgenre of what remains one of the big “I listen to everything but” genres, but some specific sadness with a bit of grunge or blues rock somewhere in its genetics, where a country song is the body and a searing electric guitar the papercut. A desire for a frontier space formed just as much by vaguely being aware that For A Few Dollars More is a spaghetti Western as it is by the rush of rapid fire reflexes and gunshot precision required to see everything on the Valley level from Pokemon Snap (which oddly evokes a lot of moods here at Trash Garbage), the song from which, yeah, I bet a few people my age could plausibly mix up with the theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. What a fun nostalgia combo that is, the nostalgia for a childhood video game with this one specific level whose theme of the desert, of the frontier, has always widely, intrinsically asked “a nostalgia for what?”
There’s a lot of Neko Case in this playlist. There’s early Dire Straits. There are specific selections from the catalogues of Big Thief and The Mountain Goats that belong to this particular soundscape depending on what the guitars are up to. There’s one song by Jessica Lea Mayfield that I distinctly remember listening to in college catching a bus from downtown back to my dorm calling it an early night while the people I was with were on their way to another club, feeling somehow like the world was all ahead of me though this was objectively a melodramatic moment in which to think so, not the least of which because the English city of Norwich is decidedly not a frontier space. That said, a frontier space seems to be more so what we believe it has promised us.
There’s a lot of Neko Case in this playlist.