If you're wondering where I've been—so do I.
I have never known life without The Simpsons. From the after-school rush to get home before the hour-long block of reruns played daily to developing a deep appreciation for the more topical storytelling of later seasons, I've easily spent thousands of hours with America's favorite animated family. To consider existence without them is to ponder a possibility my mind has not had to conceive. No question, you and I will perish, but The Simpsons may outlast us all.
In the show's incredible seventh season, Bart and Lisa make their father, Homer, feel old when they start discussing a traveling music festival they wish to attend. Homerpalooza then follows Homer as he tries to prove he is not the old, out-of-touch adult he swore never to become, all while encountering a mixed bag of music stars from the mid-90s.
Early in the episode, a flashback to Homer in high school provides the most honest and uncomfortable truth ever spoken in the series. When Homer's father, Abe, bursts in to ask about the noise he's listening to, Homer responds by telling his dad he doesn't get "it." Abe replies: "I used to be with 'it,' but then they changed what 'it' was. Now what I'm with isn't 'it' anymore, and what's 'it' seems weird and scary. It'll happen to you!"
And just like that—one of my deepest fears was born.
Since airing in May of 1996, that sequence from Homerpalooza has lived rent-free in my head. I've been living as though there was a ticking clock over my head, constantly reminding me that I am running out of time to consume and appreciate art. There are countless nights I've spent wondering when the day would come that "new music" became "bad music" or when anything the least bit challenging would cause me to turn something off.
I've learned, dear readers, that this process happens gradually over an undetermined amount of time. It begins with a shoulder shrug response to a suggestion from a friend you'd normally trust for all things music, then grows until Spotify is only recommending 90s country playlists and other throwback collections meant to help us live forever in a bubble where it's always the least stressful time of our lives.
Five years ago, back when I lived in Minneapolis, I spent several months reeling from an extreme case of anxiety. My brain became convinced that I was going to die in the very near future. It was the only thought in my head, and it consumed me every waking moment. At night, I would dream of my death, and each morning I would wake, expecting my visions to come true.
My then-wife suggested visiting a doctor for a checkup to calm my worried mind. It was a good idea, at least in theory, but I doubt it produced the result she expected.
After explaining my headspace to the doctor, whom I had only met thirty minutes prior, they reviewed my chart and told me my feelings were perfectly natural. As a male entering my thirties, my body began transitioning from growth to decay. I wasn't crazy at all—I was dying—only at a much slower speed than my brain first suspected. You could even say I was dying at the normal pace if such a thing exists.
I don't know what that doctor's intent was if anything, but the impact of her insight was massive. The anxiety I'd been experiencing reached a boiling point, and I spent several weeks in a dark headspace, my only solace being the songs and programming that defined my youth. I binged every season of The Simpsons and Law & Order in full, and I revisited every Warped Tour band that had ever convinced me to spend $10 on a CD that now gathers dust in my parents' garage.
The present had become so scary that I needed to look backward to find peace. Everything in my life was suffering because I couldn't face reality, and it wasn't until I wrestled with death while eating mushrooms at a Slipknot concert months later that I began to piece my life back together. I've told that story already, and I'll probably tell it again sometime, but not today.
You can't trip on magic shrooms every time life gets hard. I'm sure plenty of people have tried, but you'll eventually be forced to confront yourself. The only question is how long you attempt to outrun the inevitable before committing to the work.
I tell you that story because I had a similar reaction when, as I was nearing my 34th birthday, I read that my other great fear was fast approaching.
According to some reports I skimmed in between thirteen other tasks, research finds most people stop discovering new music at age 33.
At the start of the year, I saw a video on TikTok promoting recent overlooked albums by underground artists. Making lists is a popular trend on the platform, and I probably witness a handful covering the best or worst in entertainment every day. Most offer nothing I haven't seen or heard, but this video was different. I didn't know a single artist or record being mentioned, and that realization made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. There I was, recently 34 and feeling out of place in music, worried that my fear of slipping into irrelevance was finally coming to fruition.
The cover of William Crooks' 2020 album Flowers features a young white male sitting on the trunk of a dark blue Chevy Malibu wearing dirty white Converse sneakers, shorts, a long-sleeve grey shirt, and a ski mask with what appeared to be homemade holes for the eyes and mouth. A flower drawing was in the corner of the image, which complimented the FLWRS6 license plate that showed between the young man's legs. It's the kind of artwork that makes you stop and consider how such a simple image can leave an immediate impression.
The opening track, "don't look at me!," made me uncomfortable instantly. What was pouring through my speakers was challenging me in a way no artist had in some time. Williams Crooks is an anomaly. His music falls somewhere between hip-hop and trap, but you cannot deny the influence of punk and even heavy metal on the material. That alone is enough to make his sound unique, but the creativity of Williams Crooks is not limited to flow and genre alone. The production of the material is equally lawless, with moments of overmodulation and what I can only describe as sonic glitches littered throughout the material. It's everything all at once, and that makes for an overwhelming listening experience, especially for the uninitiated.
As I sat back in my desk chair, feeling pale and unsure of myself, I found myself at a loss for words. In all my years of producing shows and covering artists, I'd never heard anything like William Crooks. The more I looked into his music, the more I learned of this massive following him and his peers developed outside the mainstream spotlight. Seeing how excited his fans were over the same material made me question everything I thought about myself had me feeling like my parents must have when I first showed them My Chemical Romance.
To help make sense of everything, I sent Crooks' album to my friend Anthony in Texas. Anthony and I met through his experimental music project, Empty Heaven, in early 2021 and quickly became friends. He's got a similarly voluminous knowledge of music and an even greater thirst for discovery than I do. I knew if anyone could explain my reaction to Crooks' music, it would be him, and Anthony did not disappoint.
Roughly twenty minutes after sending Anthony a link to flowers, he called.
"I have to be honest with you," he began. "That was pretty challenging stuff. I mean, what is it, you know? But at the same time, how EXCITING! Wow. You rarely get to say you've never heard anything like something before, but that might actually be the case here."
It's funny how one conversation can change your entire outlook on life.
Maybe that study is right, and we all inevitably stop evolving as music fans, but I don't think it happens for the reasons I feared. There is no invisible ticking clock hanging overhead or a magical date on the calendar when you suddenly stop caring about the songs on the radio.
Do you want to know why we stop giving a damn about new music? I'll tell you. It's because life is hard, and most people will do anything to have one fewer challenge in their daily lives.
Think about your day. We must make countless decisions every day to survive, and depending on where you're at in life, those choices can be difficult. Forget about common things, such as picking out clothes or food to eat. Those decisions come with the privilege of having bountiful options.
The decisions adults face every day are tough, and they require a great deal of effort, which leaves people exhausted. How about the people choosing between keeping the lights on or feeding their family, or the parents trying to understand their child's middle school math homework while also trying to advance their career?
With that much stress and uncertainty in life, the last thing someone wants is to spend time trying to understand the art of an unfamiliar artist. Why add to the strain of existence when you can throw on a record or artist that reminds you of simpler times? Someone whose catalog you know and love. That way, rather than actively listening, you mainly engage passively while doing other, more pressing matters.
Look that isn't the answer I wanted to find. It's too simple. My entire life has revolved around music, and I cannot imagine a day where it doesn't. At the same time, however, I have to recognize that life is an increasingly complicated exercise. Most people my age have families, office jobs, and various problems that do not currently exist in my life. If their brains would rather focus on making sure their kids get into college than understanding the complexities of the latest album from whatever artist Pitchfork gave the best new music award to this week, who am I to argue with that?
But if that's the case, then what happened to me? Why have I suddenly struggled to care about new music or write about my passions? Is time really getting the best of me, or am I experiencing a rare interruption to my everyday existence? To quote Fall Out Boy, "are we growing up, or just going down?"
To hell with that. I refuse to give in easily to the death of my artistic palette. After considering Anthony's thoughts and realizing that my initial reaction was based on a combination of fear and laziness, I returned to Willy Crooks' Flowers with an open mind. Rather than fight with anything that struck me as strange or unusual, I tried instead to accept what came as it unfolded. Willy is not some variation of another, more popular rapper. His music is unique, and appreciating it requires consideration without the pretext of what everyone else is doing in music right now. Willy doesn't care about those artists, or if he does, it's only to ensure that he does the opposite of whatever they're doing right now.
My second attempt at enjoying Flowers was beyond successful, and several other plays immediately followed. Crooks has a knack for expressing his confidence in a way that feels more matter of fact than boastful. He may utilize braggadocios bars to emphasize a point, but his argument for a place in hip-hop is undebatable. Between the riot-inducing energy of "See The Light" and the wobbling intensity of "Hands," not to mention the pulsating thumps of "Ecstacy," Crooks is painting a portrait of his life in vivid detail. You can sense the burning desire he has to be seen and heard, but also the fears of being misunderstood. Still, Crooks lays it all out for the world to see and judge as they will, regardless of what comes next.
At no point in the record does Crooks' vision come more into focus than in "Rainbows," a reflective effort backed by fairly straightforward production (by Crooks' standards). As the song plays on, Crooks reflects on how his awareness of the world around him shapes his perspective on life. The material possessions he thought he wanted now seem meaningless when held up against a planet burning to the ground as disease ravages its people. Still, Crooks understands the limits of his power and knows he's no superhero. He can't save the world. Hell, he can't even save you, the listener. His only mission is to save himself before it's too late, and he's not convinced that's even possible.
Yeah, what a long year it's been
But when hasn't a year been long
Not a year go by something didn't go wrong
Tell me, have I always had this hate in my heart?
When the batteries finally run out, will the game restart?
I don't know
I don't know, I hope so
'Cause I've been trying to find a place to put my car into park
It's like that (I don't even have a fucking car)
Running around town, it's all I do
I'm running around town picking up change to buy new shoes
When I was twenty-four, I wanted this pair of Saint Laurent boots
Then the world caught on fire
And it don't make sense anymore
Does the Louis Vuitton help fill the hole?
Did the Gucci shoes help heal your soul?
I want to be more like Willy Crooks. We both know we create art that falls far from the realm of mass appeal, but he does so with a fearlessness I still lack. Maybe it's because Crooks is young and therefore less concerned with the consequences of being misunderstood, or perhaps he doesn't care. Whatever the case, he's doing exactly what makes him feel alive, and I believe that is what we all wish to be doing with our lives.
So, here I am, world—a constant work in progress attempting to tell stories in the midst of living them. The words don't always come out correctly, and the destination isn't always clear, but dammit, I'm here and trying. I've sat at my desk every day for weeks, knowing that if I could get through this essay, much as I got through Flowers, I would learn to better understand myself along the way. Anyone can guess where I go from here, but I know now that no one and nothing can take my passion from me except myself.
If we can all learn to get out of our own way, maybe Willy Crooks would be less of an outlier. We're all as weird and unique as he is, but most of us are too shy to share our true selves. I want to break that bad habit, and I encourage you to do the same. Be the weird you want to see in the world.
...And now for the playlist
You might not believe this, but I already have the next issue of The Wampus ready to go. I've been trying to write two before posting one as a way of avoiding any hiccups in publishing, and so far, it seems to be working. Of course, that could change, and it likely will, so please be patient.
This week's playlist is simple and straightforward. You have the three Willy Crooks tracks I mention above, as well as some other material I've been listening to as of late. It's mostly pulled from the world of hip-hop, so if that's not your thing, I guess you'll have to wait another week for the next playlist to drop. Sorry!