Pump up the Volume: a 17th-Anniversary Retrospective


Not quite the '80s, not quite the '90s...

In the late summer of 1990, amid slightly more important events like the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the lead-up to the first Gulf War, and the record-setting sales of Super Mario Bros. 3 (dude, you could turn into a flying raccoon), New Line Cinema released Pump up the Volume, a teen-oriented dark comedy that was the then-white-hot Christian Slater’s follow-up to a much more well known teen-oriented dark comedy, Heathers (that is, if you skip over Gleaming the Cube, The Wizard, the Tales from the Darkside movie, and Young Guns II, but the sentence works better that way).  Though the film was rated R, a friend and I — in what I’m sure seemed at the time like some real high-risk secret-agent shit — somehow managed to gain entry to the theater.  It was the first R-rated movie I had ever seen.  It was also, not counting when I was a baby, the first time I ever saw tits, courtesy of female lead Samantha Mathis, in her debut performance.  It was Labor Day weekend, and I was twelve — the exact age and calendar date corresponding to the characters and events of another of my favorite films, Stand by Me.  And, looking back, it would be as accurate as anything else to say that this in-hindsight-profoundly-ridiculous film changed my life.  As much as it dorkens me up to admit this, it’s probably very much the case that 1585 wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t snuck into Pump up the Volume when I was twelve.  And since enough time has passed that a child born when the film was in theaters (which is not a very big window) would now be the same age as its main characters, I figured I’d take a look back and try to figure out why (why the film influenced me, I mean, not why the kid has aged). 

I know you’re not supposed to summarize the plot when writing about famous works of Art — but then, Pump up the Volume is hardly a famous work of Art.  And in many ways, this is unfair.  Despite the disaffected-teen and evil-teacher clichés, it’s actually a great movie — certainly several cuts above a whole slew of teen flicks, released both before and since, that now enjoy status as classics of the genre.  Viewed as a part of this continuum, PutV comes off as quite significant chronologically:  the youth-marketed dramedies that preceded it, collectively known as “’80s movies” (technically, I suppose this could refer to any film that came out in the 1980s — but then, you never really hear anyone refer to, say, Gandhi or Amadeus as an “’80s movie”), featured teenage protagonists who weren’t nerds exactly, but weren’t cool either, and whose burdens were pressures and taunts from cartoonish parents, cartoonish teachers, and extremely cartoonish popular kids — if it hadn’t been for all of these other assholes, one presumed, things would have been fine.  When ’90s movies came along, the element of high school was quite put out.  The new youth-movie protagonists were older — in college or already out of it — and the antagonists had disappeared, but the angst mysteriously remained.  With all coherence gone, and no sweater-shouldered popular kids in sight to blame, the ’90s youth-movie protagonist was compelled to examine him or herself.  The journey from ’80s youth culture to ’90s youth culture was a journey within; the climactic battle of the ’90s movie was a skiing contest of the soul.  

Won’t it be paradise, we thought in the ’80s, when we get out of school and everything is wonderful; won’t it be Romantic, we thought in the ’90s, when we get out of school and everything still sucks.  Somewhere along the line, John Cusack became Ethan Hawke, and Molly Ringwald (“I don’t have a psychiatrist” —The Breakfast Club) became Winona Ryder (“I don’t even have a dentist” —Reality Bites).  The quest to fit in became a fear of selling out.  And the point at which this happened may very well be Pump up the Volume — which is either the Last ’80s Movie or the First ’90s Movie.  If you want to see something that perfectly encapsulates the exact moment when it was no longer the ’80s but not the ’90s yet either, go rent it, and you’ll see what I mean.  The world of Slater’s character, Mark Hunter, is populated by parents, teachers, and cool kids, but they never really directly mess with him in any way that we see — Mark may be thinking of them, but he is talking to himself. 

Which brings us to the plot, as follows:  High-school senior Mark has recently moved with his parents from New York, where he was presumably at least a little bit cool, to Arizona, where he is not, ostensibly because everyone is so “normal” there.  So, naturally, he turns his room into a complex web of radio equipment and begins moonlighting as a pirate D.J. (strangely, the initials of Slater’s Heathers character, “J.D.,” reversed), playing surprisingly cool music (including several bands who would become huge mere moments later when early-’90s alternative erupted, e.g., Soundgarden, Bad Brains, the Descendants) and spouting rants about whatever pops into his head.  Amazingly, his parents have no clue he is doing this, even though it is later revealed that they bought him all this shit so he could take up fucking around with radios as a hobby.  Mark rechristens himself “Happy Harry Hardon,” after his signature habit of pretending to masturbate on-air, and almost instantly, every single person in Mark’s high school is obsessed with his show (because, yes, it’s just that easy to get people to pay rapt, exclusive attention to your anonymous rants, despite poor production values, zero publicity, and a limitless sea of competing media — one can only assume that if Mark had scrawled a limerick on a bathroom wall, he would have woken up Poet Laureate of the United States), but no-one has any idea who he is, because he’s using a voice disguiser that makes him sound like someone with a deep voice imitating Jack Nicholson instead of someone with a high-pitched voice imitating Jack Nicholson.  A girl named Nora, who’s hot enough that you’d think she’d have something better to do but apparently not, decides to find out, and eventually she discovers his identity, becomes his accomplice, and shows him (and us) her gorgeous tits.   Like two gently sloping scoops of peach ice cream they were, longing after their own melting in a summer dusk.  Along the way, however, the clueless parents and diabolical teachers of the world get mad — and of course, by the end, as befits a rearguard ’80s movie, the government is after him for some reason (wisecrack advice:  if you are ever watching PutV with your friends, wait for the shot of the chopper bearing down on Mark and Nora from over the hill, and then yell “What is he, E.T. now?!”).  The feds conveniently pursue the couple right into the field where all the teens had assembled to listen to Mark’s broadcast (because “this is where the reception is the coolest”), everyone lets out a collective “Hey, it turns out he was that kid with a spiky pompadour and those big round gilt-rimmed 1990 glasses!”, and both Mark and Nora are cuffed and hauled off in a truck, after being arrested by federal agents for, um… something. 

Oh, hell yes.

When I was in college, there was a not-exactly-A-list Philosophy major who proposed that, for his senior comps, he was going to “figure out what Nietzsche really said.”  This, presumably, would have involved, you know, reading Nietzsche and finding out what he really said — which, it turned out, many people had already done (including me, and I wasn’t even a Philosophy major).  I was reminded of this because, when preparing to rewatch Pump up the Volume the other day, I was primarily curious to rediscover what it was that Mark, in his capacity as Hard Harry, actually said, because I didn’t really remember.  I knew that, whatever it was, it had seemed like the coolest shit anyone could possibly say when I was 12 — but as for the nuts-and-bolts of his opinions, for some reason I couldn’t quite recall, and I was psyched to reacquaint myself with them.  In particular, I have been at a loss for what to think about outsourcing, so whatever Happy Harry Hardon had to say about outsourcing, I was all set to write it down.  I just knew it would be the coolest position on outsourcing, like, ever.  

So I rewatched Pump up the Volume.  And you know what?  It turns out that he doesn’t really say much of anything.  I mean, he curses a lot, and he talks about being really horny, and he makes it abundantly clear that he doesn’t especially like being in high school — but these don’t really qualify as positions in the sense to which I had become accustomed in the intervening years.  At one point early on, Mark even says that “politics are out,” indicating that, whatever it is he does, it is avowedly non-political.

I was crushed.  No, more than that, I was chxrhushedt, like the German from ¡Three Amigos! when he found out about txhrigk vhotogxhraphy.  How was it possible for the movie that sparked my political awakening to have contained no politics whatsoever?  And if the film is not political, then what is it?   We open with an aerial nighttime sweep of what we infer is the sleepy little town of the disembodied voice delivering the opening monologue, and the very first thing we hear is Slater’s disguised voice asking “Do you ever get the feeling that everything in America is completely fucked up?”  Well, that certainly sounds like a lead-in to a whole litany of political opinions — but, in what probably struck me then as completely logical but strikes me now as a hollow bait-and-switch, the voice instantly segues into ripping on high school.  Excuse me?, my adult self reacts.  That’s what you mean by “everything in America is completely fucked up” — high school is boring?  But we’re less than one minute into the film at this point.  Let’s see where Hard Harry goes from here.

In an early scene, Mark prank calls the school’s guidance counselor, pretending at first to represent a legitimate news station, but quickly telegraphing the real reason for the call:  Mark has stolen a memo establishing that said guidance counselor was instrumental in the decision to expel a pregnant student.  Okay, we think, now we’ll get into some real issues here.  But we don’t.  It is implied that the guidance counselor had given the girl in question an ultimatum requiring her to have an abortion in order to remain in school — which, regardless of your views on abortion, is obviously way out of line for a guidance counselor — but this is simply dropped after being hinted at.  Is Mark pro-choice?  Pro-life?  Does he have any thoughts to offer on the epidemic of teen pregnancy?  Or even anything about sex itself?  We have no idea.  The point of the scene is simply that the guidance counselor is a dick, and both Mark and the film are happy to leave it at that.  

Many issues are almost raised over the course of the movie, but it is always impossible to discern exactly what Mark is “for” or “against.”  We know that he hates conformity, but that’s only half an answer — conformity to what ideal?  In the closing scenes, we find out that Mark’s example has been wildly successful, and that teens all over the place are starting up their own pirate radio stations.  Would Mark still be against a conformity modeled on the ideal of himself?

The audience is encouraged to scorn — or at least dismiss — Mark’s parents, aged ’60s radicals who have now “sold out” and become “the system.”  But what PutV barely hints at is that this is also, in a way, exactly what happens to Mark at the end.  I say “happens to” by design, because becoming the system is not wholly a conscious choice — you can be the biggest rebel of all time, but once people decide that you’re right, then you are, ipso facto, not a rebel anymore.  If you want to keep being seen as a rebel, then you have to come up with different stuff to say that you think people will like less, when maybe you were right the first time and didn’t need to change.  (On a totally unrelated subject, has anyone been reading Camille’s new stuff on Salon?  I have no idea why I just thought of that — I was just wondering.)

Later, in a scene that is both legitimately moving and laudably progressive for a teen flick from 1990, Mark has an on-air phone conversation with a gay teen (or, as the film puts it, a teen who is “into guys” — the word gay is never mentioned) who has recently been assaulted — and possibly raped — by a gang of athletes.  It is probably this scene, more than any other, that evinces Mark’s potential as a leader, rather than merely an entertaining smartass — he is not only empathetic in his conversation with the gay kid, but wise: “You’re not the one who’s confused — you sound like you know exactly what’s going on.  If anyone’s confused, it’s those guys out there.”  And yet, from my perspective now, the scene feels insufficient.  After all, Mark (or the film) never says that there’s nothing wrong with being gay — he technically only admits that it sucks when you get beaten up for being gay, which is kind of obvious.  This strikes me now as demanding too little of the audience, who are encouraged only to admire Mark’s handling of the call, and not to examine their own positions on homosexuality — at least not beyond the extent that simple sympathy demands.  Am I expecting too much of a teen movie from this period?  Or is it that Mark’s assimilation of the gay issue into his general “weird for the sake of weird” ethos is sufficient, and I have simply lost the ability to see how? 

Or is this apparent problem really only being caused by another one?  Mark’s conversation with the gay kid (who isn’t given a name, by the way, so sorry that I have to keep calling him “the gay kid”), ends with the gay kid asking “So what are we going to do about all this?”, and Mark answering with “I don’t know.  That’s the big question, isn’t it?” — to which the gay kid responds “I guess nobody knows, huh?  Well, that’s tough.”  And it may be this seemingly throwaway exchange that points us to the real problem — not just with this film, or with teen movies in general, but with American culture.  It might not be that the film didn’t want to go out on a political limb here, but rather that the film simply needs Mark to appear cool, and in order to appear cool, he has to not know things — i.e., it would be pop-culture suicide for Mark to appear too smart.

Pump up the Volume consistently walks a very careful line in terms of how smart the audience is supposed to believe Mark is.  He self-identifies as a “nerd,” but it’s clear that this is nerddom of the “shy and awkward” variety rather than the “egghead” variety.  We know that he gets the “decent grades” required for his parents to “leave [him] alone,” and that his English teacher — the film’s requisite “cool” teacher, who is always the English teacher — considers him a talented writer.  But nowhere are we encouraged to perceive Mark as a genius in any sense, or even necessarily as all that much smarter than average.

Nora and Mark
Fitting, as both Bon Jovi and Chiropractics are bullshit.

Rock and roll — and the very concept of the teenager — began in the pressure cooker of the ’50s, and from the quintessential James Dean Rebel without a Cause to Marlon Brando’s iconic “Whaddaya got?” (after being asked what he is rebelling against) in The Wild One, the message was clear:  it’s cooler to be pissed off for no reason — or, at least, for a reason you can’t explain (cf. the Who) — than it is to be pissed off about something specific and to propose possible solutions.  Figuring out why you’re pissed off, and coming up with ideas on what to do about it, after all, might require research — you know, like with books and stuff.  By exploring the causes of one’s dissatisfaction, one risks becoming a nerd, or, worse still, an adult.

Dean and Brando were the two biggest aesthetic influences on Elvis, from whom all rock iconography flows, and indeed, for the entirety of rock’s Golden Age, what made rock rock was the fact that it was so unabashedly completely meaningless — or, at least, believed itself to be.  Rock was subsequently endowed by the Beatles (Silver Age) with an ideology — something along the lines of “All You Need Is Love” — but then it turned out not to be the case that all you need is love, and so Punk showed up to laugh itself silly about this (Bronze Age).

The character of Mark Hunter, who is, technically, Generation X by inches, having been born by my calculations scant months before the official cutoff point (the resignation of Nixon), is thus merely saddled with not being old enough to have been young enough to have laughed at his parents, who represent the doomed self-assured idealism of the ’60s.  There will be a Next Big Thing, of course, but it hasn’t started yet.

And it is this vibe — this all-encompassing atmosphere of anticipation for the arrival of the Next Big Thing — that makes Pump up the Volume most valuable today as a youth-culture historical document.  At times, the prescience is legitimately unsettling.

A third of the way into the film — which was released, remember, in the first summer of the 1990s — Mark makes this on-air speech:  “Drugs are out, sex is out, politics are out  Everything is on hold.  I mean, we definitely need something new.  I just keep waiting for some new voice to come out of somewhere and just say, hey, wait a second, what is wrong with this picture?”

Immediately following this monologue, he picks up one of the letters that the other kids in the school have taken to writing him, joking before he opens it “Maybe this is the answer to everything.  Wouldn’t that be nice?”  The letter reads, in its entirety, “Dear Hard Harry:  Do you think I should kill myself?  —I’m Serious.  Mark calls the writer but, believing the letter to be a prank, attempts to be entertaining rather than sympathetic.  The other boy hangs up the phone and shoots himself in the face.

There are simply no words for when culture prognosticates itself in this fashion.  Nirvana is never played or mentioned in the film, but Soundgarden, Sonic Youth, and the Pixies are, and at one point a Sub Pop logo is visible in Mark’s cluttered stacks of cassettes — so it is, I suppose, acceptable to imagine that Mark had heard their 1989 Sub Pop debut album, Bleach.  During the time that Pump up the Volume was in theaters, a seven-song demo that would eventually become Nevermind was circulating among major-label A&R men.

This, of course, was the Next Big Thing and the new voice that was to come out of somewhere — in terms both of pop history and of my own life.  Like Pump up the Volume, Nirvana stuck up for weirdness and difference in that magical way that seems like the most political thing in the world to a teenager, but decidedly apolitical — even, perhaps, irresponsibly so — to an adult.  Both Pump up the Volume and Nirvana were things that made me who I am to extents with which I can credit very few others, but which, ironically, I now find myself fighting against in order to continue the process of that becoming. 

Overall, I was surprised to see how little 1585 has in common with the ethos of the film that inspired me all those years ago to do something.  Mark is avowedly unconcerned with politics, sees himself far more as a Dadaist prankster than an Enlightenment logician, and, in fact, in some ways, his rhetoric is of the brand to which 1585 is most directly opposed — he does, after all, spend most of his time talking about how fake people are when he’s really just jealous of them.  If, in some bizarre warp of both time and reality, Mark Hunter were ever to stumble upon this website, he would most likely see 1585 as just one more self-important jerk telling everybody what to do and how to think.

And, believe it or not, that makes me a little sad.

But there’s not really anything I can do about it.  You see, like Mark, I have figured out that there are various problems in society that no-one seems to be talking about — but unlike Mark, I am 29 years old and I know that these problems are complex sociopolitical ones rather than bullshit teenage ones about people not wanting you to use bad language, play your music too loud, or dress funny.  Part of me wishes every now and again that I were still young enough to think that those things are a big deal, but the fact is, they’re not.  I haven’t always been a draconian know-it-all, you know.  I used to want to do stand-up.  Then I was in a band for a few years.  Part of me wanted 1585 to be good-time satire that wouldn’t piss anyone off too much.  Part of me hoped it would be the thing that finally made me cool.  But it would be irresponsible of someone who knows what the real problems are to rebel against fake problems instead just to look cool.  That would be the real “selling out.”

The key, I suppose, to being a cool rebel (Mark Hunter, Kurt Cobain) instead of an annoying rebel (me) is never to say anything that people don’t pretty much already know.  If one were to try to sum up Hard Harry’s mission in one verb, then le mot just would be that he admits it.  Mark admits it, but he never tells us what to do about it.  He never tells us what to do about anything.  And neither, for that matter, did Kurt Cobain.

It is fitting that Mark’s theme song, with which he begins every broadcast, is Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows.”  The key to Mark’s mass appeal and instant popularity, it seems, is that he dispenses no real new information.  People are already feeling everything he brings up, but just not admitting it.  Well, admitting what everybody knows is one thing, but what about what everybody doesn’t know?

It’s amazing how the rhetorics have flipped.  The trope of loudly trumpeting what you’re not “allowed” to talk about is now associated more with the Right than with the Left — the phrase “everybody knows” is probably Ann Coulter’s favorite way to begin sentences.  Maybe this has something to do with why, 17 years after a movie about how you should never listen to anybody made me want to be a rebel, I now feel like “never listen to anybody” doesn’t cut the mustard anymore…  It’s just been exploited by the Right too much.  I mean, if the person in question is, like, a scientist or something, then maybe you should listen to them.

Mark’s repeated invocations to “go nuts” and “get crazy,” accompanied by montages of teens cranking up their stereos and jumping up and down, do not really have meaning in a “do A because A means X, but do not do B because B means Y” sense.  What people might assume he really means can vary wildly from one moment in pop history to the next.  This is, perhaps, best illustrated by the scene where a mob of Hard Harry fans erect a giant papier-maché phallus in the schoolyard in his honor — such an object would have symbolized adolescent rock-and-roll rebellion in 1990, but would now be taken to represent patriarchal order, tradition, even fascism.  The penis was liberal at the beginning of the ’90s, but conservative by the end.  What this means, I guess, is that if you are going to go “penis, penis, penis,” it would probably also be a good idea to explain why.  The archetype of the young rebel did not begin with rock culture, but at least when Stephen Dedalus proclaims “non serviam,” we know what it is that he will not serve — the Catholic Church — and are thus in a position where it is possible for us either to agree or disagree.

But how are you supposed to agree or disagree with “everybody go nuts?”

Well, I’m not sure whether I’ve achieved my goal here.  Even though I spent most of the time poking holes in it, I actually set out to write about how much I love Pump up the Volume.  I still think it’s an awesome movie, and that if you haven’t seen it, you definitely should.  It’s just that, watching it now, I was legitimately shocked by how little sense it makes of anything — by how little it tells me about what I’m supposed to do.  But maybe I’m just too old to understand.  Or just old enough to do what comes next.

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