Drunk Drivers? Killer Whales? Car Seat Headrest at Franklin Music Hall

14 mins read
Car Seat Headrest, pictured touring 2020's "Making A Door Less Open"

Some February day in 2016, my sophomore year of high school, I sat in an empty room waiting for class to start. I don’t remember what I was feeling as I watched my teacher shuffle in to set up the lesson, I only know I thought those feelings now lost to time were the fulcrum of the universe. I wasn’t close with my teacher, Rav Ayal, so I didn’t say anything as I watched him connect his laptop to the fancy new SMART Board that none of the other teachers knew how to use. He wasn’t quite like the other Rabbis at school — he possessed a frail figure, a hipsterish wardrobe, and knowledge of what an HDMI cord is. He was just two years older than I am now. 

In an attempt to make conversation Ayal turned to me and said he had just seen an NPR Tiny Desk concert by a band he had previously never heard of called Car Seat Headrest. Before I could even issue the ceremonial shrug and grunt that his comment elicited he pulled the video up on the big screen. With the fluorescent lights turned off, the room dimly illuminated only by the gray skies out the window, I watched in rapt attention as Will Toledo performed an acoustic version of “The Drum”

Just a few seconds in, the first of uncountably many shrill vocal cracks rang out of Toledo’s throat and into my eardrums. This was not an artifact of the janky speakers in the room — his voice genuinely sounded like that. It was raw, unabashedly harsh.

I had always thought of music through the lens of a container-object metaphor: the artist has some sort of interior experience they wish to convey, so they put it to music. They create a musical form for the semantic content of their experience, a form they can bundle up and ship off for the listener to unpack. Toledo didn’t contend with that chasm though, he didn’t package the experience in musical form. There was a precise identity relation between the music he was playing and his experiences — he just did the literal experience on the guitar itself. 

I spent that evening in the back of a school bus coming back from an unfruitful debate tournament at Yeshiva of Flatbush. As the bus lurched through Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel traffic I listened to “Twin Fantasy” for the first time. Somehow it felt right to listen to it in this setting. It just felt like late-night-school-bus kind of music. I was most taken by Toledo’s stubborn insistence on singing literally, his aversion to aggrandizing. He was somehow both haughty and wretched at the same time, an underground man to rival Dostoevsky’s. I could feel Toledo stooping down to my level, it was almost embarrassing. With it all he was still self aware, self referential. The music itself was fair game for exploration.

Though Toledo’s music certainly grabbed me, it by no means became a fixture of my life. But in every acute moment of stupid self indulgent angst, I have always found myself gravitating back to Car Seat Headrest with unnerving ferocity. The obvious triviality of Toledo saying “I want to close my head in the car door” is just irresistible. It’s this ridiculous thought that everyone has, and he literally says it word for word. Rather than describing the feeling that leads one to cognize such a thought, he cuts to the chase and actually says the thought itself. He immediately follows up with “I want to sing this song like I’m dying”, a gotcha moment of an even higher order — you really do, in this very moment! You do want to sing this song like you’re dying. You know it, and Toledo knows it too. It’s more than just a relatable “I feel so seen” moment — it’s an actual description of the listener’s train of thought in real time. It’s a déjà vu that becomes extended over time, a moment that Toledo stretches as far as it can go. And he goes into such specifics! He doesn’t actually have to enumerate all the way through “Where can I go? (Go to the store) / Where can I go? (Apply for jobs) / Where can I go? (Go to a friend’s) / Where can I go? (Go to bed)”. But he still does it. It is so universal, but so basic to the point that nobody talks about it. But Toledo does, and it’s harrowing.

Just a few days after arriving on campus for freshman orientation I made plans with a then-new friend to see Car Seat Headrest in Philadelphia. The concept of freshman year of college reeks of Will Toledo. It’s a period of upheaval and uncertainty in one’s life that is intensely personal, yet also somehow universal and cliche. A week prior I realized the show would be the same night as the start of Yom Kippur. I gave my ticket to another friend and saw the two off in Sharples as I ate my last meal before the fast. A few semesters later at the other end of the tunnel I bought tickets with friends for the show on April 1st.

Upon our arrival at Franklin Music Hall an hour before the show’s start time we were greeted by a formidable line constricting around the block. It was populated by figures standing in formation, crowned in unkempt hair and clad in uniforms of corduroy pants, Doc Martens, and red plaid sleeves rolled up to the elbow. I was instantly struck by the horrifying realization that everyone there looked exactly like me, or at least like how I imagine people perceive me. It was one of those rare moments that challenged the solipsistic default, a realization that me and my group of friends were just one of hundreds of other groups of friends that in all likelihood hail from similar demographic backgrounds, revel in similar small joys, and suffer from similar small ailments. I found myself plainly in the uncanny valley, similar just enough to raise alarm but different just enough to cause discomfort. 

I guess I expected to feel some sense of community, a closeness with the hordes of people my age who have all similarly found this music to be resonant. My encounters with Car Seat Headrest were always individual. I would never let Will Toledo’s voice ring from a speaker. It would defeat the purpose. But here was a chance to experience this music externally for the first time, to be subsumed into the collective without feeling shame or embarrassment.

As the green laser lights lit up the stage and Toledo began to slowly pick the strings of his reverberating Stratocaster, I found myself feeling more out of touch than ever before. Smooth electronic waves crashed into the audience, a far cry from the intimate acoustic setting in which I first encountered these songs. 

He shouted “You have no right to be depressed / You haven’t tried hard enough to like it” in his characteristically scratchy voice to a crowd of enthusiastic moshers. The incongruity between these circumstances and those I associate with the song made me cringe. I closed my eyes and visualized the vast heartland fields I saw out my airplane window some time ago as for no apparent reason I felt despondent at 30,000 feet and listened to those very same words. 

Toledo’s signature diminutive chin was obscured by a tightly-strapped gas mask embedded with flashing LEDs. The sides of his face were adorned with stuffed fabric dog ears. A skeletal man in a pink gas mask appeared to my left. Someone in an outrageously cumbersome fursuit pushed through the crowd to my right. I was catching up — there was a “fanbase” it seemed, a community with rituals and behaviors completely foreign to me. And yet these furry gen-z TikTokers I was surrounded by have all been drawn to these songs for just the same reasons that I have been. What did that say about me? Am I them? How far down does the identity relation go? Or am I a fraud? Do I not really understand what Car Seat Headrest is about?

I had a terrible time at the show. It all felt like a prepackaged experience, marketed to appeal to this demographic that I found myself a part of. There was a whole industry to these feelings, an industry that exists to serve the burgeoning market I was surrounded by. But am I so egotistical that I can’t stomach other people having interiority, having feelings, having a connection with this music? Am I just so utterly selfish and conceited that I thought Will Toledo was singing just to me this entire time?

Desperate to claw my way out of this thought spiral I willed myself to focus on the music itself, the naive experiential qualia that I was perceiving. It wasn’t pleasant to listen to, my ear drums did not like it. It was harsh, dissonant. I imagined this is what Holden Caulfield would feel like at such a show. But at least Caulfield was certain that the others were the phonies. Someone must be the phony, I knew that much, but I couldn’t figure out if it was me, or my friends, or the audience members, or Will Toledo.

Now a week since the show, having spent the day listening to Car Seat Headrest’s discography while writing this article, I think I remember why I will always come back to these albums. It is this very conflict with the crowd, with the music, with one’s place in it, that Toledo explores and exploits. He is without horizontal limits: he doesn’t shy away from the taboo, the banal, the unsingable. But he is also without vertical limits: he’ll sing about some banal experience of existential dread, then he traverses up to sing about the experience of singing that very song, then he shits on that movement too. He creates this constantly destabilizing infinite regress of fourth-wall-breaking that is just impossibly captivating. The enjoyment of the show was not in the phenomenological auditory experience itself, but in the experience of being part of this schema that Toledo exactly describes in stark literal terms throughout his discography. Or maybe I’m just so selfish and stuck up that I desperately cling to that. I want this article to read like a Car Seat Headrest song. And I want to sing it like I’m dying.

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