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Losing My Edge

October 23, 2013

There is a common saying that behind every joke there lies some truth. I was thinking about this recently while reading a short passage in Simon Reynolds’ book Retromania about LCD Soundsystem, specifically their 2002 debut song “Losing My Edge”.

Taken at face value, Losing My Edge is about an aging musician (or DJ or record store clerk or even a music critic) who feels that the younger generation is passing him by. At the time of the release of this song, James Murphy was 32 years old. Music is a young man’s game, and 32 could easily be regarded as ancient, especially in the hipster environment in which Murphy plays. That said, even at 43 (his current age), no one is cooler than James Murphy. The founder of DFA Records is a god amongst hipster mortals, as evidenced by the popularity of LCD’s sold-out last-ever show at Madison Square Garden in April 2011. DFA is one of the coolest labels around, and Murphy’s latest endeavor was to work with the hottest band going – Arcade Fire – on their new album. No one would dare suggest that Murphy was losing his edge, not now, and certainly not a decade ago.

Even with a detached listen to its lyrics though, it’s obvious that taking Losing My Edge at face value is a silly proposition. But it isn’t obvious right away. The first two verses sound like the defensive pleas of someone who is genuinely nervous about his place in popular culture:

Yeah, I’m losing my edge.
I’m losing my edge.
The kids are coming up from behind.
I’m losing my edge.
I’m losing my edge to the kids from France and from London.
But I was there.

I was there in 1968.
I was there at the first Can show in Cologne.
I’m losing my edge.
I’m losing my edge to the kids whose footsteps I hear when they get on the decks.
I’m losing my edge to the Internet seekers who can tell me every member of every good group from 1962 to 1978.
I’m losing my edge

Mostly Murphy is just repeating the refrain, “I’m losing my edge.” But he also pointedly mentions the kids, then gets more specific (“the kids from France and from London”) and then more specific still (“the kids whose footsteps I hear when they get on the decks”). These kids sound like the actual hip kids of today – “Internet seekers who can tell me every member of every good group from 1962 to 1978” – and his defense sounds like something that could be true for the fictional musician portrayed in the song, who “was there at the first Can show in Cologne.”

Moving into the third verse you can start to wonder whether Murphy is being genuine or mocking:

I’m losing my edge to the art-school Brooklyn-ites in little jackets and borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered eighties.

That sounds more like a dig at the Brooklyn hipsters (whom Murphy, a Manhattan-ite, knows all too well) than a compliment. I doubt the Brooklyn-ites would appreciate being accused of reveling in “borrowed nostalgia.” Similarly, his defenses start to sound a little far-fetched:

I was there in 1974 at the first Suicide practices in a loft in New York City.
I was working on the organ sounds with much patience.
I was there when Captain Beefheart started up his first band.
I told him, “Don’t do it that way. You’ll never make a dime.”
I was there.

Skipping ahead (we’ll come back to the skipped lyrics in a bit), Murphy drops all pretense, erasing any ambiguity about to how he really feels. He is not losing his edge. He is laughing at the generation that thinks that everything they know is better/smarter/cooler than everything he’s ever known.

I heard you have a compilation of every good song ever done by anybody.
Every great song by the Beach Boys. All the underground hits.
All the Modern Lovers tracks. I heard you have a vinyl of every Niagra record on German import.
I heard that you have a white label of every seminal Detroit techno hit – 1985, ’86, ’87.
I heard that you have a CD compilation of every good ’60s cut and another box set from the ’70s.

He is laughing at their false innovation, their mistaken belief that anything they do is new or interesting:

I hear you’re buying a synthesizer and an arpeggiator and are throwing your computer out the window because you want to make something real. You want to make a Yaz record.

I hear that you and your band have sold your guitars and bought turntables.
I hear that you and your band have sold your turntables and bought guitars.

Finally, Murphy just comes out and says it bluntly with a sarcastic intention that’s impossible to ignore:

I hear everybody that you know is more relevant than everybody that I know.

The song ends with a long list of artists that include many of his influences, punctuating the point that he hasn’t lost his edge at all, that he never could. The bands he cites as influences are admired, revered, and in many cases timeless. Knowing these artists and to make music that evolves from them is to never lose one’s edge. He’s not being defensive anymore – he’s merely pointing out the truth.

Is that all it is though – Murphy mocking everyone who thinks that they are cooler than everyone who came before them, the musicians, critics, DJs, record collectors, record store clerks? It’s that, but there’s more here too. Behind the jokes is a kernel of truth, a small fear that maybe, just maybe, he is actually losing his edge. Remember those lyrics I skipped earlier?

I was the first guy playing Daft Punk to the rock kids.
I played it at CBGB’s.
Everybody thought I was crazy.
We all know.
I was there.
I was there.
I’ve never been wrong.

I used to work in the record store.
I had everything before anyone.

Those lyrics are extremely defensive, and extremely believable. This isn’t a man telling fantastic stories to make a point about how silly it all is. This is a man who wistfully remembers when he was the influential one, playing Daft Punk at CBGB’s for a crowd that knew nothing about that kind of music. There’s nothing admirable in “I he used to work in a record store”– not like advising Captain Beefhart. Here he is just a man nostalgic for the time when he “had everything before anyone.” He was there, but he’s not anymore.

As for the kids coming up behind them, Murphy can mock again and again but when he finally lets his guard down for a moment the truth comes through:

But I’m losing my edge to better-looking people with better ideas and more talent.
And they’re actually really, really nice.

Here Murphy is saying what he really believes. This isn’t like condescendingly being called “art-school Brooklyn-ites in little jackets and borrowed nostalgia.” Nor does it contain the snark of “I heard you have a compilation of every good song ever done by anybody” or “I hear everybody that you know is more relevant than everybody that I know.” If being called “better-looking people with better ideas and more talent” is an insult, Murphy can feel free to insult me all day long. In fact, he is admitting that there is nothing wrong with these people, and that the shots he takes at them are to make himself feel better. “They’re actually really, really nice.”

Murphy was interviewed after the release of LCD Soundsystem’s eponymous debut album in 2005. He was asked about “Losing My Edge” and the answer he gave is very telling in its ambiguity:

When I was DJing, playing Can, Liquid Liquid, ESG, all that kind of stuff, I became kind of cool for a moment, which was a total anomaly. And when I heard other DJs playing similar music I was like: ‘Fuck! I’m out of a job! These are my records!’ But it was like someone had crept into my brain and said all these words that I hate. Did I make the records? Did I fuck! So, I started becoming horrified by my own attitude. I had this moment of glory though. People would use me to DJ just to get them cool. They’d be like ‘It’s the cool rock disco guy’ and this was really weird. And to be honest I was afraid that this new found coolness was going to go away and that’s where ‘Losing My Edge’ comes from. It is about being horrified by my own silliness. And then it became a wider thing about people who grip onto other people’s creations like they are their own. There is a lot of pathos in that character though because it’s born out of inadequacy and love.

When reading that quote can you tell what Murphy was really feeling when he wrote Losing My Edge? Confident? Afraid? Angry? Confused? Self-loathing? Proud? I think the answer is all of it, and perhaps a few other emotions as well.

James Murphy will never lose his edge. He’s the coolest man in music. But even he fears – if only in a passing moment – his age creeping up on him, the youngsters passing him by. Seeing him align with Arcade Fire at age 43, a decade after his fears materialized in his first hit song, gives me confidence that as long as I commit myself to staying ahead of the game, I will never lose my edge either. The march of time may be inevitable, but its effects on the individual are not.

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