The Bargain Bin

The Bargain Bin: The New Pornographers’ MASS ROMANTIC


Working at a record store taught me a tragic truth; no matter how much you love your favorite albums, they’ll never be as popular as they deserve to be. Each month at Merry-Go-Round Magazine, I dust off some long-overlooked records, revisit my pretentious past, and explore how this music forever etched itself into my history. Eventually, all your memories get marked down and thrown into The Bargain Bin.

“Mal has a father-daughter dance with her Girl Scout troop, and you’ll never guess who she wants to go with,” my mother said over the phone.

Knowing my youngest sister, I was sure she chose our grandfather over her dad. Gramps was the light of Malorie’s life. After working for over two decades as a lawyer for a company synonymous with beer, they offered Gramps an early retirement buyout he couldn’t pass up. He started spending his days helping to care for baby Mal as soon as Mom returned to work after maternity leave. They spent every minute of every weekday together watching TELETUBBIES and eating mini pancakes soaked in sweet maple syrup. She could make him smile like nobody else could. They forged an unbreakable bond…

Except for this one instance when she unexpectedly asked Mom if I would take her to the Father-Daughter Dance. I accepted the invitation to accompany my favorite second grader without hesitation.

After we started dating, Blu and I would talk on the phone until the wee hours of the morning, much to the chagrin of her father. Calling it “talk” is generous; she would fall asleep after an hour, and I would switch back and forth between syndicated dating shows and LATE NIGHT WITH CONAN O’BRIEN. I couldn’t stand the interviews because movie stars talking out of character always made me cringe, so after the monologue, I’d flip back to the comedy sketches and sometimes catch the musical guests. I’d wake up with a stiff neck from craning my head to hold the phone in the off chance she might wake up before the battery died.

When she was conscious, I often heard the sounds of her recent CD purchases playing in the background. Blu frequented Slackers, a small local retail chain that carried music and movies but mostly video games. I used to scoff at calling it a record store, even if their merchandise was the exact intersection of interests in my pop culture Venn Diagram. My rationale was that a “real” record store wouldn’t need to carry video games. Instead of appreciating having a store other than Best Buy to buy CDs from in the county, I was an asshole and bitched about it to anyone who would listen. Such is life as a pretentious high school senior with extremely low self-esteem and zero self-confidence.

Though there are 12 years between us, Malorie and I were cut from similar cloth, cursed to walk around with an obscene amount of anxiety throughout childhood. I’ve never been great at meeting new people, too often worrying about how a stranger might perceive me if I shared who I was on the inside. I was overprotective of Mal because I could see myself in her actions, or lack thereof. I’d see her become silent or freeze around new people, often hiding behind our mother for safety from the endless possibilities of things going wrong. I saw myself standing there at her age, a bright, caring, and silly kid who hid all those great qualities behind our mom at the first sign of danger. In my eyes, she was our golden child, the one who could do no wrong and who would go on to do great things.

Across the phone lines that connected my room to Blu, I heard jangly guitars and cute little synth bits pogoing in the background. It sounded weirdly familiar, even though I was sure I’d never heard anything quite like it.

Open in Spotify

She regaled me with tales of her latest shift with her degenerate— her words, not mine—coworkers at Jack In The Box, which always left her smelling like she’d taken a dip in the frier for several hours. I replied with spaced-out reactions, “Ohs” and “Mmhms” and nods she couldn’t see to note that I was paying full attention even though all I could hear were the sounds of carefully layered harmonies; the first taste of Neko Case and AC Newman singing together ever to hit my ears came in fuzzy and faintly. This beat turns on, indeed.

Mal and I walked through the threshold of the gym decorated with an archway covered in paper streamers, above it a sign welcoming the fathers and their daughters. We signed ourselves in, ensuring she would get credit with her troop for showing up, and walked over to the snack table to sample the spread of store-bought goodies the troop leaders cobbled together. Girls were out dancing with their fathers to generic radio country, running through the gym together in groups forged on the playground, or crowded around hastily decorated tables slamming free cupcakes.

I instantly felt out of place, lost on what to do, worried about the slight chance I might have to interact with some kid’s dad and explain who I was when I wanted to disappear. I felt the panic rush over me but quickly flashed a toothy grin at Mal so she wouldn’t notice. I found it easy to push past those feelings when I needed to help out someone I loved. I took a deep breath, put on the metaphorical mask I wore when I had to appear “normal,” and played the cool older brother so my dear sister could silently worry in peace.

I asked Blu what she was listening to and could somehow hear her eyes roll into the back of her head in disgust that I didn’t already know. “The New Pornographers,” she said before telling me she’d purchased their first two albums on CD but had to sneak them into the house. While the music itself was fun, guitar-driven power pop and contained zero pornographic content beyond the somewhat suggestive cover of their debut MASS ROMANTIC, she never knew how her father might react to seeing those words, turning it into a reason to take away her CD Walkman or take the door off of her room as punishment for something so trivial.

She said she had read online that the band got their name from a looney televangelist who called rock and roll “the new pornography,” though she couldn’t find evidence of anyone in the band attributing it to that. Regardless of its origin, I thought it was a great name; it kicks you in the teeth before you get a total dose of poppy indie goodness. Those catchy hooks quickly dug deep within my soul, giving me future nostalgia. It was so damn great I felt compelled to share it with anyone I didn’t mind saying pornographer to.

Open in Spotify

I asked Mal where she wanted to sit, and she shrugged. I saw the stress on her face, keeping her from enjoying what should have been a fun night, and it broke my heart. I felt the anxiety with her but couldn’t lose my composure. I needed to be the one she could safely hide behind this time.

“Do you know any of these girls?” I asked. “Is there anyone you want to hang out with or talk to? You don’t have to be stuck sitting here with me.”

Mal shook her head, kicking her feet back and forth, never looking up from her shoes.

“What do you say we get out of here and go for ice cream?”

“But Mom said we have to stay until at least eight o’clock,” Mal said, furrowing her brow to form her little worried look. “She’ll be mad if we leave early.”

“Don’t you fret; Mom won’t get mad,” I assured her. “Besides, we signed in, so we don’t have to tell her. Come on, let’s ditch these losers.”

She beamed at me with a smile I hadn’t seen since picking her up. Holding hands, we walked back to the car through the parking lot. There isn’t a problem in the world that a trip to a small-town Dairy Queen can’t solve.

We sat in a corner booth, goofing off, eating sundaes, and feeling more like ourselves. On the way back to Mom’s, I belted out the words in falsetto to “A Letter From An Occupant” and “The Body Says No” as we traversed the country roads of Monroe County, Illinois, passing fields and farmhouses and possibly some cows in the dark.

“Jackie,” Mal said from the backseat, “You sing so good! You could win American Idol!”

“Oh, well,” I replied sheepishly as my heart swelled. “I don’t know about that, but I’m glad you think so.”

“No, you would win, and everyone would love you… except for Simon! He doesn’t like anybody!”

Jack Probst
Jack is a freelance pop culture writer living in St. Louis, Missouri. His writing has also been featured in Pitchfork, Paste Magazine, CREEM Magazine, NME, and The Riverfront Times. He appreciates the works of James Murphy, Wes Anderson, and Super Mario. He also enjoys writing paragraphs about himself in his spare time.

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