No Other Possibility was Negativland’s first video, released in 1989, the same year as “Helter Stupid,” pitched right between their “Christianity Is Stupid” hoax of a couple years earlier and “U2” a couple years later.
I hadn’t seen this in quite a while—I had honestly forgotten how tremendously enjoyable Negativland is. Their stuff is way more entertaining than any anti-establishment culture-jammin’ nutcases have any right to be. (I guess if you invent the term “culture jamming,” you have a license to transcend the genre.) This video is very good, and I had also not realized the high level of musicianship on display here—certainly “Nesbitt’s Lime Soda” and “Fire Song” and “Very Stupid” (I’m not sure that last one has an official title, the Internet seems to call it “Theme From ‘a Big 10-8 Place,’” which is dumb) are all top-notch.
Negativland are pitched almost exactly between DEVO and Tim & Eric—with less instinct for schtick than either (this is a brave and good thing). And yet there is a kind of schtick to it, too. In the opening crawl, supposedly penned by “Crosley Bendix, Director, Stylistic Premonitions” (later played by Don Joyce), you can hear that excessively modest and self-annihilating tone, familiar from David Letterman in his NBC days and also certain misanthropic comix guys like Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes. I think the idea is that you have to be as hard on yourself as you are on your target; you have to torch the self because you can begin to reconstruct (and also criticize/satirize others).
The video is purest 1980s slacker fodder in that the biggest sin is to be unaware, to be incapable of irony. If only the suburbans/corporates/normals could be more ironic! You see much the same idea in, say, Reality Bites, but it’s not really a good tack—the slackers (hey, I’m one too) couldn’t figure out any other point of attack. Negativland’s methods haven’t dated much at all IMO, but that part, the pro-irony ethos, does feel a bit dated here.
In addition to being an essay about the vapidity of American culture, No Other Possibility also serves as a kind of diary for the Negativland guys themselves. About halfway through we get a video report about a fire that destroyed their apartment/studio in El Cerrito, California on Friday, February 13, 1987. The very end of the video is taken up with a terribly earnest report about Negativland’s involvement in the David Brom murders of 1988, based on connections that were entirely made up by Negativland.
At some point “Crosley Bendix” (Don Joyce) has a little speech about numerology, at the end of which he cries, “Thanks a million! You’ve been a wonderful audience. Bye, Cleveland!” Which is only noteworthy because I was in fact watching it in Cleveland.