Pump Up the Volume Blu-ray Review: An Internet Origin Story


The internet gives a lot of power to a lot of people. If someone wants to shout out a thought, whether benign or incendiary, they can go to all matter of social media accounts to express it to a mass number of people. In a day and age full of situational crises compounding the day-to-day ennui of being alive, the internet can function as a pure democratizing force, an attempt at a groupmind, a sort of mutual aid network of communication and information and raw feeling.

Pump Up the Volume, released in 1990 (just a few years before the internet started to become commercially available in America), is fascinatingly dated in many primary ways. It’s about rebellious youth culture, and its cast of characters dress, speak, and behave in that kind of dated-on-arrival, performatively “edgy” way we now view with satirically nostalgic lenses. Christian Slater is our hero, who runs a pirate radio station (what?), plays vinyl records and cassette tapes (huh?), and chastises his parents for selling out from hippies to yuppies (what to huh?). But the film remains too potent, prescient, and pissed off to write off as a cultural curio. It details what happens when a large group of underheard voices is suddenly encouraged to scream as loud as they can. Pump Up the Volume is an origin story for how we use the internet today.

Slater’s family has recently moved to the suburbs of Paradise Falls, Arizona, which he demographically refers to as “white bread land.” It’s no doubt empowering to watch the younger class of Paradise Falls rise up against the comfortably oppressing older class with the power of their voices, but it’s impossible not to note how typical of a “countercultural white male” our central figure of Slater is. At the beginning of the film, he plays exclusively male recording artists, calls himself Hard Harry (referring to, well, his dang penis), constantly refers to his insatiable horniness, and acts out masturbating to completion on air. I’m no prude; I’m happy to see an expression of intense, sexual humor without shame from his peers. But to see so many folks idolize this explicitly male-driven juvenilia — especially the many young women who seem to love every second of it — feels like an unintentional slide into expressing the power of privilege. Samantha Mathis plays what I’d call about as explicit a “this type of character female fantasy” role as I’ve ever seen, someone so obsessed with Hard Harry’s shenanigans that she must figure out who he is in real life, someone who is written to ask our troubled male protagonist to explain Lenny Bruce to her. Slater does not take this piece of catnip, as in real life, he’s quiet, shy, and can’t talk to girls; a kind of insidious piece of “male incel martyrdom” positing that he’s at his best and freest and malest by himself, and so should we all be. The film argues that we should all be allowed to say whatever we want in a public forum — but it should be kicked off by a single, chosen vulgar white guy whom we all love unquestionably.

Samantha Mathis and Christian Slater in Pump Up the Volume
Image via New Line Cinema

To the film’s credit, Slater is playing a self-aware vulgar white guy. Not necessarily about his whiteness (though he does play a good amount of music from Black artists talking about Black issues and, again, recognizes the entire town as having a white identity), but more about the perils that come with being granted power inherently. Inherently, we human beings are contradictory, complicated, ceaselessly shifting entities. As Hard Harry, Slater screams about sex for one second before cascading into casual nihilism the next before encouraging activistic actions as a conclusion. There’s not an attempt at a filter, a professionally curated “brand.” Hard Harry’s just shouting whatever’s on his mind, with every human crinkle remaining unironed. And his followers give him power, acclaim, and idolization for that lack of finesse.

It’s the same kind of power, enjoyment, whiplash, and backlash we see happen in internet culture just about every day. As Slater watches real life consequences of violence, unrest, yearning for more answers spew seemingly in result of his authentic, unfiltered talking, he retreats, questions himself, becomes scared of his power and his society’s need to hear him. I don’t know about you, but whenever I see a viral tweet expressing a charged opinion, I click on its author-written reply. Nine times out of 10, it’s something like “I am muting replies because everyone’s engagement with this is ruining my life.” People love to be heard, but people hate to need to be heard, but people also have to need to be heard. Slater, who’s slid into everyone’s consciousness with a kind of “proto-provocative Reddit troll” persona, or maybe even a “proto-libertarian-slacktivist Joe Rogan listener” persona, can’t always handle when it turns the corner into being serious, despite his willingness to dive into seriousness with the same level of frankness and cheekiness he applies to more broad targets of derision. The internet can turn everything into an intellectual piece of “content” to be argued with, joked about, spoken with inflammatory language and casual nihilism from the safety of distance. When Slater, or when, say, a group of QAnon weirdos see the real-life consequences of their edgy lulz and freewheeling conspiracies, it can provoke paralysis.

Ultimately, though I think it’s in vogue to say it (and heck, I probably feel it on occasion; I’m contradictory and trying to calcify my contradictions into the internet just like everyone else!), I don’t think the internet is a net negative, and I don’t think we would be better off eliminating it. There are simply too many benefits that come with giving a voice to folks who’ve been voiceless for so long; too many acts of mutual aid, of succinct social analysis I’ve seen occur because of the internet, especially during this dang pandemic. Pump Up the Volume settles on this argument too, quite thrillingly and viscerally. Slater’s transition from edgelord to activist is an inspiring one. He speaks plainly so many truths about power, hierarchy, subjugation. He sums up the feelings of young generational malaise with fire; if they come off hopeless or nihilistic, it’s because the folks in power don’t give them much reason to accept hope (a sentiment that’s sadly getting truer and truer by the minute). He begins to show shades of vulnerability, of self-criticizing, of palpable empathy. At one point, a longtime listener calls in to reveal he’s considering suicide. Slater neither turns off his Hard Harry persona nor amps it up to egg this hurt man on. He listens to him, and responds with a level of frankness, acceptance, and clarity about the inherent suffering that plagues existence. He tells this young man we’re not alone. If you’re feeling some way, someone else is, too. That’s really worth something.

Christian Slater in Pump Up the Volume
Image via New Line Cinema

Ultimately, this young man does commit suicide, an act that makes Slater wonder what the point of communication is at all. He berates himself for not speaking clearer, turning their conversation into content, not simply saying “don’t do it.” But was this other person’s well-being Slater’s responsibility? If so, why? Because he interacted with Slater’s public forum? Because if you have the power to speak, you should have the power to change other people’s words, thoughts, actions? It’s a difficult moral question, one we see only amplified in our Internet age. But in its difficulty, examined so fiercely in Pump Up the Volume, one solution remains steadfast.

Pump Up the Volume ends with the bare, transparent hypocrisies and corruptions of the ruling class. It ends with Slater reminding us that we are the ones who actually rule, who actually hold the power. If we pump up our volume through whatever methods we have, be it pirate radio stations, Internet accounts, or dinner time conversations, they can’t stop us. Speak for yourselves, speak for each other, speak against the powers that be. This act of speaking means you are living, or even just surviving. If enough of us can keep surviving through the struggle, using the readily available power of other people’s expression of this struggle, that’s enough.

Pump Up the Volume comes to Blu-ray February 23.

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