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[I wrote this years ago, mostly just to try and understand some stuff that was bouncing around in my head. Moving it over from the Myspace page, so it's here with other stuff I've written. The piece was never formally published. It's just been bouncing around the web. But the people who've read it, seem to like it. For example, in his book, Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, Carl Wilson called it "a 1996 lost classic of rock criticism. . . " David Cantwell, author of Merle Haggard: The Running Kind, this great on Sam Cook's "A Change is Gonna Come", and co-author of Heartaches by the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles called it "one of the best, smartest, most insightful music pieces I've ever read. Period. " Have look. Maybe you'll enjoy it too. ] By Jacob London, copyright, 1996. All rights reserved. No commercial use without author's express written permission A while back, my local "alternative" radio station began playing a cover version of the Bay City Rollers' "Saturday Night" by the U. K. band Ned's Atomic Dustbin. The first time I heard it, I didn't think about changing the station, even though the Rollers were one of the most critically unhip bands of the 1970s. Instead, I sat back and listened, slightly amused, but mostly taking the whole experience for granted. Such is the state of things now that the practice of "alternative" bands covering "bad" songs from the 1970s has become so commonplace. If it isn't Ned's Atomic Dustbin, it's Seaweed or Smashing Pumpkins doing some Fleetwood Mac song like "Go Your Own Way" or "Landslide. " Few question the full-on embrace of 1970s popular culture anymore. It's even got it's own "American Graffiti" film in Richard Linklater's "Dazed and Confused. " Linklater's take on the past is a little more self-conscious and cynical than George Lucas's vision of the early 1960s in "American Graffiti. " But Linklater's remembrance of teen life in 1976 remains a warm one, especially in its unselfconsciously reverent use of the period's music. It pushes all the same buttons as Lucas's film, although neither Linklater nor his audience would ever completely admit it. For even as the residue of 1970s has reasserted itself in the American cultural life of the 1990s, a lingering tinge of reticence remains, as people continue to adjust to the idea that openly embracing the mainstream culture of the 1970s no longer entails being instantly labeled a loser or a philistine. Back in the early 1980s, when I was starting college in Ann Arbor, Michigan, things were a lot different. There was plenty of risk involved in embracing the mainstream music of the 1970s, at least among the community of rock and roll hipsters I hung out with. A friend later summarized the stakes very well in a different context: "There's a lot on the line when you tell other people what kind of music you like; people know they'll be judged based on what they say. If they give the right answer they'll be accepted. If they don't, people may look down on them. " This was true in Ann Arbor during that time--as it has been everywhere I've lived since. The rules determining inside and outside were generally unwritten, but they weren't hard to figure out. Punk rock was cool. Some New Wave was cool. David Bowie, he was pretty cool (his glam rock was sort of New Wave and Punk before they were invented). Dylan, the Beatles, the Byrds, the Stones, the Who, Motown, and the other classics of 1960s rock, that was cool too, as long as you weren't too much of a hippie about it. But the mainstream music of the 1970s was not cool. Disco sucked, including George Clinton and his P-Funk allies. Foreigner was not cool. Lynyrd Skynyrd was not cool. Neither were Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Peter Frampton, Foghat, Bad Company, Thin Lizzy, or Alice Cooper. Black Oak Arkansas was not cool. Neither were Head East, R. E. O. Speedwagon, the Michael Stanley Band, the Eagles, Kansas, Styx, nor any of the other music Richard Linklater put in his movie. In this environment, it is no surprise that my good friend Larry felt compelled to show his allegiance to the clan of the rock and roll hipster by throwing his copy of Led Zeppelin IV against the wall of the University of Illinois dorm room where he was staying during the summer of 1983. I seem to remember trying half-heartedly to convince him not to do it as he raised the record to hurl it. "You sure you want to do that man, " I said. "A record is a record. You might regret it later. " "No way man, I'm gonna throw it, " he said, cocking it behind his ear. "I'm ashamed I own this; it sucks. If I hear 'Stairway to Heaven' one more time I'm gonna lose my shit. It sucks. 'Black Dog' sucks too. It all sucks. " And with that, he whipped the thing at the wall and it shattered into numerous pieces around the room (he told me recently he bought it again on CD a few years ago). We put something like "Armed Forces" by Elvis Costello on the turntable, opened up some cans of Stroh's beer, and cracked up for a while, completely confident that justice had been done. Then in the fall of 1984 something happened in Ann Arbor that turned the well ordered world of our little sub-culture upside-down. The Replacements came to town and played "Black Diamond" by Kiss. Undoubtedly, it was not the first such incident nationwide. Nor were the Replacements necessarily the only band at that time playing covers like "Black Diamond. " Nonetheless, in hindsight, Paul Westerberg and his cohorts were perhaps the most important purveyors of this practice. Among the rock and roll hipeoise, the band's influence was comparable to that of the Velvet Underground, who sold very few records during its tenure, but as many have jokingly observed, seems to have influenced every person who bought one of those albums to go out and start up a band of his or her own. In the case of the Replacements, a similar phenomenon occurred across the country in 1984-85: Almost every person in a band who saw the Replacements cover songs like "Black Diamond" went back to practice with their own band determined to find their own "Black Diamond" to cover. For my part, I'm just glad I made it to the show. I came really close to staying home. I had seen the band once before in the summer of 1983, about three weeks after Larry hurled Led Zeppelin IV at the wall. They had opened for REM, my reigning favorites at the time, and I had not really enjoyed their set very much. In the band's defense, the sound was bad for their set that night. But the truth is, I didn't get what they were doing. I was simply unprepared to assimilate the broad range of styles they brought to their music. Was it punk? Was it straight hard rock? It certainly had guitar solos. Was it country Whatever it was, I figured it out in Joe's Star Lounge that fall night in 1984. Or maybe the band had figured it out a little better by then too. It was certainly a more cohesive unit that came into Ann Arbor that night. By this time, the band's two LPs and one EP had been well received critically and they had just begun to tour on their as yet unreleased third LP, "Let It Be. " A buzz was building. The band opened its set with "Color Me Impressed" from the "Hootenanny" LP. About twenty seconds into the song, my body began to tingle, as it occasionally does when I hear something really special for the the first time. Maybe I'd heard the song before at the 1983 show, but as the two guitars interacted, simultaneously supporting and playing off of each other, it finally registered. The tingling feeling in my body continued for quite a while, because it seemed that every original song the band played was great, a part of this wonderful all-you-can-eat buffet for the rock and roll hipster, loud and fast like punk rock, but with a melodic pop sensibility, great guitar solos, well crafted lyrics, and wonderful stylistic nods to country music and rockabilly. Everything about it followed our unwritten rules of rock music hipsterdom to a "T. " Indeed, for many of us in the crowd, these guys had instantly become the coolest band in the land of the hipoeise. Then boom!! The Kiss cover. Immediately, I felt confused and self-conscious about how to respond. Everything in my rigidly disciplined rock music snob brain said that a Kiss cover was wrong. This was Kiss. A joke band. A pimple on the ass of good rock and roll, at least as good rock and roll was defined by my peers and the pop cultural elite to whom I owed my very sense of good and bad. But everything in my emotional experience and that of the rest of the audience simultaneously said the opposite. We all seemed to be loving it. Although as I looked around the room, I saw looks of guilt or confusion on more than one face--no doubt owing to the knowledge that however good the whole thing felt, one's rigidly codified sense of cool and uncool was rapidly being turned inside out. This cognitive dissonance was too problematic to endure for very long. So almost instantaneously we came upon a strategy for resolving our aesthetic quandary: We could overcome our weird feelings and enjoy this moment to the fullest extent, as long as we made fun of it at the same time. So we shrugged off our confusion, reclaimed a little bit of our white suburban past, and basked in the heretofore forgotten pleasures of "Black Diamond, " shaking our fists and really getting into the spirit of Kiss and hard rock cartoonishness in general. But on another level we were all knowing participants in a gag. We all looked at each other with this expression that said "I can't quite believe I'm doing this, but it sure feels good. And by the way, isn't this really a funny joke?" Thus, when the moment was over, we had no problem minimizing the significance of the whole experience, self-consciously laughing it off as some sort of weird anomaly. But reflecting upon the "Black Diamond" experience over a decade later, it is clear that those of us in attendance dismissed its cultural significance far too uncritically. In hindsight, the "Black Diamond" experience is particularly emblematic of the cultural relationship between my demographic cohort group-- what I call the tailbust generation, the end of the baby boom and the beginning of Generation X--and the core baby boomers who have preceded us. Born between 1958 and 1970, we are a transitionary group, who came of age in the blurry and uneven terrain that separated the previously hegemonic baby boom culture from the now emergent post-boomer culture. Those of us in the tail group, my closest cohorts, now in our late twenties or early thirties, were old enough to experience many of the pivotal baby boomer events first hand through the eyes of a four to nine year old child. But despite this first hand knowledge, most of us at the tail end of the baby boom share a lot more with the members of Generation X (e. g. , an encyclopedic knowledge of Brady Bunch, Partridge Family, and Gilligan's Island episodes). For in the final analysis, our popular culture framework has been almost entirely shaped by the core baby boomers of 1946-1953. They are the ones who were out in the streets in the 1960s, they were the ones at Woodstock, and theirs is the large and loud voice that has so dominated the popular culture in which we latecomers came of age. Nowhere has the core baby boomer voice been more powerful than in establishing and shaping a rock and roll canon. To the extent that rock had a moment in which distinctions between "highbrow" rock and "lowbrow" rock had validity and were seriously debated, the parameters of this moment were set out by the rock critics who are members of the core baby boom generation (e. g. , Christgau, Marcus, Marsh, Landau, Loder, Bangs, DeCurtis, etc. ). In fact, viagra generic it is the ongoing existence and institutionalization of this rock critic cultural elite in publications such as Rolling Stone Magazine that has made the notion of a rock and roll canon a viable one (Rolling Stone glories in its role as a sacrilizing force, releasing issues dedicated to subjects like the 100 best rock records of all time). The core boomer critics are the people who did the initial periodizing of rock and roll history. And in doing so, they effectively structured, and in many respects, continue to control the discourse surrounding popular music. The core boomer rock music canon and the core boomer periodization of its history are very neatly represented and summarized in the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll. It begins with the canonized antecedents of rock and roll: blues from the delta, the urban blues, and country music (including western swing). After that it establishes the rock pioneers: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bill Haley, Elvis and the lesser Rockabillies. Next it moves into the core of the canon: the Beatles, Dylan, the Stones, the Who, Hendrix, Joplin, the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, the Byrds, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the whole of the Motown sound, and the Stax/Volt tradition. Following this material, there is some movement into the 1970s and 1980s by the authors. For example, Dave Marsh discusses Bruce Springsteen, there is a piece on Neil Young's solo career, and punk and new wave get small mentions. But for the most part these discussions continue themes whose roots are in the '60s. For it is in the '60s, we learn at least implicitly from this book, that the sacred texts were fully developed and most fully realized. And it was in the '70s that rock music got out of hand and began to be crushed under the excess of its own pretension. Whether it was art rock or the slick studio music of California, on balance the whole affair was nothing if not bloated and flatulent. Elvis, it seems, embraced Vegas and its kitsch, and in the eyes of the canon keepers, so did much of '70s popular music. Thus when punk came along to save the day, it did so through its reaffirmation of the basic values of rock and roll articulated first in the fifties by the rock pioneers and then more comprehensively by such "highbrow" rock artists as the Beatles and the Stones. Punk was a cleansing moment. It washed away all of the excess that had obscured the true essence of rock and roll. But it was devoid of any value unto itself. It's almost as if the canon keepers had said that the 1970s (meaning roughly 1972-1977) were a big aesthetic mistake from which nothing of value could be learned. But while the rhetorical force of this story of rock and roll is seemingly undeniable, it presents one serious problem for the tailbust generation: By pillorying the pop culture of the 1970s, it leaves little room for those of us whose formative cultural experiences occurred during this period. As a result, the self-conscious, internal conflict, exemplified by the "Black Diamond" experience, is ever present in the tailbuster psyche whenever aesthetic judgments are required. On the one hand, we know we liked bands like Kiss, at least until we learned we weren't supposed to. We know that liking bands like Kiss is a part of who we are; we have the positive associations and memories to prove it. We feel that the music of bands like Kiss has cultural value and that we should not be ashamed that we like it. We also know, at some level, that we must reject the story of rock according to the core boomers, because until we do, we cannot claim the part of our experience that makes us distinct from them. But on the other hand, we can't escape the core boomer narrative viagra generic, because it has shaped us. It is always lurking in the background, an indelible benchmark of perception against which all of our aesthetic evaluations must be measured. And we are realists. We've known almost intuitively since we were conscious that directly asserting our autonomy from the core boomer narrative is not really an option. The core boomers have us outnumbered, they're far more righteous than we could ever be, and they'll do whatever it takes to insure that their story is the one that everyone hears and remembers. Consequently, we've developed a more covert, guerilla war approach to cultural assertion. In the arena of rock and roll, the most important tool of subversion is a sneaky strategy that has been called "preemptive irony. " Preemptive irony is a process of mocking one's self or one's art before anyone else gets a chance to do it. This is accomplished by acknowledging explicitly in advance a self-consciousness of the pre-existing critical categories in which a given work might be placed. It's calling one's own song a "silly, neo-psychedelic ditty" before the critic has a chance to do it. It's a way of saying "I already know what you're going to say, because I know what box I'm working in, and besides, what I'm doing is kind of silly anyway, so how can you criticize it seriously when I don't take it seriously myself? You'll look silly. " Which is the whole goal of preemptive irony to begin with: to disarm the critic by calling the novelty of his or her enterprise into question before the critic has a chance to call the artist's enterprise into question. The Replacements' practice of performing covers like "Black Diamond" is a text book example of the subversive power of preemptive irony and the terms and conditions of its legitimate deployment. Just any performance wouldn't do. It was better if the underlying intent of the performer remained ambiguous. The Replacements seemed to understand this intuitively. Thus while the guys seemed to enjoy playing "Black Diamond, " it was hard to gauge their sincerity. Was it an act of reverence from the heart? Or was it just a bit of satirical play acting? Would the band stop playing at any moment and start humiliating those members of the crowd who seemed to be enjoying themselves a little bit too unselfconsciously? Did the band think songs like "Black Diamond" sucked and deserved ridicule? Or did the band like them, no matter what everyone else said? It was never completely clear. And this was probably the way the band wanted it, because it always provided its members and the audience with a means of escape. If someone tried to make fun of the band for performing a cover like "Black Diamond, " the members could always just say it was a joke, the same way those of us in the audience did at Joe's Star Lounge that night in 1984. But the covers were definitely more than just a joke. Whether consciously or unconsciously, there was a full-on revisionist attack on the core boomer rock and roll canon lurking inside that fog of ambiguity. At the time of the "Black Diamond" incident, the Replacements were already a respected band in the "Indy" Scene. A respected band has cultural power, whether the band itself realizes it or not. The audience looks to the band for clues as to what constitute the unwritten rules and boundaries of a given culture or sub-culture. So by including songs in their set like "Black Diamond" and "Hitchin a Ride, " along with its own excellent original material and other covers by critically hip English punk bands like Sham 69 ("Borstal Breakout") and obscure American New Wave bands like the Vertabrats from Champaign, IL ("Left in the Dark"), the band encouraged those of us in the audience to see all of these songs as an interconnected unit. It was as if the band was saying, "The value of our original songs is indistinguishable from the value of these other songs we're playing. Maybe they all suck, but if you like 'Color me Impressed, ' why shouldn't you also like 'Hitchin a Ride?' Fuck those old guys. Lets make our own canon. " And in its own half joking, uncertain, insecure way, this allowed, and maybe even encouraged us to entertain the notion that the pop music of our childhood, our guilty pleasure, the music we heard on the radio in between heavy doses of the Big Chill soundtrack, wasn't pure fluff, but music which merited inclusion in our own personal canons, even if it did not comport with the established codes of hipness. It was a subtle approach, self-effacing where the core boomers were self-righteous. Viagra generic but it was nevertheless one of the means by which the "indy rock" subculture established a cultural space, at least partially autonomous of the hegemonic boomer culture. And it was here, at least in part, that the work of establishing a post-boomer culture could be undertaken. *** Even more than the rest of the audience, the musicians who witnessed incidents like the one at Joe's Star Lounge were profoundly affected by them. Not only did these incidents encourage them to rethink the boomer canon, they pointed to a means by which musicians could participate in the revision process, while simultaneously marking themselves as fellow traveling cohorts of bands like the Replacements. This is undoubtedly why so many bands began covering critically unappreciated songs of the 1970s in the years that followed. For after "Black Diamond, " the practice of covering such songs took on a new rhetorical significance. When bands like Soul Asylum and Camper Van Beethoven covered Foreigner's "Juke Box Hero, "or Ringo Starr's "Photograph, " they reiterated--at least implicitly--the same questions the Replacements had asked. At the same time, they also asserted their common membership in the "indy rock" scene. And over the years, the practice of playing ironic covers has become such an institutionalized way for a band to assert its "alternativeness" that a self-consciously applied ironic cover aesthetic has developed amongst musicians in the scene to separate the wheat from the chafe. The specific contours of this ironic cover aesthetic are difficult to articulate. Nevertheless, while the whole thing might have begun as a drunken happy accident up in Minneapolis, the cover aesthetic has developed a high level of sophistication over the last decade. Just about every "underground" musician I know has a profound intuitive awareness of its boundaries. I admit that this is probably not empirically verifiable. But I have had enough conversations with enough different musicians in enough different places across the United States to be confident that such an aesthetic sensibility does exist as a fairly unified entity nationwide. Generally, discussions of the ironic cover aesthetic boil down to a single binary opposition that Beavis and Butthead would certainly be comfortable with: "cool" vs. "lame. " In a band setting, the discussion might go like this:

Band Member 1: Lets cover "Whiskey Rock n' Roller" by Lynyrd Skynyrd. That would be really cool. Band Member 2: No way, that would be lame. Everybody always does Skynyrd covers. That whole southern rock "Freebird" thing is played out. It wouldn't be funny. People would think we really like that stuff. Band Member 1: But I do like that stuff. "Whiskey Rock n' Roller" is a great song and I've always liked it. It rocks. I think people would really dig it. Band Member 2: Maybe, but I don't think we can pull it off. It's too close to what we do already. We're not the Butthole Surfers, you know. They could cover any song and it would probably be cool. It just doesn't feel right to me. We need something more obscure like "Hot Child in the City" by Nick Gilder. "Whiskey Rock n' Roller" is too obvious. People will think it's lame.
As the above example illustrates, not all "bad" songs of the 1970s are created equal. Nor are all "underground" bands created equal. For most bands, the risks are high. The wrong cover choice will be perceived by the audience as lame, reinforcing the impression that the band is lame. But certain bands (e. g. , Sonic Youth) could probably cover any song, no matter how lame or obvious it seems on the surface, and through pure will or attitude transform it into something that is accepted as really cool (see e. g. , the Butthole Surfers' almost mimetic re-reading of Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man"). Nevertheless, the goal remains the same for all bands: You want to be on the "inside" of the joke not the "outside, " because a successful cover legitimates your claim to membership in the "alternative rock" subculture. In the decade since the "Black Diamond" incident, the gradual embrace of the ironic cover aesthetic by musicians and fans in the "indy" scene has reconfigured the cultural power relations of rock and roll discourse. Increasingly, a new set of post-boomer cultural standards and sensibilities have emerged, and the keepers of the core boomer canon have either had to respond to them or ignore them at their peril. While it is not that difficult to learn the parameters of coolness implicit within the cover aesthetic and its cognates, leaping into this fray is not for the faint at heart. The poor boomer critic who foolishly believes that she can confront the post-boomer culture with her pre-ironic analytical framework is ripe for ridicule and embarrassment. For the practice of preemptive irony transmutes established critical categories: up is down, bad is good, stupid is smart. Consequently, the critic is all but required to retool her critical categories to successfully evaluate the ironic cover and its relations, because failure would mean having to admit that one's criticism is no longer culturally relevant. Then the critic would be forced to abdicate her most powerful role, that of the taste maker who discovers the newest and most cutting edge music. Because like all practitioners within the popular culture apparatus, critics risk extinction if they don't keep up with the times. In the face of these realities, more and more Boomer critics have re-tooled. They've assimilated the aesthetic categories wrought by preemptive irony, and in the process, hastened the collapse of the core baby boomer cultural hegemony. In truth, though, "erosion" may be a better term than "collapse, " for the process has been more like termites eating away at the frame of a house than a bulldozer leveling it. The house of 1960s rock isn't razed, it just finally caves in one day and lo and behold, 1970s album rock is back in the hipster fold, after years of languishing on the margins of the serious rock critic discourse. This process is no more evident than in the critical establishment's unqualified embrace of the Seattle "grunge" sound of bands like Soundgarden and Pearl Jam as a form of "alternative rock, " somehow aesthetically distinguishable from the critically disfavored heavy metal/hard rock of the 1970s. Apparently, it is their enthusiastic yet self-conscious and ironically detached posture towards hard rock that has allowed the Seattle grunge musicians to unabashedly borrow from 1970s rock, recycle its musical content and yet make fun of the whole process in such a way that the end result comes off as an act of aesthetic sophistication comporting with canonized definitions of musical hipness. Through some fantastic process, the magical transmogrifying machine of preemptive irony has taken the supposed cheese of the 1970s, seasoned it with a little critically favored, earnest and authentic punk rock, and turned it into the pure "alternative" gold of the 1990s. One man's trash is another man's treasure, I suppose. And so as we at the front of the tailbust generation settle into our thirties, get fat, grey, and some among us lose our hair, preemptive irony has allowed us to make a strange peace with the whole notion of nostalgia for our cultural roots. Over the decade since the "Black Diamond" experience, our past has been gradually reinscribed into the present in a form that doesn't cause us too much discomfort. In our case, we embrace it gingerly with a sort of self-effacing, satirical pride. Sure, the 1970s weren't the glory years. We were late to that big party our elders threw in the decade before. Nothing really "important" happened when we were growing up. It was all old hat by then, at least for all the elite college kids who'd already outgrown pot, acid, and the counter-culture. Now it was the philistine masses turn to enjoy it. But we kids still had to get through it and deal with the dislocations wrought by the counter-cultural experiments of our philistine parents. Now we're all here. Grown up. But everyone still has to be from someplace. Some people get to be from supposedly cool places like San Francisco or New York. And some people, like me, did time in places like the Cleveland area, which, Pere Ubu to the contrary, has never been viewed as a very cool place. But over time, with some work, you make your peace with your past. Whether it's Cleveland, the 1970s, or Cleveland in the 1970s, one way or another, you find an approach that works. Maybe you do poke a little fun at it now and again. [viagra generic] But when you go back to visit and you see those ugly decaying steelmills in the Flats or you think about those ugly elephant bell-bottoms of the 1970s, you find beauty in them and you take a strange pride in having done your time there. Maybe you don't really want to have to live there full time. San Francisco and New York are actually pretty cool. But some smart-ass cultural snob from the coast better not make fun of Cleveland, because if they do, you won't hesitate to tell them to fuck-off. What the hell do they know? They weren't there living it the way you did. So they'll never know the beauty of being sixteen in Cleveland or Spokane or Des Moines or Milwaukee or somewhere out in New Jersey, and driving down some back road late at night with some friends, Bad Company or Zeppelin or the Eagles on the car radio, maybe drinking a few beers and feeling pretty damn good indeed. Maybe those snobs have got their own memories. But this one's yours. Perhaps you are a little embarrassed about it now. But it still feels good to think about it sometimes, even if it is with some humor. Whatever works. And then one day, you hear a Bay City Rollers song on the alternative station in between the Cult and Soundgarden and you don't even think about it anymore. You're not embarrassed or outraged. It's not even really that novel. It just takes you back and it's ok. It's kind of liberating in a way. You push all of the air out of your lungs, take a big deep breathe, and let it all flow into you without a lick of shame. The hard, ambiguous, insecure edge of irony has vanished. And it's ok, because you don't need it anymore. Its work is done. You're basking in the comforting warmth of reverent nostalgia now, your own reverent nostalgia. Not the heavy, self-serious nostalgia of those 1960s baby boomers, people who really believed that they were going to "change the world, " and that their experience was unique in the annals of history, not just one more stop in a never ending process of cultural creation, disposal and reclamation. No, this nostalgia is pretty free of those sorts of pretenses. It's more like "I remember this fondly. I'm not embarrassed to say it. No really, I'm not embarrassed. And that's ok. Isn't it?"


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