June 25, 2020

Kill Fee: What if 'everybody's good'?


Though Adrien Bulard did a backside tailslide down a 20-stair rail nearly a year after this piece would have run, there is no better example of everybody being real damn good at skateboarding right now, and how little meaning that can have.

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In the year 2017, that distant time, I tried to tackle something that had become real obvious about 2010s skateboarding: everybody was really good. I don't remember the exact reason I went after it — IG the year prior had switched to minute-long videos, maybe that pressed the issue — but I pitched it to Jenkem and they wanted it. I did some interviews (first time I ever talked to Templeton Elliot over the phone! I do a podcast with him now and talk to him weekly), wrote the thing, and then the rope got lost in the editing process. So it goes. Templeton mentioned "everybody's good" in a text the other day and I, wholly forgetting I'd interviewed him for this piece, said, "Yo, I actually wrote about that ..." He had the bright idea to dredge it up, so here it is. What if "everybody's good"?

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Its blown 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals notwithstanding, the Golden State Warriors basketball team has been the most fun and dominating team in the sport for the past three years. It’s easy to be a smug skateboarder, because we don’t treat current greatness like old basketball heads treat Golden State.

Former NBA stars spanning four decades claim the Warriors are a bunch of suckers. They’re soft, their game is wack, we’d beat their ass. The slights against the Warriors, who posted the best regular season record ever, are so hypothetical, of course, that they’re meaningless. Good thing more mature generations of skateboarders don’t dis the young rippers in that stupid a fashion — “we’d totally skate better than them” — since, obviously, those old guys wouldn’t.

But skateboarding has its own sneaky way of undercutting the young. It’s tossed around on the internet and concludes discussions at the shop. You’ve maybe said it and I’ve definitely said it and we weren’t necessarily aware we were dismissing the ridiculous and heroic skateboarding that happens nowadays, but we were. Whatever, everybody’s good.

It’s the most backhanded, devaluing, almost-a-compliment I can think of — and I hail from Minnesota, the land of passive aggression. Yes, these kids rip, but it’s standard, everybody’s doing it. In my day, our time, skateboarding was more ______. Can it be much of a dismissal, though, if it’s a statement of fact? Is everybody actually good, and if they’re not, would we even know it? How’d they get so good, anyway?

Hometown heroes, global heroes

Without objective ways to assess everybody being good, it comes down to the eye test. Templeton Elliott started his website, Mostly Skateboarding, in 2005 because at the time, no one was aggregating the world’s skateboard content. For years, he also did daily updates for The Skateboard Mag’s website. “I watch shit tons of videos and definitely make a lot of judgements,” he says.

Since skateboarding was the United States’ gift to the globe, the U.S. had a head start, and it’s not all that controversial to say it was ahead of the rest of the world for a while when it came to being good at skateboarding. Nowadays, not so much, Elliott says. “I think for a long time there was a divide, where guys in other countries — especially somewhere like New Zealand, that’s small and farther off the map — I think there was a time that those guys were far behind.”

It’s definitely as easy as it’s ever been to check out Auckland’s skate scene, just as it’s easier than ever for Auckland locals to see what the rest of the world is doing on its skateboard. That plays into a related idea that’s not all that new: The free flow of skateboard information, as opposed to the slow drip of a video here and a monthly magazine there, in past decades, kicks up the speed at which skateboarding progresses.

This progress and the means to put information out there — Instagram, basically — means there are more opportunities than ever for people to show how good they are and to get noticed for it, says Mike Sinclair, team manager for Foundation, Toy Machine and Nike SB. He’s also judged contests for 20 years; he very much evaluates talent for a living.

“More people are given the opportunity these days than they were [in the past], so it creates not the illusion, but [it seems] like everybody’s hooked up, everybody’s good,” he says. Put another way, there has never been a shortage of hometown heroes, skaters ripping in obscurity who never had their chance to barge a demo and be seen by guys like Sinclair — but now you can see those skaters instantly, he says. The awareness is raised. “Every year, every era has good kids,” he says. “But now, more than ever, you can see all of them if you just know their name.”

Less hypothetically, and more to the point of where the bar is currently set, a day after judging the recent Damn Am contest at Woodward West, Sinclair recounts the highlights of some of the top runs. “A kid” — a nameless kid he says! — “who got second place, did a 360 flip noseblunt slide in his run.” The kid also did a 360 ollie kickflip — the board spins and the body with it — to lipslide, in the same run, and got second place. So everybody’s good?

The black mirror?

Davis Torgerson isn’t necessarily buying it. “Everybody’s good to the point of what you see of them,” says the Real Skateboards pro. Basically, you’re not getting the full story. He says everyone can curate their best selves, skating all day at the skatepark and posting the single minute’s best stuff. Who hasn’t faked it a little bit for online? He says in the days when YouTube ruled the land, he was probably dismissed in the same way. A lot of it is the distance created by skaters only seen online. “Part of it is how you see it on Instagram,” Torgerson says. “It just doesn’t have the same shock value as when you see a true skill in person.”

The true skill — the outlier — is something and someone who’s always been around. Sinclair points out Pat Duffy’s deranged part in Questionable 25 years ago; both he and Torgerson namecheck Shane O’Neill. “He’s fucked up good,” says Sinclair.

“Not everyone’s Shane O’Neill,” says Torgerson. “Not everyone’s Steph Curry.”

Short of being fucked up good, in the video realm, a lot of other factors are in play. Elliott, with all his clip viewing, has some tried and true rules about the footage he consumes: no park foote and no dolphin flips. He says when a clip’s breaking his rules, “It’s a signifier of someone who’s not thinking about the whole package of a skate video. It matters how you’re dressed, what the spot looks like, whether you filmed it at night or the day time …” Expecting some random kid’s skate part to be a work of art is too “precious,” Elliott says, but it should still be a “work of something.”

These are the metaphysics of “good” — the intersection (or divergence) of the 360 flip noseblunt slide in that Damn Am second-place run, and that ollie, powerslide then backside tailslide line Marius Syvanen does in the GX-1000 video. “What it all boils down to: Does this skater’s tastes align with mine?” Elliott asks. “I guess I look for some sort of relatability even though these people are way better than me. Sometimes less is more.”

Extras

Or something else is more. Torgerson says he’s gobsmacked by skaters like his Real teammate Zion Wright, who, on top of all the street exploits, can throw a McTwist, on concrete, at will. At 28 years old, he says he’s come to the realization that some things are now just beyond his reach. “I guess it’s easy now to say, ‘I’ll never do a 540,’” Torgerson says, telling himself. “‘Don’t have to worry about doing that!’”

Wright differentiates himself with his inverted spins, and in this time of wondering if everyone is actually good, some sort of signature trick — Reynolds’s frontside flip, Jamie Foy’s front crook — is one way to go. Sinclair says Matt Bennett’s going to be 50 years old and people will still want to see his namesake grind. Elliott agrees, “That dude does it all over the place — that’s a rad looking trick and he does it really well so I’m happy to see that.”

Jaime Owens, the editor of Transworld Skateboarding, agrees that skaters, when all may be equal when it comes to skills, need to have something more, especially to get some editorial coverage in his magazine. "You have to keep going down the list of what makes them special,” he says. It’s factors like whether or not they’re a jerk, how’s the style? “What makes them stand out in the crowd?” he asks.

Speaking as one of the few remaining gatekeepers in skateboarding, Owens throws cold water on the hotter implications of “everybody’s good,” even if he agrees with the sentiment. "I don't need the next new good guy — there's already established skaters, good pros out there,” he says, who will end up in the pages of Transworld. Still, intangibles like charisma can take skaters over the top — Owens mentions new pro Nora Vasconcellos. "That's why she really shines,” he says, “she's a larger than life personality and that stands on top of her awesome skating.”

Where do we go now?

There are implications to everybody being good. Sinclair says a certain type of pro skateboarding career is done — chalk it up to the expected output of footage, and those gunning for the spot. “Tom Penny came in hot and was amazing,” Sinclair says. “He had that video footage drop and you couldn’t get enough of it.” Then Penny disappeared — for years. Sinclair says that in times past, four years worth of footage could make for 15 years of a pro career. Not anymore, because everything moves so fast. “I don’t think those types of dudes could ever exist again,” he says.

After I spoke to him initially, Elliott wrote to reassess his stance on everybody being good — he says he woke up one day and it hit him — he was agreeing with Torgerson, even if he didn’t know it. “The internet has changed our perception. A guy on my soccer team called me a ‘really good skateboarder’ the other night and that really surprised me because I'm not that good. But every once in a while I'll get a good trick and post it on Instagram. So it looks like I'm a lot better than I really am. So multiply this by your entire Instagram feed, and every clip you watch, and it starts to warp your perception of things.” In the end, he says, everybody’s as relatively good as they’ve ever been.

Owens, on the other hand, says “everybody’s good” is real enough and not all that negative of a thing to say. "It might not be too much of an actual dis,” he says, but a starting point, from his place at the magazine, to start filtering who makes the cut for print. "Our whole job is editing — you have to cut things down."

Embracing the idea, Owens says today’s crop of skaters are “skewing the scales,” throwing into question the established standards. "Kids who have grown up in the past 10 years know that everything is possible. Kinked rails — they don't even matter anymore,” he says — Cole Wilson comes to mind. "Oh yeah, you can flip out of kinked rails, and so this next generation is going to be even gnarlier."

With this ongoing march towards some skate singularity, the limit of possible, where does the rest of skateboarding fit in? Its subjectivity, the metaphysics of “good,” will always be a buffer against it occupying the same space as basketball. “Basically, with a dude doing two tricks that would have won any best trick contest, in the same run, I don’t want kids to be discouraged,” Sinclair says. “I would be just as psyched to see a kid skating the course different than anything I’ve ever seen before. I don’t think people are thinking outside the box.”

2 comments:

Mark-Andrew said...

This was exceptionally well written and just fucking enjoyable. Thank you ��

Skyler Meredith said...

Great Read and an interesting perspective, Hope things are going well for you Mike.

Skyler