Tuesday, July 19, 2011
If the New Rock is going to take hold and work in an effectual way, the small minority of established artists at the top of the rock business will have to participate somehow. To what extent are commercially major artists capable of promoting others (especially commercial underlings) selflessly? Rock stars are not, to say the least, known for selflessness, but (for once) selflessness is going to become a good career strategy. This is true because rock stars losing commercial clout can gain influence in the industry by mentoring younger artists with serious potential; even if this is influence in an industry that doesn’t seem like an industry anymore. New Rock ethos will offer rock stars new ways to maintain their positions— but they may be forced to do it in a social context. For those at the top, the rock biz has never needed to be that much of a social context— extreme fame and money create an Ivory Tower scenario. But all those Towers are being chipped away at on a daily basis. Some of the smaller Towers have already been struck by lightning, as the saying goes.
The super-big guns won’t need to be brought down to earth— they have enough money and fame to tide them over. But they risk losing the acknowledgement of future generations, and appearing retrograde. Where making investments in burgeoning artists is concerned, advantages outweigh disadvantages. Attempts in this direction have been made by rock stars before— the Beatles’ Apple Records, Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song, and what Bowie did for Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, and Mott the Hoople in the 70s. The entire Amer-Indie system has its basis in this kind of social context— but the classic indie paradigm is a label with a stable of bands but very little money behind it. If the New Rock is going to flourish, the vertical axis has to contract— those at the top have to share with those at the bottom. Not that it has to be Communist Rock— no art is set up so that everything (or even anything) can be equal. If the New Rock is going to start off on the right foot, it will help tremendously if the privileged open themselves generally to those below them. It might amount to little more than facts-of-life stuff— that musicians have to work part-time rather than full-time jobs, that they can afford decent equipment, etc.
What would be difficult to imagine is for the big guns to complain that they can’t find anything new and worthwhile— with the rampant availability of everything on the Internet, no one that’s any good is completely obscure. If someone decides to redo Apple Records on the Net, and if its handled in a disciplined manner, the results could be tremendous— especially if its backed by recognizable names. The obvious question it leads to is simply: what else is possible in 2011? Bands and performers who choose to play the game in the conventional way will be subject to endless delays and disappointments, no matter how charismatic they are. If you look in a magazine like Spin these days, everything is in completely bad faith— bands are introduced as potential superstars who are then never heard from again. It’s either an unconvincing display of the new or a repackaged version of something old. Bands who get famous now the conventional way only get sort-of famous— like Fleet Foxes. New Rock is hipper because you’re not being carried by moribund vehicles. There will always be rock musicians who want things fast— and, to the extent that the old vehicles seem swifter, they’ll jump on if they can. It’s a shame, but if an old vehicle carries you far enough, it can wind up dumping you into a grave. To the extent that few saints emerge, vehicles may be created that have prestige through taste, intelligence, and refinement. All those virtues will have to be rewards, and perceived that way— the old dreams of overt success are already in a state of forced entropy.
Monday, July 18, 2011
One thing that distinguishes art from entertainment is its ability to express subtle emotions. Entertainment emotions are almost invariably broad— overwhelming joy or sadness, comic complacency, etc. Educated people often associate rock with such broad emotions, too— and, to be sure, show biz rock does wallow in broad gestures and emotions. But the good stuff, where rock is concerned, is capable of emotional subtlety. In terms of shades of emotions, they are usually conveyed by a combination of voice and lyrics, abetted by musical ambiences. It’s the pursuit of the moody. A record like Nico’s the Marble Index is pure mood; and the mood could be interpreted as shades of sustained melancholy, a “color range” of shades of blue. Marble Index is as far from “entertainment” as it can possibly be; even if its melancholy moodiness can really only work if it matches your own mood. John Cale produced the Marble Index. To the extent that his Paris 1919 is also a “mood record,” the mood is more subtle and more unique than most quality rock music, even indie or cult stuff. Paris 1919 comes across as surprisingly Old World European— not the nouveau Europe of Kraftwerk or Can, but something genteel and literary. Lip service is given to Dylan Thomas, Graham Greene, and Shakespeare— and in a detailed way that implies deep knowledge.
The irony is that this Old mood is created almost entirely by Cale’s voice and lyrics— the music could be compared to Revolver-era Beatles or even (as in “Macbeth”) ELO. To the extent that certain textures clash, they even out to a solid blue. Neither Cale nor Nico are particularly rockist— in terms of rockist material that does translate as mood music, Mazzy Star charted some turf in the 90s that fits under this aegis. What’s tricky about turf like this is that it is narrow; if you just do “mood,” it is difficult to develop range. What fits under “Goth” also tends to fit under “mood”; Robert Smith and the Cure solved the range problem by balancing mood pieces with pop songs. For the short span of time they were around, Joy Division did the same thing. The way I define “mood” is this— texture over concision. Texture tends to be sustained over long pieces— and it can be created, as on Paris 1919, by lyrical content too. Chan Marshall’s lyrics are often textural, rather than content-based— the point they make is the mood they create. Sometimes, as in “Nude as the News,” they come close to plain sense without ever emerging as a coherent narrative. The foreboding and menace in the coherent phrases is enough— the listener is challenged to create a narrative of their own. “Cross Bones Style” does roughly the same thing. Bjork takes the same approach and Europeanizes it— her imagery is less “homey” than Chan Marshall’s.
What’s the moodiest rock ever to be huge? If the answer isn’t the Cure (who filled stadiums), and if prog-rock, for some of us, doesn’t count, the answer would have to be the sort-of prog, sort-of Goth, sort-of rockist Pink Floyd, who were never jaunty, angry, or highly sexed. One reason fans find the classic Floyd albums monolithic is that they do create and sustain specific moods. The mood ends up being the cohesive glue, even though more often than not direct narrative is employed, lyrically. What’s surprisingly is not necessarily that the mood is melancholy, but that rock music this melancholy could be so commercially successful. Roger Waters has always suggested that Floyd’s music served a cathartic purpose for its audience; a sensible explanation for an unusual phenomenon. John Cale’s lyrics were too elliptical to be cathartic— to the extent that Paris 1919 remains a cult classic, the average listener might have a hard time relating to it. What binds Floyd and Cale together is a kind of European seriousness— both of intention and performance. It’s a kind of seriousness that’s inherently artistic, rather than show biz based. It implies the brooding sense that time moves slowly, and that the past is worth looking at. Americans often get nailed for being present or future-minded. The equivalent American emotion is buoyant optimism. To the extent that some rock has fully internalized the European, this has been rebelled against.
Since rock music came into its own as a part-time art-form, room has been made not only for the downbeat but for the lurid, the ghastly. Sometimes, the songs and records that carry an ambience of decomposition and decay are the most fascinating. “Decomposition and decay” is how producer Jim Dickinson defined the expressive intentions of Third/Sister Lovers; but other pieces in rock have a similar ethos. The closest the Aughts came to producing a Third/Sister Lovers was Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The record is interesting because Wilco’s sound isn’t particularly lurid; it’s strong, solid but sensitive American Heartland rock music. All through the record, nevertheless, there is a sense that things are falling apart, coming unhinged enough that portions of the record don’t make for comfortable listening. Wilco’s record label were clearly made uncomfortable by Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and the record caused a scandal for Wilco for this reason. Like Third/Sister Lovers, Wilco’s records starts from the premise of a single relationship and works outward. “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” the first and possibly most devastating song on the album, is fractured away from narrative. But Jeff Tweedy uses language in an inventive and unique way so that when he sings, “I been an American aquarium drinker/ I assassin down the avenue/ I’m hiding out in the big city blinking/ What was I thinking when I let go of you,” it’s an entry path into a self-contained world. The landscape of the record is not as bleak as Third/Sister Lovers; but it has a good amount of in-built drama, as songs trail off into nothingness or, as is the case with “Radio Cure,” hover in a strange stasis.
Needless to say, the Beatles version of this is the White Album. Everything that Syd Barrett recorded after he left Pink Floyd has this quality too; it hovers on the brink of disintegration, so that it is like watching a horror or suspense movie in which someone is about to be killed. Elliott Smith’s albums all have moments that fit into this tradition; a song like “Everything Means Nothing to Me” from Figure 8 is so painfully self-conscious and bleak that it is a listening experience that requires a certain amount of bravery. Figure 8, as a whole, not only fits into the tradition established by Third/Sister Lovers, it beat Jeff Tweedy to the punch by a year. The difference between the Alex Chilton protagonist of Third and Elliott Smith as a protagonist is that Alex is destroyed by trying to relate to destructive Others; Elliott Smith is so wrapped in a blue haze of solipsistic misery that no one else can even get in. But the way Chilton has with melody is shared by Smith; and there are no redeeming Heartland values, as there are with Tweedy. What’s uniquely ghastly about Elliott Smith is that he did end up committing suicide in 2003, following several years of disintegration. Figure 8 is a kind of masterpiece, just for displaying how low the consciousness of a rock artist could sink to. All three of these records are fiercely uncompromising enough to call masterpieces. The cloth they are cut from, Anglo influences aside, is American— though only Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sounds indigenous enough that a Brit couldn’t have recorded it.
It would be interesting to hear Bright Eyes do something like this. Conor Oberst’s songs do tend to hover over different kinds of abysses, and for him to really let out the disintegrative impulse might be a healthy process. On the other side of things, Neil Young is given credit for doing this with Tonight’s the Night, which features even more graphic imagery than Chilton and the rest. If Young deserves special credit, it’s because he recorded the album having already achieved commercial (and mainstream) stardom and success. More than the others mentioned, he had something to lose. Springsteen’s “Nebraska” both does and doesn’t work as fitting into this subgenre, disintegrative rock— if the songs are sharp and tightly focused, the characters in the songs are lost in a sense of disintegrative decay. Springsteen should be credited for an album in the subgenre because he, like Neil Young, had something to lose. Among others who could do this, Neko Case is another artist who could probably do something “disintegrative” in an interesting way. Or the White Stripes. You could generalize and just say that any rock writer who displays a good amount of verbal skill and raw emotion simultaneously might put in something useful on this level. The lurid has a fascination that cannot die, and will continue to for as long as the human race can empathize with pain and isolation.
Sunday, July 17, 2011
Rock is largely derived from country, blues, and gospel. Different forms of blues are very specific— urban blues (like Chicago blues) and rural blues (like Mississippi Delta blues). Blues is split between town and country. Country would seem to be just that— but many urban centers in Tennessee have been oriented around country music for a long time. It’s another split; as is gospel. And then the hybrid offspring, rock and roll, into rock. Elvis Presley was a “country boy”— but he had to move from Tupelo to Memphis to get famous. If “town” is generally loud, insistently intense, and cathartic, while “country” might also be intense but is more at ease, the major first gen rockers were certainly town; even if Elvis’s ballads were an exception. Between the British Invasion and the inception of folk-rock, one thing the 60s did was to open a new way for rock to be country— but not the country music version of country. It has more to do with a vision and version of the bucolic— songs specifically set in rural environments. This could emerge in lyrics or different kinds of instrumentation. Dylan’s early songs were, more often than not, topical folk— the sense of current (often political) relevance urbanized them. It wasn’t until John Wesley Harding that a fully realized bucolic vision emerged. It was expressed in coded, allegorical, often elliptical lyrics (that shied away from politics and towards the religious) and minimalistic music.
John Wesley Harding was only loosely “rock,” but it was influential enough to move popular music, commodified and mass-consumed, towards an awareness and an appreciation of the bucolic. Two other releases from that year (’68) are also relevant in charting the development of a specifically bucolic sensibility— the Beatles’ White Album and the Band’s Music from Big Pink. Beatles fans generally know that the White Album songs were written in India while the Beatles were studying with the Maharishi; there are several bucolic visions among them. This is relevant because, just through the Beatles’ enormous popularity, bucolic visions were being consumed not only in bucolic settings but in Cleveland and Detroit (for example); rural culture infiltrating urban settings. “Mother Nature’s Son,” “Piggies,” and “Dear Prudence” all had a country-side feel to them— though “Prudence” used electric instrumentation, the Blakean innocence-song lyrics cast a spell without nodding towards the urban. “Mother Nature’s Son” is even more extreme— an explicit rendition of a rural character portrait. Critics have often claimed that what the Beatles and Dylan were channeling was a reaction against the psychedelic excesses of ’67; but there is a headiness or “trippiness” to the rural that is, for want of a better word, psychedelic. Nor is “Dear Prudence” any more simple than, say, “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.”
There is even more irony in Dylan’s ’68 approach— lyrically, John Wesley Harding may be the most psychedelic collection Dylan ever recorded, if psychedelic means trippy and mind-expanding. A song like “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” is so mind-bendingly strange and multi-layered that it puts the Blonde on Blonde songs to shame, even if the music is comparatively sparse and lean. Much of the credit for the ’68 paradigm shift towards the bucolic was given to the Band for Music from Big Pink. Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel both had a gift for writing densely layered songs. Because the lyrical imagery was derived from American history, the blues, and the Bible, the songs were both more trippy and more sophisticated than Jefferson Airplane’s or the Grateful Dead’s. Garth Hudson’s organ created a musical ambience as spooky as the Doors, and there it was— Music from Big Pink was a psychedelic masterpiece. That these records were commercially successful was, and remains, an interesting study in sociology— urban audiences no longer needed to stick to urban music. For these audiences, these records could be an escape valve— a way of transporting themselves to a locale more peaceful and more imaginatively stimulating than the one they lived in. They could be a trip. And if, to the critics of the day, the way forwards seemed to be the way backwards, we can see in hindsight that what seemed to be “backwards” wasn’t backwards at all. The deep trips came after the introductory ones.
Not all rock songwriters are funny; some of them are. But, once a strong working-class bias is established, rock has less to do with humor (especially crude humor) than a thinking person might expect. “This is Spinal Tap” demonstrates that some rock musicians are inadvertently funny; stand-up comics making fun of rock stars are de rigueur. The best rock songwriters do have comic moments— some regularly, some less so. Many of Ray Davies’ comic moments have, depending on how you interpret the songs, an edge of self-deprecation or (if the “I” in the song is not naively construed to be Davies himself) deprecation of protagonists. A song like “Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues” riffs on the extreme nature of the protagonist’s delusions— that the milkman’s a spy, the grocer’s following him, etc. What gives the song its sharp edge is an ambience unfamiliar (until 1971) to the Kinks— the ragtime honky-tonk vibe of Bourbon Street, New Orleans. But the overall effect, after the first listen, is not totally comedic; you can get lost in the musical and lyrical nuances without feeling an overwhelming need to laugh.
Jarvis Cocker, in some ways Davies’ heir apparent, has a similar lyrical balance between dry and overt humor. Cocker’s protagonists are much more sexualized than Davies’; the Britpop equivalent of the familiar Woody Allen “horny nerd” archetype. Wherever the horny nerd wanders, tempting ladies await who are always (and for a variety of reasons) a little bit out of reach. Cocker’s heart-of-darkness soliloquies on Different Class are spoken with enough exaggerated emphasis that we know laughter is both permissible and encouraged. John Prine is another songwriter who puts the comic right on the surface. Prine’s humor is more equal opportunity than Cocker’s— he is very good at nailing pathos and humor together, as in “Sam Stone,” which details the travails of a heroin-addicted Vietnam vet. “Angel from Montgomery” is very close to an American equivalent of “Waterloo Sunset.” Prine’s protagonist shares age and weariness with Davies’; but with sardonic, rough humor and a working person’s grumpiness stirred into the mix. Elvis Costello counted John Prine as an influence; like Jarvis Cocker, he employed a “horny nerd” persona in his songs. More than Jarvis Cocker, with his class fixation, Costello plumbed the depths of male emasculation in his songs. Costello made this a funny process— early songs like “Miracle Man,” “No Dancing,” and even the darkly mordant “Watching the Detectives” combined absurdist humor with formalist precision. From the same era, John Lydon’s vocal delivery often made the Sex Pistols funnier than rock scribes have previously suggested— Oliver Twists on a bunch of uppers.
Another common occurrence in rock is humor so dark it more or less disappears. When Courtney Love belts out “When I was a teenage whore/ my mother asked me, she said Baby what for?” she backs it up with enough deeply felt emotion that a strong signal is sent against laughter. Though it may seem outré to follow Hole with Steely Dan, does Donald Fagen plant enough sly humor in his songs with dark enough edges to make the comparison apt? Songs like “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” “Hey Nineteen,” and “My Old School” are parodies developed towards enough sophistication that you have to pay very close attention to the lyrics to realize that something (or someone) is being made fun of. The surface of the Dan songs is so slick and shiny that it would be easy to assume that there is nothing underneath. But the humor is subtle, rather than broad. And put together in such a way that Dan were never huge among adolescents. In fact, every writer engaged here is better appreciated by adults than adolescents, from Cocker and Prine to Courtney Love and Steely Dan. Adolescents generally have a better time with Spinal Tap. To the extent that there are bands in rock history (who shall remain unnamed) who come dangerously close to Spinal Tap territory, both in terms of thematics and self-presentations, everyone, adolescent or not, can tell what too much of a good thing is.
Saturday, July 16, 2011
Rock star-model hook-ups in 2011 are an entrenched cultural cliché. Rock stars and models can resemble each other as cultural signs— they mean beauty, youth, vitality. But it’s always been a debate to what extent rock and fashion should entwine. Most serious rock artists have gone through at least one phase in which fashion-consonance was an issue. The only rock icon ever to conflate fashion and metaphysics is David Bowie. The high thoughts behind Bowie’s fashion choices seemed to be about how to create an appearance not of perfect integrity but of perfectly original integrity. Every guise was a person that he actually was— sort of. Bowie remains the only rock star to fully integrate into performance how images and reality intersect. If he’s never been fully post-modern, it’s because there’s too much of a first-person presence in his music, and first-person narratives told that express emotions earnestly. That pure, distilled post-modernism makes for bad rock music is something that could be argued. It could also be argued that fashion and rock should be cultural enemies, and that the best rock fashion statements are anti-fashion statements— the flannel the Subpop bands inherited from Neil Young, Jarvis Cocker’s cast-off thrift-store aesthetic.
If a chiasmus is enforced, it’s because a good amount of rock music is pure entertainment (pure fashion), occupying a cultural niche not unlike fashion. The division that was comfortable for Bowie was (and remains) uncomfortable for many serious rock artists— that the culture has yet to demarcate rock either as art or entertainment, and that there are cultural overlaps which go both ways. The situation is post-modern (as in, egalitarian, reducing component parts to common levels) without the songs being post-modern in accordance— so, you meet see Bruce Springsteen next to Kate Moss in the Random Notes section of Rolling Stone. The American media dote on leveling gestures like this— it simplifies things for an audience who (it is assumed) don’t mind things being leveled. Fashion does reduce things to a simple level— what you look like, what you wear. Some rock stars rebel against this manipulative media system— Tom Petty is a good example. But many rock stars who want to maintain a high profile have to subjugate themselves over long periods of time. It’s American compartmentalization again— rock stars who are artists when they write, show biz pros when they appear in public. There’s a basic frustration at work here— rock doesn’t know what (or who) it is.
No matter how many serious British artists have worked under the rock aegis, rock stardom, in all its ambiguity, is an American phenomenon. It takes individual integrity and destabilizes it. By being this over here and that over there, do you lose yourself? Fashion does impose a hierarchy on rock stars— here’s what you should be wearing now, here’s what’s low enough you need to throw away. It is, as rock music been up to this point, a hierarchy always in flux— like America, it never settles, never chooses. The goal of the system is just to produce an appearance— not to enforce or reinforce a reality. The whole point of the entertainment biz is the creation and maintenance of illusions. Bowie, with “Ziggy Stardust,” pulled off the neat trick of creating an illusion meant to be torn down, and exposed, rather than maintained. Show biz rock does its best to keep certain illusions in place— Kiss wants to rock and roll all night with you, Steve Perry wants you to not stop believing. The rock media has always been rigged so that whatever sells gets covered. Fashion works the same way— whatever sells gets into the magazines. What Pierre Bourdieu calls the “demarcative imperative” comes up in interviews; rock songwriters put in place the hierarchies they impose on rock music. These hierarchies may stick more, now that corporate and mercenary interests are less of a factor. It’s also unclear whether fashion will have to drop rock if rock no longer sells. It would probably be better for rock if this happens. If fashion is meant to be ephemeral in a way that the best rock music isn’t, there can’t be any long-term relationship; though rock star/ fashion model romances may continue, with common grounds established on the surface.
It’s an interesting facet of American ethos and culture— we are a heavily religious country. Most of America’s religious sensibility is Christian or Catholic. We are also a country that has transformed many rock musicians into huge cultural icons. Some rock stars are outwardly religious— but the majority are ambiguous on this level. Are they implicitly endorsing atheism? Why would a Christian country let entertainers who allow themselves to be ambiguous on this level become icons? You could say that Americans have a genius for compartmentalization— not every cultural joint needs to touch. Or maybe it’s that the American public sees in rock performers what they want to see— performers act as pure mirrors. The public enjoys ambiguity on this level, because the (in)appropriate projections create images of perfection. The entire process is loose— it has to be to work, because few name rockers are avowed Christians or Catholics. U2 arrived and announced themselves avowed Christians— but it was always unclear whether their massiveness arose from hard-line religiosity or from good solid rock songs. Considering the turn their music took in the 90s, the latter seems a more accurate answer.
Bob Dylan made waves in the late 70s by converting to Christianity— but it could be debated whether the public watched with sympathy or mere curiosity. John Lennon’s famous mid-60s remarks on Jesus and Christianity set him up as a cultural iconoclast. He more-or-less retained the role for the rest of his life. George went “East” (and briefly dragged the others along with him). Paul McCartney has made many humanitarian commitments, but remained publicly ambiguous about his specific religious beliefs. The excesses of their lives might’ve made the “twenty-seven club” (Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin, Jones, Cobain) look like perfect heathens. Led Zeppelin were medium-heathens— no more or less debauched than other 70s megastars. Their major albums sold about twenty million copies each. It’s reasonable to think that among twenty million Americans (or Westerners), a large proportion were religious. How could they rationalize Zeppelin-immersion? It’s a tribute to the enormous flexibility of the American psyche. America, as a totalized entity, could be construed as a massive adolescent— torn between conservatism and youthful, egalitarian exuberance. It’s Puritans vs. Settlers, rock-style. Where culture is concerned, and as is their wont, Americans never quite choose a side.
So, it became conclusive in the 60s, and has stayed this way ever since— rock stars are allowed to be cultural icons without being religious. Politicians, of course, usually have no such options. It’s curious to wonder whether the American populace knows more about politicians and politics or rock music and rock stars. Ideally, it should be politics, but it may or may not be the case. The vast majority of rock stars are left-wing, too— they will often put together package tours to support liberal causes. But the biggest rock stars have always been buoyed by large enough numbers that they cut into conservative demographics also. One inescapable conclusion is that the United States, willy-nilly, is more than one country. Red (conservative) America and Blue (liberal) America are tied together by threads that are more tenuous than in generally known. If one of those threads is popular entertainment, including rock music, Blue America doesn’t need to flex its “ambiguity muscles” quite as tensely as Red America does, but both masses seem to have problems prioritizing what is allowed to enter their mind and what isn’t. But I come to praise rock, not to bury it; and, just by creating a thread between two distinct countries-within-a-country, rock has made America more cohesive than it otherwise would’ve been. Even if cohesion is an American ideal that has yet to be realized yet in America. What coheres between Blue and Red America is confusion, pride and prejudice. Rock music is (here) a safe shared outlet.
Friday, July 15, 2011
It’s a fact of the rock biz— many successful rock musicians die young. It’s not usually just drugs and booze that do people in; it’s a lifestyle in which good food and sleep are not a priority. What happens when rock stars die— who goes up and who sinks? Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain seem to be the big winners in the posthumous sweepstakes— neither grew into full-on icons until they died. Why, over a long period of time, did Janis Joplin and her music go in the other direction, fading from view to the point of obscurity? It could be that the songs she sung, her own or otherwise, weren’t memorable enough. John Lennon’s fame has been consolidated, if not added to. Death has allowed Nick Drake to leap out ahead of someone like Gram Parsons, just through the unique aura of his presence and music. The sad truth is that there is some evidence to support Neil Young’s claim that it’s better to burn out than to fade away. Rock stars who put out good material for a brief period of time before delivering a seeming eternity of mediocrity bear out the claim.
What death can do is to rig things so that everything certain rock stars put on tape is released. The sheer amount of material Jimi Hendrix recorded was staggering— even if a lot of it was just jam sessions. Almost all of it saw the light of day after Hendrix’s death. Posthumous Hendrix was a cash-cow; and intermittently as compelling as the oeuvre of recordings released during his lifetime. For fans of Jeff and Tim Buckley, their respective deaths initiated a field day, where reissues were concerned. Jeff’s rereleases were moderate cash-cows, Tim’s less so. But rock star “death clubs” are generally a negative influence— they encourage young musicians to believe that self-destruction is inherently glamorous. For many reasons, most good rock writers do their best work before they turn thirty, or thirty-five. The simplest, most profound reason is that the human body can only bear so much. The traditional “write-record-tour” cycle is as physically taxing as it can possibly be. Rock writers who prosper past thirty-five generally have to lead very regimented lives. Sloppiness of any kind cannot be acceptable. Musical ideas can also be difficult to come by after a certain point; rock is mostly musically simple, and most writers only have so many new angles to begin with. On the other hand, if you set up a broad enough foundation for yourself at an early age, things don’t have to dry up— this is an advantage that works for Lou Reed, Bruce Springsteen, and others.
Rock people often fetishize deceased rock stars simply because they will always remain frozen in time. By remaining frozen, they embody their times more completely. Few in rock in my age-group can forget where they were the day Kurt Cobain’s suicide was revealed. It was a moment that defined rock in the mid-Nineties— disillusionment, drama, and lost innocence. As counterintuitive as it sounds, his death helped us. He took our emotions, and acted them out in an extreme way. For post-punk kids, Ian Curtis might’ve served the same purpose. It’s intriguing to wonder if, for the rock Boomers, the dream was really over until John Lennon was murdered. But Lennon’s death didn’t just end the dream; it framed the whole context of the Boomer dream, and what it was— ideals and excesses exploding against each other all the time. If Jim Morrison and his death could never signify the same thing, it’s because Morrison’s life was transmuted into something else by later generations— definite excesses as ideals, in and of themselves. If Morrison died “so that we might rock,” as the Lennon quip goes (intended for/about Sid Vicious), he was self-martyred by his own excesses. Lennon appears more innocent for that reason. Early death protects, and constricts— it imposes boundaries on rock figures that make them more human, easier to deal with. They can feel more companionable to rock fans, then living (and changing) rock stars; even if Hendrix, Morrison, Cobain and the rest had many potentialities that remained untapped and were destroyed by their deaths. There is a perceptible dichotomy in rock star ethos in general— the impulse to be immortal with death right around the corner. That life lived in the middle can actually be richer is something some rock stars have discovered.
Thursday, July 14, 2011
What happened between Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Marianne Faithfull, and Anita Pallenberg in the 60s in London (and elsewhere) is a tremendous rock myth. It’s mostly about intoxication— sexual, chemical, and otherwise. It’s also about love, longing, and betrayal. A number of contingent factors make the myth compelling— that all the protagonists are young and attractive, that they are famous, and also rebels (the Stones spent ’67, prime myth-time, both in court and in jail). Throw in a future of even greater fame, and this becomes Olympian stuff— the dramas of Gods. The story demystified is still interesting— Jagger woos Faithfull, Jones woos Pallenberg, Faithfull and Pallenberg become friends; Pallenberg dumps Jones for Richards (and Jagger), Faithfull woos Richards while with Jagger. The soap opera element fits perfectly with the Stones image and music— the way they were able to artfully transgress, where sex and sexuality were concerned. Fans could wonder where, say, “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadows?” was concerned, whether he was taunting Marianne Faithfull, who was already, at a young age, the mother of a child— “have you had another baby/ standing in the shadows?”
Jagger’s lyrics of that era were obsessive about sexual power dynamics— not only sexually charged, but loaded to the extent that government authorities were uncomfortable with them. The dynamic is that the British government couldn’t target the Beatles that much— they were seen (truly or falsely) to maintain a “family entertainment” level, and they had refurbished the image of Britain and British entertainment around the world. The Stones, less commercially dominant than the Beatles and with a debauched reputation, were perfect targets. That the police stumbled on a nude Marianne Faithfull while raiding Keith Richards’ house sent the whole imbroglio into overdrive, and inadvertently consolidated the Stones’ image. The myth woven out of these materials set the Stones over the Beatles on many levels— the Stones’ mystique was seen to be more potent than the Beatles’; they could never be accused of being “pop” or “family” like the Beatles could; they embodied sensuality, danger, and transgression. The association with Anita Pallenberg also gave them a glaze of the Continental— her European glamour rubbed off on them. The big loser in the nexus was Brian Jones; rejected by the other four, he left the band in ’69 and died soon after. The mysterious circumstances of his death are another wrinkle in the Stones’ mythology— no one in forty years has been able to prove conclusively whether he was murdered or not. Brian, the myth goes, never recovered from Anita Pallenberg’s defection to Keith Richards.
The chiasmus from circumstances like these to a song like “Sympathy for the Devil” is intriguing— not just because Jagger dares to talk in the voice of the Devil, but because the Stones’ image at the time was borderline-Satanic. The Beatles seemed benevolent deities in comparison. Part of the Satanic facet of the Stones’ image was just the willingness to tell the truth— as in “Street Fighting Man,” which was, for all intents and purposes, a confession of political impotence. The Let It Bleed songs linger on images of death, violence, despair, drug addiction, and personal frailty. That the Stones, by the end of the 60s, could already be called (Brian Jones aside) survivors is part of their mythology. It’s a mythology with enough cultural necessity and uniqueness to have lasted to 2011. The Beatles “center” needed an anti-center, even if, personally, the Beatles could be just as debauched as the Stones; and the Beatles even had moments of transgression. But the 60s media needed them in place as good guys. The Stones’ blunt honesty and sexualized songs opened the door for the media to portray them as new-school Byrons. The Stones’ “love pentagon” has become the mythological backbone of a rock-solid bit of rock cultural signage. Multiple identities and the allowance of bisexual impulses— that’s the nut-shell version. It’s “everyone sleeps with everyone.” Importantly, Jagger and Richards wrote the right songs to back the mythology up. Without the songs, it’s unlikely the myths would’ve stuck.
The Beatles were self-sufficient. But neither John Lennon nor Paul McCartney was particularly self-sufficient in the 60s. They needed each other. Why does rock music lend itself to collaboration in a way that, say, poetry usually doesn’t? Rock music is the product of group contexts that include not only musicians but producers, engineers, etc. The mysteries of the recording studio necessitate this. But how rock partnerships (especially songwriting partnerships) function is fascinating, in and of itself. The Beatles’ group dynamics are, for many rock people, the ultimate in fascination. You can come at this from two angles— accepting the pronouncements of the Beatles and George Martin on one hand, or trying to pierce beneath the surface of these pronouncements to find deeper, more interesting realities (while, hopefully, maintaining the modesty of one who wasn’t there). The first question is rather obvious— who was the leader more of the time, John or Paul? The Beatles’ master narrative always encourages belief that there was a simple hand-off in ’66— by Sgt. Pepper, John had ceded control of the band to Paul. But the complexities of the Beatles’ dynamics make it difficult to believe that it could’ve been that simple or easy.
One wonders if, even during and after Pepper, Lennon could choose to nix anything McCartney had done— as in, could choose to reclaim his leadership position any time he wanted. Could John Lennon ever be consistently compliant with anyone? To move the inquiry backwards— even in the early sixties (say, ’63 or ’64), could Lennon nix a musical nuance that McCartney wanted to pursue, in either one of his or Lennon’s songs? McCartney seems to have been the Beatles’ de facto musical leader for their entire recording career. Yet this was at odd angles to the Beatles’ own social condition— the sense that in public settings (and from the time they were kids), Lennon would always appear to be the leader. One of the Beatles’ big myths is Lennon’s general social ineptitude— that he seemed uncomfortable with public attention. Lennon was middle-class; he was poised; he had (sharp tongue aside) more posh manners and more articulateness than the other Beatles. He had to be preeminent. It seems that any real leadership of the Beatles had to be compartmentalized— Lennon leads over here, McCartney leads over here. To the extent that Lennon absconds in ’66, McCartney steps up to lead the Beatles on all levels. Lennon’s restless, but along for the ride. George Harrison emerges as more of a pivot point than before; always tending to side with Lennon, restless like him and dissatisfied with the Beatles in general. Harrison ups the ante with, and against, McCartney.
McCartney-Harrison is one of the least auspicious conjunctions in the Beatles’ nexus— McCartney was often goaded by his own ambitions to roll over Harrison in the recording studio. McCartney played bass in the band, but he was also a better lead guitarist than Harrison was. Lennon let this happen, knowing this was good for the band’s music, but was happy to be doubled by Harrison on other levels, against Paul. Looking at the totality of the Beatles’ endeavors, Lennon emerges as, more often than not, the essential fulcrum. But he could only be the essential fulcrum to the extent that he let himself be influenced (especially musically) by McCartney. His leadership could only be total by being partial. Lennon-McCartney is a convoluted enough dynamic that every conclusion leads to an ancillary (and often contradictory) conclusion. Nothing can ever completely settle. McCartney and class are strange, too—a native to the working class, unlike Lennon, McCartney did a good amount of work in Swinging London to acquire class, change class affiliations. He even went so far, as Lennon did not, to meet Bertrand Russell. He married rich and acquired a hauteur. But group dynamics are strange; if they are set in place at a young age, they are difficult to change. By the end, it is probable that all the Beatles couldn’t stand the way they made each other regress. It was a matrix that needed to be broken by force. Even at the end, it’s difficult to tell who’s doing what. Lennon breaks up the band in private; McCartney breaks up the band publicly. Did Lennon’s guts fail him? Public breakage takes a degree of honesty consonance that’s middle-class, at least. But once the spell was off and the dream was over, it (sort of) remained that way. The fascination of what it was remains.
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Whether the American energy expands or contracts, it permeates Springsteen’s songs. Then again, many of Springsteen’s characters are pure victims of American injustice— usually working-class victims. “Johnny 99,” “Atlantic City,” and “Born in the U.S.A.” all feature this type of victimized protagonist. “Atlantic City” shows off another dimension often included in Springsteen’s songs— the sense that “marginal” characters are often included, not just on-the-run characters (as in “Hungry Heart”), but small-time hustlers and criminals. These characters always seem to signify the American dream gone so badly awry that any real or final freedom is irretrievable. Part of the reason “Atlantic City” works is that it’s effectively layered— Atlantic City is a place that’s also a symbol. Sudden wealth, chance, surprise windfalls, rags to riches, boundless materiality— all the cheaper aspects of the American ethos. But these songs are angled away from satire or any kind of comedy— Springsteen’s touch is extremely serious (unlike, say, Randy Newman’s). The songs represent the evanescence of the American dream. The implication is that conscientious Americans have (if a choice is available) to take the side of the underdog. For every American who wins the American sweepstakes, a hundred don’t.
The protagonist in “Dancing in the Dark” is an interesting exception— he may live in a dump, but he’s a writer who writes books. That alone takes him out of the working class— that he’s a (presumably higher) artist. Like Chrissie Hynde’s “Middle of the Road,” it’s a song about being in your thirties (as Springsteen was when he wrote and recorded it); old enough to be exhausted with experience, young enough to still be intoxicated with possibility. The “Badlands” protagonist is an angrier variant of this, even if the specific situation in “Badlands” is never defined. That lack of definition is, in itself, American— it has boundlessness in it. A song like “State Trooper” is at the other end of things— it’s tight, constricted, and narrowly focused. The situation is simple— a man in (we assume) an illegally obtained car is driving down the New Jersey turnpike in the middle of the night. He delivers a monologue specifically to the state trooper he imagines (truly or falsely) is following him: “Maybe you got a kid/ maybe you got a pretty wife/ the only thing that I got/ been botherin’ me my whole life.” Even a blue-collar figure (the cop) gets to be privileged here. This America is both bottomed and flattened out; beyond desperation and into emptiness, boundlessly hollow.
The scope of Springsteen’s songs, where America is concerned, is vertical— from the bottom of “State Trooper” to the top of a song like “Rosalita,” where the protagonist is backed by promises that could be fulfilled on every level. Every tinge of America or American ideals falls somewhere along that vertical axis. To the extent that America in 2011 resembles a vertical chain of abuse, the Springsteen chain is edifying to return to. It shows us the full range, from the ideals to the emptiness, and in a vivid, accessible way.
Tuesday, July 12, 2011
This is a question not just relevant to rock musicians— what makes a great love song? Is it just the passion in a singer’s voice? Do the lyrics count for more than the music, or vice versa? To take a stab at it— a great love song, in rock or anywhere, matches expressive passion with some special angle or insight, the product of a mind processing feelings. There has to be tension, something for the singer to work against— a conflict or positive breakthrough. Then, you have to decide what counts as a love song. Take Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams”— it’s explicitly about a man-woman relationship, and it’s about love. But the goal of the female protagonist is not to say “I love you”; it’s more of a wake-up call, a warning that excesses (sexual and emotional) are making the male oblivious to his own best interests. It’s a kind of love song, but it’s not a straightforward one. “Light My Fire” is close— Jim Morrison’s seductive croon and the explosive dynamics of the Doors’ music generates Rat Pack level love-wattage— but the song may be disqualified because it’s too clearly about sex and not love. Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” songs are interesting on this level too— they meld sexual and emotional imperatives, so that a certain amount of vulnerability is exposed. What’s intriguing about “A Case of You” specifically is that it appears, on the surface, to be a love song, and a good one— it’s driven, passionate, and cohesive. But the crux of the lyric is that the female protagonist could absorb (“drink”) the male protagonist as wine, without getting drunk. In other words, what satisfies the narrator is her own self-possession. She’s celebrating that she’s not possessed.
Where possession is concerned, it’s hard to beat Sting and the Police. During his tenure with the band, Sting was very good at penning rock songs that also doubled as love songs. “Every Breath You Take,” “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic,” even “Roxanne” all qualify. “Every Breath You Take” is the most spectacular, and the creepiest— a stalker’s confession and an expression of extreme tenderness at the same time. It’s a love song with more psychology in it than the songs Frank Sinatra sang— it dares to be extreme in a way that Cole Porter never could. Yet no one seemed to be put off by it— the song was a monster hit. “Every Breath You Take” could be the greatest rock love song ever written— it achieves perfect musical and lyrical concision. Though it would be amusing to hear Sinatra try and cover it. And then there’s the huge contingent of rock artists who have never come near the straightforward love song— David Bowie, Pete Townshend, Ray Davies, Bruce Springsteen, and (with minor exceptions) Jagger-Richards. If Sting has serious competition, it is Lou Reed, even if that’s not what his image indicates. “Pale Blue Eyes” is a magnificent love song— as tender and tragic as “Every Breath You Take.” Sting’s slight edge is just for concision. Reed’s Velvets love songs (not just “Pale Blue Eyes” but “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and “I Found a Reason”) are memorable for incorporating bits of intellect, serious poetic metaphor (mirrors figure in some of them), and the sense that not just bodies but minds are meeting.
Paul McCartney, the rock cliché goes, is a balladeer; I would argue that his best relationship songs (“I’m Looking Through You,” “You Won’t See Me,” “Maybe I’m Amazed”) are too much about ambiguity and conflict (along the lines of “Dreams”) to be considered love songs. Lennon has some interesting songs on this level too—“Jealous Guy” particularly. Lennon grovels; McCartney doesn’t. In the final analysis, rock as a genre doesn’t lend itself to straightforward love songs. It’s too much about conflict, especially sexual conflict, and raw honesty. But the intersections are noteworthy for broadening the range of what rock songs can do. And future possibilities are there to be developed.
Along time continuums, rock is angled towards present-minded orientations. The best rock songs have the quality of intensely lived moments— even those torqued away from sex and romance, like “Waterloo Sunset.” Ray Davies is one of the few rock songwriters to write consistently in “past modes”— one of the reasons he’s a contender for the most serious artist in rock history. Writing about “now” or future outcomes can seldom be as rich as writing about past moments, emotions, etc. Time changes and expands perspectives— moments look different in retrospect than they do in the present tense. When Davies sings “People often change/ But memories of people can remain” in “Do You Remember Walter?”, the wisdom he imparts is simple but profound. The moment intensely lived is a double moment— a moment of recollection. It’s experienced as overwhelming, simultaneously joyous and melancholy. Davies best songs do seem to make other rock writers look one-dimensional. Other good rock songs that attempt this sort of thing (David Bowie’s “Changes,” the Beatles “She Said She Said”) don’t quite demonstrate the narrative chops to balance head and heart the way Davies does.
If Davies’ songs have a slight edge on Van Morrison’s “Madame George,” it’s because the song’s second-person perspective drains some energy and interest away from the narrative. That having been said, Davies’ perceived masterpiece, 68’s “Village Green” album, is patchy. If “Third/Sister Lovers” doesn’t have any individual tracks as brilliant as “Waterloo Sunset” or “Do You Remember Walter?”, it adds up to a whole that incorporates moments of recollection with moments of intense present-minded urgency. What’s funny about the Beatles is that their most famous “past statement” (the double-sided single “Penny Lane/ Strawberry Fields Forever”) is put together in such a way that, had John Lennon and Paul McCartney not talked them up in interviews, no one outside Liverpool (especially Americans) would have realized that Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane were Liverpudlian places from their pasts. The Who’s quirky variant of this, “I’m a Boy,” is not a recollection at all but a little monologue from an androgynous (proto-deviant) young girl. Prince takes this subgenre (temporal narrative/ nostalgia piece) and radically sexualizes it— “Little Red Corvette” and “Raspberry Beret” are pure sexual nostalgia. Ray Davies almost always remains platonic. In a way, Pet Sounds is a nostalgia piece— nostalgia combines with a pained awareness of present and future. The context is pure Americana, the voice one of wounded innocence. The Bruce Springsteen voice that manifests in “My Hometown” is the adult equivalent of Asher/Wilson’s troubled adolescent.
This time zone subgenre is one reason that rock songs and their canon cannot be easily dismissed. Subgenres like hard rock and heavy metal have a more difficult time making bids for maturity— the songs are almost all present tense. No rock critic that I’ve seen has bothered to make extensive sub-generic distinctions— one of the reasons it is difficult to regard them as serious. Serious critics in higher art genres need to sort, and organize. They have their own wheels to spin— they don’t have to be mere cogs. This is what rock has to decide for itself— whether or not it wants to be a higher art genre. I’d say, rock biz shenanigans aside, rock has gotten off to a decent start. To the extent that you can equate “Waterloo Sunset” with one of Keats’ better sonnets, this would be hard to argue against. The move that needs to be made is from sonnet to ode; minor ambitions in a minor genre to major ambitions in a major genre. All it really takes is three or four great writers. And a little luck.
Let’s face facts: most rock interviews are embarrassing. Music journalists are frequently university-educated; some rock musicians are, but the overwhelming majority are not. As is counterintuitive to what should be the case (ideally), edges in articulateness and intelligence fall on the side of the journalists, not the musicians. To take a signifying instance from a rock movie— when William, the aspiring music journalist in Almost Famous, wants to get Stillwater’s attention (in a do-or-die situation), he calls a guitar solo in one of their songs “incendiary.” Do the guys in Stillwater know what “incendiary” means? It is implied that they probably don’t. They just know that it means something positive, and let William in with them accordingly. William is an intriguing character (and meant to be a double for the young Cameron Crowe)— precocious, intellectually gifted, yet mysteriously drawn to the sleazy bump n’ grind of the rock biz. He’s blatantly more intelligent than the Stillwater guys (and, arguably, Lester Bangs), but they have a good deal of worldly experience that he doesn’t. Can you reach substantial maturity writing about rock stars less intelligent and educated than you are? Can you learn from guys who don’t know what incendiary means?
It’s also depressing to many onlookers how level the playing field is with rock interviews— that talented rock musicians don’t necessarily interview any better than untalented ones. It can be a struggle to distinguish Van Morrison from Warrant or Dokken from Keith Richards. The overheated, overeager interviewer is supposed to treat the rock legend and his/her remarks as authentic manna from heaven, rather than drunken and/or stoned mumbles in incoherent (or semi-coherent) directions. It’s a kind of burlesque dance. Even the most famously articulate rock musicians, like Bob Dylan or John Lennon, were clumsy enough in interview contexts to betray their lack of education— even as educated interviewers trained themselves not to notice, or at least to pretend not to notice. Where rock journalism is concerned, rock star incoherence is always the elephant in the room. Among other elephants, valorization of rock stars after their deaths is another big one. Rock journalists praise John Lennon’s “magnificent life,” rank Jim Morrison with William Blake, and put out cash-cow books of deceased rock star memorabilia. Does George Harrison warrant fifteen or twenty biographies? Does Brian Jones merit a movie?
It’s also interesting that current rock biz entropy hasn’t changed the rock interview set-up. Conor Oberst gets asked the same basic set of questions that young Bob Dylan did. Now the struggle for rock publications is to figure out, if no one sells, who’s worth interviewing and who isn’t. Who gets the papal blessing of a Rolling Stone interview? Rock musicians generally do interviews when they have something to promote; and promoting something you know can’t sell complicates what used to be a well-greased (for the successful) system and machine. This festering situation adds another level of embarrassment to the rock interview process— rock stars who could get away with pontificating when they sold heavily can no longer get away with it. “Mumbles” interviews (done in a state of intoxication) are also riskier; it’s squandering a chance to set forth an ethos and an agenda. It needs to be said: the Keith Richards/Aerosmith syndrome is not going to be helpful for up-and-coming rock musicians. If they can’t be too articulate, they can at least be coherent. And the strangeness of the system (educated journalists/uneducated musicians) should be discussed. Why not clear the elephants out of the room.
Almost Famous ends with an interview— in the movie, it’s a happy ending, probably because William’s extreme youth produces extreme happiness with any kind of outward rock success. But the idea of attaining any kind of maturity in the context of rock journalism is troubled. In an ideal rock world, only the articulate rock musicians (and there are some) should be allowed to speak much. It’s also interesting to wonder if anyone’s listening anymore. Almost Famous was a hit; a wide audience enjoyed the travails of a bright kid put into the rock biz mix. The new mix is transitional, at best. Why can’t rock stars talk about that?
Monday, July 11, 2011
Let’s talk misogyny. Male rock stars have been accused of misogynistic viewpoints and intentions since rock established itself as a musical genre. But how misogynistic is rock music generally? Is male rock star misogyny mostly a myth? It’s undeniable that many rock cultural myths objectify women, or install women merely as sex objects. The Kiss album “Love Gun” went multi-platinum in the mid-to-late 70s; the cover image could either be construed as provocative or misogynistic. It featured the band, in full make-up but sans instruments, on a kind of stage, with besotted, scantily clad women on all fours crawling towards them. Gene Simmons appears to be letting out a cry of joy or frustration. Images like this are de rigueur in rock, especially in subgenres like hard rock and heavy metal (Kiss qualifies as hard rock). But genuine misogyny is usually about enforced norms, especially enforced political norms— whether or not putting an image into the marketplace counts as this kind of enforced aggression is debatable. It is rather droll to note, but on the album sleeve in question the signifying gestures have more to do with wanting to be objectified than with objectifying others. It has an insecure male gaze behind it, rather than the steady hand of an oppressor.
Images come out of corpuses of imagery— to the extent that this is at the extreme end of what makes up the major corpus of rock images, and there is no clear aggression behind it, rock imagery is more innocent than it is generally thought to be. Most of the extreme images are drawn from hard rock and heavy metal contexts— realms where aggression is a core value. When feminists take Mick Jagger to task for “Under My Thumb” (the context being “solid rock,” not a subgenre), the situation gets more contorted. The song is about a reversal of fortune in the context of a single relationship— a woman who had dominated the protagonist is now being dominated by him. We are told explicitly that the violence and abuse on both sides is psychological, and subtle. As such, the song, expressively, is at a tangent to misogynistic impulses on a number of levels— because the protagonist’s attitude is not generalized out towards all women, but towards one woman and a specific situation; because the woman here is self-subjugating (the male is not forcing her to stay in the relationship); and because the protagonist’s obvious satisfaction is owing to a past condition of having been a victim, which implies that he let himself be victimized. Jagger here is not a “solid male oppressor” at all. If the song is often singled out as exemplar of the Stones’ misogyny, it’s not particularly close to the authentic phenomenon.
Feminists also linger on the fact that women in rock and pop are forced by business machinations and commercial interests to be sexually provocative (especially in video contexts), thus creating a media culture (with its attendant fetishism) around certain attractiveness images. “Force” here is ambiguous— no one can be forced into a business they do not allow themselves to be led into. Nor can one performer’s self-imagery change things that much. To the extent that a body of images has been created which set uncomfortable and unrealistic standards for young women to live up to, it is the media, in concord with a large number of performers over a long period of time, which has created and consolidated this body of images. The male rock star gaze has been comparably harmless. When Led Zeppelin recorded a song like “Living Loving Maid (She’s Just a Woman),” they were protected by the oblique nature of the lyrics, and the fact that the media weren’t paying much attention to them. Had they written lyrics with the poet’s precision Jagger had, and leaning towards aggressive misogyny, Zeppelin would have had a big problem. While not all rock can be defended, what I’m getting at is that rock imagery has many culpable characteristics but, where the good stuff is concerned, misogyny is not one of them. Rock has much more to answer for about narcotics— for promoting cognitive dissipation, so that intelligence and general awareness are uncool. Rock imagery promotes in too many ways the idea that degeneracy is elegant. It’s actually ugly as sin.
Sunday, July 10, 2011
To start at the beginning: punk began in England. The master narrative will always continue: it was a musical reaction against the excesses and self-indulgences of the 70s. But, at a tangent to the (usually American rock) master narrative, punk was also a political movement, and that’s more difficult to address. How much do American rock critics understand Britain’s class structure? Punk immediately put a chasm in place between American and British rock; some rock artists were conscientious about admitting this, some weren’t. It was also one of the few movements in rock to generate small commercial successes and also to exert enormous influence on almost everyone. Of the two major flagship bands, the Clash were more authentically punk, if also principled; the Sex Pistols were a carefully crafted product. The important thing that bound punk together was the necessity of maintaining a working-class image. There were (ostensibly) no middle-class punks. Rather than working-class obduracy, the Clash embodied working-class idealism, as manifest in an abridged Marxist-leaning interest in raising the British working-class up. The Pistols were both more pure and dirtier— purer, because they weren’t espousing an ideology; dirtier, because they seemed to have every intention of becoming rock stars.
Middle-class punk came later, and in the States; the Pistols and the Clash, though they had drastically different intentions, formed a well-rounded cultural sign. It soon became the case that punk-adjuncts like Elvis Costello, the Pretenders, and the Police could use pop-sense to outsell the punks; and by then, the Pistols had imploded anyway. Punk scenes that developed in American cities (particularly L.A. and Washington, D.C.) tended to lean towards a Clash, rather than a Pistols, orientation— even if class was less of an issue than educated anti-corporate scrupulousness (especially in D.C.). Punk, more than any other sustained movement in rock history, was about politics. The big question is whether the music validated the entire punk endeavor. The Clash were unique; they did develop, over several albums, a varied musical palette. Most punk bands still do not develop varied musical palettes— the chiasmus from punk to pop-punk allows some leeway, as when Green Day put out American Idiot in 2006. It was a successful stab in the direction of progressive punk, and possibly a move forward for the genre. But many punks don’t want any pop in the mix— the original punks actually tended to hate Costello, Chrissie Hynde, and Sting. Pop-punk could even be construed as the same thing as New Wave.
It’s another chiasmus in American punk— purists like Black Flag and Fugazi (“indie punks”) and the pop-punk ideal Green Day embodies. Is punk without some pop in it good music? It’s loud, aggressive, unmelodic, and tends to be static from song to song. It can be used for cathartic purposes, but when this is the case, punk bands have no distinct identity— this kind of punk all sounds roughly the same. Yet the homogeneity of corporate America is supposed to be what it and they are rebelling against. Pop and standardized punk both take the genre in more extreme directions than the Pistols or the Clash do. It’s ironic to see balance, rather than extreme aggression, in Pistols and Clash music, but it is there. Even John Lydon’s vocals are delivered with a certain amount of pop-sense. The Clash have a song or two in the classic rock radio corpus (“Train in Vain,” “Rock the Casbah”), though the Pistols’ lyrics were probably too outré for them to be included in said corpus. I would argue that they’ve been able to maintain visibility because they did have pop-sense, and that Amer-Indie punk is comparatively lazy. If a song doesn’t deserve to be heard more than once, perhaps it doesn’t deserve to be heard at all. To the extent that, from the Beatles onward, British and American rock go back and forth in a kind of ping-pong war, the punk round seems to have been won (overall, and in a close-run fashion) by the Brits. It serves to show that the intersections of ideology and music are risky, if ideology is allowed to “win.” Solid ideas are nothing in art without solid forms to back them up. And this tension’s been around for at least two-hundred years.
It remains a strange dichotomy inherent in rock culture— all those destabilized, destabilizing behavioral patterns (sex, drugs, and rock and roll) remain comforting to rock people. They act as a kind of nest-hovel, a safe base to work from in the construction of lives and identities. If the New Rock forces rock musicians to leave this oddly sculptured nest, the first question which arises is not necessarily who the authorities will be (adults needing authority figures less than adolescents do) but what constitutes authority. The old authority-signifiers are obvious— record sales, concert attendance, underground cachet, musical and lyrical ability, and all the chiasmus positions between these. If things are honed back so that record sales and concert attendance are no longer an issue, and if no one can agree (as is likely) on a centralized aesthetic, we have a rock world made up of subalterns, who may or may not be pleased to be working under no one. Adults do generally prefer to have some recognizable authority over them; a realm without authority is a wilderness realm. The New Rock, too, could turn out, in the short run, to be a wilderness realm.
The situation requires feeling out. Local scenes put up local heroes; those under them may or may not accept their status. It’s also interesting to wonder how much reverence will remain for the first fifty years of rock music. It could be a firmly bound or broken thread, depending on who you ask and what their musical ethos is. The hypocrisy of mega-rock stars, who attempt to embody everything to everyone, may seem déclassé in retrospect. But a generation of rock Bohemians would be incomplete without a variety of touchstones. The process by which good material from the first fifty years which has not yet seen the light of day comes to light is inevitable, and with it a change of dynamics. On some levels, it’s a change from an American to a European form of consciousness. Looking up to mega-stars because you, too, desire mega-success is an American peccadillo. The rock dream of the “first fifty” is an American dream— unlimited wealth, splendid and spectacular outward success, all bequeathed upon average guys/gals who are often uneducated and spring from working-class backgrounds. In other words, rags to riches. The rock dream of the New Rock is no dream at all— you’re an artist, plodding away in your own garden. Gradually, you develop a comparatively modest following, drawn in by the quality of your art. It’s a European model that goes back longer than fifty years. Do rock people remember how small Shakespeare was in his lifetime compared to someone like Bono?
It’s not just that the New Rock offers no glitz; it’s that it cuts against the grain of what the American Empire represents to the world. America is perceived in many quarters to be an “adolescent authority,” conducting itself like a magnificently large teenager, without maturity or restraint. The model, for a French thinker like Baudrillard, was Disneyland. MTV was Disneyland with visible cleavage. Rolling Stone was Disneyland with a dollop of political idealism. Even the debauchery around rock has a Disneyland level— it’s designed to give an appearance of the magic, the fairytale. In an important sense, Keith Richards is a Mickey Mouse figure. Just shuffle the signifiers and he carries the weight of a totalized American fairytale. The New Rock goes backwards and forwards at once; backwards, because the European dignity of the serious artist has been a visible phenomenon for centuries; forwards, because nascent rock musicians have no choice but to employ this model, because the Disneyland levels of rock are rapidly and ineluctably receding. What’s left is a take it or leave it chance to do something (if you have the ambition) artistically worthwhile. If you want to be a cartoon, there are easier, less painful ways to do it (rock ways demanding that you kill off your body in the process). The New Rock winds up balancing American and European perspectives. It’s the classicism and dignity of Old Europe meeting the egalitarianism, level-playing-field mindset of ideal America. What’s gone are the fantasies, the carnival atmosphere and the six-foot smiling rodents. To the extent that Baudrillard could ever accept or embrace rock music and rock music ethos, it’s the rock that’s in front of us rather than the rock that’s behind. And any chance to conflate America with Europe in a constructive way is one that should be taken. It’s the age for America to be aging.
Saturday, July 9, 2011
Drugs have always been an integral part of the rock lifestyle. This is more contradictory than it at first appears to be— if rock music’s cultural strength is its raw honesty, drugs not only cloud natural honesty but make it impossible. Doing drugs is (usually) spiritually dishonest. But the rock musician’s escape valve is just that— escape and escapism. The rock star, as a complex cultural sign, balances capacities for soul-crushing honesty with an “escape imperative.” The truth is perceived to be too much to bear at least part of the time. Then there’s the road, and that’s too much to bear part of the time too. The ultra-successful rock star is an odd mixture of self-awareness and self-pity. Intoxicants are part of his/her mystique. But the rock biz is changing, and “ultra-success” is becoming a past event horizon. The comfortably intoxicated (or comfortably numb) rock star was protected by material assets and (often) personal minders. Even renegades like Iggy Pop (who took a long time to achieve a “comfortable” level of material success) could be protected by social nexuses and formidable cachet. As time goes by, fewer and fewer rock artists will be protected by material circumstances, especially the majority who will have to work (at least intermittently) other jobs. The mystique has to be in the music.
The place of intoxicants needs to be discussed (cutting, in an adult way, against the grain of cultural mystiques) if musicians decide to commit a good amount of time to rock music. The state of “elegant wastedness” is a bogus ideal to begin with; it amounts to a portrait of Peter Pan with a syringe. It could be that, with the end of the possibility of ultra-success, rock will be forced to enter the real world. Although I would argue that, in opposition to the high cultural cliché, the best rock music is not particularly adolescent. Nor have all serious rock musicians been adolescent-minded. But excess that makes cognition impossible over long periods of time is adolescent, because it implies an inability to come to terms with daily human realities. The New Rock has, of necessity, to come to terms with daily human realities instantly. It’s not just that you can’t be a rock star; it would be unintelligent even to fantasize about being a rock star. In an even more profound way than was true in the early 70s, “the dream is over” in 2011. In semiotic shorthand, drugs are dreams.
To look at the situation in a more positive light, rock is being given a chance to grow up. There are nuances— debates have always been waged about whether marijuana “counts.” It’s soft, relatively easy to obtain, and (for some people) opens up musical creativity channels. Like alcohol, it can be consumed moderately without undue loss. Musicians have to decide for themselves whether pot and alcohol work for them. Harder stuff would seem more difficult to sustain if a day-job is an issue. Iconography around rock will have to grow more practical too— the artists who produce the most good material will have to be the icons, no matter what their personal habits happen to be. Archetypes might have more to do with regions than with standardized lifestyle choices. It’s also possible that new mythologies will develop around trust-funders, who can back up the old choices with protective money. Whatever happens, old myths are difficult to dislodge. The Peter Pan traps are there for whoever chooses to fall into them. Since the 60s, people have always wanted an easy, perfect, glamorous life from rock music. It’s an ideal achieved by no one. The ridiculousness of moneyed rock stars who “survive” drug and alcohol addiction is always balanced by the sad deaths of not-moneyed types who choose to imitate them. Do you, too, want to be Aerosmith? Don’t do it from Center City Philly (or Midtown Memphis).
The Amer-Indie ideal, of floating from receptive, on-the-up-and-up scene to receptive, on-the-up-and-up scene, will probably also remain inaccessible. This is more “Peter Pan in the Van.” It’s about mobility, which is also precluded by a day job. There’s no way around the fact that the New Rock life is difficult. But, for some of us, adulthood is richer and more rewarding than adolescence. Adult rock could be that much richer than the standardized kids’ stuff, especially on a cultural level. It’s a movement forwards and up.
Rock is not supposed to be about show biz, but it is. For all that what separates rock from pop is a certain amount of truth consonance (both lyrically and in “felt” music), plenty of rock has employed the glitz and glitter of old-time Hollywood and other entertainment centers. To the extent that rock biz and show biz overlap, what could create discomfort is usually ignored. Show biz norms cohabitate with rock norms to the extent that rock audiences don’t even realize they’re being finagled. When Rolling Stone, in 1987, put out its 20th Anniversary television spectacular, it was ripe with video montages. The video montage couldn’t be a more show biz trick; it is meant to overwhelm its audience with sheer dazzling spectacle. The “guitar heroes montage” featured back-to-back short clips of Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Duane Allman and Jimmy Page soloing, ending with a full Zeppelin performance of “Whole Lotta Love.” The lead-in to the montage was Tina Turner talking and gesturing emphatically about the peerless power of rock guitar. Looked at as a three part package (lead-in/montage/Zeppelin), the aim was to demonstrate a core value of Rolling Stone and its core audience— the glamour and prestige of a certain kind of musicianship. But this was demonstrated not by intelligent discourse that aimed for truth but by a Barnum & Bailey sideshow, which reduced the aim to a caricature. Educated rock fans take this for granted; the hokey vulgarity of certain promotional mechanisms in the rock biz. But as the rock biz morphs, it remains to be seen what levels of show biz glitz will be allowed to stick and which will sink from view.
Was MTV (when it was, literally, MTV) ever much more than a manifestation of show biz values? Why, in the early 80s, did it suddenly become imperative to accompany rock songs with highly produced videos? In the sciences, movements are orderly and linear, and follow necessary progressions; culture is all idiosyncrasy in comparison. MTV imposed the necessity of show biz chops on everyone. If you rebelled, as Jeff Buckley did in the 90s, there was a good chance that you would get killed. That more rock artists did not rebel is evidence that fewer musicians were dedicated to a hard-line rock ethos than one would expect. Most name rockers gladly picked up their show biz chops and made effective or ineffective use of them. “Effective” and “ineffective” have a double meaning here; each one can signify either a commercial or artistic level. “Heart-Shaped Box” was effective as a work of art; Warrant’s “Cherry Pie” was merely commercially effective. And there were many more “Cherry Pie(s)” than there were “Heart-Shaped Box(es).” The MTV Video Music Awards rapidly became the “Rock Oscars” of the Era, a forum for pure glitz and glam. Kurt Cobain famously rebelled in 1992; but he participated none the less. Many rock artists of the 90s who were weaned on Amer-Indie had the same conflicts Cobain did; the idea that show biz chops were not worth having, but that substantial rock biz success was impossible without them. And (predictably) MTV made many montages of the happenings at their Oscars, to demonstrate what an exciting spectacle they were.
But rock, as it becomes a less profitable business, is moving away from spectacle and show biz again. Show biz can’t exist without ample capital; and the rock that’s emerging from underground has nary a chance of either being backed by or raising ample capital. If rock eventually comes to have a long history, it will probably be judged that MTV was, all things considered, a negative development. To the extent that much of the best rock music ever made was never on MTV (not just Big Star or the Velvets; there is no video for “Satisfaction” or “Positively Fourth Street”), how could it claim any but the most crass kind of significance? Show biz values are all about the promulgation and cultural avidity for illusions; the spirit of the best rock music is the spirit of raw honesty. As such, show biz retreating from the forefront of rock’s horizon will open up vistas that are egalitarian and American in the ideal sense. Rather than a Springsteen montage, it’s the realization of the premise behind Springsteen’s songs— that America and the freedom it represents can open up anywhere, anytime, to anyone that has the ears and the heart to listen.
We all know what YouTube is— a free Internet site designed to promote the dissemination of user-placed videos. In practice, YouTube has turned into something quite different— a self-programmed MTV, jukebox, stereo, CD player at once. In many ways, it might as well be Rock Music Central in 2011. It precludes the need to download and buy mp3s; grants instant accessibility both to stars and to unknown artists; and, as an expanding system, delivers these services is such a way as to suggest that it will continue into an unbounded future. Most rock artists are onboard with the YouTube phenomenon; despite the privation of making no profits from it. Trends are trends and this one is overwhelming; exposure is exposure. For unknown artists, the stakes are higher. But this brings up another pertinent question— what (and who) works best on YouTube? The simple answer would seem to be that whatever looks good, is good— that image (and imagery) rule. The truth is more extreme— in the balance of things, and counterintuitive to mercenary instinct, YouTube is skewered dramatically towards the consolidation of established stars and against discoveries of new talent. Dedicated fans fill YouTube with minutiae videos (interviews, press conferences, rare tracks and live performances); people flock to YouTube to fulfill an appetite for songs they already know. The unregulated nature of YouTube makes it, on certain levels, as much of a wasteland as Wikipedia; and its no secure home-base for anyone without a substantial preexistent fan-base.
To put it simply, YouTube works best for superstars— those who can use the exposure and don’t need the money. Mid-level stars and down do actually need the money that YouTube is taking out of their pockets. This holds, even if YouTube is not a serious credential for anyone; it is too inclusive to be a credential. Mid-level and down, it could be construed as a credential to have zealous fans documenting your every move; but if the exposure is not tied to any secure future earnings, it may or may not be a superfluity. For low-level performers, the whole thing is cold comfort— proof only that you sell without selling. That’s what working the rock business amounts to in 2011— selling without selling, being a “priceless commodity.” And with a predominant unregulated system slanted towards superstar interests, it’s difficult not to hope that YouTube (as Wikipedia) gets organized/regulated. It could at least offer features that would showcase rising talent. It could compensate rock artists for the current system of priceless commodities (videos “sold” without money changing hands). MySpace offers personalization, and individualized attention, which is why many rock musicians still lean on it.
Of course, all this discourse is from the point of view of (often aspiring) rock musicians. Fans that are merely fans see the matter differently. For fans with conventional tastes, YouTube is a kind of virtual orgy. It’s comprehensive, nuanced, and self-propelled (without, particularly, an intermediary figure like a DJ). In that dichotomous reaction (debacle-orgy) lies one truth about the Internet Age— it is an age of extreme relativism. Commonalities are swallowed up by differences. Even rock musicians who are being damaged by YouTube are still forced to use it extensively. The very chaos and sprawl of YouTube acts as a kind of hegemonic aura for and around it; it probably has what you’re looking for, somewhere. This is a unique phenomenon— tyranny imposed not only in an arbitrary fashion but in such a way that it could be construed as positively benevolent. The final YouTube angle is a question mark— how long can an unregulated system expand before circumstances force a contraction of some kind? It may be a Dark or Golden Age come to an end. For the time being, it fits in with the purist ethos of the New Rock and its attendant sacrifices. The only thing left standing at the end is music and the desire to play it. And you’re on YouTube just like everyone else. All New Rock needs are a bunch of avatars and a permanent Pro Tools set-up. Count it off…
Friday, July 8, 2011
The 70s in rock music were a great time for random signs. A random sign in rock could be construed as a band or performer with a public name but no real particular public identity. What do Kansas mean as a cultural sign? Yet vistas open in culture in praise of the random; people find the random humorous, and bond over it. Random signs become emblematic of the times they exist in. What usually distinguishes random signs in rock is crass commerciality; a sense that the band/performer’s songs were made purely to sell, away from aesthetic concern. In the rock vernacular, songs like this might be called “cheese.” Cheese can become instant camp; a fermented or fermenting form of kitsch. But if you put the 70s cheese-rock bands in a row (as the rock subgenre AOR, Album Oriented Rock, already does), what’s revealed is enough outward popularity to justify an inquiry: Journey, Toto, Asia, Kansas, Foreigner, Supertramp, REO Speedwagon, possibly Heart and the Doobie Brothers. What kept these bands from becoming legitimate cultural signs?
When rock began in the 50s, individual performers had to have charisma to gain an audience— from the sexiness of Elvis to the down-home country boy simplicity of Buddy Holly. By the 70s, rock songs had their own charisma, just out of a context that was still nascent— a wide public for all kinds of rock music, which cut across a surprising number of demographic lines. Commercial rock performers didn’t necessarily need to be buoyed by individual charisma; if they could produce charismatic material, that was enough. It’s just that the fans didn’t believe in Toto or Asia the way they believed in (perhaps) the Beatles and the Stones. They set themselves up as pure technicians of commercial craft. Cultural signs almost always arise, at least to an extent, out of personalities— they’re emblems of the “human.” The clinical nature of a technician’s work precludes this from happening; too many restraints stop them from becoming emblematic of anything. Journey are a semi-exception— lead vocalist Steve Perry developed a recognizable persona (dramatic leaning towards bathetic, emotionally bare-nerved, androgynous), and was able to use it to connect with (mostly female) fans. Most Journey songs were pure sentiment; they didn’t challenge, innovate, or even narrate in a distinctive way. Perry’s voice did the job of selling them, and he did so successfully. It could be argued that Journey, as a cultural sign, represent a specific brand of rock sentimentality— but it’s a thin, not particularly compelling sign.
To put it simply, by the 70s, major rock stars no longer needed to be cultural signs. They could just be skilled technicians. In the 80s, “hair metal bands” (distinguished by distinctively cut and teased hair) bore out this trend— Bon Jovi, Cinderella, Dokken, Europe, Stryper, Ratt, Winger, Poison, and Warrant. However, the “cheese” element here is intensified; these bands could almost all be taken as cultural anti-signs. They seemed to have no desire to represent anything but excess, dissipation, and the willful destruction of the cognitive. It needs to be stated that “empty signage” is much more common in pop than in rock— pop is more commonly about technique and crass commerciality. Rock is largely about median points between sleaze and idealism. Or, sleazy ideals. There’s at least some space for truth. In some ways, the AOR and hair metal bands were, no matter how hard-edged, a pure manifestation of pop, rather than rock ethos. They were pure, not only from rock but from art and its responsibilities. Commercial imperatives do tend to empty out signage.
Another question is whether or not this is necessarily a bad thing. Empty signs are a post-modern shibboleth— if we conflate Winger and a Campbell’s Soup can, it’s a rather easy blend. But the post-modern empty sign may eventually wind up an impoverished curio. Signification, in rock as everywhere else, is richness. In other words, it’s good when things mean something. Because post-modernism denies the obvious, it will always beg too many questions; even if the cheese tastes good sometimes.
Conversely, drugs were an implicit presence. It was a common (and somewhat correct) assumption that Barrett’s child-like whimsy was the result of LSD trips. So Barrett-era Floyd as a cultural sign are a mixed bag. As a “sub-sign,” it remains intact— signifying a moment of avant-garde cultural ferment in London, in which rock musicians believed they could be in the vanguard. Syd emerges in this sub-sign as a “cult hero,” a charmed and charming artist who quickly met a tragic end (even if he lived for thirty-eight more years in a state of severe catatonia). The voyage from Syd to international blockbuster success (Syd-Floyd not having reached the US much) is an interesting one: ’67-73. Floyd went through a perpetual process of restructuring from the ground up. They never remained settled for long— between ambient “space-rock,” full orchestra accompaniments, jazzy diversions, and a lack of strong lyrical focus, they had substantial UK commercial success, but (again) the US was slow to respond. By Dark Side of the Moon, they had discovered a new kind of cohesion— Roger Waters’ lyrics went for the big-picture jugular in songs like “Time” and “Money,” teetering between realism and fatalism (and achieving at least parity with Barrett’s whimsy); and David Gilmour and Rick Wright added enough polish and pop-sense that people could hum along, even if the general mood was pensive and foreboding.
The album was a titanic success, and Dark Side-era Floyd emerged as another sub-sign— rather than Barrett’s pin-up looks, a prism being struck by a beam of light against a stark black background. This Floyd meant wide musical spaces and dark perspectives; a heavy sign. This was maintained until the end of the 70s, with no one member of Floyd elevated. Floyd remained platonic and anonymous-seeming. The gargantuan success of the Wall initiated the construction of another sub-sign for Pink Floyd. This version had Roger Waters in place as an auteur, steering the band; David Gilmour as an accomplice; and Rick Wright and Nick Mason very much relegated to background roles, or even AWOL. Wright’s defection (willing or unwilling) was especially noticeable— with him went a sense of “space,” a certain amount of musical nuance and sophistication (gone were jazzy chord changes). The Wall, as a “big lyrical statement,” has to do with extreme alienation and the inability of individuals to connect with other individuals. Waters pulls out every stop to make these themes as explicit as possible. Waters’ gestures could be taken as either extremely (and positively) intense, or merely bombastic. But The Wall sold, and with it emerged this Floyd sub-sign— Waters and the rest as hard-rock philosophers, offering a bird’s eye perspective of the human race and its foibles. The Wall also won Roger Waters exceptional prestige as a rock auteur, even if the film wasn’t as rabid a success as the album.
So, when you put all these sub-signs together, what does Pink Floyd add up to? They’ve been massive enough to fill stadiums; but they’re yet not widespread enough beyond rock culture to represent overwhelming popularity, like the Beatles do. The Wall could be interpreted as cancelling out the “space-rock” tag; and the Barrett-Waters chiasmus might seem to negate the notion of a decipherable whole. The lesson could be that some cultural signs are just meant to remain amorphous. Fans can pick what sub-sign they feel most drawn to at any given moment, even if the natural human inclination towards simplicity remains unsatisfied.