>> Friday, October 28, 2011

This is not, of course, the seventies. Our tasteful professionals aren’t saps shoved down our throats by giant record labels; our sophisticated rock bands aren’t pompous millionaires with silly ideas. (They’re bashful millionaires with sensible ideas, like finding global warming worrisome.) Neither is this the nineties: Acts like Wilco and Feist aren’t slick, pandering constructions. For the most part, they’re independent musicians who’ve scrapped their way to an audience. It's only recently that major labels have figured out how to groom and market acts for this space-—the nook that serves all the purposes of middlebrow adult-contemporary listening, and some of the purposes of indie music, at the same time. That’s one of several reasons music-lovers haven't gotten too punkishly unreasonable about a band like Wilco pouring out inoffensively pleasant music—another being that there are always a billion other things to listen to. But the great "meh" remains in circulation, and [Wilco frontman Jeff] Tweedy’s right that no amount of subtle, well-crafted twists on his format will entirely dispel it.
-Nitsuh Abebe, "Indie Grown-Ups",
New York Magazine, October 23rd, 2011

Or, you know, maybe music lovers haven't gotten too punkishly unreasonable about whether a middle-aged indie band's music is, I dunno, "hardcore" or "edgy" (or whatever) enough because today's audiences have gotten sophisticated enough to realize that debating a band's rebelliousness or authenticity is a mug's game.

I mean, for starters, let's face it: at some point we're talking about mass-produced, pre-packaged edginess, whether we're talking about Virgin Records' Never Mind The Bollocks or Geffen's Nevermind or whatever (surely I'm showing my age by referencing a pair of twenty and thirty-year-old albums, but fuck it). Where did you hear this band? If it was anywhere other than some dingy dive hole-in-the-wall or maybe a white-label self-released cassette or hand-duped CD sold out of the trunk of the lead singer's car, don't'cha think it's been compromised just a little bit? So it came out on Fat Cat and just three people this side of the Atlantic heard it, they sold out to the maaaaaaaaaan, dude.

To steal a line from Abebe, "meh".

I mean, seriously, aren't these kinds of purity tests quaint and retro? Even Johnny Lydon decided he wanted to be a pop star when he grew up, and if you want to call him a sellout for it, well screw off, those were some trippin' cool PiL albums, and good on him and the lads getting to where they could hold a civil conversation long enough to do a Pistols reunion tour even if everybody knew it was a pale shadow of the real thing; we all hope they had fun and it's not like they didn't deserve the money and applause. What else are you offering, anyway? Kurt Cobain decided he couldn't live up to the rock'n'roll aesthetic, and look where it got him. Only a jackass would think sticking a gun in your mouth and traumatizing your already decompensating junkie wife and practically orphaning your infant was somehow more Byronically courageous than settling in for a nice long haul as a cranky troubadour even if you found yourself getting in front of a crowd of forty-somethings to play some acoustic tunes from your new easy-listening album; sure, Neil Young said it was better to burn out than to fade away, but (bless his heart) you'll notice ol' Neil hasn't exactly jumped into his car with an open fifth of bourbon and driven himself off a cliff any time lately.

This is the thing: I think that when there was this distribution bottleneck and everything came down to all you could ever get to hear was what the labels deigned to put out and the radio stations could be paid to play, then, yeah, it was all us and them, you were corporate or you had your fist raised against the man. Except, you know, the rebellious thing almost always ended up having an Ouroboros-ish-ness to it because what happened every few years was that the labels decided youthful rebellion was The Next Big Thing and would co-opt all the fist-raisers by giving them record deals (or they would effectively co-opt themselves: sorry, Dead Kennedys, it is what it is and I'm not being critical--even leftist revolutionaries have to put food on the table and a roof over their heads). So there's your big labels signing your rockers and mods and post-punks and metalheads and flannel shirt grunge crowd and rappers, etc. and buying radio time for them--sorry, we're post-payola: "promoting artists to programing directors with no expectation of quid pro quo"; you know, the kind of thing where we (say for instance) get you into a party at an exotic or exclusive locale with celebrities, groupies, free clothes and mountains of cocaine and thehhhhhhn if you just haaaaaaaaapened to put our new single into heavy rotation, gosh-whilickers, that would be neat-o of you, we feel so grateful for your completely independent and uninfluenced choice to listen to this record and give it a fair chance.

I think a lot of us who are into music have become sophisticated enough to see past the horseshit. This is one of the things I'm trying to get at. Part of it is all the usual stuff about our media-savvy and immersion, etc. Ah, yes, you didn't really get on the radio via hard work and luck, notwithstanding what your publicist said in the press release that was the primary source for the MTV segment and story in Rolling Stone; not to say that hard work and luck didn't play any role anywhere, just that I think we're all aware that this isn't just art, it's also commerce, with all the business machinations and turning gears and calculation that goes along with that. We've seen the making-of specials on VH-1 and read the authorized and unauthorized band biographies, hell, we've been reading the lead singer's blog and following the guitarist on Twitter. We friended your record label on Facebook.

But the fact that the bottleneck has been permanently broken plays a part, too. There's not a lot of point in putting a lot of effort into rebelling against "the establishment" when said establishment is tottering on the edge of irrelevancy, struggling for breath like a dinosaur in an ash-cloud the day after the meteor. Between the hundred-something satellite radio channels (a corporate establishment, true--but one offering dim sum) and the Internet, I don't even know what the Big Four are getting Clear Channel to play on the FM spectrum these days. (I mean seriously, I'm not kidding, I probably ought to take the time to find out at some point except I hate listening to all those commercials). I don't mean this to be bragging or anything: I assume everybody's doing this and I'm always surprised to some degree to find someone who's mostly been listening to commercial big-frequency radio instead of getting their musical kicks from streaming audio or YouTube or (even) one of the college or indie FM channels eking out an existence between Clear Channel's essentially-syndicated format offerings. Whatever. The point is that there's nothing to rebel against anymore, at least not within the context of "over there is the musical mainstream and over here is the bleeding edge cutting against it". I can go online and listen to nothing but the theme songs of Japanese animated TV shows if I want, or tune my car radio into the "'40s On 4" station on SiriusXM if that's my kicks; alternative to what, it's all alternative now, it's all alternative to everything.

This is a helluva good thing. You know, if you go and read Abebe's whole piece in New York, he makes a little bit of a big deal out of bands whose names can't be said in public, because this is the only form of rebellion left when the entire musical realm has become a vast open field in which the former cultural and commercial gatekeepers are struggling to secure the entrance after the rest of the fence has been mostly knocked down. "It's hypothetically possible one of our songs will break through from the indie/online/satellite 'fringe' into the mainstream consciousness the way Cee-Lo Green's 'Fuck You' and Foster The People's ode to school shootings, 'Pumped Up Kicks', did, but at least we can guarantee that nobody on free radio will ever say the name of our band, because 'Pissed Jeans' has got to be some kind of FCC violation, right?" What this is conceding, though maybe Abebe didn't notice it, is that we've reached this wonderful music-lover's nirvana where what matters is just whether or not you like the song, and not whether it has it's proper credentials or is artistically "for" or "against" whatever it is the squares are supposedly settling for; i.e. when the only thing left to posture against is whether your band's name can be repeated in polite company, it sort of necessarily means that people are otherwise actually listening to and judging your songs on their own individual merits as craft and not on who else is listening to them or where they're being played.

Which brings us round to Abebe's claim that Radiohead and Wilco are this day-and-age's adult contemporary, and Stephen Deusner's rebuttal in Salon. Is this even the kind of thing anybody cares about anymore? I'm not so much offended by Abebe's "slam" as I'm a little surprised anybody still cares. Okay, let's say Wilco is "adult contemporary". I'm an adult, the music is contemporary, is the album any good because I haven't heard it all yet, just liked a couple of tracks I heard earlier this month (on the satellite radio, natch)? Similarly, my problem with what I heard off the last Radiohead album wasn't that it was "easy listening" so much as it was "this sounds like a buncha outtakes from The Eraser".

It radiates backwards through time, or maybe I'm just getting old and too mellow; either way, I find that I'm prone to reevaluate earlier epochs of "adult contemporary" with more of an ear for whether I was missing out on something because I was young and stupid or basically right-for-the-wrong-reasons about a bunch of shitty music. On a related score, I'd hate to miss out on some early gem because I was tainted by later, lesser efforts; I'm pleased to say, for instance, that at a tender high school age I was able to get past the awful crap Rod Stewart has put out during my lifetime and appreciate the sheer awesomeness of his early catalogue (I will defend Every Picture Tells A Story, released the year before I was born, with my dying breath if I have to); more regrettably, it wasn't until I was in law school and belatedly discovered Nina Simone that I found a backdoor to the Bee Gees' early awesomeness, being oblivious until then to the fact that an act I synonymized with crappy disco had written utterly devastating and elegant tunes like "I Can't See Nobody" and "To Love Somebody")--my loss, entirely.

Abebe makes a snarky allusion to Sting, but was Sting's sin that he became an "adult staple" (as Abebe puts it), or that Sting's decline into mellow irrelevance forced us (consciously or not) to confront the very real possibility that The Police were never actually as good as we all thought they were, that they were (in fact) a bunch of sleek, well-marketed poseurs? The case against the band is incriminating: two prog-rockers (one of them in his late thirties when he joined the band) and a jazz musician in a "punk" band? That plays reggae? Matching blonde hair after an commercial photo shoot? Songs written in French? The lead singer calls himself "Sting" (because of a hideous coat he used to insist on wearing!) and sings almost everything in a weird faux-Jamaican accent even though he's really a schoolteacher named "Gordon"? I'm not saying I'm persuaded; actually, the case for The Police can be summed up in two words: Stewart Copeland. (Rebuttal: ah yes, one of the two proggers. Surrebuttal: shut up!) No, but really: am I the only one who's noticed that Sting's general suckiness has increased in direct proportion to the amount of time passed since Stewart Copeland last punched him in the face? I'm telling you, I think there's a correlation. The truth is that (a) The Police really were as awesome as all that and (b) honestly, let's face it, Sting has always kinda sucked and (c) Stewart Copeland used to hit him all the time; the logical conclusion is that The Police were awesome because Stewart Copeland beat Sting up all the time, and that the reason Sting's solo albums have been nearly-three-decades of diminishing returns is that Copeland used to beat the pompous twit out of him and now that the domestic violence is out of his life he's free to be as pompous and twitty as he'd like without fear of reprisal. But the fact that Sting's solo career even forces us to have this discussion pushes that catalogue of increasingly dull albums from being mildly inoffensive to being the cause of some surliness, much as Paul McCartney's solo catalogue forces us to confront the ugly suggestion that The Beatles were only as good as John Lennon and any three other guys.*

There's just no margin in being "punkishly unreasonable" anymore. Why bother? I don't have to choose between an inoffensive Wilco album and something avant-garde and/or assaultive on the senses. They'll both fit on my iPod. Am I in the mood for a guilty undemanding pleasure on the way home? I've had the satellite radio tuned in to the station that's featuring Coldplay all week, wishing I liked the new stuff as much as I unironically enjoyed the first three albums (hasn't really happened yet). I confess I don't know Fucked Up, one of the bands-you-can't-name-in-public Abebe cites: I suppose I should check them out on YouTube this weekend sometime. Welcome to the new world order of music consumption: the years of rebellion and civil war are over, we're all free now.

*Kidding! Ringo Starr = made of win!


vince Friday, October 28, 2011 at 11:53:00 PM EDT  

I think this is pretty much dead on. There are a few radio stations I sometimes listen to, mostly to hear artists I wouldn't otherwise hear. I also depend a lot on the recommendations of friends and family when looking for new music. It doesn't mean I'll like everything they suggest I listen to, but it does mean that's where I hear a lot of the music I eventually end up buying (although admittedly I like far more music than I can afford to buy.

As you note, artists have to live. They have bills to pay and lives to lead, and they (usually) want to do this through music because it's what they love and what's better than to make a living do what you love?

I've never been much of one to like or dislike an artists simply because they were hot, or hip, or a critic's darling. I also generally don't like or dislike music because of the genre (although I admit there's very little rap or hip hop that I care for - doesn't mean it's all bad, just that it's not my cup of tea).

As for Rod Stewart, his best solo work was Every Picture Tells A Story and his first album Gasoline Alley. His work with Faces and The Jeff Back Group was also pretty damn good.

And Sting? He's the most commercial of the three members of The Police, and a pretty good bass player. But I would agree that Copeland is the most talented and best musician of the three.

I will, however, disagree with you on the Beatles. Lennon became the more political and daring writer, but McCartney has written some good songs on his own. It's also my opinion that the best Beatles songs are the ones that were truly a collaboration between Lennon and McCartney, and not just contractually credited.

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