Reading Mike Breen’s melancholy story about seeing Perry Farrell’s new band, Satellite Party, I was struck by this bit:
There’s now a perception that the early ’90s “AltRock Revolution” was all dark and gloomy and doomy. But I remember a sense of hope. It was exciting to watch groups that I had seen play to 20 people at a tiny, dark, dank club months earlier suddenly get played on mainstream radio and dissected in the mainstream press. It was a weird feeling, but It felt like “something” was happening. But nothing ever really did. Pearl Jam gave up on their Ticketmaster fight. Kurt blew his head off. Cheesy Pop made a comeback. Mall stores started catering to the “Grunge” crowd. Peace never came, so the cynics just said, “See told you so” and put their headphones back on. The dream was over. Still is. Maybe that’s why hardly anyone was at the show. But we still need dreamers who don’t think about the end and the bottom line. We need more Perry Farrells. We need more young Perry Farrells. To evolve, we need people who think beyond themselves.
This is, I think, ultimately the problem I have with most rock ‘n’ roll right now. It’s not evolving. The Strokes sounded like a slicker version of the New York Dolls; Interpol sounds like Joy Division; Modest Mouse sounds like the Pixies on Ritalin. (Are you really gonna argue this with me? Really?) And the kids love it. They love pop. They love disposable music. The sheer level of neoteny in rock and roll has reached a fever pitch: bands have a half life of no more than ten minutes before the kids wanna hear something new, new, new. How many new bands have the shelf life of, Christ, even a Pearl Jam these days? Of all of the new indie bands you’re listening to, which ones do you think will put out a fourth album? A fifth? A fifteenth?
I want to make this clear: I’m not waxing nostalgic for the old days. I don’t think that expecting new musicians to push the envelope of what’s been done before is some sort of old timer’s position. Quite the opposite. I’m tired of nostalgia.
Everybody draws on influences, sure; but there is a big difference between being influenced by an artist and doing a bad impersonation of them. A good artist — in any medium — synthesizes their influences, syncretizes them and adds something new and valuable to the mix.
It’s not that this can’t be done. Radiohead did it a decade ago. Bjork’s been doing it for almost twenty years now (more, if you add in her career with the Sugarcubes). The Decemberists are still trying to do it, and so is the Arcade Fire (though I’m not a huge fan of either band, and I’m not sure how well they succeed). I’m most impressed these days with artists who are working in the electronic and “backpack” hip-hop areas: the Klaxons, MIA, Hot Chip, The Roots, Aesop Rock, RJD2, Prefuse ’73…these are artists who are taking a whole lot of different ideas and extending them.
I think where I differ from most music-lovers is in my belief that music serves a purpose being making your booty shake. Popular music, to me, is one of the driving forces of culture. I won’t go so far as to suggest that pop musicians have a responsibility to move culture (or really, to do anything other than make music)…but I will suggest that the amount that an artist attempts to move culture — how seriously they take their position as cultural manufacturers — is directly related to their value as an artist.
That doesn’t mean they have to take themselves seriously — it’s perfectly possible to take your work seriously without taking yourself seriously — nor does it mean that they have to produce heavy, ponderous, meaning-filled works to be of value. (Did the world really need an Operation: Mindcrime 2? Come to think of it, did we need the first one?) Great work can be joyous, both to make and to listen to: “Sweet Jane” comes to mind here, and so does “Mr. Tambourine Man”. (I also think of Soul Coughing songs like “True Dreams Of Wichita” and “Circles”, but then, I’m convinced that Soul Coughing is one of the greatest unrecognized bands of the past two decades.) And it’s possible to make deep songs that fill people with joy. “Fake Plastic Trees”. “Bittersweet Symphony”. Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah”. “Such Great Heights”. These are just a few examples.
But right now, rock is in one of those irritating and embarrassing phases where a band’s image and attitude is worth more to the audience than their actual ability to actually write and/or play. We want arrogant rock stars who spend a lot of money to look casual, who fuck movie stars, who have publicists for their publicists and are more concerned with their marketing plan than with making great music.
Is that what we really want? Do we really want rock stars as models? One of the great things about the aforementioned “AltRock Revolution” was that a lot of the people involved were plain-looking at best (Frank Black, neé Black Francis or Elvis Costello, Michael Stipe) and completely physically bizarre (Farrell, Shane McGowan) at worst. (I’ve seen Perry Ferrell up close, and he’s not exactly a Ford model.) But that wasn’t what was important. What was important was their drive and willingness to create something new.
This is cyclical, and it’s a shame we’re at a low point. But I don’t have much patience with the kids these days, either. They’re either too stupid to realize that they’re being duped into liking pretty, vapid crap by the massive machine of the entertainment industry’s marketing component…or they just don’t care, and just wanna dance. Which makes them vapid themselves.
Ah, well. How much lasting work came out of the disco era? Only the reaction to it. (Unless you’re one of these tired souls who really believes that “Play That Funky Music” is some sort of great art, in which case, you can choke on my dick.) It’s a pity that nobody’s reacting to the dullness of indie rock.
Note: If you’re one of these hideous people who thinks that asking for substance and nuance and meaning from music is some form of passive racism (aka “rockism”), you may also feel free to choke on my dick.