Saturday, August 18, 2012

Uncertain Signifiers

I was recently smugly viewing the landscape of bands that are near and dear to me, that just happen to be approaching or surpassing that dreaded 20-year mark in music. It seemed--to me--that many of the bands I came of age with in the late-80s / early-90s have sidestepped the sort of traps that befell so many of the classic rockers when they hit the same milestone. 

Remember David Bowie dancing with muppets in Labyrinth? Paul McCartney had suffered in fits and starts ever since he went solo, but Ebony & Ivory was a death knell. The Stones steadily plodded towards boring irrelevance. Dylan floundered with weak albums and misguided production, bottoming out with the nadir of Knocked Out, Loaded  (after already flailing through a 'born-again' phase in the late 70s). Neil Young was in a category all his own for daring-do that shouldn't be done; churning out weird genre albums from Trans to Old Ways to Everybody's Rockin'--all to the point that he got unceremoniously dumped by Geffen Records for violating his contract by releasing "uncharacteristic albums".

In comparison, look at Sonic Youth. They've made it 30+ years and the worst that could be said about any of their albums is that maybe NY Ghosts & Flowers reached a bit too far for their wider audience. They quickly learned to relegate their wilder impulses to their sidebar SYR self-released label. Pavement (and their principle: Stephen Malkmus) have enjoyed a measured consistent career. Fugazi (and all their related projects) continue to inspire. Robert Pollard is spotty (I suppose) but that's more like carrying on in his case; he was always more about quantity crossed with occasional inspiration, than consistency.

How is that these bands that are second tier--sure they're popular, but Beatles and Stones popular... no--have managed to do what every one of the most classic rock-n-rollers could not? Does it mean they are better, as I was thinking for one self-satisfied moment?

On second thought, it may say more about our musical culture since the early 90s than it does about the artists themselves. I don't particularly want to to diminish their greatness, but I do think it helps to inform their continued, unbroken relevance.

Mainly, I ask: What tectonic shift has happened in popular music since grunge broke out?

I don't mean the ascendancy of any single star, Kanye West or what have you... What has happened that fundamentally changed rock-n-roll, and how we hear it? Consider that in the 70s, AOR and progressive rock (along with a nascent heavy metal scene) were ambushed by punk rock and disco, which was followed by post-punk, new wave and the inception of hip hop. This even leaves off what was happening the fringe-y background (krautrock et al). People like McCartney and Neil Young who had been instrumental in defining what we fundamentally think rock-n-roll is could only watch horrified as scruffy kids kicked it over and wrote an entirely new manual.

There's also a maturity problem. As bands get older, they can't help but get more experienced and accomplished. It's perhaps sad to say, but many ways of expressing nuance, skill and insight are antithetical to rock-n-roll. I'm not saying there are no sophisticated rockers out there--mind you--but that it takes a rare panache to make it work with the primacy of the form. Furthermore, even when you can cram more than three chords into a song, every now and again you are still going to come up short against the 'immediacy' of some 'back-to-basics' upstart rocker churning out two chords with attitude to spare... Right as the aging classicists were beginning to grapple with questions of immediacy vs intricacy, punk was left on their doorstep like a flaming bag of shit: they couldn't just let it burn but they couldn't stamp it out, either.

This of course leaves off one other major factor: burnout. The gist of the 'sophomore slump' is that a band sharpens their craft for years, writing and playing songs live before they get to record their debut... Then, due to contracts or market expectations, they need to turn around and write / record as many songs in less than a year. Hence, the second album is almost always a pale comparison to the first. What happens then 20 years down the road? Sure you've maybe found a way to produce material, but does the work of being a rocker start to finally feel like a job? Do you start to tire of it at that point? Does the material start to sound like assembly-line, prefab pop?

Let's not even talk about the toll of 20 years of the rock-n-roll lifestyle. Living on the road, drink, drugs and sex may all sound awesome... but two decades?!

Some of this, of course applies to the crowd that started in the 80s and 90s. There have certainly been plenty that could not go the distance. That these outliers have managed to not fall flat--even briefly--is significant. What it really comes down to (the more I think about it) is that they've never had the rug pulled out from underneath them. The music of the last 20 years and still today, is directly related to the groundwork they laid, even sometimes downright derivative of them.

Once again, context is everything...

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