Sunday, May 31, 2009

On the death—and immortality—of rock ‘n roll

Some pointed comments by E-Streeter Steven Van Zandt at the SXSW musicfest have brought something to the front of my mind that has been back there among all the back issues of Spin for a while.

He’s said what many people have had on their minds for a while—contemporary pop music sucks.

You can hear it for yourself on any commercial FM station that isn’t country (don’t worry, I’ll get to country some other time)—the endless parade of rappers tossing out facile chants about partying, and dance divas bleating through synthesizers about, well, partying.

Top 40 radio never was as great as its reputation suggests (the list of great artists who have never had a Number One hit is too long to reproduce here), but it’s never been as shallow as it is now.

OK, so the Top 40 singles charts haven’t been relevant to anyone over 14 since the mid-80s. (And do they still make singles, anyhow?) You can’t use the old line that “albums are where it’s really at” anymore, either. Don’t believe me? Read this. Of the top 20 best-selling album artists, the only ones who are worth a damn are a band that broke up when I was four and a dead country singer. OK, The Dixie Chicks get points for chutzpah, and sometimes I’ll throw Metallica in there, too, but still…

So, after reading Miami Steve, I’ve been all over the web, reading articles from pundit after pundit prattling about the sorry state of pop music and/or the death of rock ‘n roll.

I have come to two conclusions.

1) Rock is dead.

2) Rock is not dead.

Let me explain.

Almost from its inception, rock has been about more than music. It was a state of mind, an attitude. In the public eye, it was more about youth and rebellion than the music itself.

If you doubt this, watch any documentary about the history of rock ‘n roll. Which are you more likely to see—a music theory professor talking about the blues scale and power chords, or naked girls dancing in the mud at Woodstock?

Rock, the attitude, has been dead for a long time, for a simple reason—old age.

Rock’s audience is older, and its fans are, more often than not, those in power in our society. Kids can’t rebel by listening to their parents’ music, so it’s no accident that many of them now prefer rap and hip-hop. But corporations have discovered that teenagers now have much more disposable income than they had in the early days of rock ‘n roll and are more than happy to give them a place to dispose of it. That’s why so much music aimed at youth today comes across (at least from my more adult perspective) as slick, false, and as menacing as a Muppet.

But then there’s the music itself. Shorn of its controversies and politics, a lot of good music has been released under the general banner of “rock,” and there will be more to come. You just won’t see it on a list in Billboard.

Rock has started to assume a place in American culture similar to jazz. Both come from a rich musical tradition and, while they have both been popular in the past, are now less accessible to the masses. But while they are not as popular, they’re both far from dead.

Rock is still around, in small clubs, on independent labels, and in the hearts and minds of all those who love it. As someone posted on Yahoo! Answers when posed with the “Is rock dead?” question: “If you’re listening to it, no.”

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Everyday I face the book

One thing I have noticed is that this blog often does not live up to the subheading.

It reads, "Politics, Culture and Whimsy from a Chipped Chopped Mind." It often seems as if there isn't enough whimsy here. I often think I would like to just babble, do a Jack Kerouac "first thought, best thought" thing. So that's what I'm doing now.

I could go back to mondegreens. Those seem to get a lot of hits, but not one-tenth as many as the Fall Out Boy video. Everybody loves the luleelurah.

I have been accused of making up my mondegreens after the fact. But the mondegreens are exactly as I heard them, although most of them I misheard when I was little. I thought of this one tonight:

WRONG: One little wrong brings home the food that the children never remove
RIGHT: One little wrong brings all the gloom, sends a chill in every room
"Chip Chip," by ?

(The original "Chip Chip" was by Gene McDaniels, but my mondegreen was from a cover version by a female country singer in the early '70s. I don't know the singer, and Google's been no help. Readers? Bueller?)

Then there are those mondegreens which can only be described as Dada:

WRONG: To St. Tiffany I want to pray
RIGHT: When I see Mary Ann walk away
"More Than a Feeling," Boston

St. Tiffany? Not to be confused with St. Taffy, patron saint of the peter pull.

The problem is that a lot of things don't seem funny. Then again, almost anything can seem funny to some people. In my family, we made jokes about serial killers at the dinner table. John Gacy--now that guy was a real laugh riot. I heard he recited the 23rd Psalm while strangling people. And dressed as a clown to boot.

I've been on Facebook a lot lately, discovering a lot of people from high school and college, many of whom I barely knew back then. There's a link to this blog on my profile page, so I can't say anything about what a dork that one guy know who you are...

It certainly is an eclectic group, full of Christians and Jews and pagans and atheists. No Zoroastrians. Yet. There are screaming liberals like me and some right-wingers who....are entitled to their opinion....(cough!) There are gays and grandmothers, Methodists and Mensans, Pittsburgh Steelers (and even some Browns) fans and people who think "first down" is something a gosling has.

And all of them have some connection with me, even though I wouldn't recognize many of them if I were in the same room with them. This is Your Life, Bob Fritz! Do you recognize this voice?

Ah, the power of the Internet. It can make even a nerd feel popular.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Whose American Dream?

The American Dream. It’s a phrase that’s thrown around a lot every day, although few people can tell you what it really means.

Wikipedia defines it thus:

The American Dream refers to the freedom that allows all citizens and all residents of the United States to pursue their goals in life through hard work and free choice.

Wow. Just reading that took my breath away. Well, not literally, but you get the idea. But since the phrase was coined in 1931, its meaning has been bastardized beyond recognition.

The next time you hear “The American Dream” used in the media, pay close attention to how it’s being defined. It’s usually used by a newscaster while footage of some housing plan loaded with ugly McMansions is being shown. The voice-over will say something like, “The cost of the American Dream just got higher today….”

That’s right—the American Dream has been narrowed down to owning a house. Where in the above definition does it say anything about owning a house? Why is it assumed that the goals in life are always material?

The need to survive being what it is, many goals are material, but does that mean the media should be in the business of creating false needs on top of the real needs that are already breaking people’s backs?

Perhaps it’s time to sit back and assess what this American Dream really is.

An idea that has become analogous to The American Dream is the “Horatio Alger story.”

The phrase “Horatio Alger story” comes, strangely enough, from stories written by Horatio Alger, which, allegedly, concern poor boys that become rich through hard work and clean living.

That’s how Alger’s stories are perceived today, mainly because few people currently living have actually read them. Most of the protagonists do not become rich, nor is hard work the main reason for their character development:

“However, it is not the hard work and clean living that rescue the boy from his situation, but rather a wealthy older gentleman, who admires the boy as a result of some extraordinary act of bravery or honesty that the boy has performed. For example, the boy might rescue a child from an overturned carriage or find and return the man's stolen watch. Often the older man takes the boy into his home as a ward or companion.”

So that’s what they called it back then…

Today many of us try to live out a “Horatio Alger story,” overextending ourselves in order to gain wealth or status—to live The American Dream.

Maybe this American Dream is nothing more than a misinterpretation of the works of a 19th-century pulp novelist.