Monday, November 05, 2007

Church of the Rock

Mark Steyn charges like Attila through the history of modern pop music here. He's a conservative fellow, so his rampage hits the usual soft targets:

The music biz have been humbug revolutionaries ever since 1955 when Bill Haley and Elvis put them in the permanent-revolution business. The kids tore up movie seats to “Rock Around the Clock,” even though its composer wrote it as a foxtrot, and its lyricist was born in 1890. When Max Freedman was a rebellious teenager, the big hits were “The Merry Widow Waltz,” Kipling’s “Road To Mandalay,” and “When A Fellow’s On The Level With A Girl That’s On The Square.” And, unlike most revolutions, the regime itself — in the shape of RCA, Columbia, Warner Brothers, and the other corporate entities that dominate the business to this day — proved far wilier survivors than Louis XVI. They’ve made a very nice living out of ersatz revolution.

And they're still at it, though lately, as if acknowledging the staleness of the product, they're selling new technologies and repackagings, not new sounds. The boss whom I call Old Hateful is deeply devoted to 1960s rock, and he now owns the same set of Buffalo Springfield songs on CDs in, I would estimate, a dozen different enhanced format and box set incarnations.

And if what I heard the other day in the record store is right, they're about to market it to him again in the newest audiophile format, which will be -- I kid you not -- vinyl. And they know he's going to buy it.

Rock 'n' roll and its bad child rock have been ubiquitous in my lifetime. It's hard to imagine a post-rock era of pop, or how such a future would look back on our experience and comprehend it.

Nothing is harder to recover than a faded fad. I read and read about packed houses in 1840s America making the rafters echo when T.D. Rice performed "Jim Crow." I read a description of the skinny white guy shuffling and preening like a silly black man and spouting those simple, almost nonsensical lyrics. What was so special about any of that?

Well, our future may well ask, what exactly was it about (Sir) Mick Jagger shouting "I can't get no satisfaction" that brought 80,000 of us at a time into arena bowls at $40 a pop?

What Steyn gets at eventually, which has been on my mind a lot lately, is the essential, deeply conservative nature of modern pop. Not topically, certainly. But musically.

Paul Simon and I once had a longish conversation about this and eventually he conceded that even the best rockers had nevertheless been unable to develop beyond a very basic harmonic language: There isn’t enough there to teach in a “music” course.

Sometimes it seems rock is the most conservative music on earth. Mozart's Symphony #40 is dated 1788. Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" was completed in 1824. In 32 years, working in the same genre with the same musical form and the same orchestra, look how the geniuses re-invented the whole notion of music!

OK, "Rock Around the Clock" is released in 1954. Add 32 and you get 1986. Take away arrangements and production, and for my money there's not an inch of daylight, musically, between "Rock Around the Clock" and "Walk Like An Egyptian." Stripped down to just lyrics and chords, they could be from the same year. In fact, a Haley recording of "Rock Around the Clock" charted at #12 as recently as 1974 (When "American Graffiti" was hot).

Measure it against other yardsticks: 32 years is the distance between Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue." Subtract 32 from Sinatra's "Learnin' the Blues" (1955) and popular music is back in the Paul Whiteman Orchestra days. It's not even clear you're talking about the same thing over time, except in terms of popularity in the genre and perceived cultural influence.

Not only is rock conservative; it's positively reactionary. It's a bully-music. Old Hateful doesn't disguise his contempt or scorn for any other form of music (except certain jazz and blues artists he likes for personal reasons). It took rappers a decade to get past old James Brown samples. "Rock Around the Clock" was perfectly cast in "Blackboard Jungle," where Vic Morrow's character and the other delinquents literally destroy the music of the older generation and then substitute for it their own.

This probably is the most degenerative quality it has. It quickly becomes a self-referential loop. Like the teenager's mind itself, which regards every lost love, every dream crushed, as the end of the world. Rock ultimately cuts itself off not only from its roots, but from the references that might enrich it.

The old middle-brow middle-class couples who subscribed to the symphony every season and dutifully sat there through Beethoven, Bartók, Brahms, and Bernstein are all but extinct, and pitied for their inability to cut loose and boogie in the same way we feel sorry for those trapped in a loveless marriage. What a difference it would make if grade-schoolers could know just enough of a smattering of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony to recognize the excellent joke “The Simpsons” makes of it. What an achievement it would be if every high-school could acquire a classical catalogue as rich as that used in Looney Tunes when Elmer Fudd goes hunting Daffy Duck or Bugs Bunny. Carl Stalling, who scored those cartoons, often fell back on formula: If someone was in a cave, the orchestra would play “Fingal’s Cave.” But you can’t even do that any more, because no-one gets the joke.

Along with pop music of the day, it might be noted. When Elmer's Slavic-accented hound dog is about to devour Bugs between two huge slices of bread, Stallings' score plays a jaunty little ditty titled "A Cup of Coffee, a Sandwich, and You." Which itself is a referential riff on "A Jug of wine, a loaf of bread - and thou," from the Rubáiyát, which is based on .... and so forth. There's something comforting to a teenage mind, in many cases, to know the first heartbreak in life isn't the end of everything, that it's all happened before and turned out wonderfully.

Without knowing just a little about music before the current decade, you miss the gems of pop, like the lines penned by Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder:

Just like Pagliacci did
I try to keep my sadness hid
Smiling in the public eye
But in my lonely room I cry
the tears of a clown
when there's no one around

[And you also wouldn't realize they didn't quite hit it: "Pagliacci" was the title of the opera; the singing, crying clown in it was named Canio, who sometimes referred to himself as pagliaccio -- "clown" in the Italian singular.]

It was Bob Dylan who once called Robinson his favorite American poet. But it's Dylan who often gets touted as rock's genuine poet, and who was nominated for a Nobel Prize in literature every year from 1996 to at least 2004, the year Newsweek called him "the most influential cultural figure now alive."

Certainly he has had poetic influences, and perhaps his music even sent some of his fans to the library in curiosity over who "Verlaine and Rimbaud" were. But I wonder if anyone other than an academic ever held up their poems to Dylan's lyrics and found the latter better verse.

Steyn writes:

A relative culture ends up ever shorter of any relatives to relate to. In educational theory, it’s not about culture vs. “counter-culture” but rather what I once called lunch-counterculture: It’s all lined up for you and you pick what you want. It’s the display case of rotating pies at the diner: one day the student might pick Milton, the next Bob Dylan. But, if Milton and Bob Dylan are equally “valid,” equally worthy of study, then Bob Dylan will be studied and Milton will languish.

Which is an interesting coupling, because both Milton and Dylan in their way deformed the English language. Milton tended to write in word orders that were idiomatic in Latin but not in English. Dylan just scrambles it at will when he needs to rhyme short lines:

Up on Housing Project Hill
It's either fortune or fame
You must pick up one or the other
Though neither of them are to be what they claim

Which is painful, and not English, not Latin, not any grammar known to man. Not even German. The rest of the verse is actually one of his better bits of poetry:

If you're lookin' to get silly
You better go back to from where you came
Because the cops don't need you
And man they expect the same

Which goes somewhere and makes a memorable statement, but hardly ranks him with Rimbaud. A long time ago, in 1965, the poet question was put to Dylan at a press conference and for once he gave the answer I think was about right: "I think of myself more as a song-and-dance man."

Sort of like T.D. Rice all those years ago.