Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Popular Music Thread

Seems like it's the one thing we all have in common. Here's random things to fight about.

My teenage years were in the mid-'70s, a miserable time for music. Billy Joel, Elton John, Captain and friggin' Tenielle. The first 10 albums I bought were Beatles albums -- a group that broke up when I was 10 years old. From there it branched to Pink Floyd, but also Little Feat, and Supertramp -- early (emphasis on early) Supertramp, Neil Young's odder stuff. Frank Zappa. Never quite mainstream.

Maybe that's why I never locked in to one genre or period. Seems like a lot of my peers, especially my newsroom peers, are absolutely convinced that pop music deteriorates the further it gets from 1969 Jefferson Airplane.

"Why doesn't anyone listen to Carly Simon anymore?" Um, because we don't need to. We have Cheryl Crowe to be Carly Simon, and she's easier on the eyes and sharper with the lyrics.

Here's a mark to shoot at: Rock music is music made by outsiders: teenagers as outsiders, minorities, people who find themselves in oppositional situations.

I hate a bullying attitude in musical tastes that hides behind an insistence on the purity of rock. Rock music is supposed to be the refuge of that utterly alienated kid, the one everyone picks on at school, who switches on the radio in the dark bedroom at night and spins the scanner up and down the dial till he or she finds that voice calling out from the static that seemed to be speaking just to his heart, expressing his angst or inviting him to share a secret joy.

That's rock. It's not the property of musical bullies or cultural snobs.

I'm aware that rock music always was the property of the bullies, too. The "Blackboard Jungle" rock-snobs who smashed the jazz records out of spite and meanness. And I'm aware that my definition is itself a limitation that leaves certain wanna-be rockers (Billy Joel, Elton John) outside the pale and is thus itself exclusive and snobbing. [Insert Walt Whitman quote about contradicting myself.]

I was lucky enough to have a few teen years left when New Wave hit. Thank the gods for that blessed relief. And to have some teen in my heart when the "Alternative" scene broke out -- the best part of that, really, was women discovering their voices as rock stars and musicians: Julianna Hatfield, Liz Phair, Kay Hanley, Jennifer Trynin, Tanya Donnelly. Not as male icons or brittle symbols of feminism (Annie Lennox singing "Sisters are Doin' It For Themselves" but then they had to bring in a guy to play the goddamn guitar solo. Julianna Hatfield played her own goddamn guitar solos). And props to Madonna, who, like her or not, kicked open that door.

Can you grow old and rock? You can if you keep evolving. Not if you're like the godawful Rolling Stones, playing the same scrawny three chords you wrote when you were 16 when you're 67. I don't listen to Springsteen anymore. I think he was a great rebel rocker in the early '70s (though the effect may diminish the further you live from a Jersey shore boardwalk). I think he's a failure as Woody Guthrie. The man has no ear for prosody; he'll try to cram 50 syllables into a melodic line that can handle maybe 15. But I respect him because he keeps moving.

Two other old favorites of mine from the '70s, Nick Lowe and Graham Parker, also seem to fit that definition, and with similar lack of commercial success.

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