Thursday, May 25, 2006

Pop Rocks

SF Chronicle Sunday columnist Neva Chonin weighs in somewhat Andy Rooney-ish on the eternal cliquishness between popsters and rockers.

I've long loathed rockism, with its hostility to anything new (read: young artists who don't worship at the altar of Dylan) and its obliviousness to anything black that isn't blues (read: hip-hop, new soul). I'd like to suggest -- and I'm sure I'm not the first -- that "rock" is to "popular music" what "male" is to "people." It's a master text that marginalizes other voices with unnecessary adjectives: a "female police officer," a "black science fiction writer," a "digital band." Rock is a great white phallus, and rockism is its language.

Now, "poptimists" -- I can't believe they really call themselves that, so I'll try not to, either, but shorthand labels are my crack -- suggest it's time rockists zip up their trousers and accept the reality that rock is now but one genre among many and that a pristine pop song by Beyonce or Britney can carry the same cultural weight as a ruminative concept album by Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen. I can get behind that: Popular music is the sound of a culture talking to itself, and that dialogue takes many forms. The guitar isn't the only organ for expression, dudes, and it hasn't been for a long time.

Being a long-time "rockist", I suppose, I certainly have spent far more time over the years contemplating this seeming dichotomy than I should have. There is indeed something off-putting about the goofballs who insist that rock music peaked with Blonde On Blonde or whatever. But the thing is that most forms of rock music, whether or not you enjoy them, require a certain level of craft and skill just to get in the ring. This is actually of greater importance to "rockists" than the incipient "cockism" Chonin declaims.

Rockers look down their noses at people like Beyonce and Britney because of the nature of their approach to craft; it's difficult not to get the distinct impression that not only do they not write their songs or play an instrument, but that they don't even really sing their stuff, that they get it "close enough" in the studio so that the producer can take care of the pitch correction and vocal sweetening by tweaking Pro Tools for a couple weeks.

Whether or not you like their music, you know that Yes did their own writing and playing; you know that the guys in Rush each redefined the approach to their respective instruments for literally tens of thousands of musicians, and that's a truly rare thing. Probably only Cream and The Who can make a similar claim, that every single member of those bands forced contemporary and future practitioners of their respective instrument to include their contribution in the overall approach to at least some extent. By contrast, Britney, Beyonce, Backstreet Boys, Spice Girls -- they're all interchangeable, and their level of involvement with the creation of their marketed Art Product is roughly the same as that of Ronald McDonald actually getting in there and whipping up a Big Mac. It's a disposable commodity with a marketing icon used to sell it to the target demo.

That very disposability is what rankles the rockists, whose respect (some might say obsession) with craft and skill requires a need for permanence. And just as the posturing "what-evuh" immature attitude is what undermines the self-satisfied arbiters of kewl, the totemistic collecting, archiving, and cross-referencing of What Has Gone Before is the rockists' achilles heel. Because, as is evidenced by the endless waves of $250/ticket nostalgia tours, what it does is it turns the performers and the fans into little more than curators in a traveling museum. Possibly the only long-running band that overcomes this with regularity is Motorhead, but even they are expected to play Ace of Spades at every fucking show, or fans will decide they've been cheated, no matter how great the show really was.

Which brings me to the true difference between rockists and popists: rockists don't dance. Seriously. I think the respective consumption rituals is what truly defines and differentiates the two. When I think "pop", I think The Beatles, Squeeze, Elvis Costello, The Cars, XTC, that sort of thing, even though I know what the critics mean. But I think songwriting craft that endures and renews itself upon repeated listening in a variety of circumstances. I can't imagine listening to Hit Me Baby One More Time with headphones. That's not a slam, it's just the way it is. And the thing is, there actually are some decent chord changes in that song, as Travis' acoustic version demonstrated. But it does not lend itself well to my particular consumption ritual, which most assuredly does not involve dancing, or consuming ecstasy and Red Bull and vodka in a crowded club. Those days are long gone, and even when I was there, that sort of music was just wallpaper. I had always thought that was a common understanding, but perhaps not. People tend to get a bit precious about their tastes, or perceived lack of same.

There is no solution, no right or wrong, in such a highly subjective discussion, obviously. But my take on it, to oversimplify it, is that rockists get put off by what they see as popists' mindless acceptance of outright crap like the boy bands and such. Rockists are agog that, whatever the inherent humor value, it's an abomination that a weird homunculus like William Hung can get a record contract while thousands of kids out there spend thousands of hours practicing so that they can be good at something, and not just be another disposable jerk-of-the-week in some absurd media circus that seems to actively devalue actual talent.

And popists rightly see that rockists tend to take the whole thing way too seriously, that they can be smug and obsessive over people and songs that, on further reflection, sometimes turn out to be rather mediocre. It is the eternal battle of art versus commerce. As Robert Fripp once put it, in the world of commerce, the musician plays the music, and in the world of art, the music plays the musician. This is an easier way to draw the line, as it does not require quantifying or insulting one taste over another, but merely being honest with ourselves over where we want our consumption rituals to intersect with our particular tastes.

Put succinctly (if that's possible by this point), American Idol is pop; Sopranos is rock. One is forgotten almost as soon as it's over, and will likely never be revisited outside of pathetically lame reunion wankfests, while the other practically requires multiple visits to absorb the multiple levels of nuance, context, narrative, and craft of dialogue.

[more to come]


jj said...

Beatles are pop? Did I misunderstand that paragraph?

Ron said...

Great post, Dan. You did definitely touch on one of the fudamental differences in rock and pop when you mentioned dancing. Rock is an introspective thing, played for and by introverts who think about things. Pop is extroverted, background music for people looking to shake their ass to get laid, typically.

Of course, there is plenty of rock that celebrates such hedonism that doesn't necessarily qualify for pop. But by and large rock is a conversation between musician and listener when you don't have anyone to talk to about lofty things. It's functioned for me as an arcane philosophy when I was young, like a puzzle that needed to be figured out if I could just figure out what they were saying. Ah, those glorious, confused days.

Heywood J. said...

Rock is an introspective thing, played for and by introverts who think about things. Pop is extroverted, background music for people looking to shake their ass to get laid, typically.

Yes, this. And there's nothing wrong with either one, so long as both sides are honest about what the deal is. Unfortunately, both tend to adopt this preening posture, and overstate their case.

Don't get me wrong -- I am definitely biased toward craft and elaboration, both of which are the exclusive province of rock, as opposed to pop. But anyone who denies the sheer visceral impact of a great pop song is just as much of a poseur.

On the one hand, I can natter on about all the chicks I met after long nights of playing Ozzy and AC/DC songs for four sets per night; on the other hand, I remember being fifteen years old, surfing all afternoon with my cousins at San Onofre, then building a bonfire and playing Beach Boys songs and drinking beer till 1 AM, and meeting at least as many women. There's value to both.

(And yes, it really is all about getting laid, at least at first. That's just the way it is, and it's not a bad thing, not at all.)

Ron said...

The Beach Boys, eh? I think the Beach Boys definitely straddle the line between pop and what we're calling 'rock' here. There are universes between what Brian Wilson did and what say, Shakira does. I appreciate a perfect pop song very much; what doesn't particularly do it for me is cookie cutter fluff that shapes the culture nonetheless. But I am coming around, slowly, to recognizing the weight that it carries and appreciating it for what it is. However, I will probably not plunk down 15 smackeroos to take it home-ever.

I did, however, buy the latest Oasis album today, who are pros at miming every frickin' British Invasion band worth a shit. But I love the sound of that era that I'll even snarf up copies.

Heywood J. said...

True, the Beach Boys (and the Beatles, as JJ alluded in the first comment) straddle that pop/rock line, which is itself of course largely subjective and thus poorly defined.

All those Sixties bands which are considered part of the rock iconography started out as pop/skiffle type groups anyway, and just kept maturing and developing. I think that may be what rankles "oldsters" like ourselves, that modern popsters do not seem to mature or deepen with age along with their fans. They just make their quick money and disappear, and either they hang on to their money or they develop substance abuse problems and hit the Behind the Music circuit.

Pop's unabashed target demo is 14-year-old girls, and it has always been so, of course. And the music industry has frequently been ham-fisted in its marketing of various acts. It's still amazing to think that Hendrix' first American tour was as an opener for The Monkees, a large black guy coaxing alien noises out of his guitar, scaring the living shit out of suburban proto-milfs and their teenage daughters. Good times.

I like your take on Oasis; they may very well be the best Beatles tribute band out there, though Wonderwall really ruined them for me. I pretty much stick to that first album when I listen to them; they just got a bit too derivative for me with later releases. And you can't escape that stupid phone company commercial that uses their song (don't know the name of the song, but it's definitely them).