Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Penis Music?

When Billy Joel said that being called soft rock is like saying he’s got a soft cock, and that he’s not a soft cock kind of guy, we all know he’s not literally saying he always has an erection. He’s talking about his music. And it’s true that even though he is defined by his ballads he has written plenty of faster songs. History is unfair to even the greatest composers, consigning them to be known for a handful of pieces that can’t possibly reflect their whole output. The Rolling Stones are known for “Satisfaction”, for instance, a throw-away song they wrote just to pad out an album. Yet it was the song that defined them more than any song they played up to that time. We all know James Brown feels good.

We have to grant Billy Joel the benefit of a doubt. Maybe he is a regular rocker after all, perhaps not a rocker of the same rank as Jimi Hendrix but, hey, he plays piano so he has a natural disadvantage. And the truth is that the bias against the piano in rock and roll is probably a post-Hendrix thing. Nevertheless, many of Billy Joel’s most memorable songs are often ballads and that’s what he’s stuck with.But there’s more to this soft rock/soft cock rhetoric of his then just the hard and soft. That dichotomy suggests several things. The first and most obvious observation is that Billy Joel uses the penis as a metaphor for his music and that he wants to be known for having hard music and not just soft music. It’s almost as if he’s ashamed of the soft music.

I assume his statement was mainly polemical, something to get people’s attention, something meant to be witty. He’s probably not really ashamed of all those ballads. He just wants people to remember the louder stuff, too. I grant that and that the soft cock rhetoric made its point. Maybe I laughed for the wrong reason but it was genuinely funny.

Nevertheless, the soft rock/soft cock rhetoric conspicuously omits anything but the hard and soft penis, as if the penis existed in only two states and the use, implicit in Joel’s rhetoric, could not be discussed. I realize it was meant mainly as a witticism but it is useful to take jokes seriously when there’s any room for controversy, especially when there’s a hard core that criticizes the soft core, so to speak. And of course it’s always useful to take a joke seriously if by doing so you make a joke of your own.

So consider interviews with the Scorpions or Iron Maiden. When asked why they always write lyrics about certain things the answer is always something like this: “Well, we can’t very well write music about dandelions and butterflies to this kind of music. This is hard music.” And because rock is often about sex, drugs, and itself (and politics and religion and other things people supposedly don’t discuss in polite company) it stands to reason that hard music has to be about something. The music, history shows us, dictates that the texts of hard rock be about certain things.

Classical music has had people doing this for centuries, in reverse. It’s called text-painting. You figure out what the text means and make music that fits it. A lot of rock simply reverses that order; Billy Joel, for instance, writes the music first and then tries to come up with words, as many rock and pop bands probably do. So if Billy Joel wants to fix the problem of being “soft” he might want to write about different things than usual and then write his music. I know from experience that it’s always an ordeal to write lyrics for a song after the music already exists. Most of the time you fall back on two or three pet subjects (like Jackson Browne or Don Henley), or you resort to something more random like Bob Dylan or David Bowie. Billy Joel’s soft rock misfortune, then, may not simply spring from the music.

As a matter of course the risk of writing words after music is that the words become limited by both your pet topics and the musical mood. Does anyone believe Robert Plant wrote the words first for Led Zeppelin’s songs? Would it ever have mattered if he wrote the words first? Probably not. You can’t sing about teddy bears and lollipops when you’ve got the rhythm section of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” or “Angel of Death” by Slayer. I take that back. You can but it won’t sound convincing, unless you want to be funny. Try it sometime and you’ll see what I mean.

If you tend to write about just your pet subjects, no matter the musical style, the textual range of rock lyrics is limited even more when the music you write asks only for rage and angst.To continue with my reductio ad absurdum, Billy Joel’s terminology offers a perfectly good explanation for why metal bands can only write about x, y, and z: hard rock needs hard words because music is finally all about the hard penis and the soft penis, hard and soft rock and everything in between (heretofore unmentioned and never generally discussed). Listeners who don’t like hard or soft rock at this point will make the easy put down. It’s not just Billy Joel that has this problem.

If the soft rockers are constantly writing impotent music then surely hard rock is in a state of eternal musical priapism, just as Motown, rhythm and blues, and other styles are constantly striving to maintain eternal musical orgasm. One can’t get it up, one can’t keep it down (so no blood gets to the brain and brain damage ensues), and the other can’t shut off the cremaster. Billy Joel’s soft rock/soft cock conundrum presents us with a metaphor for the whole world of Western music as one grand phallic parade.

It’s no wonder feminist music criticism exists! Who wouldn’t get tired of the rhetoric of penis music? Paradoxically, not feminist music critics who like to complain about penis music.But the truth is that all this rhetoric is unfair and we should all know it. It’s not fair to say that any style of music has to be described in phallic terms anyway, or vaginal terms. But the fact is that we frequently define ourselves by something and for a lot of people (too many perhaps?) this is sexuality, male or female.

And when people define themselves by sexuality then the worst accusation is to be either impotent or repressed, never mind that life is more than orgasm, copulation, or cuddling or what have you.Still, it happens that in a musical world dominated by men a cursory reading of Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective demonstrates that a common put-down of a classical composer was to declare him impotent. Strike that, the sorry lad was said to have creative impotence. Everyone knows that one form of impotence suggests another, after all.

As Slonimsky chronicles in his book the following composers were declared to have had creative impotence: Brahms, Aaron Copland, Debussy, Darius Milhaud, Dmitri Shostakovich, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Edgar Varese, and Wagner. We might as well throw in Gustav Mahler, too, for of him it was written “The drooling and emasculated simplicity of Gustav Mahler!” (p. 120 Musical Invective). “Emasculated” is the same general thing as impotence, after all, and let’s not forget the additional playground classic “retard” that “drooling” suggests. This sample reflects an impressive diversity of composers getting the brand “impotent”.

Ironically, the sexual slur in criticism of classical music usually applies to composers who are too modern for their own time (most of the above). In other cases it applied to composers who were too subdued to appeal to the taste of the critic (Brahms in contrast to Wagner). Curiously, the sexual put-down in classical music has mostly the opposite meaning that it has in popular music. Certainly Brahms’ music can often be sweet and cloying but by and large the “impotent” composers are anything but sweet and cloying. Edgar Varese, for instance, was a crucial inspiration to Frank Zappa, who could never have been described as a purveyor of soft rock. And yet Varese was said to be “impotent” in some form or another.

In rock and roll the intimation of impotence is less direct and it obviously has the opposite spin with the same meaning. The musician has no good ideas and is not where ever the cutting edge of rock is supposed to be. It doesn’t even need to be connected to male sexuality. Tori Amos’ Boys for Pele was considered a mediocrity by a Rolling Stone critic in part because the critic felt Amos couldn’t or didn’t convey rage in her music. The immediate appellation was to Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. The more contemporary reference could have been Kurt Cobain or someone else.

Most interesting of all was reading a woman critiquing a rock album by another woman by negatively comparing her to a man. Still more interesting is the criticism that Amos can’t bring herself to effectively convey rage in her songs. Clearly the men, we were being told, had the right example to follow. One woman was in want of unsullied rock credentials by not being like men who recorded forty years earlier. Arguably a song relies on text and not simply music. Nevertheless, the criticism is not entirely invalid.

The reason the criticism is not invalid is because, to borrow the penis metaphor Billy Joel has conveniently provided, if a person’s musical output is a penis or vagina it is necessary, for the sake of healthy musical expression, that the said member exist in all possible states. It’s a matter of musical health. The problem with soft rock or hard rock is that the member is only presented in one state or two rather than in the natural flow of life.

Inevitably the music which appeals to the largest group of people over the longest period of time is going to either study one element of human experience thoroughly or present a panoramic view. The case of the former is usually tied to a style of music like ragtime, tango, or the military march. But if music is to depict the whole of human experience it is dangerous to stick to one style. Historically the single style usually ends up exploring a wider emotional range (tango) or being restricted to an extra-musical activity (marching or dancing, for instance). In the end the hard rock and soft rock performers have the same creative problem, not touching on more than just one or two states of the human condition.

If music can be said to be a portrait of the human condition, and we still stick to the penis metaphor then we can say that some musicians depict the penis in every possible stage of its existence. The musicians who do this stand a much better chance of having staying power. In the history of pop music the Beatles are a good example of this. And it’s telling that when you listen to format radio you’ll hear Beatles songs on dozens of stations but you’ll notice you only hear a handful of songs from different periods. You don’t hear “Tax Man” that often on the oldies stations and you don’t hear “Help” too often on classic rock stations. You don’t hear “Revolution Number 9” on many stations at all.

Even when a band is truly eclectic in style and substance the presentation of their work is not.The other route to being remembered is to give listeners a portrait of the penis in a particular state. Thus soft rock, hard rock, or anything else in between. As Zappa and others have said this is often a function of marketing. The bitter irony is that while Billy Joel may have had a major role in his soft rock image there is the problem of critical and market reception. You can control how you make your music to some degree but you can’t control how the public perceives you with the same assurance (unless, perhaps, you’re Madonna but she is another subject).

Suddenly it turns out that the market has a label for your music and straying from it creates problems. What happens when you have a whole range of anatomical studies and the customer only wants to buy one? This gets back to Billy Joel’s problem. There’s a point where the limitation of style is considered better than any attempt to display the whole range of your thoughts and feelings in music. Even the most eclectic songwriters in pop music have their work pigeon-holed. Joel has a place to be angry.

It should go without saying that eclecticism is not unconditionally acceptable but it needs to be said precisely because it makes a world of difference in determining whether Billy Joel “gets” to make classical music successfully or whether the Beatles “get” to make the White album. The sad truth is that most people like penis music and they only like that penis music to exist in one state.

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