Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Pop Gets Crucified on a Cross of Rock (But the Song Remains the Same)

Led Zeppelin was right. The song remains the same. This isn’t to deny that there’s a nearly endless variety of actual songs but the song as an idea is always the human voice carrying some kind of speech through singing and as Ecclesiastes says so bluntly, there’s nothing new under the sun. There’s probably more than one song called something like “Gross-Out Booger Breakdown”. Okay, maybe not, but more than one person has thought of the title.

But we fool ourselves into thinking that songs are different when they aren’t as different as we want them to be. We tell ourselves that style makes a bigger difference than it often does. At least since Tin Pan Alley at the dawn of the 20th century popular music has had formulas. More to the point, all music the world over is formulaic in some way. Far from saying these formulas are bad these formulas are good. They’ve lasted us at least a hundred years. Formula is the staple for rock and pop. In fact from a great enough distance the two look pretty much the same.

Yet we often make a hard and fast distinction between rock and pop. It matters what kind of guitar you play and what kind of amplifier you use, or whether you use one. It matters how you sing, it matters what clothes you wear and what you’re talking about or sound like you’re talking about. It matters what magazines write about your songs or if you’re advertised on the radio or not. Yet if the chords and the melody don’t change to what extent are we really talking about different styles?

If Dolly Parton and Whitney Houston sing the same song different ways do the styles make that much difference? Either way the song is “I Will Always Love You.” How about when Jeff Buckley sings a Leonard Cohen song? Has the style changed? When Garth Brooks covers a song by Billy Joel or Elvis is it really country? Philosophers like Theodore Gracyk can talk about how a song played in ten different ways becomes ten different styles. That’s true as far as it goes but what about the fact that “Take Me to the River” is just what it is whether Al Green or the Talking Heads perform it? Led Zeppelin was right. The song remains the same. But we keep making labels for songs played in different styles.

If we like something that doesn’t fit the label we have we’re willing to expand the definition of our label. Sometimes music is considered rock on honorary terms even when it’s obviously not rock. Keith Richards and others have said that all Robert Johnson needed to be a rock star was have drums and bass backing up his guitar. The line between Johnson’s blues and rock and roll was considered that fine. Bob Diddley played rhythm and blues until he started getting a white audience then suddenly his music was being called rock and roll. Look no further than the book of Genesis. The first thing people do when they have the power is name things. You can call a mountain lion a cougar or a catamount but it’s still the same animal and it will still be a big North American cat. You have to look at the animal either way. Whether you call it blues or rock a Bo Diddley song is still a Bob Diddley song. We have a lot of people looking at the same animal and not only wanting to call it by different names but to fight each other over which name should stick.

But fine lines are important in establishing orthodoxy and this is precisely what happens in a lot of rock/pop distinctions. Sometimes we go further and use terms like “alternative” or “independent” or “classic” or “oldie”. We crave music that doesn’t fit any formula or stereotype and yet that craving becomes our stereotype. We need to say some artists defy any genre. Do they really defy genre or are they good at blending the traits of genres? Maybe the fact that they can “defy” genre tells us more about the interchangeability of human experience than we like to admit. Is this genre busting something the artists are actually doing themselves or something we say for our own benefit?

We do this because entertainment is one of the religions of this culture. The spectacle of our awards ceremonies should be telling enough. Even the social critics fall right into line without knowing it. “Rock” becomes orthodoxy and “pop” becomes heresy. The greatest blasphemy is when a band called a “rock band” gets called a “pop band”. Because of a religious need to separate what we call “rock” from what we call “pop” that’s exactly what we call them. Why do we make this distinction? Well, let’s consider what the two terms seem to mean for a lot of people. The first term denotes music that is free, unshackled by purely commercial interests, authentic, pure, groundbreaking, breath-taking, daring, innovative, personal, of the highest cultural importance. It is this attitude that leads people to scrawl, “Clapton is God” on walls. Pop music is ersatz, empty, shallow, consumable, establishmentarian, conformist, unoriginal, crude, venal, lacking in value, trash. It is this attitude that leads people to say, “Corporate rock still sucks.”

But what is corporate rock? Music that is produced steadily and mass-marketed to the widest possible buying public through the use of billboards, magazine ads and promotional films? Corporate rock could also be considered a palliative for the empty consumerist lives of the buying public, perhaps even presented as an alternative to the old stale regime of the public’s ancestors, the “alternative” itself perpetuating the process it claims to subvert, even being the means through which the corporation reaps its highest profit.

Well, let’s see, that means the Beatles fit the bill nicely. We’ve got A Hard Day’s Night, Yellow Submarine, and some other films. In college I met people who saw the billboards used to market Sergeant Pepper. There were magazine and newspaper interviews and TV appearances. That the Beatles were foreign made them that much easier to market in the U.S. By this definition it looks as if the Beatles were the acme of corporate rock. You certainly couldn’t say they weren’t a popular band. So did their music suck?

If the Beatles look like corporate rock by this working definition does this make them a bad band? No, of course not. Does this mean they weren’t authentic artists? No. Does this mean that their music was only consumable trash that was presented as if it were a message from God? I’ll let you decide that for yourself but the answer doesn’t have to be “yes” or “no”. It’s possible for people to sell out and retain their artistic integrity at the same time. Joseph Haydn managed to pull it off in the 1790s so why couldn’t the Beatles do it, too?

Yet once the label “pop” or “corporate rock” gets applied people recoil in horror. Nothing called corporate rock can be good. But to say this is to blind yourself to history. Not all music backed by big money has been bad. In fact a lot of it has been good. Say what you will. What if, by some astonishing turn, the corporate machinery got behind musicians who had something valuable to contribute to popular music? The Beatles are corporate rock beyond all doubt. That Beatles’ songs are used in advertising now is all the proof we need. I already know some will object but I’ll address this fallacious objection soon.

Didn’t John Lennon say he wanted to be bigger than Elvis? Selling out was the whole point of the Beatles from the very beginning. The question wasn’t whether or not to sell out but, as Moby might put it, how to sell out ethically and what to do after you’ve sold out. Never mind the details. In principle it is possible and it was possible. This presents a problem for someone who insists that rock is defined by not wanting to sell out. Maybe the Beatles became rock because they sold out and weren’t content to keep selling the same product. If so, it’s not very reassuring for maintaining a religious distinction between rock and pop. We’ve already seen that the Beatles fit many definitions of corporate rock.

The Beatles are that rare case in which the corporate part of “corporate rock” didn’t get in the way of genuine art. In fact the corporate people were instrumental to spurring the Beatles into doing some of their best work. Without Martin, Spector, Epstein and the corporate machinery to back them all up the Beatles would have been forgotten.

And just as the Beatles are a great example of corporate rock they are an equally good example of how the formulas of songwriting throughout the Western world could be cleverly used. They could see patterns most other musicians and listeners didn’t see, that a country song and a jazz standard and a folk ballad and a work by Schubert do have some things in common. They didn’t restrict themselves to rock and pop distinctions, to high or low art. It was all the same to them. It wasn’t until the Beatles broke up that they had to be deified into rock gods and people had to sweep some of their influences under a rug. George Harrison himself said that it felt odd to be in a rock band. He thought of the Beatles as a pop band and now, for some reason, they’re called a rock band. Perhaps he was unaware of the religious cult that arose around the concept of rock.

To label music “rock” and “pop” can be done but if, as some say, there are no aesthetic absolutes, then we have to admit at the outset that these terms are meaningless in themselves. To call someone a “pop” musician or a sell-out doesn’t mean they aren’t doing something daring or innovative. Even the question of daring and innovation can’t be asked without a broader historical context. Were the Beatles daring and innovative? Yes, and no. They were daring for incorporating elements of art music into a popular format. Nobody else was rushing to copy Karlheinz Stockhausen and calling the new creation “Revolution Number 9”. If you don’t believe me look at the list of people pictured on the cover of Sergeant Pepper. Stockhausen is on there, on that list of people the Beatles admired. The Beatles copied Stockhausen as readily as they copied Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan. It wasn’t that what they did was new in and of itself; all of these things had been done by other people before. The Beatles recontextualized elements of avant-garde European art music into mass-marketed music and that was new.

The real issue under the pop/rock distinction is not musical. It’s reflects an attitude about capitalism as it applies to the arts. Can what we call art be mass-produced or marketed as a mass-produced product? The mass-marketing of a musical work as if it were a product like toothpaste may not be the same thing as mass-marketing music that is meant to be consumed as if it were toothpaste. Even this argument gets more slippery. What do you then do with the early music of the Who? If you can’t stand the Who the answer is obvious but if you like the band what do you make of the issue of consumable music? What do we make of Andy Warhol then, or the Velvet Underground? It’s enough to force a person to think there might really be aesthetic absolutes. After all, everybody needs to clean their teeth once in a while, right?

You can’t honestly look at the Beatles and not think of them as a pop band. Pop doesn’t have to be a pejorative term. The Beatles wrote popular music but more than just popular music. The Fab Four blended avant-garde art music and Eastern music into their songs. The vitality of the work lay precisely in their not caring about what they were labeled. That was the job of corporate people who were selling the albums anyway. They were a pop band. If rock is the balancing act of blending the highest and lowest strata of art and popular culture then the Beatles succeeded brilliantly; you could call them a rock band then. But if this is true than “pop” can’t be seen as a heresy. If, however, you see rock as inextricably tied to black American music like rhythm and blues or jazz or anything not white then, sure, suddenly what the Beatles did couldn’t be rock. But at that point you’re no longer talking about music itself but about race. Oh well, no one can talk about music as music for long. It always becomes a question of culture, too.

Even so, the musical categories surrounding “rock” and “pop” are so malleable that the most honest thing to do is to say that Broadway, rockabilly, metal, Motown, blues, country, punk, progressive rock, bubble-gum music, doo-wop, and gospel are all really part of the same huge spectrum of Western culture: the song. The song remains the same. The song comes in many different shapes and sizes about every ritual of our lives but the song still remains the same. Go ahead and crucify that pop song on your cross of rock but before you do think about why you’re doing it. You may find that it’s not about the music after all.

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