Thursday, February 07, 2013

Hyden's winners

Grantland's Steven Hyden has been posting a series of articles that he calls "The Winners' History of Rock and Roll", where simply put, he examines why huge bands became huge and remained huge.  The project was born of the idea that music critics have given too much attention to the plight of the underdogs, that there have been far too many essays written on the likes of the Velvet Underground, the rise of punk rock, and the bands whose music went relatively unnoticed in their time and is due for a reappraisal.  Therefore, if we want to learn something new about the last 30-40 years of music history, it's time to stop combing through the underground obscurities and start focusing on what the mega-successful acts can tell us about changing trends and tastes in music.

Hyden seems to be working from a premise that's clouded by the democratization of music criticism that's taken place relatively recently due to the rise of blogs, social media, and specialty publications/websites.  The median age of music critics has (I think) gotten younger than it was in the magazine and newspaper dominated eras of a couple of decades ago.  More importantly, the nexus has shifted -- and shifted rather quickly -- from writers weaned on music from the 60's and 70's to those weaned on music from the 80's and 90's.  The "missing" generation in the middle, I believe, is mine and Steven Hyden's, i.e. the people in their 30's who didn't have an outlet to write about the music we cared about because the media for doing so (blogs,  tumblrs, etc.) didn't exist. When I was growing up, music criticism was ALL about the winners, and the only way to avoid the steady stream of hero worship and TV specials about the Beatles or Led Zeppelin was to listen to the one alternative radio station in your city or town (assuming there was one), hang around indie music shops, read fanzines, and find like-minded message boards on the then-fledgling internet.  Music criticism circa 1990 was about nothing other than the "winners" that have been unfairly overlooked according to Hyden, and I'm not sure how he could have forgotten that.   

The music fans and critics born between 1970 and 1980 (which includes me) grew up in an age where they were pulled in opposite directions by two very different philosophies.  On one hand was the music of the Beatles and Stones generation, the stuff we wouldn't dream of rebelling against (even though it was our parents' favourite music) because it still sounded so ridiculously good.  On the other hand, there was the "punk saved rock and roll from itself" narrative that was equally well entrenched and well argued by our favourite DJ's and record store clerks.  You kind of had to pick one side.  It wasn't that both sides couldn't agree that the Beatles were a great band, but one side looked backward, confident in the knowledge that music would never be that good ever again, and the other side refused to accept that.  Those viewpoints were, and are, for the most part incompatible.

That said, just about every 70's baby who came down on the side of the punks had a eureka moment where they realized that their side wasn't as infallible as they once thought it was.  Mine happened sometime in 1996, when I heard Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours" in full for the first time since ... well, the first time ever*.  Of course I was already familiar with many of the songs, as they were inescapable on FM radio even in the early 1980's, years after "Rumours" was released.  For the punks, Fleetwood Mac were the ENEMY, a key symbol of why punk had to come along to rid the world of multi-million selling soft rock pussies and their sunny LA cocaine addicted friends. One problem though -- when I heard those songs again, for the first time in over a decade (or at least since Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign), my reaction couldn't have been more surprising.

"This is soooo much better than any punk album."

*I wrote about rediscovering "Rumours" back in 2001 ... and when searching for that post, I discovered a "hidden" post, i.e. two separate pieces in the same post that I must have missed when carrying my old blog over to blogspot.

That's when it all came crashing down.  I didn't even like punk (or post-punk) all that much, but it was the philosophy of punk (and the alternative music I loved so much) that got overhauled.  I never looked at idealized, messianic histories of alternative music (which included early 90's grunge by that point) the same way ever again.  On the other hand, as much as I love "Rumours" and other "winners" albums, I don't write very much about them, and in that sense Hyden stance is absolutely right.  I wrote about another long time favourite of mine, Sinead O'Connor's "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got", for the first time just a few weeks ago.  All in all, I've been enjoying Hyden's work a lot, both in this series and in general on Grantland.

However, he picked a strange example with which to explain himself as he introduced the series though -- Arcade Fire's surprising "Album of the Year" win at the Grammys.  If there's any institution that can be counted on to honour the winners at all times, always going with the safest and most uncontroversial choices and never falling prey to critical buzz bands or emerging trends, it's the Grammys.  Arcade Fire's win was an outlier, which is why it was such a surprise.  It's really odd to see Hyden singling out the Grammys as an institution that would confuse acts that the critics consider great with those that consistently move units.

To take it even further, if popularity is dictated by whatever "Middle America" wants to hear, as Hyden states many times in his Led Zeppelin and Kiss pieces, then why aren't Arcade Fire a lot more popular?  Kiss and Led Zeppelin were selling a lifestyle but they were also selling their audience a means of escape.  Isn't that exactly what Arcade Fire are about?  Hyden writes "Middle America" many times when he really means "the suburbs".  Plenty of bands were writing about happenings in New York, but the teenager population in the suburbs across the country was many times higher, ergo, Kiss and Led Zeppelin wrote for them and became as huge as bands could possibly be.  Today, Arcade Fire's third album is called "The Suburbs" and is all about life in the suburbs. Where's the logic gap?

The problem is that writing about the suburbs not the same as writing for the suburbs.  In the same way, writing about the need to escape isn't the same as writing music that makes you feel as if you've already escaped.  Led Zeppelin sold the dream, but they didn't engage in self-reflection, they were famous but they didn't write an album about the "pressures of fame" (e.g. Sly Stone's "There's a Riot Goin' On", Pulp's "This is Hardcore").   The kids in the suburbs don't want to hear about things as they really are, about the ups and downs of living the glamorous life.  If you're writing about the gritty reality of life then you've ruined the fantasy no matter how rich and famous you are, you're practically halfway to writing about life on the streets of New York to a limited audience. The airbrushed version of being famous is what sells.

Kiss might have understood that better than anybody.  The third band in Hyden's series, Bon Jovi, were simple kids from New Jersey who mastered the "I dream of escape" vibe that Springsteen had perfected.  What was "Livin' on a Prayer" if not Springsteen with bigger hairdos?  Bon Jovi made it work mainly for two reasons.  First, they presented a simple message in its most basic, most unconflicted form.  No family pressures, no trouble with the law, no teenage angst, just "we're young so let's get out of here".  Second, they looked the part of pretty boy rock stars at exactly the right time in music history when you needed to look like a pretty boy rock star to break through (i.e. the height of the video age).  Hyden has a lot more to say on that in his Bon Jovi article.

I found his Aerosmith and Metallica profiles less thought provoking than the first three, but I'm looking forward to his upcoming piece on Linkin Park because for me their success story has completely defied explanation and I really would like to know more.   

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