Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Classics Under Fire: An Unoriginal Milam Series

...And we're back. While there's going to be plenty of new blog/site/Myspace content in the coming weeks, I thought I'd get us warmed up by posting something incredibly unpopular. Let's get to it.

Some time ago I was knee-deep in a Lester Bangs reader, elbow-deep in outrage, and chin-deep in bemusement: how could any self-proclaimed critic (which at least should imply a degree of familiarity if not expertise) take an unqualified sideswipe at Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, an album with an otherwise impeccable critical record? Simply put: Blood on the Tracks is the type of classic that no one dares to criticize. So Lester Bangs did.

What a tool, I thought. What a hack. He's the reason Dante reserved a special spot in hell for critics.

And then, a week ago, en route to Nashville for the six-hundredth time, I was listening to Born to Run and realized that no album is above criticism. Neither is any artist. Especially not The Boss.

In that spirit, I'm starting a new series that I'll infrequently revisit called, Classics Under Fire, in which a Young Artist of Relative Anonymity (played by me) takes a Universally Revered Work of Pop Music (Born to Run, in this installment) straight to task.

It should be first noted that I own Born to Run for a reason. I've always been a fan of the title song, along with "Thunder Road" and, on a good day, "Jungleland." I appreciate Bruce's Jersey grit. I appreciate his ambition, and the energy of his best work. And I of course appreciate the fact that, at the time this record was released, it meant a great deal to a great many people. So, it's something I own and in that sense I am one of its many fans.

But ho, ho, ho, is this album white. I don't mean that as a reference to the album cover, or as some sort of symbol for purity or innocence. I mean, quite simply, that this record exudes the type of potent cheesiness that can only come when a white guy takes ill-fated plunges into the depths of "soul" (not the genre, but the complete abstraction). It is the type of swaggering pseudosoul that only truly resonates with whitebread swaggering pseudosouls. Simply put, this record is the sound of your uncle calling something "Da Bomb." It is unavoidably hokey, from vocal pomposity of "World bustin' at its seams" section of "Night" to the melodramatic tenor of "Jungleland's" opening strings, to the nearly unbearable swing-jive-chicken dance of "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out's" opening. Or, for that matter, the fact that one of the songs is actually titled "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out." Way to talk that jive, Boss.

Look at him on the album's cover. Leaning pretty hard on that sax player, isn't he?

Throw in moments of true lyrical slop ("Cause this guy don't dance/and the word's been passed this is our last chance") and you have an album with cheesy production, a poor mix (Bruce's voice has been nearly neglected), overrated lyrics, and a fatal lack of self-awareness. These are the facts as they are (to this ear) hard to miss.

Now, I why do I own this record? Because some things have sentimental value. Born to Run does nothing but peddle sentimentality for 45 quasi-successful minutes, so its sentimental value is reasonably high. For that reason and that reason alone, I can enjoy it, even more so than 98% of the stuff out there. But this is a recipe for a time-tested guilty pleasure, not a classic album.

Which works a culture anoints its masterpieces say more about that culture than those masterpieces typically do. The fact that, 25-plus years later, Time magazine listed Born to Run as one of the Top 100 Albums of All-Time (sandwiched between Kind of Blue and Nevermind, no less) speaks more to our country's reverence for nostalgia than our ear for music. For example, Green Day's Dookie was the first album I bought by myself in a record store, and for that reason I'll always mentally teleport back to 6th grade whenever I hear "Basket Case." And for that reason, it might carry more emotional weight than, say, Radiohead's Amnesiac (which came out in the doldrums of my junior year in high school and which is, by nearly every account, a greater musical accomplishment than Dookie). Pop culture has a way of providing benchmarks to our lives. And, in the same way, Born to Run's legacy seems more that of autobiographical benchmark than artistic achievement.

I'd like to think that's one thing Mr. Bangs and I could agree on.

1 comment:

ross k. said...

On a related subject, I hate how all kinds of shitty bands have these big cult followings who say that they were "political" or "stood for something" instead of talking about sounds. Since average folks don't play music or know anything about how it's written, they just blab about the pop culture milieu back when they were partying, which supposedly "produced" or "spawned" some hit record.

Regrettably, "rock writing" and music magazines consist mostly of this kind of irrelevant shit, because it sells. It's all gossip about what drugs people are on and how many car wrecks they get in and who they might have fucked. That's what they quote in huge letters in the Rolling Stone interviews, and everybody laps it up. I think it's vulgar and disgusting, but that's what you get when the people interviewing bands are groupies and jock sniffers who have never touched an instrument, who just want to be in the middle of some scene or clique. Since they can't talk SOUNDS, everything becomes a hipper-than-you contest.

The longer I play music, the less I want to act like a fan.

Kudos, Chris, for throwing the first punch.

R. K.

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