Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Where Have All the Classics Gone?

Subtitle: If a Great Song Falls in the Forest, Will Anyone Ever Play It On Rock Band?
Paramore, The Killers, RollingStone.com, and You Already Have the Answer

I got Rock Band for Christmas. I set up the game, plugged in, tuned out, and strapped in for a roller-coaster of virtual rockery. I had my guitar, I had created my virtual self (complete with 50's rockabilly attire), I had my rock-stance at the ready, my snarl en queue, all while giddily perusing the menu for just the right inaugural song. I scanned the usual suspects ("Baba O'Riley," "Alive," "Blitzkrieg Bop," etc.)--a litany of pop and rock classics--and stopped suddenly at a song I didn't recognize. So I ask you now the question I asked myself then:

What the hell is Paramore's "Misery Business" doing on Rock Band, and what does this mean for the future of pop music?

Let's back up. I don't mean to imply that I've never heard of Paramore. I know they're an emo-ish band from the greater Nashville area, fronted by a genuinely talented and charismatic female lead. I know that, according to Billboard, they're currently every bit as popular as Fall-Out Boy. This makes them (arguably) the biggest band in their arguable genre. I also know their bass player, a young guy originally from Arkansas I met a few years back at a showcase, who seems exceedingly nice. I even know "Misery Business" isn't a bad song. It's certainly catchy, and (kind of) smart, and probably fun to play on the video game. I know all these things, but I ask you again:

What the hell is Paramore's "Misery Business" doing on Rock Band?


Just before the holidays, I treated myself to a first-week download of Day and Age, the new Killers record. I bought the record for several reasons:
1) I learned--well after the fact--that Hot Fuss was a legitimately great album. I knew this when it came out--the pop power and ubiquity of its three consecutive mega-hits ended any real debate about its merits or relevance--but didn't accept it until much later....when I realized that new classics were in short supply.
2) Sam's Town, despite its lukewarm reception, was actually a more mature record, and even stronger at points than Hot Fuss. It was a good second outing, and features my two favorite Killers songs ("Read My Mind" and "My List").
3) I was in the holiday spirit.

About twelve listens later, I know that Day and Age is a failed outing. Its two best songs ("Losing Touch" and "I Can't Stay") aren't its single ("Human"), which for a band like The Killers is an unspoken death sentence. The record is full of bluster and bombastic arrangements and the integration of disparate influences...it's everything you'd expect from a Killers record, except actual hits. It doesn't lack for ambition, just transcendent songs. The fact that they led-off with "Losing Touch" shows they (at least instinctively) recognize what their most powerful song is. This time around, it just wasn't very powerful.

All this is fine, of course. I'll never knock a band for aiming high and missing, and I'll never discount past successes because of present failures. I'll remain a fan, as long as the Killers remain one of the only American bands simultaneously capable of and interested in creating new classics.

Ah, but there's the rub.


On my first day of college, in my first class, in the first five minutes, the professor talked about "The Great American Novel," and why it doesn't--and can't--exist. He explained that modern Americans have less shared experience, that the world is smaller, but individual lives more fragmented. The Great American Novel cannot exist because no one book can speak to a greater universal truth (e.g., what could a Cuban immigrant in South Florida share with a trust fund kid in Newport). So American art has become smaller and smaller in scope, to match Americans' niche-driven lives.

But I thought about the annual Morrissey convention in L.A. flooded mostly by thousands of Latino males (as Chuck Klosterman famously detailed). And I thought about the thousands of country club receptions pumping James Brown over a gleeful dancefloor, and I thought about artists as disparate as Green Day and Outkast going diamond in the last decade. And I thought about the ever-expanding canon of classics available on Rock Band, songs that you know even if you've never sought them out, and I thought, "if that isn't universality, I don't know what is," and I thought, "if that isn't shared experience, I don't know what is," and I thought, "this might be true about the second-rate MFA swill I'm about to read this semester, but it's not true for pop music."

That is music's most important and unique function: it connects us in a way that no other medium can. With each simple succession of notes and words comes something else, something indefinable and magic, something intangible and mysterious, a truth outside reason, an understanding beyond knowledge; music is the unspoken and inscrutable language of our soul.

It is no wonder, then, that in the same year Fleet Foxes and TV on the Radio top every "Best Albums Of 2008" list, 80% of RollingStone.com's front page features bands that died or broke up 30 years ago, old artists from the era when "contemporary pop" meant "future classic." Sure, you'll get a Sara Bareilles Blurb, hidden amidst the New Dylan Bootleg B-Sides, or a Possible Who Reunion, or What Jimmy Page Had For Breakfast, or Brand New Best-Of List Rightly Featuring Old Artists From a Bygone Era, Giving Us An Excuse to Write More About Them, and Not the Myopic Barn Heroes That Someone's Publicist Is Asking Us to Declare "Important" in Lieu of Actual Popularity. (***See Note #1)

Again, I'm not criticizing Rolling Stone; I'm agreeing with them. If I wrote for Rolling Stone, I'd rather wax nostalgic about Quadrophenia than write a cover feature about Fleet Foxes, too. And they're a good band. They've carved out a niche, and they do it well, and it suits them just fine. And it suits me just fine, on clear and quiet and cold days in January when I'm glad "White Winter Hymnal" is on the iPod. But they'll never matter that much to that many people. By focusing more on Past Legends than Present Artists, Rolling Stone is simply reacting to a phenomenon that it's unwilling (or unable) to make explicit:

There are no new great bands. There are no new classics. (***See Note #2)

Call it the Rock Band Test, if you like: would Song X belong on this game? Has it become so instantly recognizable and familiar to even the most casual music fan that they can pick up a bass or drum beat or sing it karaoke-style and rock it? Again, I'm not even debating artistic merits here; I'm discussing universality.

The problem is that almost nothing contemporary would pass that test. There are three main reasons why:

1) The usual suspects--the bands who have authored past classics and would likely create more--are either inactive, between records, or coming off a relative misfire. Everyone from Pearl Jam to Green Day to the Strokes to the Foo is quiet on the western front. Tellingly, they're also older bands.

2) New bands like Paramore are on Rock Band because someone from their media conglomerate has a stake in the video game world and paid cash for that song's placement. If "Misery Business" had been absent from Rock Band, nobody would've said, "My Lord, what a terrible oversight! What an unforgivable omission!" They would've played "More Than a Feeling" or "When You Were Young" and had another beer. Songs like "Misery Business" are on Rock Band because the creators were compensated for their inclusion, not because the audience demanded it.

3) Even potential new classics (like MMJ's "One Big Holiday," at the time of its release) would exist in a vacuum. It's no secret that the music industry (excluding country and hip-hop) is presently ineffectual--at best impotent and at worst clueless. They're currently unwilling to seek out and develop new talent and unable to devise a fresh, viable business model. Worthwhile, serious bands operate outside the industry, carving out a smallish niche they can nurture themselves. Even if, say, Lucero suddenly wrote the next classic, they wouldn't have the requisite industry support to deliver it to the masses and cement its status. We're left waiting for great bands from the old era to deliver, or stuck with the hopeful payola of contemporary bands writing and performing within a sub-genre, for a subset of the population.

To my ears, only one "new band" produced a 2008 hit with the universal appeal, immediacy, relevance, pop sensibility, and massive commercial success that would define a "classic": MGMT's "Time to Pretend." After the band was critically dismissed as "a joke"(because, in this day and age, it's "deep" to be inarticulate and humorless), and the record criticized for being "too poppy," (one reviewer claimed it sounded like it was produced in a Swedish hit factory, as though pop--or Swedish--music is automatically less credible), "Time to Pretend" gained massive popularity first in (you guessed it) the UK. The American music machine--industry support, the media, then the fans--followed suit, and the song became a legitimate hit stateside. To boot, the song is electronic pop-rock, so it wouldn't have any business on Rock Band unless next year's version includes a synthesizer.

In other words, the one new classic from 2008 still doesn't pass the Rock Band Test.

For forty years, pop culture followed the direction of great, innovative artists, and the mainstream popularity of their songs. The industry sold those songs and copycat artists followed suit, chasing the proverbial rabbit. I'm not knocking contemporary music, because I honestly believe there are more good bands than ever before. The industry's collapse has given thousands of bands the freedom and motivation to innovate, and the results are rewarding and exciting to any fan of music. Instead of a handful of great bands and several thousand imitators, we have several thousand new, good, interesting bands. But the downside is this: nobody's chasing the rabbit, because there is no rabbit. Bands are simply doing whatever they want. Some of it's good. Some of it's bad. But almost none aspires for universality.

Good is the new great.

And "Misery Business," whether you like it or not, is the new "Stairway to Heaven." It's right there on the Rock Band catalog. Right there, next to "Everlong" and "Free Bird," and even "Mississippi Queen," and all the past classics, in the absence of present or future classics. It's right there next to it, as if it can be popular by association, as if proximity will hopefully-maybe-possibly equal popularity, or importance or, God forbid, greatness. As if people won't know the difference. And I've got my Playstation running and I've got my guitar slung and I've got the list cued up and--like so many millions of others--I've got a choice to make and a song to rock.

And I'm picking something else, I'm picking something I know, I'm picking a song I've heard a thousand times before, because the music business might change, and the music machine might change, but the songs remain the same.

Got the vision--now let's have some fun,

(***Note 1: Because I do things backwards, I just visited RollingStone.com after writing this paragraph, to see what's there. I kid you not--as I write this post, the front page headlines feature: Springsteen, Neil Young, U2, Paul McCartney, and Coldplay. Eighty percent. Next subset of links: Springsteen, Axl Rose, Iggy Pop, Bono, Sinatra, Jimmy Page's Manager, Kelly Clarkson, and an introduction to the "People Who Can Save Rock & Roll." I CANNOT make this stuff up.)

(***Note 2: I'm speaking for the non-country, non-hip-hop section of the music industry. Country continues to be fueled primarily by publishing, and hip-hop has produced the decades' biggest hits.)

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