SEGUE OF THE DAY (12/13/13)–(So, Just What Are the Limitations of Popular Art Anyway?)

Explanations below, but, for starters, a salute to the late Ms. Robinson, who died of cancer in 2000 at the age of forty-five (complete with a Paul Williams intro that demonstrates just how far Show Biz hadn’t come while the culture was moving at light speed):

Now to the main point:

A few days ago, Terry Teachout posted a link to his current Wall street Journal column in which he opines on the “limits” of popular art. You can read the whole thing here but the gist is about what you would expect from a cultural conservative and he’s certainly not entirely wrong.

But it’s funny that no one ever seems to say much about the limits of High Art. I mean, one reason so-called popular art has taken up so much space in the Post-War era is that High Art has been failing so miserably.

And, of course, I spend a lot of time around here arguing that the point of “culture” at any level called “art” is to engage. That means history, politics, sex, religion, love, hate, war, poverty and so on and so on and skooby-dooby-doo.

Oooh-sha-sha.

See, there’s Popular Art giving me a voice. Engaging.

Believe me, I’d be very happy if what passes for High Art in the modern age managed to do the same.

Now, I didn’t want to stack the deck, so rather than respond to the ideas in Teachout’s essay by specifically seeking the safest available high ground (something like the Rolling Stones in 1969, or Robert Johnson in 1937, or Raymond Chandler in 1952, the first and last of those being things Teachout has evinced a limited understanding of in the past which suggests he probably hasn’t quite thought this thing all the way through) I decided I would just weigh in on the next thing that happened to pop up in the course of my day…see how far that would take me.

So, from a few nights ago, when the “next thing” happened to be a mix disc I had just assembled as a copy of an old mix tape (Volume Fourteen of a twenty volume set, and, please, believe me when I say, social relevance was the furthest thing from my mind at the point of original assembly, unless “social relevance” means imagining just how far my Theory of Shindig and Hullabaloo Dance could stretch), here goes (original recording dates in parens):

Soul Survivors “Expressway to Your Heart” (1967)–Epochal black producers (Gamble and Huff) have their first hit guiding a white group imitating a white group imitating a black group while Philly International was still a gleam in somebody’s eye.

Young Rascals “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore” (1965)–The specific group the Soul Survivors were imitating. They happened to be white boys signed to a record label owned by white men who specialized in selling black music to, first, Black America and, later, White America as well, but weren’t above selling white acts to black people or white acts to white people if they could smell a profit. Would have made Beethoven’s head spin, I tell you, but they made it look easy.

Candi Staton “Young Hearts Run Free” (1976)–An exemplar of one of mid-period disco’s deeply mixed messages. These days, slick magazines are full of articles with titles like “Can Women Really Have It All.” Then as now, the answer was Yes and No. Sorry but I’d rather listen to Ms. Staton work out the ambiguities than read what our modern Platos have to say on the subject.

Wilson Pickett “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You” (1970)–A black man, who sounds like he knows he’s caught in a trap, begs–and begs, and begs–for a black woman not to leave him at the first historical moment when it was possible for her to even think about doing so.

Abba “SOS” (1974)–Swedish woman sings “I tried to reach for you but you had closed your mind” back to the man who wrote the lines for her to sing. He happened to also be her husband at the time. No, really.

John Waite “Missing You” (1984)–Okay, this is just a nice, pop-obsessive record about pretending not to miss someone who kicked your heart to pieces and who you would take back in a second if they would have you. Nothing High Art couldn’t handle in other words.

Cher “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” (1971)–A major star, singing in the voice of one who never got the chance, spits back at everyone who ever spit on her.

Cher “Half Breed” (1973)–Ditto. Only more so.

Styx “Too Much Time on My Hands” (1981)–I’m actually not sure what this is about. Possibly unemployment but I’m not gonna stake my reputation on it.

Roxette “The Look” (1988)–Pure confection. No discernible higher meaning except it was the-best-Prince-record-made-by-somebody-other-than-Prince, yaddah, yaddah, yaddah.

The Who “Who Are You” (1977)–English rockers lament/celebrate their escape from the lives the system had planned for them. Self-destruction caught up with the drummer shortly thereafter. Whether this record would still sound like it’s chasing him if he’d somehow never been caught is one of those nice existential questions that should be mulled in Philosophy 101 classes everywhere….but probably isn’t.

AC/DC “Get It Hot” (1979)–A salute to rock and roll. Good topic. Well played.

Heart “Straight On” (1978)–An epic blues played, sung, conceived and executed by seventies-era white people from the Pacific Northwest (who many sardonics of ill repute believe are the whitest people who have ever lived so go ahead and have your snicker) and also a late-feminist sequel to the Shangri-Las’ proto-feminist “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” that demonstrates just how far the earth had turned in a decade. If there’s been a novel or play that did as much, I missed it. If I happen to run into one somewhere, I bet I’ll have the bring up the fact that it doesn’t get the job completely done in four minutes.

Randy Newman “I Love LA” (1982)–Love and mockery, joined at the hip and permanently reinforcing each other.

Randy Newman “It’s Money That Matters” (1988)–The History of America in the New Gilded Age. (The ethics of which were so thoroughly and seductively appalling/appealing that, unlike the first Gilded Age, they have survived the inevitable economic bust. More than one in fact. Goodbye us, in other words. Thanks Randy!)

Jackie Wilson “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” (1967)–A call-and-response Top Ten hit and permanent radio staple that perfectly captures the last historical moment when it seemed possible for the Civil Rights movement to become a lasting social triumph as opposed to a purely legalistic one.

Steve Miller Band (1976) “RockN’ Me”–A rocker’s ode…whether to groupies or to the One Left at Home, I’ve never been quite certain.

Huey Lewis and the News (1983) “Heart of Rock and Roll”–A promise that rock and roll would keep on a goin’. Naturally it was already a bit ill, though a few years from being terminal. The song works because it is completely devoid of irony, self-awareness or any other complicating factor. Well that plus it has a good beat and you can dance to it.

Standells “Dirty Water” (1965)–The eternal, existential struggle between Puritanism and its discontents, distilled to one hundred and sixty-eight perfect seconds.

Blues Magoos “We Ain’t Got Nothin’ Yet” (1966)–“Nothing can hold us, nothing can keep us down.” I bet High Art never manages to go anywhere that line doesn’t when it finally does work up its nerve and get around to explaining either the successes or the failures of “the Sixties.”

Tommy Tutone “867-5309/Jenny” (1981)–Stalker pleads with the Object of his Affection not to change her phone number. In other words, 7,000 guest shots on the Law and Order franchise, explained well ahead of time.

The Jacksons “Enjoy Yourself” (1976)–Or, as the full line goes, “Enjoy yourself, with me…You better enjoy yourself.” Question for the class: Whose enjoyment is more important? His or hers? Hey, that’s Michael on the lead. Does that make it any clearer? Or the “better” any more disturbing?

Vicki Sue Robinson “Turn the Beat Around” 12-inch Version (1976)–Broadway chanteuse speaks in tongues over a History of Poly-rhythms so complete it proves conclusively the inherent funkiness of the flute. In direct response to Terry’s essay, I consider this aiming very high indeed. (And just as an aside, I’ve never quite been able to forgive Gloria Estefan for later deciphering the lyrics. And I’ve really, really tried. And just as another aside: I once heard a music critic explain the superiority of seventies music over sixties music–and express complete contempt for anyone who might have even thought of disagreeing with him–by using the name of this record, plus the words “Come on!” as his entire argument. As an unabashed lover of the music of both decades, I’m an agnostic in that particular debate, but I’ll just say I did know what he meant.)

Ohio Players “FOPP” (1975)– “The rich can Fopp and, uh, so can the po’, you can Fopp until your ninety-fo’” Hey, it took a while (decades or centuries depending on when you prefer to start counting), but when Democracy finally started producing Manifestos like this, the Soviets were basically toast, regardless of who we elected President.

Rick James “Superfreak Pt 1″ (1981)–The groupie as Goddess. No ambiguity about this one.

The Doobie Brothers “China Grove” (1973)–Flannery O’Connor weirdness with a slightly better sense of rhythm and no room for the abiding contempt of the human species that intellectuals of all stripes seem to find so comforting.

Of course, each of these responses amounts to only one of several possible responses. No point in making High Art’s head spin trying to keep up.

BTW: High Art, I feel like I should give you a hug. You lost this round, but a week earlier and you might have come up against Volume Twelve. Bad, that. Would have meant dealing with “Kung Fu Fighting” and “Brother Louie.”

Count yourself lucky.

THE ANNUAL COGNITIVE DISSONANCE INSPIRED BY THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME HAS BEGUN

Always a fun process. Here’s a prime entry from the Chattanooga Free Press which opens with:

“What do Rush, Public Enemy, Heart, Randy Newman, Donna Summer and Albert King have in common? Absolutely nothing.

“That didn’t stop voters from electing them to the 2013 class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”

Then goes yaddah, yaddah, yaddah for a bit before this:

“This year’s attempt to appeal to a wider audience means that Flavor Flav, Public Enemy’s wall-clock wearing hype man, who is better known for dating actress Brigitte Nielsen and a series of other trollops and strumpets on various VH1 reality shows, will soon join the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Carl Perkins and Smokey Robinson as a Hall of Fame inductee.”

Just curious, but is the gap between say, Rush (who evidently fit the Free Press’ definition of “rock and roll”) and Public Enemy (who don’t) really any bigger than the gap between Carl Perkins and Smokey Robinson?

It’s fine for anyone to argue in favor of a narrow definition of “rock and roll.” But if someone is going to take the silly side in an argument, shouldn’t they at least strive for internal consistency?

Of course, when you run into talk of “trollops and strumpets,” it’s generally safe to assume gaps in basic logic may be lingering nearby.

I happen to be someone who loves the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame both as concept and flawed reality. But even if it existed for no other good reason, the annual flushing of The New Reactionaries from their hidey-holes would suffice….

 

THE ICE IS SLOWLY MELTING…THOUGHTS ON THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME CLASS OF 2013

For those who missed yesterday’s announcement, this year’s inductees are:

Rush
Public Enemy
Heart
Randy Newman
Donna Summer
Albert King

And in the non-performing categories:

Lou Adler
Quincy Jones

Congrats to all. Good year for the seventies and for black artists. And another pretty good year for women. All good signs.

Adler and Jones are solid picks by the Hall’s special committee. Given existing standards, their merits for inclusion are pretty much beyond argument.

As to the performers: Only the long overdue Summer was on my earlier list of the most deserving who aren’t in, but Heart was a very near miss and Public Enemy were first time eligible (hence, I didn’t consider them).

Randy Newman is a solid pick, especially given the Hall’s recent habit of honoring cult-level singer-songwriters (though Carole King’s absence even from the performer’s nominee list year after year still puzzles me no end–she is in as a non-performer). It does bother me a bit that I suspect at least some people are voting for these performers (Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Laura Nyro) in hopes that their own hero will look better on the next ballot. Sort of a “if these people are all in, how can you deny X?” argument. That being said, I think Newman is more deserving than the others and, let’s face it, voters have a right to vote however they want for whatever reason.

That leaves Rush and Albert King.

Rush clearly benefited from a long campaign by its passionate fan base, and I like the idea–now incontrovertible–that fans really do have a voice in the process, however small. I’ve been putting together lengthy mix-discs of classic rock staples for the past couple of years and I have to say I don’t really distinguish them from that genre’s average except in terms of longevity. But, hey, the average is pretty impressive, and they by no means lower any existing standards.

Albert King is trickier. While he’s worthy on purely artistic grounds, he’s also one of those artists (like Patsy Cline or Peter, Paul and Mary) who had an undeniably large influence on rock and roll without actually being rock and roll. Because these acts made their important records during the rock and roll era–and, unlike Wanda Jackson, well after that era began–they can’t reasonably (or even unreasonably as in Jackson’s case) be put in as “early influences.”

It may well be that the Hall actually needs a new category for this kind of performer. Albert King is probably closer to being a rock and roller than Miles Davis (who was inducted a few years ago and would have been perfect for this imaginary category) or the others I mentioned, but it’s a little unfair for blues guitarists to be given this path to induction (Freddie King made it on similar grounds last year) when others just as important have little chance even to be considered.

I don’t know what this proposed category should be called, incidentally, (How about just “Influence”) but the idea is definitely worth considering.

 

QUICK THOUGHTS ON THE 2012 ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME NOMINATIONS…

(NOTE: The Future Rock Legends site has posted this year’s nominees. Please check it out and consider participating in the fan vote.)

You can go here, here and here to see who I think should have been nominated. The only overlap this year between my list and the actual nominating committee’s is Donna Summer so, obviously, she’s a no-brainer. In past years, death worked for the equally deserving Dusty Springfield and the hardly deserving (as a solo performer) George Harrison, so here’s hoping this will be her time.

I also voted for N.W.A. (along with Public Enemy, eligible for the first time), the Marvelettes, Heart and Deep Purple.

For the record, I don’t agree with the folks at FRL that this is an exceptionally strong ballot, especially not given the long list of the more deserving who have once more been left off.

However, I never have a problem finding five worthy candidates.

Heart was close to making my own list and N.W.A. were outside my consideration because they are just becoming eligible, so those were easy picks.

The Marvelettes are not, to my mind, as important as the Chantels or the Shangri-Las to either rock history or my personal pantheon. But they did have Motown’s first #1 hit, made lots of great records and are fully worthy of induction (as is Mary Wells). They are also the only pre-Beatles act on this year’s ballot and that ever more tenuous connection needs to be kept alive until the dozen or so still-deserving acts from that era get their due.

Deep Purple seemed the most worthy of the remaining acts since they did have a certain amount of weight in the early days of what’s now called (rather arrogantly and narrowly) “classic rock.”

As for the rest:

Newly eligible Public Enemy are a virtual shoo-in and Rush will probably get the most public support. I don’t have any problem with these two acts being in, though, to be fair, I probably don’t know enough about either act to truly judge their music.

Reactionaries who dream of a world where we all run back to the tribes tend to have a distancing effect on me.

On the other hand, Albert King and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band seem extremely marginal. If pure blues acts are going to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as performers, I think they should at least be giants in their own field. Not sure that really applies to either of these, though both, of course, made lots of fine music and had a monumental side or two. I’m just not sure history is any different without them.

Chic keeps getting nominated and they deserve to be in, but I would put them a long way behind Barry White and a shade behind K.C. and the Sunshine Band in the disco sweepstakes.

The Meters are fine. I probably should listen to more of their music, too, but I doubt I would rank them anywhere near War.

Kraftwerk represents an area of rock-as-machinery/machinery-as-rock that’s never been my cup of tea, but I find it hard to believe they should be put ahead of Roxy Music (and I’m not even sure I would vote for Roxy Music if they were on this relatively weak ballot).

Randy Newman is fine. His best music is the equal of anyone’s best music (though most of it was made a very long time ago and, for someone who is supposedly uncompromising and iconoclastic there sure has been a lot of inexplicable mediocrity over the ensuing decades). But he’s not as deserving as Jackie DeShannon or Carole King and he represents a disturbing trend of voters seemingly banding together and continually electing marginal singer-songwriters (Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Laura Nyro) in hopes whichever one they really want in will be on next year’s ballot.

Procol Harum? Again, I probably need to listen more, but I’ve listened enough to feel pretty confident they aren’t hiding any Sandy Denny or Richard Thompson level geniuses in there. Save them for later. Put the Fairport Convention in first.

That leaves Joan Jett and her band, the Blackhearts. Very tricky case. I like her a lot, but maybe more as an icon and personality than for her actual records. Still, the moment when “I Love Rock and Roll” and “We Got the Beat” sat at #1 and #2 on the singles charts was a great, great breakthrough in the way half of the human race could imagine seeing themselves. And the fact that so many assumed Jett and the Go-Gos were cultural inevitabilities rather than visionaries who–taking very different paths–decoded and blew apart some of the world’s oldest hack prejudices and preconceptions at the exact same moment, has been long since belied by the “inevitable” culture’s inability to produce more than a tiny handful of worthy heirs for either.

So while I would put the Go-Gos in first, Jett’s worthy and I would make her my first alternate, just ahead of Chic.

All in all, this is by no means a terrible list to choose from (there’s never been a terrible RRHOF list to choose from, no matter what you might have heard). But the Hall’s most persistent patterns–inexplicably prejudicing writers and players over the singers who actually gave rock and roll its unique identity, resistance to women who do not long to be part of some boys’ club or other and the preference for cultish white acts (or white liberal approved acts like Public Enemy) over far more significant black ones–all generally continue.

Setting Donna Summer aside, War, Spinners, Jerry Butler, Dionne Warwick, Cyndi Lauper, Carole King and Linda Ronstadt were each big stars in their respective eras and at least matched the artistry of anyone else on this list. Those patterns are shifting ever so slightly, but until they are addressed more thoroughly, the hole in the side of the Hall’s leaking boat will only grow larger.

And given what a great and necessary institution the RRHOF is–and how vital it is becoming to the preservation of rock’s central, somewhat contradictory, idea of bringing the tribes closer together without obliterating their identity altogether, that’s a real shame.