Tuesday, November 16, 2004

When Pop (Fans) Grow Up

Pop connects for a lot of us, not just because of how it hit us, but when. A year or so ago, making a mix tape for a friend, it occurred to me that the vast majority of the songs I was including fell into one of two categories: music of romance (craving, gaining, losing, regretting), and music of snotty adolescent rebellion (frequently addressed to parents or other absent authority figures). The first of these is decidedly dominant, partly, I think, because it's less fixed in time-and-space. But the second is certainly a long and noble tradition.

Listening again to The Vapors (see "Guilty Pleasures," below), I was reminded of visceral connections between the music we listen to and the lives we lead.

Time's gonna make you a man someday
And you won't wanna go out and play
With your friends
You'll just sit at home and watch News at Ten
And the pub's'll be closed and you won't have been
With your friends

And he picks up the paper and appears to be quite serious
And you smile at him and agree 'cause he's your old man
But still I can't hear you, still I can't hear you
You make no sense to me
Still I can't hear you, still I can't hear you
When the time comes I'll disagree with your policy
But you don't wanna sit tight, you don't wanna play cool
You don't want a whole life like your first day at school
And I wanna fight wars and I wanna die young
So don't keep saying 'like father, like son.'

Or try this (far more obscure) one:

Don't stop me having fun, don't make me be your age
You don't know what's going on, you're past that stage
Now when you say 'you should know better,' well, maybe sooner or later
You'll be as good as me, nobody could be better
Well that's alright, I know what I like
I wanna run with the pack now.

There's maybe five years (more or less) of your life when such lyrics connect with you, but when they do, that's all that matters. In the rebellion mode, pop articulates the nonverbal sneer, often for those too shy and geeky to actually sneer themselves.

I was thinking about the role of snotty adolescence in pop apropos of two reunions on the horizon. On November 26, in Cleveland, Eric Carmen is scheduled to finally take the stage (for the first time in 31 years) with Jim Bonfanti, Wally Bryson, and Dave Smalley, a reunion rumoured for several years. I was never much of a Raspberries fan; like Dylan, they struck me as one of those bands more important for their influence than their product. But then I'm probably overly influenced by the fact that, when I was a kid, the radio was full of Carmen's later emo ballads. Oh, and Dirty Dancing. There's a bit of humor in this: on the website advertising the show, one can sign up for a group discount for the hotel, as though it's a conference or a wedding. "Hey, The Raspberries are performing! And there's a group discount!" I'm joking, sort of... It's actually quite thoughtful of them to consider such things. But there is an element of the ridiculous in it, too. Wonder if the hotel takes AARP?

The other reunion is far more prominent and has received more attention, partly because of the irony. According to Launch, Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey may be heading back into the studio. On his website, Townsend says they're both writing and will meet in mid-December to suss out the possibility of a Who2 project. They've been touring on and off for years, but haven't recorded anything new in two decades. The oft-noted irony here is of course the famous line "Hope I die before I get old," a line which has been thrown at The Who at least since their last studio album. (Townsend turns 60 next year.)

I'm pretty heartened by all this news, as snarky as I may sound. The adolescent sneer doesn't weather very well, and talent, after all, doesn't go anywhere. I'm not sure music should be something we outgrow. Most of my postings, I realize, consider the question of pop music as an aspect of personal identity, and boxing up and putting away any part of your identity seems risky to me. Some part of this may be the comfort fans receive from the idea that those who shaped their identities in youth are still out there, writing, performing shaping. If they haven't outgrown it, why should we? Plus, age is a lot more relative now. Listen to "When I'm 64," and it sounds impossibly old. But as McCartney himself approaches the magic number (Next June), it's good to see that he's out there doing what he does, most recently with Live Aid. And he has a toddler.

And besides, older fans have the scratch to go places and see older artists. You can buy a lot more music with a real job than you can on a college stipend. That's a good thing.


Anonymous said...

I've never met anyone who loved the movie Bedazzled, the 1968 version, no less. CK

Pastabagel said...

Off-topic: I noticed on Atrios you wrote that you didn't have any trolls on your site. How sad. Consider your site trolled!

On-Topic: On the subject of music (though not pop), I submit for your consideration Blue Train.


Anonymous said...

Came here for the same reason as pastabagel.

My recommendation for an album to hunt down: Great Buildings, "Apart from the Crowd" (1981).

http://www.artistdirect.com/nad/store/artist/album/0,,95170,00.html (info only)

-- Swopa, http://www.needlenose.com

NYMary said...

Thanks, trolls! I feel so loved. But sorry, PB, if five years of undergrad and five years of grad school didn't make a jazz fan out of me, it ain't gonna happen now.

I think of the Kids in the Hall routine in which Bruce McCullough complains: "Know what I hate? I hate when you're having one of those great dreams about, say, promiscuity with dignity, and you're woken up by one of those guys with goatee things on their faces knocking on your window and saying, 'hey! Can we come in? Beano's clarinet's gettin' wet!'" McCullogh proposes that jazz is the music playing in "H-E-double hockey sticks." And in heaven? "Country and western!"

Swopa, looks like Great Buildings are definitely up my alley. Thanks!

Pastabagel said...


Ok, Maybe Coltrane isn't the best place to start. I guess you wouldn't want to introduce someone to rock by starting with Jimi Hendrix.

Trust me on this. Click here and listen to track 17 by Miles Davis, called "Generique". This is one of those songs that you'll think you've heard already, but only because dozens of songs that came later have tried to sound like it, and failed.

You will not be disappointed.


Phila said...

It's an interesting point you make about closing off parts of your personality. I think (or hope) that in my case, it was more a matter of trying to find my personality under dozens of layers of cultural accretion. My parents were huge jazz snobs, so I got taken to see Mingus and Ornette Coleman and God knows who all. As a kid, I loved all of that stuff. Today, I admire it...which is not quite the same thing, God knows. When I got to be a bit older, I found that my own taste in jazz ran more towards Bix Beiderbecke and his era, with a leap past big band (which I loathe) to late forties Coleman Hawkins (and his immediate beneficiaries, like Charlie Parker). But I simply don't have much of a emotional reaction to anything after that anymore. Ornette Coleman still sounds good live, but overall I just don't really care anymore. On the other hand, there's plenty of classical and early jazz stuff my parents exposed me to that I still love.

And then there are bands like the Clash and Joy Division which I loved in their day, but find myself utterly ashamed of EVER having liked now. Stuff like that really makes me wonder about the point you're making...to what extent am I just running away from a part of my personality that I happen not to like? Wouldn't I be happier holding on to, or recapturing, whatever good feelings I once had about that stuff? Would I be better off if the Velvet Underground still sounded good to me? I have no idea. There are bands I liked when I was a teenager that still sound good to me, and I wonder why some of them last and others don't. I can't believe it's because of their associations, 'cause I liked the Clash and X at exactly the same period of my adolescence, but X still sounds great to me, and I can't stand to hear the Clash. Cheap Trick and early AC/DC still sound fine, but other bands of their vintage that I once liked seem totally worthless. Is it because of some quality in the music, or is it something about how I view myself now versus then? Beats me.

Another thing that's odd is, I always like hearing the songs that were popular on the radio when I was between 5 and 13 years old. I don't have any sort of critical reaction to most of them. It's funny how songs that were playing in the background back then have more positive emotional associations for me today than a lot of music by bands I loved when I was 14 to 18. I suppose that says something about the power and glory of disposable pop music right there!

Thers said...

Listening to any Miles Davis is about as pleasant as it would be to listen to a 45 of "Let the Eagle Soar" on 78.

NYMary said...

Thersites would say that the utterly uncritical attitude toward pop in childhood is a function of not understanding "the field." With no idea of the rules which make the music hip or unhip, we listen without knowing why. Personally, I cannot, and never will be able to critique stuff like Helen Reddy, because what's your defense, really, when "Delta Dawn" comes on the radio and you know every word without knowing that you know it? (Apparently, I used to sing this song in public, in one of those weird psychic wounds which are really interesting only to the wounded.)

My parents weren't musical, but I was shaped pretty decidedly my my older siblings (I'm the sixth of seven), so I knew the Beatles very early, Creedence, The Who, that kind of thing. Music was playing all the time in my house, pretty much. Motown was later for me, and metal and jazz, I'm afraid to say, never really did happen. This worked the other direction, too: I shared a room with my older sister and woke up, for a solid year, to Styx. Every day. First thing. I was actually relieved when she switched to the Steve Miller Band. To this day, the kitschy Styx-o-philes are as foreign to my way of thinking as conservative Christians. I just don't get it. (And, I'd argue, they don't either, getting their tastes from that "Mr. Roboto" car commercial.) But by then, of course, I was getting old enough to understand what Styx "meant," in the field.

Once we know what the field looks like, we wenter full-tilt into that snarky adolescent mode I discuss in my posting. And I, at least, cling to those distinctions with a particular zeal, more for what they say about me than for what they say about the music. Example: I always ask my students what's on their CD players or ipods the first day of class, just to help me remember who they are. Last semester, one boy said "Neil Diamond," and I had no problem with that. Another said "Journey," and I said, "You're joking, right?" No, apparently, and he expressed his willingness to "go to the mat" for Steve Perry, at which I just rolled my eyes and said, "Trust me. You weren't there. You don't know." Because in 1981, or whenever it was that you couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting a Journey song, much of my identity was defined, almost viscerally, as not-a-Journey-fan.

My most recent full-immersion fascination with pop, now about two years old, actually developed as a way to cope with depression. "Who did I used to be? How did I get through a day?" became "What did I used to listen to?" and I started rebuilding aurally. Weirdly, it worked. Maybe, as noted in an earlier posting, I'm just screwing with my brain chemistry, managing my endorphins. Maybe it hearkens back to a simpler time in life. But pop's a cheap(ish) drug, and legal. I'm working on a longer reflection on this issue, but gaining access to my past through music has been a godsend to me.

Phila said...

I agree with Thersites about Miles Davis, though I'm coming from (I suspect) more of a jazz-based angle...he's too goddamn facile and repetitive, his sound is too thin, and he built a lot of his reputation on other people's work, despite being the weakest aspect of that work. But Journey...that's something else again. As I once told my wife when she apologized for playing Mozart (who I don't like), "You could be playing worse things. Disliking Mozart and disliking Limp Bizkit are two very, very different aesthetic experiences." I mean, there's stuff that aims high but doesn't affect you for some reason, and then there's stuff that's so hopelessly retarded and hollow that it doesn't even seem to be a recognizable human product.

I can't tell you how much I hated Journey back in the day. Styx, too. Nothing's gonna make me nostalgic for that stuff! Disco? No problem...but late seventies AOR...ugh.

One thing that really fascinates me about listening to the stuff I'm "uncritical" about, after having spent a bunch of time in the recording studio over the years, is thinking about the physical process of making these records that used to seem completely irreducible and timeless. It doesn't work too well on the later stuff, though...listening to recording techniques might almost suck me into a Journey song for a moment, 'cause it forces me to deal with the song on its own terms, but no appreciation or respect ever comes out of it.

Eh, I'm such a geek. Thersites managed to depress me last night by mentioning his PhD...seems like everyone on Eschaton has one but me (sob!), so I ended up going and begging my wife to forgive me for being such a bum (she's getting hers, of course). I don't know...while I'm not dying for lack of one (or a college degree, for that matter), I think that I sometimes feel a little led astray by music, because I threw away college and any number of other things for it...perhaps that's where some of my resentment towards a lot of the "music of my youth" comes from? I mean, on the one hand ditching college for music forced me to do a lot of interesting and unusual work - resulting in a much wider experience than I might've otherwise had, and forcing me to learn things I never would've studied on my own (like industrial hygiene, or economics) - but on the other hand, I have acquaintances with PhD's who get to spend all their time digging through the great libraries of the world and churning out the occasional article or book at their leisure. What do you think? Is academe all it's cracked up to be, or would you rather have bummed around aimlessly, and extended your confused adolescence well into middle age? (On second though, don't answer that.)

NYMary said...

Uh, no, Phila. Some reasonable number of PhDs spend their time grading crappy papers. There's no romance to it, really. Teaching is supposed to be a vocation, but a lot of the time it's just a job, with crappy hours and low pay.

I was wondering, though, why you're ashamed of liking The Clash? And which Clash? I mean "Train in Vain" and "Lost in the Supermarket"? Sure, I'd blush a bit at that. But "Know Your Rights"? Why not?

But you might be right that this is really a matter of controlling your own history. "I was never that person." When, you know, demonstrably you were. I was. Thers was. We have pictures. Don't make me post 'em; trust me, you don't want to see my poodle perm.

With The Clash, especially, you're dealing with a sort of crass political idealism. Outgrow it, okay. But don't lose sight of it. Strummer was a principled man, whatever else you can say about him. He provided an important counternarrative for me in the 80's, especially re: Central America, the burning issue of the day. And he never issued a Wordsworthian retraction, which I like. (Also true of Kerry: never apologized for fighting against the Vietnam War, despite what it cost him.)

Phila said...

I was wondering, though, why you're ashamed of liking The Clash? And which Clash? I mean "Train in Vain" and "Lost in the Supermarket"? Sure, I'd blush a bit at that. But "Know Your Rights"? Why not? Well, "ashamed" is maybe the wrong word. But it's not the political stuff, because I never completely accepted that side of them. In retrospect, I just came to think they were a mediocre band...mediocre songwriters, poor lyricists, and no fun (for me) to listen to. I know they mean a lot to a lot of people, and I completely respect that...I truly believe that the world is a better place with their music than without it, and of course I don't believe my take on a band is the "right" one, or that there IS a right one. But for whatever reason, they simply became irritating to me. Maybe it's because things you initially like, or don't mind, about an artist can become a bit much as the career goes on. What sounds fresh or charming or passionate on someone's first album may seem hackneyed and calculating by the fourth or fifth. Which is what makes a consistent career in pop music so hard, I guess...you're always walking a fine line between repeating what people want to hear ad infinitum, and resenting people's expectations to the point that you get reactionary, and make bad decisions in order to demonstrate "personal growth" or what have you. That said, I think I'll shut my trap. I find your opinions on pop music a LOT more interesting than mine, and I bet I'm not the only one!

Thers said...

I'm sorry, but I do have to say that the life of a PhD is incredibly glamorous. As I was skiing down a dangerous cliff in Finland today, dodging agents from S.H.R.U.B., picking them off one by one with the laser-pistols lodged in my poles and activating my jet-pack, anticipating the erotic encounter with the exotic brunette with the devilish look in her eye and the injuncion to empty the dishwasher that surely awaited me that evening, I thought to myself... I need to use fewer subordinate clauses.

Oh yeah. An advanced degree. I really have gone into archives in Dublin and had a whale of a time. One of the happiest moments of my life was finding a handwritten memo from the Bishop of Killaloe from 1931 which proved that one of my pet theories was correct. Seriously, it was up there with the birth of my kids, and almost as sloppy (his handwriting sucked).

But like anything else, it's a tradeoff. I have an incredibly steady job; honestly, short of murdering a dean, they can't get rid of me (which is a shame, really). But I also carry a lot of debt. We do OK, but no more. Oh well.

And seriously, apart from modern Irish history & literature as it relates to censorship, which was my diss subject, you probably know as much as or probably more than I do about actual... knowledge. Stuff. Things. PhDs specialize so much nowadays that it is very unlikely that they'll emerge with as broad a knowledge base as someone who just read whatever the hell he felt like for 8-10 years. In my narrow area, I would actually say that I probably know more than anyone in the world (I've met the competition, and while I once would have said I'm bragging... I'm not.) But in most other areas I skate by; my usual tactic is to turn everything into a joke so that people think I know more than I do (ask my wife! This drives her nuts!).

Anyway, I made my choices. I get to wear a ridiculous outfit during commencements. And we pay the bills. Tch. It's a good life, but you make your choices and you love the people you love, and that's all there is to it, if you get what I'm saying.