So where are the true rebels, you may ask? Where are the mouthy ones, the daring ones, the hell-raising risk-loving leaders? Where are rock and roll’s authentic voices? It’s an ever-changing thing, hard to define, harder yet to hold and not snuff out. But when I think of the phrase “rock and roll,” I don’t automatically think sex and drugs; I think of daring, I think of risk, I think of being challenged and even a bit (/a lot) unsettled. I think of a band like Pussy Riot and Tinariwen. I think of PJ Harvey and Fela Kuti. I think of Pearl Jam and The Virgin Prunes, of Grinderman, of Run DMC, of Public Enemy (who did, by the way, also get inducted yesterday), of Massive Attack, Throbbing Gristle, The Cramps, of Patti Smith, David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Scott Walker. I think of Meshell Ndegeocello. I think of Jacques Brel and Leonard Cohen and Little Richard …and and and. Artists with something to say, something to prove, a unique way of saying it and an incredible propensity to create various levels of thought, reflection, insight, perspective -even discomfort in listeners/viewers. They’re artists with a visual side (or defiantly non-visual, as is the case with Pearl Jam, a statement in and of itself) as well as a brash, beautiful sonic side. They don’t need to prove their groundedness; they answer only to their respective muses. There’s an authenticity that stands firmly outside grooming too, even if some (hello Misters Cave, Bowie, Cohen) maintain(ed) an intoxicating air of smashing, scintillating physicality.
Inductees to the 2013 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame were announced yesterday.
As Slate noted, bands like Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and Kraftwerk were passed over in favor of Rush. It’s strange to put two such different bands into the same huge, gooey melange that is the Hall of Fame nominations. Looking through reactions across social media, I’ve noted more than a few expressing disgust that so few perceived “greats” have been admitted, somehow looked over in favor of more popular, mainstream acts.
I have a whole-hearted indifference to the entire affair. Like the Grammys or the American Music Awards, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame represents little of the true state of popular music, much less its fandom or current culture. It’s a fond museum piece that’s made a formerly-dangerous artform respectable. Certainly more upscale than the AMAs but far less distinguished than the Kennedy Center Honors, the Hall of Fame seems like a quaint exercise in industry back-slappery designed to garner as much hate as adoration. Any reaction is a good reaction in the music industry of 2012.
But the position of rock and roll as dangerous, unsavory, ill-mannered, lecherous, and immoral has become as pre-packaged and pre-fabricated as the soon-to-be-extinct Twinkie. Was it ever thus? Perhaps. Artists have always known image is important -though maybe they felt it a little more in August 1981. It follows then, that while bands that have changed, so have listeners –our listening habits, of course, but beyond that, our expectations around what popular bands should be, how they should sound, and how they should present themselves to the world at large.
The past few decades, it feels as if the world of rock and roll has turned into a meticulously-micro-managed PR affair, complete with stylists, makeup artists, nutritionists, fitness consultants, an army of assistants, and a bucketful of “I’d-like-to-thank-God-and-our-fans”-style honors from supposedly respectable societies. All this grooming, primping, praise and applause, happens while maintaining an air of groundedness and connection -to roots, family, country, God, whatever it is we, as a society, are supposed to cherish in our own lives. This “just like us” corollary is, of course, laughably false: no one’s family is perfect, everyone has complicated relationships with their God, and very often we think of hometown roots as either desperately uncool or hipster-fied beyond all recognition (but that’s the point, isn’t it?). Yet the quest for conveying authenticity continues. It seems awfully important to an awful lot of rock and roll people.
This quest tends to express itself lately in unexpected collaborations. Should we be surprised hiphop and rock have blurred, the respective heroes from each striking poses that reflect and relay the supposed “rebellion” of the other? Nothing seals so-called “street cred” like skipping across (pre-approved) cultures -or generations, a fact I was reminded of in reading that none other than Sir Paul McCartney will be joining the surviving members of Nirvana for tonight’s Hurricane Sandy 12/12/12 benefit concert in New York. Purists may make faces, but there’s something simultaneously clever and nauseating about two generations of music icons purposely diluting their beloved respective brands -to what, create something new? Perhaps, though it seems there’s also a deliberate attempt to attain some kind of cool creative “cred” in the process. Authenticity through dilution? It seems like a way of holding on to the creative spark, however weak, dull, and muddy the spark itself may be to outsiders.
So while I applaud the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s far-overdue recognition of disco with its induction of Donna Summer (and she was so much more than that, by the way), and its symbolism in terms of an ever-expanding, all-encompassing genre of sound, the award means little, if anything, becoming more and more of a footnote in my perennially growing musical palate. I don’t love awarded artists any less, or any more, for the nods they do or don’t receive. I’m sure they’re well award rock and roll has changed -some for good, some for bad. It isn’t what it was. It won’t be. But so long as we all stay curious, educating ourselves about the past while adding our way through the thick fog of the future, perhaps we’ll find a place where rock and roll actually matters again. Maybe we’ll land at a spot where a perfect face matters far less than a messy, chaotic, imperfection-is-perfect sound. That would be a true rebellion indeed -and maybe just what we’ve been waiting for.
A few weeks ago I was glued to the addictive TV-computer super-combo, following the London riots with a mix of fascination and revulsion. Like many, I was appalled by the random violence overtaking the city. It might be plus normale for English society, but to me it was horrifying. And yet, it was hard to turn off and turn away, at least in part because I lived in London a little over ten years ago. As well as being one of the world’s great capital cities (I seem to have a penchant for living in them), it is also a personal favorite. Culture dominates every aspect of urban life there, from the markets and bars around Camden Town to the free museums and old-meets-new architecture, from casual pubs to high-end galleries – London, with its heady mix of history, high art, and street life, is a dazzling place.
I recently reflected on how much I felt at home in London when I lived there, and how it wasn’t that much of stretch to ingratiate myself there socially and culturally. I wondered, because of Canada being a Commonwealth nation, if the British mindset had seeped in. I may still grit my teeth at the thought of having a Governor-General, and seeing the Queen on Canadian currency (perhaps a little more over the years), but there’s something resoundingly vital about the connection , which made the events of mid-August even more upsetting. London will always be home on some level.
On the flip, monarchy-less side of that coin, charting the week that was in New York was a harrowing ordeal, perhaps because of its proximity to Toronto, and its proximity to my having lived there only a month ago. Like London, culture is everywhere in NYC, but it’s done differently; no one’s tied down by history (or violently kicking against it) so much as integrating it effortlessly into every day life. Old delis, noodle joints, and dive bars (coming down too quickly) are peppered with old, cracked photographs of celebrities, memories, streets, and faces. It isn’t high art – you can’t buy them. (By contrast, a fast-food joint in west part of Toronto has willfully-worn photos of recent events for sale along its walls for hundreds of dollars.)
You can’t buy the kind of energy a place like New York has, though people have peddled that fantasy to the naive and wide-eyed now for centuries. You pay for the museums, it’s true, but New Yorkers go on the free nights before grabbing takeaway and heading home. Culture is so much a part of everyday life there – graffiti-strewn walls, old/new architecture, free concerts, impromptu performances -so as to be taken for granted. It’s taken for granted because it can be, because that’s the strange, exhausting beauty of a Republic, and of what it stands for: if you don’t like it, it doesn’t matter, no one’s mandating you to accept anything, go make something yourself and see if you can do better. Everyone else has.
This shrugging, casually f*ck-it attitude, combined with the fiery-eyed ethos of self-determination and truth-or-dare initiative, creates the perfect storm for me to create in. But I don’t like to see the literal perfect storm floating over a place I love -or literal riots. This summer’s series of challenges make me wonder what art -theater, dance, film, music, and visuals -will come out, is being conceived this very moment, has been shaped by calamity and chaos. I’ve been writing non-stop the last few weeks, which explains my lack of posting here. But, with plans afoot to expand, diversify, and cultivate, the calamity and chaos of the summer will, hopefully, lead gracefully into the orderly repose of fall. To quote a favorite song, Everything Must Change.
All photos taken from my Flickr photostream.