Isn’t every artist trapped in time?

I may have been a little harsh on Adam Ant in my previous post. Every musical artist, performer or composer, is trapped in time. So it might not have been completely fair to isolate Ant to introduce that point.

Musical artists seem to express the culture of a moment in the language of the moment, which is sort of what traps them in time. The folk music explosion of the 19th and 20th centuries only exacerbated this condition. Now, I don’t mean Bob Dylan or Peter, Paul, and Mary when I say folk music. The music of the people has become the music that makes money. Whereas, in days gone by, I think the music of the people just sort of stayed with people and was never considered financially useful. Composers of the music of the courts and the palaces made the money. The success of bums singing about their broken hearts is a peculiarly 1900s thing.

Blues, jazz, hip-hop, country, and whatever else spring from people. Real people made this music because they wanted to, or because they had something to say. And the great thing about mass media, at least for them, was that they could make some money from their music-making. From sheet music to downloadable songs, mass media has made the music of the people into an industry.

Selling their folk music, as it were, has trapped it in time. If it wasn’t being sold we probably would not know the music of our great-parents. That is, we might have those songs passed down to us, but they would have been appropriately adapted over the decades. If mass media hadn’t permitted folk music (or pop music) to be recorded, I might be singing a version of ‘Crossroad Blues’ or even ‘My Generation’ but they would not be the exact recordings made by Robert Johnson in the 1920s or The Who in 1965. I would be singing versions of those songs, not the specific version that was pressed on vinyl. Even Robert Johnson himself wasn’t quite aware of the impact that mass media was having on folk music. He sang different versions of his songs. The differences are usually minor, but you can see that he didn’t view his music as having a definitive version. It was fluid. That is, there is no Robert Johnson canon any more than there is a crochet scarf that all others must be measured against. It’s an art form of, for, and by the people. Selling it is new.

And selling it has dated it. It’s dated every single person that has ever sung a pop song. Those old blues tracks sound all creaky and ancient because they are. The music was supposed to stay with us, not given away to big companies to preserve like the songs are the bones of some saint and the record companies are some medieval Catholic church.

So when I appeared to be picking on Adam Ant in the previous post, I was only scratching at a problem that I think starts a lot deeper.

If our world resembled that world that preceded the Industrial Revolution, I’ll bet we would sing folk songs still. Instead we let others sing the songs for us. The music of the people is no longer of and by the people. It’s for us alright. It’s produced for us to get at our money.

By letting others sing the songs of our culture – no no no. We’re not letting them. We’re outsourcing it. We pay others to do culture for us. By paying others to sing the songs of our culture, we make them look silly. After all, they will be dated soon enough. Just look at the pictures of Prince or Bono or George Michael taking themselves seriously in the 1980s. They look ridiculous. But they also strip us of the chance to build our own musical interpretation of our culture. And what’s the harm in that? Well, if we’re not building our own musical interpretation of our culture we are letting others define the culture for us. We are inviting others to tell us what we think about the world, how we feel about our neighbors, and how we see time passing. Most importantly, the outsourcing of folk music has changed the most vital question a human can ever ask about himself or about his creator: Who.

Outsourcing music to the industrial complex denies us the position to ask Who made us and who are we in this mess.

That might seem a bit far-fetched. But think about it. Do you know who you are?

Do you think the people of the past, who organically built onto the musical landscape of their culture knew who they were? Which of them has a more concrete answer when asked who they are? I don’t think there’s any doubt.

Identity is the prize that comes from folk music. It’s the prize that comes from any folk art. (And again, please don’t assume I’m only talking about quilts or folk-y music; I mean the arts that come from the people, excluding the high art that was traditionally commissioned for a price.)

See if you agree with me.

What is the benefit of folk art? I say it’s to enhance an established, maybe even establish an, individual’s identity.

Take that away from the geographically-near culture of that individual’s home and what happens? Whoever is making the music is deciding who that guy or girl is. And whoever is making the music probably is not overly concerned with that individual’s identity. As much as I found in common with Pete Townshend’s music, his concept of me as a person is probably just the few extra bucks I’ve added to his bank account.

By outsourcing music-making to others, I’ve let them define who I am. And I hate that…I think. Lemme see if I have a song to express this…This‘ll do.

What has the music of The Beatles been termed? The Soundtrack of our lives. What is that, if not an admission that pop music has replaced geographically-near community’s role in defining who we are. Have you ever seen The Big Chill? That movie really drives home this theory. I mean, I love that movie, but find it pretty disquieting when I start to identify with characters from a movie that’s all about media-saturated middle-agers who don’t know who they themselves are.

When you start peeling, it gets creepy. Who am I?

“I’m a Steelers fan.” SUPER-lame!

“I’m a fan of The Who.” Lame.

“I’m a real nowhere man.” Getting warmer.

“I’m a Trekkie.” Colder. Colder!

Peel it back, layer after layer. You like this or that TV show, or maybe Rocky Horror, or maybe this or that band. What are they singing about? Are they singing about TV? Or other bands? Or old movies? Whatever they’re singing about, I am sure it’s based on some previously outsourced cultural moment. Like, how many Beatles’ references are packed into the movies? I Am Sam is kind of nothing without The Beatles.

Okay. That’s enough for now.

It’s easy for me to hate when I am.


The Return of Adam Ant

You’ve heard of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics? Well the Sandman from the title is part of this community of spiritual beings who control the seven foundational truths of life: Dream, Destruction, Death, Destiny, Desire, Despair, and Delight. In the most insightful piece in all of Gaiman’s work, Delight is transformed into Delirium.

The dizzying delight of the New Romantics, typified by Adam and the Ants, gave way to delirium. Adam himself suffered some mental health problems, but the musical genre’s walls were broken down, and not in a good way. The walls were broken so any idiot in make-up could sell a million records. This mascara-covered foray into the baroque did not last long for pop music. Some money-grubber saw the potential, deleted anything that was interesting about the musical/stage genre of New Romanticism, and shoved money and naked girls in the faces of talent-less twits like Motley Crue (I can’t stand them, so I won’t even bother with the umlauts), Guns N’ Roses, and Poison.

And thus ended the delightful period of English pop music known as New Romanticism. Younger, louder bands with more sex in their videos replaced them. And Adam himself plunged into a typical Rock and Roll valley of sex, drugs, and finally mental instability. The poor guy tried to regain his fickle audience a few times, but the faithful were few. It was like someone switched on the lights at the party and the whole crowd could suddenly see that no one was quite as sexy or interesting as they seemed a moment before.

I have to admit, this was never really my scene. The height of Adam and others like him was 1981. I was born in 84, so I only saw the edges of it, a decade later and too self-conscious to wear anything with epaulets, let alone mascara. Even if I had been living in New York or London at the right time, I probably would only nodded my approval.

The visuals were, as I mentioned, baroque, which suited my inflated sense of timelessness. By the time I came of age, the subcultures of the 80s had all melted into a single unseemly glob though. Only faint memories of distinctions remained. New Romantics, metalheads, goths, punks, etc were all kind of the same thing. I mean, there are always the religious followers of a trend. I’m sure there are hardcore punks and goths somewhere, holding onto the dream all by themselves in some long-forgotten club that has since found itself pretty much in the parking lot of the local Target. Everybody else, the casual scenesters and MTV-watchers, blended. So the particulars of the aesthetic are gone. This is uncomfortably obvious in Adam’s new weirdo video, where he’s got something of the old (and tired) pirate thing going on, but he’s inside a world that wants to be imagined by Terry Gilliam, but isn’t.

A scene like Adam used to play in cannot last longer than its highest virtue. If fun, or sex, or looking great is the pinnacle of success, then you’ve got about one summer to enjoy it all before it crumbles underneath you. It’s sort of a “eat, drink, and be merry” thing. What makes the New Romantics’ version of that old old old hedonistic lifestyle (best described here) distinct is the fear that the world might end before they hit thirty.

Though Pete Townshend, my personal musical hero, and Alphaville are acts that don’t quite qualify as members of this movement, they each wrote songs that put the whole genre into historical perspective. Alphaville’s Forever Young is a bit more serious than anything you’d find on an Adam record, but the baroque fashion is in place and the frenetic, dizzying sounds liken the two bands. In this song, they express their fear of having a bomb drop on their heads and the existential anxiety produced by having your future decided remotely by idiots in suits.

I mean, the first few lines couldn’t make the purpose for 80s rock any clearer:

Let’s dance in style, lets dance for a while 
Heaven can wait we’re only watching the skies 
Hoping for the best but expecting the worst 
Are you going to drop the bomb or not?

Townshend’s little known song Dance It Away is about the same thing:

We’ll still like to think we’re human
And we’re gonna drown in our own sweet was
At times it looks confusing
But Mr. Can, we dance it away

(By the way, that’s John Entwhistle playing bass and singing backing vocals and Kenney Jones on drums on that track, so it’s basically a lost Who track.)

All that to say Adam and the Ants had a vibrant stranglehold on fun. I don’t think I would agree with the guy on any topics. I doubt we could even tolerate each other so well in a social situation. But, man, I just cannot turn away when he’s performing. He knew this was his chance and he took everything he could get out of it.

So why doesn’t it work? Why can’t he hit it again? To be fair, I don’t know that he can’t. I watched only the first song, Cool Zombie. The song itself is alright. It’s got a honky-tonk guitar thing that’s cool. I think Adam could slide into that soundscape well enough, though not the aesthetic. And he doesn’t. He’s wearing a version of his old pirate costume, which seems to be remembered in fonder terms by the artist himself. I could be wrong about that. As I said, I was never part of that scene. His more devoted fans might want that costume back in the same way I love seeing old man Townshend swing his arms when he plays his guitar. The fact that the pirate suit fits a little tighter makes the whole thing feel sadly silly. Between that and the bizarre little dances he performs, it’s impossible to forget that you’re watching a sixty-year-old that you last saw as a kid.

The music is good. It’s a country thing basically, which doesn’t thrill me but doesn’t turn me off either. It reminds of the Black Crowes, who never really grabbed my interest. Adam does a kind of Bob Dylan style singing, throwing the words out of his head just to get them out.

The aesthetic of the video does a good job of trying to recreate the gothic look Adam and Alphaville helped popularize back in the 80s. It just feels a little too secure. The threat of the world ending isn’t as intense as it was in the 80s, which is a good thing I guess. The art we produce is at least different without that pressure.

Hi, I’m new here…

Nothing interesting here.

This is just the place where a lousy writer tries to cover those elusive million words to okay-ness.

Proficiency in any field is earned by time on the clock. It’s not inherited. It’s not bought. It’s gained by fretting over, swearing over, and primarily, hunching over whatever field it is that one hopes to be good at.

I would like to be a good writer. If the above has been understood by any persons that do not know me personally, I can be understood. Transmitting ideas (especially those prickly abstract ones) through written words is kind of the big thing in writing. I need to practice this.

Being understood and being interesting via my written words is like, a whole level of good writing above me at the moment. Again, I would like to be there someday.

How I plan to get there is pretty simple. I am going to write. As Ira Glass indicates, in the video linked above, it’s normal to be disappointed in creative work early on. See, I could never accept that. My taste was good and what I was putting out has been mostly like grapefruit. My good taste spits out whatever I’m writing.

This space is where I’m throwing down my million words. This is where I’ll be fretting, swearing, and hunching, so to speak.

The weak spots in my craft will come first. I joked above about abstract concepts being hard to write. Well, that’s actually kind of easy for me. Writing about spaces, actions, and senses are what’s hard.

So this should be a fun blog to read! “Here’s what I’m bad at – enjoy!”

In addition to practice, I’ll fill this space with whatever doesn’t fit on Geeks of Christ, my other blog. That one has a specific purpose and experimenting with dialogue, or rambling on about Adam Ant (which should happen tomorrow), or describing old paintings does not fit that purpose.

Start the countdown. Day 1…19,999 to go. I should be good enough to publish my novel by that time. Watch for it – January 28, 2067!