Saturday, November 03, 2007


Last night I wondered: What is the purpose of music nerds? Why do people cling to archival collections of LPs and constantly fuss over the canonization of past episodes of rock and country and jazz and pop? Why have indie bands become like the rest of the yuppie industrial-complex that includes wine and organic food, fragmenting into boutique and rarefied blends refined within an inch of their lives?

After some meditation, I struck on the idea that it must be a collective attempt to slow down, absorb and hold on to our ephemeral pop culture before it evaporates, to solidify it and give it meaning. I think of Harry Smith, the historical revisionary who reminded us that we were old and weird by saving all those 78s from the wax factory. Indeed, the entire Internet often seems to me a swarm of termites chewing over the last 50 years of recorded history, digesting it over and over again. The speed of change being what it is, it's not a difficult impulse to understand. That's the sympathetic view of the Gen-X and Gen-Y will to archive and nerdify anything ever recorded. We're a giant generation of amateur historians recreating the past in a giant indie Renaissance Fair of the 60s, 70s and 80s.

Alternately, music nerd-dom can be seen as a human weakness, a wallowing decadence resisting forward motion, even social change. In that view, Kelefa Sanneh is better than you or me because he's a declared post-rockist who listens only to Puerto Rican Reggeton and obscure Southern hip-hop all day. Good for him. But I'm given to sympathy for the music nerd, especially considering I'm guilty as charged on all counts.

Where does the impulse come from? Why has an entire tier of musicological elite sprung up at this hour in our history? Last night I read in The New York Review of Books an essay about economic history and realized how utterly unique our era really is. Consider: The material standard of living of the average English person -- their food, clothing and shelter -- was completely static until 1800. People didn't collect shit, they just tried to find something to eat and if a good song came along, they did a jig and that was it. A flat line ran across the centuries, starting shortly after Jesus died, then suddenly rocketed up from the early 1800s to 2007, dwarfing the old flat line like a skyscraper. It was called industrialism. Although there had been ups and downs before, there was no long-term improvement for anyone until very, very recently. "Nobody would have been talking about 'growth,'" the writer says of past English peoples.

And yet that's all we've talked about our entire lives, isn't it? That's America. That's capitalism and globalism and military power and patriarchal dominance and all that shit your read about in The Nation.

So my supertheory is this: The so-called "monoculture" of mainstream America that lasted from the advent of TV in the 1950s to about the year 2000 was an historic anomaly, a unique moment in world history when approximately 200 million Americans watched the same three TV channels, the same 10 Hollywood movies and listened to same dozen or more radio hits every year. It was 50 years of post-World War II American growth, broadcast through the looking glass of NBC, ABC, CBS, Atlantic Records, Capital Records, Warner Bros., Paramount, 20th Century Fox, MGM and United Artists. Out of that were created all the pop icons and mythologies that form the edifice of our culture, from James Dean to J.F.K. to Elvis to Madonna to Alf to Nirvana. In 1977, a housewife in Peoria and a teenager in Southern California were both very likely to have watched Eight Is Enough or heard Donny & Marie on the radio. They had that much in common, they could share a 10 minute conversation about Dick Van Patten. It was what passed for social cohesion, a sense of collective reflection and identity. Think of All in the Family and the social service it performed for viewers, bringing left and right viewpoints into the same screen. The country was jarred by cultural change and economic growth in the 60s and 70s. So it granted more power to Hollywood and the media to tell the story back to it in films and TV programs and pop songs. Everybody listened.

Things slowly fragmented, of course, first with cable TV, then with right-wing talk radio and finally with the neutron bomb of the Internet. After 9/11, our insulating cover was finally blown off for good and our myths were exposed to the elements, left twisting in the wind. We now cling to the 20th Century's faded mainstream iconography like a blanket, fingering the old coins of the realm nervously. We listen to the old songs over and over again, watch the old TV shows, pour through the driftwood, reinterpret it, reinvent it, subvert it, mythologize it, teach it to our children. The Sopranos is post-9/11 The Godfather; Bionic Woman on NBC is...The Bionic Woman on NBC. As the country cracks at the seams, our housewife in Peoria is watching the shopping channel, our SoCal teen is watching Spike TV. They're bowling alone and they don't listen. Why should they?

As the philosopher Bob Pollard once sang, As we go up, we go down and seek the truth, yeah. Perhaps we peaked and are now calcifying, going Baroque, our Dorian columns turning Corinthian. It's exhausting being a "growth" nation. And maybe what we're seeing today is only the cracked mosaic that we've always been, brought finally to the surface, staring us in the face from every direction, overwhelming us, forcing us into our nerdy silos for any hope of comfort. Perhaps the average music nerd, having soaked in the warm bath of the 20th Century's musical narrative, motivated by idealism and nostalgia and good taste, is simply clinging to the grand illusion that that era created: that America is teleological, headed toward the greatest pop song of all time. But no savior is coming. This is it. You can't build a paradise out of a pyramid of great LPs, a shelter of 20th Century modernism to protect you from 21st Century postmodernism. You can only remix, destroy the old icons or subvert them, turn them into art, into something new. Consider this brilliant piece of sound editing that reimagineers Eddie Van Halen as an idiot savant:

Or you can forget the remix and just live in the past, which is also fun. In the 1960s, England, having worn itself out with Empire, was already doing what we're doing today in our own culture: recycling, clinging to the past, calcifying, starting its transformation into a giant Epcot Center version of itself. And yet, I find myself listening to it and saying: That sounds great. I like that. Turn it up. Play it again. To wit: Gilbert O'Sullivan, 1970.

As a synthesis of these opposing ideas, I offer my own humble remix, a Song of Myself, which is really an all-thumbs-and-two-left-feet editing job to produce a ham-fisted mashup. In it, you'll hear Jamie Lidel (beats), Harry Nilsson (guitar), Joni Mitchel (vocals), Willie Nelson (guitar solo), the Louvin Brothers (vocals), Animal Collective (backing vocals), Rolling Stones ("What say? Sha-noo-bay"), Kaoru Abe (sax solo), Jane's Addiction (bass), Thelonious Monk (piano), Hall & Oats (beats), and the Webb Brothers (vocals).


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