culture wars — Clash, Van Halen, and hip-hop (masculinity run amok)

Happy Sunday, folks, and hello Thailand! Thanks for checking in. It’s that time of the summer when it becomes clear that the days are getting shorter. At 41+N latitude, we get a full 6 hours more daylight at summer solstice v. winter solstice and, while the latter’s still a-ways away, when I notice where the sun sets or rises in relation to a tree or a roof line, I’m reminded that we are leaning towards winter evermore.

A recent chat with friends old and new about the music industry got me thinking about the history of the “centers” of popular music, its margins, and how the landscape has changed in 30 years, and the battles that transformed it.

In the pages of Stealing All Transmissions, I suggest that:

“The key lesson to be gleaned by the commemorations of ‘eighties music’ on VH1 and elsewhere is fairly clear: in the battle for historical memory, The Clash beat Van Halen, Duran Duran trumped Bon Jovi, and even Kajagoogoo trounced Poison. Put another way: punk/post-punk/new wave hold victorious sway” (p. 5).

I also give Van Halen their due (sort of), explaining how,

“I needed The Clash to get through adolescence, but I needed Van Halen, too, if only to construct my sense of self in contrast to the opposition. The changes in the music industry noted above seem likely to prevent the emergence of another Clash or Van Halen” (p. 75).

Regardless of where you fall in terms of the virtues of Van Halen, they charted 14 straight singles in the top 50 of the “Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks” with David Lee Roth at the helm–and then 11 more consecutive singles after he left the band! Van Halen, along with Led Zeppelin, dominated the sonic landscape of the parking lot of my high school, blaring from the aftermarket speakers of American muscle cars owned by the football players–who dominated the cultural landscape of our high school.

For those sensitive to the signs, though, it was clear the times were a-changin’. While there may have been 10 male new wave devotees in my cohort (700 or so), the next cohort had 50 easily, maybe a hundred. After Van Halen burned out (or faded away), Metallica seized the helm, and their 1991 LP Metallica sold 16x platinum in the US, and went no. 1 in 10 countries (including Japan!?!). (Let’s guess that reports of 11x platinum sales in Canada are overstated. That would be one copy for every household.)  But metal became an odd beast, splintering into different subgenres (thrash metal, death metal, black metal, power metal–yawn …), and many Clash fans celebrated Kurt Cobain’s October 1991 appearance in drag on The Headbangers Ball.

Check out the first 60 seconds, at least, and in the next minute Novoselic goes all social theory on us. It’s nice to know that ball host Riki Ratchman knew of L7.

The coincidental peak of Metallica’s sales and Nirvana’s ascent were no coincidence. Some folks claimed that Nirvana killed heavy metal, but Rachtman saw it otherwise:

“People say, ‘Nirvana killed heavy metal,’ and they didn’t. If you had any type of music scene that is so weak that another band can come on playing a different type of music and kill your scene, then your scene wasn’t good enough in the first place … You come out with this crazy hair and all glam, look like a chick, you know, if you do that, OK, that’s fine, but after awhile, you’re going to need some sort of substance behind it. And what happened was, here’s somebody new that really doesn’t care, that picks up dirty clothes off the floor, wears ’em, has no stage show, goes on camera, does concerts and just plays rock and roll.”

For punk and post-punk: both had their own forms of artifice, and it was never simply about “keeping it real”: but the artifice lacked the pretensions of “crazy hair” and the decadence of Diamond Dave, Nikki Sixx, and their well-rouged rivals. Even Cobain, bless his heart, had a profound drug problem, but it never entailed one or more of the following elements: mountains of cocaine, a phalanx of call girls, land mammals or sea creatures, and a penthouse suite (see Led Zeppelin’s “shark incident“). The self-indulgent virtuosity, combined with the celebration of decadence–I think that’s what punks, post-punks, and new wavers found objectionable about heavy metal.

Parallel to the rise of Nirvana (and grunge) and the slow descent of heavy metal was the rise of hip-hop. By the mid-1990s, the street-wise ethos of Run-DMC, the “black medallions / no gold” paradigm of De La Soul, and the “we’re the black CNN” broadsides of Public Enemy were largely displaced by gangsta rap from the west, and the urban beats of conspicuous consumption from the east. Many post-punk fans got hip to rap, finding its codes of masculinity to be more inviting than heavy-metal masculinity, only to see the musical codes–and its articulations to masculinity and cultural politics–narrow quickly into the gin-and-juice paradigm. That conspicuous consumption brought with it another form of disenchantment: like Diamond Dave, who professed, “Money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you a yacht big enough to pull up right alongside it,” many hip-hop artists nakedly pursued the Benjamins and the vices they afforded. In turn, musical fandom was stripped of its “idyllic relations,” and hip-hop artists repeatedly identified the importance of “self-interest” and “(callous) cash payment” in the creative process (to borrow a few phrases from Marx).

When Joe Strummer decried the decadent and thereby anti-populist stance of Van Halen at the US Festival in 1983, the claim carried its own contradictions, but The Clash at least tried. Once hip-hop became the dominant paradigm, who was in position to regard rap’s representations of masculinity and consumption as dominant and worthy of critique? Radiohead? Amy Winehouse? U2? Madonna? Hardly. The segregation of beats in the grunge v. rap era of the second half of the 1990s included some of the whitest rock since Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, as a phobia of cultural appropriation informed the imaginations of white rockers on both sides of the pond. In turn, rap absorbed a record segment of the popular music marketplace and, in rhyme and prose, and bragged about the conquest. The acquisitive masculinity that punk found so problematic and, in part, helped bury, was largely transposed into the cultural field of hip hop.

Jay-Z, for example, echoes the ethos of David Lee Roth–even distilled it, and the following quotes from Dave and Jay-Z, respectively, are effectively interchangeable:

I take my personal upkeep real seriously; my sense of organization and attention to detail; my memory; my business–I love the business.”

“I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man!”

Jay-Z is effectively a better-coiffed, better-dressed, neo-liberal version of David Lee Roth.

Separated at b-school?


my favorite US rocknroll rebels, pt. II

Thanks for checking out more of my musings on a handful of bands–and writers–that truly matter. I’m thinking today about Rob Sheffield’s Talking to Girls About Duran Duran, which is quite smart, and organizes each wide-ranging chapter around a specific song. In one of the smartest bits I’ve read about Paul McCartney, he suggests that he and his mates’ fandom for Sir Paul entailed considerably more danger than their devotion to Keith Richards, for example. Yes, Mr. R. needed the occasional blood transfusion to keep his parts in order, but Rob remained confident that he and his mates were never at risk of adopting Mr. Richards’ more dissolute habits. McCartney, though, through his devotion to Linda, was capable of making some terrible songs, and was apparently undaunted by how terrible they were–proving how blind love can be. That condition, Sheffield figures, was fully in reach, and that inspired in his friends and himself a real sense of terror.

Like so many good things in the eighties, The Replacements came late to Stockton. Based upon two record reviews and my catching “Bastards of Young” once, maybe twice, on the radio, I purchased Tim (1985) just after its release. (On the same trip to Tower Records, I also picked up Husker Du’s Candy Apple Grey (1985)–both on vinyl, of course.) Up to that point, few bands represented desire writ large quite like Duran Duran. The clothes, the hair, the voice, the bass lines—and the videos! This band and their handlers knew what to do with MtV, Night Flight, and other video programs, and they had some great pop tunes, too. Still, in terms of my adolescence, Duran Duran was my Keith Richards. I had little chance of cavorting with models on schooners, or of chasing them through the rain forest, or of photographing them in the boxing ring (!?!). Enter The Replacements.

After viewing Color Me Obsessed, I was in touch with an English ex-pat now residing in San Diego who missed the flannel wave of the early to mid-1980s. I wondered how those records would stand up to initial listenings, and steered him to Let It Be, Tim, and All Shook Down. (Have you heard the remastered versions of these albums? Are they a real improvement? I’d love to know.) I then cued up Sorry Ma, I Forgot to Take Out the Trash (1981), and the opening a capella line of “Customer”–“I’minlovewithagirlbutI’mnothingbutacustomer!”–and realized that Paul Westerberg was my Paul McCartney: Westerberg’s rendition of the “Hello-I-love-you-won’t-you-tell-me-your-name” variety of adolescent desire, along with the raucous accompaniment by Mars, Stinson, and Stinson, allowed me to make sense of those tumultuous years.  (The bookend to “Customer” was Tim’sKiss Me on the Bus”–“On the bus, that’s where we’re ridin’ / On the bus, O.K., don’t say hi, then”–and, in the ensuing years, these tunes inspired the fortitude I deployed to make the acquaintances of a cashier and two fellow Muni riders.) If The Clash set the bar for making aesthetically effective and politically effective music, few bands could touch The Replacements on the topics of adolescent (male) desire, power, and everyday life.

In the next post, I will get back to the documentary itself, which–like The Replacements–is endearing with a hint of sloppiness.