Wednesday, June 29, 2011
While rock aficionados, especially rock aficionados who work at record stores, especially those who work at indie record stores, will always claim to know everything about rock music, there remain patches so obscure and regions so desolate that almost no one is aware of them. For instance, does the history of Philly rock need to be written? Countless bands have been born, lived, and died here, without anyone in the wider world noticing. This brings up another dirty little secret— the rock music business can be very arbitrary. The stuff at the top is not necessarily any better than the stuff at the bottom. Many bands and performers have everything but a sense of luck and timing. All these discrepancies create real snags that lives are destroyed on. One of the big ones is the desire to live like a rock star, even if you aren’t one. If you write songs as good as the Stones, why shouldn’t you be able to live like the Stones? But poverty and drug addiction together create a foundation for extinction. If you can’t get over rock myths and imagery (and many musicians can’t), useful functionality becomes impossible. Then come anonymous deaths. Every major American metropolis has its fair share of rock deaths of this type.
It is blatant hypocrisy: not just the rock press but the entertainment biz press will never admit that this syndrome exists— that what’s at the bottom is often as good as what’s at the top. All kinds of media are invested in creating “auras” around celebrities— the sense that the celebrity in question’s charisma made their fame inevitable and natural. It’s a hoax and a sham. What’s interesting in 2011 is that everyone in rock is in danger of being forgotten. Rock stars who have led privileged lives are having their privileges stripped away— the industry can no longer buttress the perpetuation of their music. The Internet has given those at the bottom a bigger shot at attaining a wide audience than was ever possible before. It’s rock biz class leveling. Now that the base is unsound, the hierarchical levels of superstructure are being broken. The net effect of this is to highlight the regional nature of rock music— scenes in major cities have to feed off of their own momentum. The playing field from city to city might becoming surprisingly level— if the industry presence in Los Angeles and New York doesn’t work as magnetically as it used to (because the industry generally doesn’t function anymore), there’s no reason Philly (or Baltimore or Houston or Phoenix) can’t come into its own.
The myths around rock stardom have to change— if there are no new archetypes, rock people have to face that “mad for it” recklessness will get them killed off very fast. The reality behind the myth is harsh— you can only really be “mad for it” if you’re wearing Pampers. And you needn’t worry about being forgotten, because it will take you a long time to be remembered to begin with. Local myths may replace celebrity ones; in music cities like Memphis, this is already in place. In fact, the Memphis attitude towards popular music has always taken many of these truths for granted— in their Bohemian insistence on doing things their own way, and emphasizing the regional rather than the national or international, Memphis musicians may be considered ahead of their time. Memphis musicians suspected commerciality before suspicion of commerciality became general; now that commerciality is becoming more inaccessible, the regional attitude seems a practical base to work from. It means empowerment for the (conventionally figured) little guys (and gals), and emasculation for the (conventionally figured) big guys (and gals). In some ways, the Internet has turned 2011 into the 60s; it’s a new site for cultural egalitarianism. But the bottom line (and one that will take a long time to sort out) is how good the New Rock is. That will determine whether we are moving forwards or not, and if the new myths will replace the old ones.