Thursday, June 30, 2011
Rock has seen its fair share of both solid craftsmen and bad artists. This assertion hinges on how I define craft and art— cultural “crafting” involves making something small, with narrow parameters and ambitions. It’s meant to engage just a few levels, and stylization is often a dominant factor. The most commercial rock and pop music is usually a byproduct of cultural crafting. Take the Neil Diamond song “I’m a Believer,” as covered by the Monkees (or, where the instrumentation is concerned, a bunch of session guys). It’s about new love, it’s catchy and concise, memorable enough to stick in your head; solid craft, and enjoyable if you can accept its narrow parameters. Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” makes a valiant attempt to be art. It starts from similar terrain— a man/woman relationship— and gets ambitious, connecting the relationship and its implications to religious archetypes and higher ideas of place and time. Serious rock fans, if given a choice, will almost invariably choose the Cohen over the Monkees. The problem question I want to deal with is this— how many of them secretly like the Monkees better?
The higher idea at work here is that, rock snobbery aside, solid craft often beats bad art. Certain scenes have interesting quirks on this level. The Seattle scene around the indie label Subpop in the late 80s and early 90s was heavily invested in the replication of a certain sound— the heavy 70s rock of Aerosmith, the Stooges, Kiss, Led Zeppelin, and Black Sabbath. The Amer-Indie master narrative (a sub-narrative to the generalized rock master narrative) was invested in prior rock artists with more “serious” intentions; not only Big Star and the Velvet Underground but 70s CBGB bands like Television and Talking Heads. Subpop bands never went out of their way to be artsy— they set themselves up as grunge craftsmen just like their musical progenitors. The whole story wouldn’t be remarkable if grunge didn’t become a worldwide phenomenon in the early 90s, and Seattle transform into a world-hub of rock action. The appetite the Seattle scene created was for well-crafted hard rock— no more, no less. One of the few exceptions were the flagship band— Nirvana. Nirvana’s ambition was Beatles-level, rather than Kiss-level; there was too much melody and poetry in their songs for them to be branded hard rock craftsmen.
It’s also interesting to note, as quirks, the structure of the 70s New York CBGB scene, as it evolved— that Blondie’s mordant pop-craft would sell is no surprise; that Talking Heads, in all their post-modern anti-narrative quirkiness, could also break big with the general public is more outré. Were David Byrne’s songs definitively better than Blondie’s? I would argue that, taking craft-intentions and art-intentions into consideration, they were about equal. Blondie’s songs, no matter how unambitious, could make real points; Byrne’s anti-narrative sensibility, however proudly derived from post-modern art, could lead to songs too fragmented (and steeped in the fragmentation impulse) to make much sense. Byrne was anti-narrative without being anti-structural; one reason Talking Heads blew up is because the songs had solid hooks and catchy choruses. You could say that it was Byrne’s craft-ability, rather than his artistic prowess, that made him famous. The strange chiasmus is that art generally has some craft or crafting ability involved in its creation, but the reverse doesn’t work— pure craft employs little art. In terms of what sold their records on a mass level, the art in Talking Heads was a pretense— they were sold by solid craftsmanship.
The best rock writers have moments in which art and craft are perfectly balanced— beyond obvious choices like “Waterloo Sunset,” “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” and “Come as You Are,” obscure gems like the Small Faces “Rene” and the Left Banke’s “Pretty Ballerina” come to mind. It must be said that, for the vast majority of rock records, craft is the bottom line— making small, tightly-wound musical structures and lyrical statements. If rock has produced enough genuine art to be respected by educated minds, it is because at regular junctures lyricists manifest who can effectively mimic the density levels of serious poetry. The music alone isn’t enough.