Tuesday, July 12, 2011
Ask Me, Ask Me, Ask Me
Let’s face facts: most rock interviews are embarrassing. Music journalists are frequently university-educated; some rock musicians are, but the overwhelming majority are not. As is counterintuitive to what should be the case (ideally), edges in articulateness and intelligence fall on the side of the journalists, not the musicians. To take a signifying instance from a rock movie— when William, the aspiring music journalist in Almost Famous, wants to get Stillwater’s attention (in a do-or-die situation), he calls a guitar solo in one of their songs “incendiary.” Do the guys in Stillwater know what “incendiary” means? It is implied that they probably don’t. They just know that it means something positive, and let William in with them accordingly. William is an intriguing character (and meant to be a double for the young Cameron Crowe)— precocious, intellectually gifted, yet mysteriously drawn to the sleazy bump n’ grind of the rock biz. He’s blatantly more intelligent than the Stillwater guys (and, arguably, Lester Bangs), but they have a good deal of worldly experience that he doesn’t. Can you reach substantial maturity writing about rock stars less intelligent and educated than you are? Can you learn from guys who don’t know what incendiary means?
It’s also depressing to many onlookers how level the playing field is with rock interviews— that talented rock musicians don’t necessarily interview any better than untalented ones. It can be a struggle to distinguish Van Morrison from Warrant or Dokken from Keith Richards. The overheated, overeager interviewer is supposed to treat the rock legend and his/her remarks as authentic manna from heaven, rather than drunken and/or stoned mumbles in incoherent (or semi-coherent) directions. It’s a kind of burlesque dance. Even the most famously articulate rock musicians, like Bob Dylan or John Lennon, were clumsy enough in interview contexts to betray their lack of education— even as educated interviewers trained themselves not to notice, or at least to pretend not to notice. Where rock journalism is concerned, rock star incoherence is always the elephant in the room. Among other elephants, valorization of rock stars after their deaths is another big one. Rock journalists praise John Lennon’s “magnificent life,” rank Jim Morrison with William Blake, and put out cash-cow books of deceased rock star memorabilia. Does George Harrison warrant fifteen or twenty biographies? Does Brian Jones merit a movie?
It’s also interesting that current rock biz entropy hasn’t changed the rock interview set-up. Conor Oberst gets asked the same basic set of questions that young Bob Dylan did. Now the struggle for rock publications is to figure out, if no one sells, who’s worth interviewing and who isn’t. Who gets the papal blessing of a Rolling Stone interview? Rock musicians generally do interviews when they have something to promote; and promoting something you know can’t sell complicates what used to be a well-greased (for the successful) system and machine. This festering situation adds another level of embarrassment to the rock interview process— rock stars who could get away with pontificating when they sold heavily can no longer get away with it. “Mumbles” interviews (done in a state of intoxication) are also riskier; it’s squandering a chance to set forth an ethos and an agenda. It needs to be said: the Keith Richards/Aerosmith syndrome is not going to be helpful for up-and-coming rock musicians. If they can’t be too articulate, they can at least be coherent. And the strangeness of the system (educated journalists/uneducated musicians) should be discussed. Why not clear the elephants out of the room.
Almost Famous ends with an interview— in the movie, it’s a happy ending, probably because William’s extreme youth produces extreme happiness with any kind of outward rock success. But the idea of attaining any kind of maturity in the context of rock journalism is troubled. In an ideal rock world, only the articulate rock musicians (and there are some) should be allowed to speak much. It’s also interesting to wonder if anyone’s listening anymore. Almost Famous was a hit; a wide audience enjoyed the travails of a bright kid put into the rock biz mix. The new mix is transitional, at best. Why can’t rock stars talk about that?