Friday, July 8, 2011
Middle of the Middle-Class Pop and Rock
This is “doing the inductive”: you grasp the particular and generalize from it. I grew up middle-class; and, if I can generalize from my particular experiences, I can establish not just what the middle-class kids but the “middle of the middle-class” kids listened (and listen) to and why. This could be interesting because that demographic in America is both huge and imposing. When Genesis filled stadiums in the late 80s, who do you think was in the audience? For whom was U2’s “Joshua Tree” the heavy stuff when played at parties? To make a long story short, and speaking from experience, middle of the middle class kids go for pop over rock, dulled more than edged, and comfort over art. They buy Peter Gabriel records. On a certain level, Peter Gabriel and his music are no less of a cultural sign than Jim Morrison is. Gabriel maintains a vague veneer of general “artsiness”— inclusion of minor world musical elements in his songs enhances this. His image is free of deviance and rebelliousness— he supports political causes, but without overt passion. His lyrics, like Paul Simon’s, take mature vantage points and attempt to explore serious issues without losing pop-sense. He is inclined to express contentment rather than anger or desperation. His positivism is the expression of a middle-class value.
The characters in Gabriel’s songs don’t threaten; they manage. The ability to manage in the face of adversity is a middle-class virtue— even if serious art is more likely to investigate extremes. One of the few extreme things about the middle of the middle class is how far its denizens will go to avoid extremes. For kids brought up in this milieu, and who are willing to be compliant, Peter Gabriel is the ideal cultural sign. Paul Simon, Billy Joel, and solo Sting also work. If the Beatles don’t particularly work (and they don’t), they are often forced into place by their enormous multi-generational popularity and the accessibility of some of their songs. The Beatles in general are such a complex cultural sign that popularity is the only thing that makes the sign cohesive. As far as Gabriel, Simon and the rest are concerned, one element that ensures their popularity is that their music can be listened to while performing other tasks— middle-class kids can do their homework and keep the music on softly in the background. It isn’t obtrusive like harder-edged rock music is. Many fans of this kind of pop are casual fans; frenzied devotion is not a manifestation of middle-class consciousness. If U2 is as close as this demographic comes to frenzy, it’s because U2’s positivism and humanitarianism set them up as middle-class consonant. Just by being rock rather than pop, U2 become middle-class rock avatars; hard-edged enough to be saved for special occasions. Middle-class America is all about carefully minded compartments— U2 gets kept in the rock compartment.
When U2 “went deviant” in the early 90s, middle-class America could just about tolerate it, especially because U2’s music didn’t change all that much. I’ve always wondered how much genuine interest the American middle-class has in the Stones; they’re massive enough that their must be some. Likewise Floyd, Zeppelin, etc. But that Zeppelin in particular inspires middle-class horror is something I’ve noticed. Then, you get college radio types; a middle-class subcultural niche heavily invested in rock consonance. There are others— there is a left-of-center middle. But the crowd I’m attempting to define in relation to rock is the middle of the middle— those for whom picket fences keep the irregular out. Serious “rock people” generally don’t lead regular lives; people actually compete to do the most drugs and have the most casual sex. Such things, once achieved, become sources of pride and badges of honor. The positivism of moderate affluence has nothing to do with this. Everything about rock consonance is extreme; so that the rock version of the middle of the middle has a good deal to do with the idea that there is no middle. Every bar, club, apartment, or house becomes the Hotel California; excess is all around. That’s why “rock” and “pop” are vastly different as cultural signs; even if the entertainment business is wont to lump them together. You can’t, unless you’re abnormally endowed, study to the Stooges. They require that you either study them or turn them the fuck off.