Friday, July 8, 2011
Random Signs in Rock
The 70s in rock music were a great time for random signs. A random sign in rock could be construed as a band or performer with a public name but no real particular public identity. What do Kansas mean as a cultural sign? Yet vistas open in culture in praise of the random; people find the random humorous, and bond over it. Random signs become emblematic of the times they exist in. What usually distinguishes random signs in rock is crass commerciality; a sense that the band/performer’s songs were made purely to sell, away from aesthetic concern. In the rock vernacular, songs like this might be called “cheese.” Cheese can become instant camp; a fermented or fermenting form of kitsch. But if you put the 70s cheese-rock bands in a row (as the rock subgenre AOR, Album Oriented Rock, already does), what’s revealed is enough outward popularity to justify an inquiry: Journey, Toto, Asia, Kansas, Foreigner, Supertramp, REO Speedwagon, possibly Heart and the Doobie Brothers. What kept these bands from becoming legitimate cultural signs?
When rock began in the 50s, individual performers had to have charisma to gain an audience— from the sexiness of Elvis to the down-home country boy simplicity of Buddy Holly. By the 70s, rock songs had their own charisma, just out of a context that was still nascent— a wide public for all kinds of rock music, which cut across a surprising number of demographic lines. Commercial rock performers didn’t necessarily need to be buoyed by individual charisma; if they could produce charismatic material, that was enough. It’s just that the fans didn’t believe in Toto or Asia the way they believed in (perhaps) the Beatles and the Stones. They set themselves up as pure technicians of commercial craft. Cultural signs almost always arise, at least to an extent, out of personalities— they’re emblems of the “human.” The clinical nature of a technician’s work precludes this from happening; too many restraints stop them from becoming emblematic of anything. Journey are a semi-exception— lead vocalist Steve Perry developed a recognizable persona (dramatic leaning towards bathetic, emotionally bare-nerved, androgynous), and was able to use it to connect with (mostly female) fans. Most Journey songs were pure sentiment; they didn’t challenge, innovate, or even narrate in a distinctive way. Perry’s voice did the job of selling them, and he did so successfully. It could be argued that Journey, as a cultural sign, represent a specific brand of rock sentimentality— but it’s a thin, not particularly compelling sign.
To put it simply, by the 70s, major rock stars no longer needed to be cultural signs. They could just be skilled technicians. In the 80s, “hair metal bands” (distinguished by distinctively cut and teased hair) bore out this trend— Bon Jovi, Cinderella, Dokken, Europe, Stryper, Ratt, Winger, Poison, and Warrant. However, the “cheese” element here is intensified; these bands could almost all be taken as cultural anti-signs. They seemed to have no desire to represent anything but excess, dissipation, and the willful destruction of the cognitive. It needs to be stated that “empty signage” is much more common in pop than in rock— pop is more commonly about technique and crass commerciality. Rock is largely about median points between sleaze and idealism. Or, sleazy ideals. There’s at least some space for truth. In some ways, the AOR and hair metal bands were, no matter how hard-edged, a pure manifestation of pop, rather than rock ethos. They were pure, not only from rock but from art and its responsibilities. Commercial imperatives do tend to empty out signage.
Another question is whether or not this is necessarily a bad thing. Empty signs are a post-modern shibboleth— if we conflate Winger and a Campbell’s Soup can, it’s a rather easy blend. But the post-modern empty sign may eventually wind up an impoverished curio. Signification, in rock as everywhere else, is richness. In other words, it’s good when things mean something. Because post-modernism denies the obvious, it will always beg too many questions; even if the cheese tastes good sometimes.