Saturday, July 9, 2011
Rock and Show Biz Values
Rock is not supposed to be about show biz, but it is. For all that what separates rock from pop is a certain amount of truth consonance (both lyrically and in “felt” music), plenty of rock has employed the glitz and glitter of old-time Hollywood and other entertainment centers. To the extent that rock biz and show biz overlap, what could create discomfort is usually ignored. Show biz norms cohabitate with rock norms to the extent that rock audiences don’t even realize they’re being finagled. When Rolling Stone, in 1987, put out its 20th Anniversary television spectacular, it was ripe with video montages. The video montage couldn’t be a more show biz trick; it is meant to overwhelm its audience with sheer dazzling spectacle. The “guitar heroes montage” featured back-to-back short clips of Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Duane Allman and Jimmy Page soloing, ending with a full Zeppelin performance of “Whole Lotta Love.” The lead-in to the montage was Tina Turner talking and gesturing emphatically about the peerless power of rock guitar. Looked at as a three part package (lead-in/montage/Zeppelin), the aim was to demonstrate a core value of Rolling Stone and its core audience— the glamour and prestige of a certain kind of musicianship. But this was demonstrated not by intelligent discourse that aimed for truth but by a Barnum & Bailey sideshow, which reduced the aim to a caricature. Educated rock fans take this for granted; the hokey vulgarity of certain promotional mechanisms in the rock biz. But as the rock biz morphs, it remains to be seen what levels of show biz glitz will be allowed to stick and which will sink from view.
Was MTV (when it was, literally, MTV) ever much more than a manifestation of show biz values? Why, in the early 80s, did it suddenly become imperative to accompany rock songs with highly produced videos? In the sciences, movements are orderly and linear, and follow necessary progressions; culture is all idiosyncrasy in comparison. MTV imposed the necessity of show biz chops on everyone. If you rebelled, as Jeff Buckley did in the 90s, there was a good chance that you would get killed. That more rock artists did not rebel is evidence that fewer musicians were dedicated to a hard-line rock ethos than one would expect. Most name rockers gladly picked up their show biz chops and made effective or ineffective use of them. “Effective” and “ineffective” have a double meaning here; each one can signify either a commercial or artistic level. “Heart-Shaped Box” was effective as a work of art; Warrant’s “Cherry Pie” was merely commercially effective. And there were many more “Cherry Pie(s)” than there were “Heart-Shaped Box(es).” The MTV Video Music Awards rapidly became the “Rock Oscars” of the Era, a forum for pure glitz and glam. Kurt Cobain famously rebelled in 1992; but he participated none the less. Many rock artists of the 90s who were weaned on Amer-Indie had the same conflicts Cobain did; the idea that show biz chops were not worth having, but that substantial rock biz success was impossible without them. And (predictably) MTV made many montages of the happenings at their Oscars, to demonstrate what an exciting spectacle they were.
But rock, as it becomes a less profitable business, is moving away from spectacle and show biz again. Show biz can’t exist without ample capital; and the rock that’s emerging from underground has nary a chance of either being backed by or raising ample capital. If rock eventually comes to have a long history, it will probably be judged that MTV was, all things considered, a negative development. To the extent that much of the best rock music ever made was never on MTV (not just Big Star or the Velvets; there is no video for “Satisfaction” or “Positively Fourth Street”), how could it claim any but the most crass kind of significance? Show biz values are all about the promulgation and cultural avidity for illusions; the spirit of the best rock music is the spirit of raw honesty. As such, show biz retreating from the forefront of rock’s horizon will open up vistas that are egalitarian and American in the ideal sense. Rather than a Springsteen montage, it’s the realization of the premise behind Springsteen’s songs— that America and the freedom it represents can open up anywhere, anytime, to anyone that has the ears and the heart to listen.