Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Art/Commerce Tightrope (featuring a cameo by Lou Reed and Metallica!)

"Anyone can sit down write a boring, artistic
song. Pop music is the hardest shit to write." --Britney Spears

For every one thing Chuck Klosterman says that i end up agreeing with (listing Faster Pussycat's self-titled album as one of the best hair metal records of the 80s in Fargo Rock City), he manages to spit out a dozen that sound like contrarian attempts to troll the underground (giving Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy an A- in the AV Club). (Oh, shit, that sounds a little like me, actually, except for the liking Chinese Democracy part.) So i went into this essay about the Metallica/Lou Reed album Lulu on Grantland not expecting to agree with it as much as i did:

I'm glad Metallica and Reed tried this, if only because I'm always a fan of bad ideas. They've earned the right to overreach. But if the fundamental goal of Metallica is to make good music, it seems like trying to get rich while doing so dramatically improves their creative process. The constraints of late capitalism really work for them; they're extraordinarily adept at making electrifying heavy rock that's designed to generate revenue. The reason Lulu is so terrible is because the people making this music clearly don't care if anyone else enjoys it. Now, here again — if viewed in a vacuum — that sentiment is admirable and important. But we don't live in a vacuum. We live on Earth. And that means we have to accept the real-life consequences of a culture in which recorded music no longer has monetary value, and one of those consequences is Lulu.

This sort of avoids the point that even Metallica's "commercially-oriented" music has sucked at least since 1991, but even St. Anger went double platinum (?!?) in America, and in Klosterman's world, sales count for something. If Lulu goes cardboard i'll be gobsmacked. But i'm less interested in discussing the major-label version of an Al Eide record* than i am in discussing an overarching philosophy that is hinted at in Klosterman's final sentences:

I was ceaselessly reminded that corporate forces stopped artists from doing what they truly desired; they pushed musicians toward predictable four-minute radio singles and frowned upon innovation, and they avariciously tried to turn art into a soulless commodity that MTV could sell to the lowest common denominator. And that did happen, sometimes. But some artists need that, or they end up making albums like this.

Rock n' roll is, by design, a populist medium predicated on the (sometimes accurate, oft-times manufactured) concept of dudes and ladies jamming in the garage and rockin' out for the common man. Good on ya, Springsteen! So the theory that some high-falootin' "artists" need to be reigned in by a desire to please folks (or--gasp--"sell out") isn't all that odd. I think i'm one of the only people in the cosmos who prefers Modest Mouse's last two major label releases to most of their independent work--not that i don't love The Lonesome Crowded West, but holy cow does that record have a lot of fat that could be trimmed. With Good News for people Who Love Bad News and We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, the band by and large stuck to a four-minute pop song formula, compressing their strengths into digestible, accessible chunks that, for me, worked more than some of their spacier, more hippie-tastic jams (ironically, their more conventional pop records seemed to garner them more of a hippie fanbase that i'm sure went on to discover their more indulgent indie stuff, so one could say that their later albums may have been a gateway drug for the classic Mouse, but i'm only speculating here because i tend to avoid discussing music with hippies).

Of course, this is me talking, so i'm not about to go the full Chuck K and claim that Van Halen is a better band than Sonic Youth just because more people could "relate" to songs about partying than Karen Carpenter tributes and Richard Kern films. If all rock music lies on a spectrum where the ends are labeled "artsy" and "accessible," i'm more likely to enjoy the weirdo Mike Patton stuff more than the cloyingly smooth Yacht Rock. Don't get me wrong--i consider the eminently populist Cheap Trick one of the best no-frills rock bands on the planet, if not one of the best overall. But i'm more likely to leave a show exhilarated and thrilled about the possibilities of what rock music can do after discovering a band like Drag City's SATANIZED (who blessed Milwaukee last Thursday with a furious tantrum of death-jazz-noise-skronk ala the Flying Luttenbachers and all but about twenty of you missed it) than i am after a show featuring Yet Another Power Pop Band (by the way, sorry that the only musical link SATANIZED has is a g'damn MySpace page; you know noise artists--they release records on commercial cassette too). Then again, as great as the SATANIZED record is, put it next to Cheap Trick and i can tell you which i'll be more likely to gravitate toward more often (hint: they're playing at Potawatomi every weekend until the end of November and I CAN'T AFFORD TO GO AND IT'S KILLING ME, AUGH).

As dissimilar as can be, but both brilliant

I'm a big believer in the richness of grey as opposed to black and white. I'd probably be considered a political moderate if our country weren't populated by radically right-wing lunatics, and i have no problem reconciling a fervent devotion to science with deeply unshakeable faith. So my favorite bands end up being the ones that can effortlessly walk the line between accessibly catchy and artistically exhilarating and in the process become transcendent. Sure, my definition of "accessible" may be a little more liberal than Johnny "New Rock's," but if you can't hear a pop hook in a band like Melt-Banana or HEALTH--and they're in there, believe me--you're not putting enough effort in.

NOTE: Not sure if this particular Melt-Banana song helps make my point, but the opening of this video cracks my shit up, so.

Of course, it's then easy for fans of the even artsier, more abstract stuff to say that i'd, i dunno, finally click to Bon Iver if i only put a little more work in and tried to grasp his whole "mood piece" which i'd respond "cool, you're into mood pieces. Check out this Massona record! ...oh, not into that kind of mood, huh?" But kidding aside, that's sort of the thesis here, that we all have our own place where we like to inhabit on the art/commerce spectrum. I like a heaping, healthy dose of art-damaged nerdery with my pop music, but i sure don't want it to lose the pop music plot.

Where it seems that Lou Reed and Metallica went drastically wrong was in thinking that they could meet in the middle of that spectrum when both parties had drifted to opposite ends in recent years. Some artists just plain aren't able to make that tightrope balance work without a net. Which begs the question, what if 80s Metallica had attempted Lulu with 60s Lou Reed?


*If you do want to discuss the Loutallica fiasco (as opposed to the Wesley Willis Fiasco), my boy Conan Neutron crafted probably the most even-handed dismantling of the record i've seen over on Collapse Board--which, by the way, is my new favorite music blog. Dig it.

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