January 5, 2014

PUT A FORK IN IT: Twenty First Century Rock ‘n’ Roll and the Rock Critic

PUT A FORK IN IT: Twenty First Century Rock ‘n’ Roll and the Rock Critic By Erin Bruno

CREEM brings you a distinct look at fashion, art, and design and puts them in perspective with other cultural mediums. CREEM tells compelling stories, inspires others to do the same, and provides a platform for emerging and established talent alike…Our audience is made up of rebels, visionaries, and trailblazers.   Join us.  (From Creem Magazine’s “Manifesto” on their current website)

     In March 1969, “America’s only rock ‘n’ magazine” was born. It was called Creem. Barry Kramer and founding Editor Tony Reay were the originators, but it was Lester Bangs, an in-your-face brash Dionysian music critic, who gave birth to the idea of music being evaluated like literature or film. Now, 35 years later, Creem magazine has officially called it quits as of January 2013, although its level of intimacy with music and its history of honest rock 'n' roll critiques will go down in history as a one of kind publication that helped shaped music from the late Sixties to modern times. 

    I first learned about Creem, and other publications of the "rock critics" heyday, like Crawdaddy!  and Rolling Stone, while researching my senior year college thesis, The Role of the Rock Critic in Sixties and Seventies Music. I was inspired to write about this subject for a variety of reasons, which at the time, being 22 and on the verge of graduating college, I thought most of my ideas were grand and unique! I consider myself to be an in your face, honest critic and fan of music and film, by nature; I am also a musician; I love 1960s and 1970s culture/music; and, clichéd enough, one of my favorite films is Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous

     Why I bring up this film is its relevance to the discussion of the rock critic in today’s world. This film gives visual and harmonic homage to the purpose and life of the rock critic and the times in which they thrived and were both secretly honored by literary geniuses and openly considered "the enemy" by many. Philip Seymour Hoffman impeccably plays the role of Lester Bangs, the real life Iggy Pop-boozing intellect who lays out the role of the rock critic in the crazy rock 'n' roll landscape of the 1970s to William Miller, a 15 year old “wanna be” music journalist (a fictional precocious character loosely based on Crowe’s early personal life), with a passion for writing about the heart and soul of music. During their first conversations in the film, Bangs makes some comments that still resonate today: 

“Music, you now, true music - not just rock n roll - it chooses you. It lives in your car, or alone listening to your headphones, you know, with the cast scenic bridges and angelic choirs in your brain. It's a place apart from the vast, benign lap of America. If you're gonna be a true journalist -- you know, a rock journalist -- first, you never get paid much. But you will get free records from the record company….It sounds great, but these people are not your friends. You know, these are people who want you to write sanctimonious stories about the genius of rock stars. And they will ruin rock 'n' roll, and strangle everything we love about it, right? …And the day it ceases to be dumb is the day that it ceases to be real, right? And then it just becomes an industry of cool.”

“I'm telling ya, you're comin' along at a very dangerous time for rock 'n' roll. I mean, the war is over. They won. And 99% of what passes for rock 'n' roll these days, silence is more compelling. That's why I think you should just turn around and go back, you know, and be a lawyer or somethin'. But I can tell from your face that you won't. I can give you 35 bucks. Give me a thousand words on Black Sabbath...Hey, you have to make your reputation on being honest and, uh, you know, unmerciful.”

     Recently, after watching these early scenes between the jaded yet prophetic Bangs and the naive but meekly raw Miller, I was inspired to write a piece about where these ideas fit into the world’s notion of rock ‘n’ roll  several decades later…
“Everything in Music Has Now Been Said”...

     There is a scene in Portlandia (Season 2, Episode 6), in which the fictional band "Catnap," headed by "breaking ground" rock artists/actors Fred Armisen (vocalist/guitarist), Carrie Brownstein (keys, guitar and  back-up vocals), Kristen Wiig (gun "player"), and none other than a cat named Kevin, yes a cat, playing drums. The scene from this episode, which I find most memorable, is the scene in the office of Pitchfork magazine, where a writer is reviewing Catnap's album, and quickly proclaims: "Hey, you guys, this band Catnap, everything in music has now been said. I think we're done; we can shut the site down. Good job everybody. Shut down your computers, shut down the site." (end scene)

     "Catnap" has achieved what they set out to do- do something no band has ever done- and in doing so they bring to surface a clearly funny but a painful truth of what music has become in the twenty-first century. Music has become an "industry," where each new band does everything they can, absurd at best, to set themselves apart from other bands, using an addictive mix of marketing, branding, sexy and/or controversial looks and image, “ingeniously original” blending of genres, anything and everything they can do to GET NOTICED, by the fans and the rock critics. 

     But are these bands truly being heard? By the masses, perhaps, as this is what they started out to do- get noticed, get signed, get out on the road, soar to the top of iTunes playlists and the Billboard Hot 100, get the most hits on YouTube, sell copious amounts of MP3s (as albums sales are declining to the point of no return), make money from advertising and touring, and, if their lucky, get reviewed in the good old Rolling Stone…And if you are “really good," get recognition from the likes of Pitchfork, the self-proclaimed “essential guide to independent music and beyond,” a magazine inspired by the real passion of music journalists from the 1960s and 1970s. But, when it comes to Pitchfork and modern “rock critics,” I like to believe that the likes of Lester Bang's is rolling over in his drug-induced grave.
The Medium is the Music
    Moving forward with this discussion, I think of Marshall McLuhan's everlasting philosophy of "the medium is the message," hence, each time the medium has changed from record to 8-track to cassette to CD to MP3, the music’s message has subconsciously changed with it. Today's musicians have more to contend with and the notion of making "good" music has dissipated from the mainstream again to the underground, much like it did in the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll. The masses did not want to “like” the godfather of punk Iggy Pop, Britain’s "pissing on a rock" band The Who, or whacky poet Bob Dylan in electric, at least not at first. At least not until the so called rock critiques deemed it “good,” and the once rebellious nature of rock ‘n’ roll became the message of the masses.

    But where does rock ‘n' roll fit in today's culture? With so many subgenres and auto-tuned generations of musicians relying on tour sales to even make a cent, if any money at all, the place for the authentic musician is now between a rock and a hard place. And where does the rock critic fit in today's music scene, if anywhere?
    At age 29, a previous Staff Writer for www.muzikreview.com, I predominately listen to music from the late 1960s, early 1970s, early-to-mid 1990s, and an occasional fresh of breath air from the 2000s. For me it is classic rock and alternative all the way. Anytime I hear a twenty-first century artist playing real music, I'm all open ears. Aimee Mann, Elliott Smith, The Black Keys, Norah Jones, Pete Yorn, Ryan Adams, Eminiem (yes, I'll argue to anyone he is our generation's greatest rapper and boo hoo to those Tupac and Biggie bangers), Cage the Elephant, Jack White, Adele, Amy Winehouse, and the list, although limited, goes on. All of these artists have done one thing right— they kept playing their music, regardless of the price and the media's criticism or lack of it. For as is in many art forms, it is more important to get recognized and positively critiqued than to not be heard at all or be underappreciated by the press.

The Aimee Manns, The Gagas, The Project Autumns, and the Dylans

Aimee Mann: Driving Sideways with Elegance
    There's another episode of Portlandia (Season 1, Episode 3) entitled "Aimee," in which Aimee Mann plays the real life prolific singer songwriter forced to fictionally make money as a regular house maid alongside Sarah McLaughlin, a house gardener. This episode is absurdly indicative of the state that even talented musicians have been reduced to. I am by no means saying that cleaning houses or gardening is not an honest living. But when you have some of the few great songwriters left of our generation, struggling to make it in the music industry, while Lady Gaga is free to strut whatever Madonna meets Marilyn Manson costume of the week and be called a genius artist, then I believe we have a problem. And I find it a troubling one. 
Project Autumn: Quite the Project
     So what is my beef with Lady Gaga? It is pretty simple. I see myself in her. I could have been her in all reality (well maybe). Well if I didn't have a soul. Let me explain further... She grew up in NYC and recorded her first tracks in Parsippany, New Jersey, (only about 20 miles outside the Big Apple), the same city where my band, Project Autumn, recorded its first demo. Our self-titled album, released in 2010, received great praise from anyone who heard it, but we did not have the capital to market it and like a Gwen Stefani-kind of drama, with me dating the guitarist and person I shared the copyright with, I kind of subconsciously derailed the entire blood, sweat, and tears of three years of work. We still sell several MP3s a month, even with limited Internet marketing; we make a mere nine cents a download after CDBaby and all the music download sites get their cut. I could probably buy a meal for three off the dollar menu with all the money I made off what I thought  would be my "great masterpiece."

     I even tried out for American Idol and got my 15 minutes of fame on the front page of my local newspaper wearing a goofy hat I thought would make me "different" singing Fiona Apple's "Criminal." After trying out at the jam packed Izod Center in Rutherford, New Jersey, with hundreds of thousands of dreamers, waiting for hours just to stand in line hearing one excellent vocalist after another filed like a bunch of soldiers in twelve different lines to step in between two pitched curtains like a giant triage center to sing for thirty seconds in front of an unknown "producer" for American Idol, I was told, "Thank you for trying out, but we’re looking for something a little different. Have a nice day." I handed this "producer" a copy of my band's CD, which probably landed in the garbage and currently wastes away in one of New Jersey's hundred superfund sites. Now if I had worn some outrageous outfit maybe I would have made the cut—like I saw at the Idol audition, a superwoman costume actually landed a girl a ticket to the next round...Ok, so enough about me, back to Gaga...

Stefani Germanotta (Lady Gaga) with Former Producer Rob Fasari: During Her Early Recording Days in Parsippany, New Jersey

Gaga: The Ultimate Poker Face
     A few years ago I read a couple articles about Gaga's early days in my home state of New Jersey. She had dark hair, her real name is/was Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta (quite a mouthful), she is a natural Italian brunette and liked to write and sing rock ‘n’ roll. But she was convinced that this "kind of music" would never make her a star. And thus the alter-ego of Lady Gaga was born. Also, it is alleged that Gaga ripped off her producer Rob Fusari, who guide her and gave her, her start.

     I hate the term "sell out" because I think the term has lost its original meaning. I mean if you are really in the music business, it is a business, and you need to sell something, even if actual quality music is not on the top of the list. But I believe that it is an entertainer’s job, first and foremost, to sell. I believe it is the mission of a musician, to rock out instead of sell out regardless of compensation or fame. I mean, who knows, the guitarist singing songs written on a napkin at the local bar, might have been/be the next Bob Dylan.

But First There Was Dylan
     But there's no room left for another archetypal poet/songwriter like Bob Dylan. Or is there? Ironically enough, Bob Dylan and Lady Gaga similarly fit into the discussion I am attempting to articulate. Bob Dylan was just a curly haired Jewish boy from a small Northern Minnesota coal mining town with a guitar and a dream. Sure, Dylan is one of the best songwriters and lyricists of the past fifty, maybe even the past hundred years. But what did he have to do to get there? After watching eye-opening Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home (2005), a detailed biopic of Bob Dylan from his meager beginnings to his rise to the top, you really get an insight to what is behind the genius… a homegrown folk rock cocktail of ego, the too close to call plagiarizing "influence" of Woodie Guthrie's folk guitar style, and the love entangled "running over the bus" of Joan Baez, Dylan's once girlfriend and, still unknown to many of my generation, the sole woman responsible for introducing Dylan to American audiences and an amazing song writer genius in her own right. Who is to say if Dylan would be the icon he is today whether these things happened or not. No one can deny his talent and artistry, but the road he took to get there, well it is curious to see how this "rolling stone" became the king of Rolling Stone and every music critic's wet-dream. 

     When it comes to the existence of the musician, sometimes it is all about "becoming" rather than "being" a musician. Music is not just about the verse and chorus, it is about showmanship, costumes, branding, flashy stage sets, reputations and rumors, love affairs and taking ideas from others before you and reinventing them while using others as stepping stones towards the great grand world that some call fame and others call recognition.

Rock Music is Still Alive (The Old Meets the New)
     As 2013 comes to an end and 2014 unfolds, the increasing trend of local and underground successes popping up everywhere is meeting the demands for diehard music fans. But with a guitar, amp, an iMac, and ProTools at the hands of anyone and everyone whose pipe dream is to be the next rock star, it is becoming increasingly difficult to define "good" music. With publications like Pitchfork and Rolling Stone telling us what good music is, who are we to argue? I will not call it a hopeless plight, as true music fans can smell, feel, taste, and hear authentic music whether it reverberates from a small club, a college radio station, on Pandora, or through any other channel. It courses through their veins, elegantly and hauntingly, while the pop hits of today are mostly like a puff of smoke dissipating and fading into the morning after a bad night of drinking.

     Yet another interesting trend is occurring now. Popular hits are reinventing the old and introducing music from past decades. An example is Flo Rida's 2012 hit "Good Feeling," an upbeat hip hop celebration of life. With an astounding 150 million views on YouTube, this song is what it is because of the powerful hook from the original, Etta James' 1962 "Something's Got a Hold on Me" (although this video barely has 200,000 hits on YouTube). Christina Aguilera also covered this song for her movie "Burlesque," (2010) and her official YouTube video has 11 million hits. 

      Unfortunately, Etta James died after years of illness and addiction issues in 2012 and never felt the amount of success of this same exact song, which brought millions of viewers to Aguilera and Flo Rida. Which begs the questions: Must a true artist suffer for their art to be authentic? What makes music authentic? Is using another artist’s music, a form of artistic expression, similar to the folk rock tradition? Is translating classics into modern hits a form of reinvention or an expression of lack of creativity? The questions are as endless as the songs we play in our heads throughout our lives.
Music in Television, Commercials, and Movies: The New Wave

     As I've written in past commentaries, the newest trend-- the branding of music in commercials, movies, and television--I was previously opposed to, until faced with the reality of it with my own music. Questioning myself of whether I would want my music heard, even if it was selling cars in commercials, or as it has currently been featured in a local New Jersey film, "Dealer," (2012, Feenix Films), a low-budget film about the symbiotic relationship between two drug addicts, well I assume this is the premise, since I never even got a copy and I never saw a cent (this is what happens when you date and write music with the same "lovely man"). Yet I can't help but be a little bit happy that my music was at least heard, by somebody, anybody who watched the film. And I believe that is what it has boiled down to. Being heard, even if in an absurd or previously branded "selling out" way, is better than never being heard at all.

     The Portlandia  episode "Aimee," as overdramatic as it may have been, still does not take away from the fact that Aimee Mann is an amazing musician, who actually wrote the majority of the soundtrack for Paul Thomas Anderson's 1999 film "Magnolia." I heard Aimee play at First Avenue in Minneapolis about a year ago to a packed audience, mostly a thirties and older group, but it was great. So at the end of the day, I guess we need to appreciate the commercialization of music, otherwise, we wouldn't hear it in the first place. 

     Like the 1967 Friend and Lovers’ classic, "Reach Out of the Darkness" covered by Jocelyn Alice in the form of "So Groovy (Finally Getting Together)" in a recent Target commercial. I never would have known it was a cover. It was catchy and resonated with me and then my mother told me about the original from the 1960s, which I later looked up on YouTube. I think that this brings up perhaps the most important lesson to us all: Teach younger generations where modern music came from. If you hear a rapper sampling a snippet from an original song like Aerosmith's 1973 haunting classic, "Dream On," tastefully sampled by Eminem's 2003 smash hit, "Sing for the Moment," bring your children or another adult to YouTube and play them the original, or better yet, if you have a record player, get out the original. There is nothing like the sound of a record spinning and resonating the way it was originally intended to. Educating future generations and even current generations about the origins of today's hits is vital to keep the soul of rock ‘n’ roll alive. And at every opportunity, support your local artists, or artists who make true music, whether they are on tour or not, whether some hipster journalist deems them hot or not. 

     As far as I am concerned, marketing geniuses and music journalists' mission, to discover the "next big thing," has been done already as Portlandia points out so blatantly. Or just turn on your local pop music station in your car and nine times out of ten you will know exactly what I am talking about. But this leads my point: I believe that the music’s most dominant medium has changed. It is no longer the radio, the Billboard Hot 100, or Rolling Stone. The main medium for new and/or exciting music is the music itself, which now dominates films, television, and the Internet on web sites, such as YouTube. Case and Point: "Orange is the New Black," a surprisingly addictive Netflix original, which features Regina Spektor's, "You've Got Time" (2013). I love the song and the show. This is an example in which good music was brought to life by the medium of television.
I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll…So Put Another Dime in the Jukebox Baby
     Once a critique of the commercialization of music, I have now accepted the fact that although there are artists that commercialize themselves as artists and do anything to cut-throat their way to the top, I do advocate that film, television, and the Internet is now the medium where authentic artists can heard. I am done with the notion of "finding" or "discovering" an artist. Yes, you can happen upon a new song or an artist, but a music critique who thinks they have "found" the next big thing, that is completely unique and original, is only in it for the attention and if they are lucky, the money. A true rock journalist, like Lester Bangs, a person who lives, breathes, starves, and dies for rock 'n' roll is a thing of the past, but a true blue rock 'n' roll fan and the music itself, in all heart and soul, will never perish.

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