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Winter 01
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"Tell Us What We Want;
What We Really, Really Want"

Anthony Mariani

I believe ‘twas Lance -- or Justin, or Chris -- who told Rolling Stone: "We’re out to have another great album. That’s our goal. We don’t determine album sales; people do. We determine how good the record is." The time was right before *NSync’s late-summer release of Celebrity, which would go on to top the Billboard 200 but more importantly provide a really good excuse for the boy band to tour (read: cash in; record sales see that the label is taken care of first). To the gentleboys of *NSync, bubblegum has become both disease and cure -- finding them cold representin’ either the grotesque faces of an industry that too closely resembles an old-boy network or the American Dream realized. Danceable beats, banal (but coherent) lyrical content, band members’ faces on lunchboxes. A scene replayed a million times over by as many players since Presley. It’s okay to think *NSync are hacks. In their first Celebrity single, "Pop," the boys go on the defensive, explaining away their appeal in beats per measure, and it’s you fault if you don’t "get" it. And it is. But an explanation no listener ever really asked for? The impression is this: *NSync revel in their reticence to concede to fame’s treasures as if they were impossibly cultish because Big Time can’t be "cool" -- there, they’ve made an admittance. Friendly beats, clean-living, cookies and cake! *NSync seek to renegotiate the deal they signed with the devil. Do *NSync know something we don’t? Is bubblegum on the wane? Should Max Martin be filing coffee shop counter-people applications? The Celebrity sound doesn’t drop any hints, it sticks mainly (there’s that word again) to the stuff of *NSync past, but there’s definitely a type of doe-eyed defiance that crops up here and there. In sonic puffery, which may no doubt move your toes to a-tappin’, the boys-II-men of *NSync have taken something as heavy-duty as the essence of pop appeal going back to Jolson and repackaged it as a flashy advert for Five Guys Named Justin. The sound, melody and lyric and rhythm, is nearly absolute. Warm. Comforting. Something new entirely. A mushy, spirited "why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along" composed of the posturings of conservative, bastard genius.

Is bubblegum a response to what music lovers want or a product, duly shrinkwrapped and creatively marketed, forced down music lovers’ throats? There probably isn’t a straight-up "answer" but nothing other than this old question creates a more complex, stunning picture of what it means being artist/businessman/music fan at the start of the third millennium. Into the mix: Brains, boobs, harmonies, dissonances, honest Abes, jackasses. A billion variables. The culture takes the shape of a 50-foot-tall multi-headed accountant composed of sweat and shit and bad suspenders and a CPU that just won’t give up. And onward it cabbage-patches. Scratching, cross-fading. Tuning the Les Paul. The crescendo. The intro; rehearsed, multi-tracked and remixed. The ruling class is the system itself -- or so it seems; nothing’s that absolute or to be taken as gospel. A mélange of pixilated images and roadies and noises coalesces into something resembling what Frankfurt (Old-) Schoolers like to call the "Culture Industry." Capitalism shaping itself in its own reflection. Neat-o, huh?

Well, take a Super Bowl halftime show and run it on a loop. Forget the score. We’re selling re-memories here. The industry as county-fair barker. Tons of good-looking, quasi-talented folk in the rings. Flat as cardboard cut-outs, but we got the MTV hook-up anyway. They look real there. Recording our gasps and boners and booty drops in seven-second delay; packaged and stuck on shelves in polycarbonate form. Pop -- music -- just can’t be. We need to enable the sizzle. Smiling. Elbowing through for a poster. Dancing. Jerking off secretly when we get home or under the blanket in the living room around company. The ritual is performance art itself. Harakiri in Times Square at the stroke (har, har) of midnight. See it on the ‘Net. Tune in, tune out: The explosions come pre-packaged for us. Virgin Megastore is having a sale on remorse and we can’t seem to shake the feeling that there’s more to All This than a groovy Lexus sedan and tits on TV. So let’s reduce it. "Record companies have fooled everyone into believing that nothing is important except fluff," goes Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes to Blender, "And I hate them for that." But the poor (e.g. the Black Crowes) and their supporters are, to me, just dandy in their opposition. "Compassion easily becomes a selfish pleasure fostering self-righteousness. It requires a constant supply of the poor and the weak, instead of encouraging the healthful and self-reliant": Nietzsche. (And all this crap about authenticity, I don’t buy it; anyone who thinks biography presupposes good taste should shovel his own way back into his cave.) Primetime is all the time. Rock and roll is everyone’s dream. Or nightmare. It just depends.

The period to return to for some type of answer may be the time after Presley and Little Richard and before the British invasion, somewhere around the late-1950s, early-1960s. Record labels were pissed that they hadn’t begun producing and distributing what were then known as "race" records, basically R&B by black musicians; because these gems were what white kids were really into. The radio was full of utterly innocuous stuff: Teen idols (playing sexuality close to the vest -- literally!), girl groups and some new hybrid of Caribbean folk star -- basically, song interpreters, making pop out of the handiwork of professional songwriters ensconced in Manhattan office towers. Radio was under the thumb of the record labels and the labels were not going to let "race" records, of which labels had no vested interest remember, dominate the airwaves; so they kept the pap pouring out. It’s all a control issue, and there was no doubt that the relationship between record labels and radio was corrupt as hell. Then The Beatles first exploded in Britain, then here, and industry once again reverted to something resembling a hospitable working environment before again turning into something of a totalitarian state then back again ad infinitum. But that’s another story. The willingness and ability of corporations to exert influence on popular taste has a precedent.

Fast-forward 50 years. Scribble up the palimpsest. Pastiche culture needs to be figured in, somewhere. Good ole tradition can’t satisfy this hunger. Instantaneous culture. Tocqueville still rings true: "Neither men of great learning more extremely ignorant communities are to be met with; genius becomes more rare, information more diffused. There is less perfection but more abundance in all the productions of the arts." And Adorno called us pop music lovers, "insects."

We’re worse for wear.

This writing comes to you from a music lover and fellow traveler who has just recorded an EP (for the drawer) and generally spends his days talking music over e-mail with really smart people whose jobs involve listening to and writing about ungodly amounts of music. One thing you learn from all this jawing is that tastes change. The song remains the same but the landscape underfoot morphs. This is a phenomenon I like to call, "Holy Shit: New Shit Amazes Me Every Day." Am I the only one? Hardly. There’s Rhino records, for one. And oldies radio, another. And no one can generate enough money to buy every great CD out there. And a sort of sadness sets in. But at the moment you realize you’re part of the game you freak. You know in your heart it’s all about the music, dog. Fuck them trends (though even you have to admit turning everyone on at the record store where you work to Hemispheres was a big thrill; every other record store was spinning Os Mutantes or Radiohead. But you guys were blasting Rush! How counter-cool cool is that?!?). Then that’s it. Embracing patronage as integral to artistry has left us only blissfully ignorant. We’re too small to matter. Each of us.

But what about the jazz quartet down the street that refuses to be recorded and has rejected repeated offers from Blue Note? Or the pop-star-to-be who on the eve of his major label debut decided to become a lounge singer, just to piss everyone off? Sorry but doesn’t count. Simon Frith: If the media doesn’t report on it, it doesn’t exist. To subvert power you have to be powerful and to be powerful you have to have played the game. You can go back to "art for art’s sake," which though popular around the end of the 19th century probably has its roots in Gautier 50 years earlier, but what you’re really talking about now is "sacred art for sacred art’s sake." Radiohead and its nonsense records, Kid A and Amnesiac, come to mind. Rolling Stone: They’re great; they’ve given the industry the finger. Q: Publicity stunt. Us (as in "We, the People," not Jan Wenner’s other magazine): Damned if they do, damned if they don’t. The stupidest person listens to more than 30 seconds of Metal Machine Musicbefore ripping it off the turntable and flinging against the wall. But we needed that, though, sure; it flogs sense into the philistine. Liberal apologists like to call that shit GOD. Who’s in the driver’s seat? Shit, what’s being driven? Vulgar Marxists even disdain the kind of "political pop" bands like Public Enemy and Rage Against The Machine traffic in, calling making music a petit bourgeois pursuit; Why are these young people tinkering around with guitars, vulgar Marxists say, when they can be out leading the local union in a march? Then the counterpunch: But RATM is using the machine to turn the machine on its head. Oh, really? So that’s why so many record label execs have been seen eating box lunches. Right. Right . . .

Now when Bruce Springsteen makes a rap album and basically gives it away for a nickel, I’ll applaud like a fucking idiot.

From left field: The Culture Industry works to keep us, the people, down, man! The code words the rappers and Britney drop in their songs. The symbols. Shit doesn’t allow us to communicate. Really. That, and it’s impossible to talk over the Notorious B.I.G. blaring from the tricked-out Escalade out front. The drum loop repeats and repeats and the man in the front seat claims his African roots move him to viscerally enjoy the repetition of the beats and you just gotta shake your head and shake it all off. It’s not his fault, it’s not his fault. And it’s not Biggie’s fault, either. But, oh, well: Is Britney the choice of a new generation? Or is Christina just the real thing? (Tastes great! Less filling!) At least Super Bowl watchers can empathize with the buds on TV, sipping Bud ("True"). Who relates to Britney and her bio-power besides other super pin-ups and really delusional womenchilds? Tell the left it’s not a conspiracy theory, though, bro. Springsteen has as much power as EMI, if not more. Check the switch: Consumers rule, as consumers. Britney can drop code words, for "sex" and "romance" and whatever else she talks about; she can shake it and sell it. But what’s it worth? A bunch of hip patois and false representations on MTV shows? I can’t find one honest idea anywhere in there. And here I am shaking my ass like everyone else -- but, just, not as enthusiastically. Leaves me quick not to throw my allegiances behind any "product," big-tittied or not (though my friends and I, when younger, would fight over the heavy-metal guitarists we thought ruled best; still, there’s something more than a degree of symbolism involved in that. It was the music that riled us, man!).

Britney’s new video for the song, "I’m a Slave 4 U," is hot! In it, she’s soaking wet, covered in smudge marks, barely dressed and whispering shit like "I really wanna do what you want me to" while slinking all over the screen. It’s like some other Britney videos but darker; the mood hovers around that warehouse-chic aesthetic. Pop music is one tough workout, Brit and her boys would have you believe. The vid’s essence revolves (expectedly) around the blondey -- she’s in every frame, every second -- though the song itself, produced by the Neptunes, surprisingly understates the glamour gal’s role. She doesn’t "oh, baby, baby"; doesn’t dictate ("STOP!"); instead, lets the minimalist vibe carry her along. In other words, it’s all very un-Britney. Reminds one of when Madonna became a woman, lo these 15 years ago. So is legitimacy as easy as a push-up bra and some fake dirt? Eh, no -- unless the music’s good. In this case, it is. The future? Too early to tell, though chances are slim there’ll be any. "Lady Marmalade" put Christina over the top; Britney’s less-attractive, more-moody younger sister couldn’t have stagecrafted a better escape into adulthood than that. The tightrope Britney’s walking is flimsy, the wind is unforgiving. There’s Frankie Lymon down below: A star by 13, singing lead on "Why Do Fools Fall in Love," causing a stink. He dropped his Teenagers and went solo. His voice grew deeper, with age. Dust accumulated on his new 78’s. He died at 25, a heroin O.D., destitute. It’s not a cautionary tale just a way of stringing you along. Deal with it.

Because we think we know what we want, but do we really? Isn’t everything just programmed into us from birth in a consumerist society? So that we only think we know what we want (to listen to, to eat, to wear, to vote for)? Will the new war give us some direction other than towards the comfort of being a happy, satisfied customer? Will the wheels of fashion slow down for only a little while? Will power brokers stave off obsolescence for us so that we can make do with the pop music and designer jeans we have now? I’m really broke, anyway. Severance is nearing its end.

Another bomb to drop is wondering how we got this way in the first place. My guess: suburbia. Yup. Separated us, demoralized us (unwittingly), decentralized us, miseducated us. Commercials, commercial music, useless "needs" then took over, quieting us. And big business co-opted our discussions on race, our voting booths and, especially, our tastes. Things that used to mean a lot to us don’t really anymore. But why fight it? Well, why resist being dominated? Some don’t. Their only voices are as consumers, sure -- they can choose not to buy or buy something else -- but, hey, at least that’s something. We’re too good at watching. "Hey, hon. There goes GE gobbling up NBC. Oh, yeah. That’s Ronny Reagan prodding them along. Isn’t he cute?!" The interests grow more narrow and more narrow. We look for something to read but only find . . . MORE advertorial. The consumer rags are all mute about how we, da people, fucking subsidize ads (companies, except the sins, write ‘em off) in paying higher prices at the counter. And the divide between the haves and have-nots gets wider. Dirtier.

The truth is in the telling, though. Mass culture can’t be everywhere at once, in the same circumstances and at the same time. Truth was Foucault’s dispositif. And that’s why we have pirate radio and tracking music. And no one’s saying it’s all the media’s fault. No, no, no. There’s enough blame to go around: Schools; churches; families; offices. Internet Web ‘zines.

A Google search retrieves nearly a hundred music, music-related magazines. All devoted to naming the unnamed (and you can’t "un-peach" the peaches). You wouldn’t know Lou Reed thought only morons digested Metal Music Machine unless you had some subscription to some upstanding mag, anyway. The impact on what you hear, though: T-Model Ford’s predilection for knife-fighting might make you more interested/bored by his music but is it for the music’s sake that you’ve become aware of what T-Model does during off-hours or yours? (You probably stare at car wrecks, too, huh?) Then again, maybe Lou Reed doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about, even though it’s his project being discussed. The only shit I trust coming from a musician’s mouth is when it concerns what color guitar he plays. Words, words, words. Music’s infinite qualities condensed into quips and asides. The hypnotizing crackle of an album at the end of its duration. Images flood the brain: Signpost, passing, going off cliff. Your focus drifts. The only available language is feedback. You make the best of it, tongue firmly planted in cheek.

The music is the industry and vice-versa. Neither is independent of the other. They grew up together. They shall grow old together.

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