Friday, June 29, 2007

Rock Snob Chicken and Egg

So the other day one of my co-workers made mention in passing of "those obscure bands you're always talking about." All I remember is that time he caught me cranking Steve Earle's The Revolution Starts Now, and there ain't nothing obscure about Steve. Between that and the Mpls rock scene book I'm reading, I realized that I don't talk much about music. My real critical calling is writing about horror movies, which I used to do long before I had any kind of forum for it. Maybe it's just because I'm not as immersed in the music world as I used to be. It had become obvious that, eventually, the day was going to come when I couldn't stay out all night and still hold down a job. And since there was no trust fund on its way...

It is true that when one listens to a lot of supposedly obscure music, one tends to also gather accusations of rock snobbery. I admit, when I first saw High Fidelity, I sunk in my seat just a little bit. Come on, you all know the chorus, "Oh, you hipsters. You only like things because nobody's ever heard of them." But that's not where the "because" belongs. Generally, nobody's ever heard of things I like because they're a little...well, odd, maybe. 

There'd be no point in denying that I like things that are odd. What I don't like is things that sound like everything else. "Generic" is about my dirtiest musical-critical word. Once a person owns a hundred punk rock records, then she has no need of a punk album that sounds like every other. She wants something original, different, in the sound, the lyrics, the attitude, the something. 

So even when I was more deeply immersed, my take on music was a little different. I kept trying, fruitlessly, to turn my friends onto Digital Underground, and made friends with people whose tastes were even more avant-garde than mine, and pillaged their collections. I remember being startled to discover that people in the outside world had suddenly heard of Soul Asylum, because I'd never had any interest in their existence. I rolled my eyes at Paul Westerberg's whole later career, especially when people started worshipping him openly. I know that's bitchy of me, but it's an honest response. 

Actually, that's how I first learned the perceived first rule of rock snobbery. Around the time of Let It Be, how I loved, loved, loved the Replacements. I put "Fuck School" and, especially, "Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out" ("Rip rip, gonna rip 'em out now! Rip rip, gonna rip 'em out!") on mix tapes for everyone I'd ever met. The band had done four albums that were all different kinds of works of genius. When they signed with a major record label, I was nowhere near thinking "Sell-out!" This was good news to me. I felt a little how I imagine the cute naive kids did in the early grunge era, thinking that the mainstream was catching up with us. Maybe people were learning. Maybe we were going to start hearing good music on the radio! 

And then I bought Tim and listened to it. I tried to deny how much I was disappointed. I kept playing it, trying to find hidden virtues in it. But I really just didn't think it was very good. I just played it again yesterday, and I liked it even less. Whereas Hootenany has sounded better with every passing year. Of course, "Bastards of Young" and "Here Comes a Regular" are really good songs. But there are a lot of albums that are okay, with a few good songs on them. And there was just something wrong with the whole tone of the record, like the creativity had been sucked right out of them. Nothing stood out, nothing was that distinctive. In the oldest rock trap in the book, they'd been a lot better in their basement. You just can't win. 

Of course, that was only the beginning, and they went on to make actual hits out of songs that I couldn't care less about. And I saw plenty of other bands get signed to major labels and release watered-down versions of their sound, locally, nationally, all over the place. How does one deal with this conundrum? If you're the band, then it's really freakin' problematic. 

There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of rock memoirs and Rolling Stone articles about the labels messing with the sound, pressuring bands to deliver singles, to promote their product, and basically ruining them. So you can't blame the fans for being able to hear the difference!

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