As Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith once famously noted, everybody wants to rule the world. In the literal sense, they were imagining some dystopic Orwellian society, but on a deeper level, the song still rings true; we really do all want to rule the world — or, when you get right down to it, we want to think of ourselves as at least capable or deserving of doing so. Our belief in a basic, innate kernel of human spiritual immortality is about as old as humans themselves. The armchair theologian in me likes believing it’s this simple truth of human nature, more than anything else, that’s responsible for the continued persistence (pervasiveness) of organized religion throughout recorded history. It helps us rationalize death (”he’s in a better place now”). Some even argue that it’s fear of our non-immortality that powers the engine of human reproduction.
It’s also, I think, why so many people are so pissed off about a pair of silly television shows, namely R U the Girl? and Rock Star.
I realize this may be sort of a jarring segue, but bear with me here. The shows in question, if you aren’t already aware, revolve around two bands (TLC and INXS, respectively) trying to find replacements for deceased members. Of the two, INXS’ efforts are being taken more seriously — for all her charisma and showbiz talent, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes was still one-third of a modern R&B act; in other words, she was always seen as a commodity, so the quest for her temporary, one-time replacement isn’t drawing quite as much ire. It’s part of the genre. (Ask LaTavia Roberson and LeToya Luckett — or, hell, Florence Ballard — about this.)
Changes in personnel for rock bands, though — especially when it comes to singers — have always attracted attention. And deceased singers? That’s hallowed ground. Take a guy like INXS’ Michael Hutchence, for instance, who probably would be performing for small crowds at casinos now if he hadn’t died. He was a fine singer and an even better frontman, but nobody gave a shit about anything the band did after 1990; give the guy a decade or so of nostalgic hindsight, though, and people start screaming “poor taste” because the remaining members of the band have decided to take advantage of what is probably their sole remaining opportunity for large-scale public exposure. It’s ironic, because Hutchence was always extremely savvy about exploiting the celebrity angle of the music business, and under different circumstances, he might have been able to appreciate Rock Star, if only for the sheer spectacle of it all.
Anyway, though the TV cameras add a new element to it, this isn’t a new debate by any means. I recently had a conversation with a friend who, to my surprise, is still a little upset that AC/DC decided to go on without Bon Scott. To my friend, “classic” AC/DC is all about sly humor and the joy of rock & roll; the Brian Johnson era, on the other hand, just sucks.
“Wait,” you might be asking, “what about Back in Black?” — and that’s a valid question. I didn’t ask it, though, because as far as I’m concerned, there’s no difference whatsoever between AC/DC’s first album, their most recent release, or anything in between, so debating whether or not Back in Black is actually a classic is beside the point. I mean, yeah, I concede that it’s better than, say, Who Made Who, but in the same way that Maxim is better than FHM: they’re both dumb, and debating their relative merits is a waste of time.
But I digress. (And digress. And digress…)
My friend’s two main points, I think, were that rock & roll is supposed to be about feeling, not art, and that the narcissistic glory of the music is partially based on what’s supposed to be a shared conceit: Rock stars, as rock stars, are supposed to be irreplaceable. Ergo, Bon Scott was a genius and AC/DC should have called it quits when he died, just like INXS should have packed it in when Michael Hutchence did.
To which I say: “Phooey.”
This country has always been about a frothy, fizzy blend of individualism and conformity: We love rugged, iconoclastic loners, at least until we get tired of them, and then we love knocking them down and watching them fall (in fact, we probably love the latter even more than the former). I believe this goes along perfectly with the larger-than-life rock frontman — for instance, David Lee Roth — who everyone believes is integral to the band’s success, until Sammy Hagar comes along. Sure, there are always people who argue over who was better, like my Brian Johnson-hating friend and Van Halen message board dorks, but for the most part, the fans honestly don’t fucking care, and I think that’s great. What could be more American?
Which leads me to (what I think is) an(other) interesting side note: America has had a long love/hate relationship with corporations. They embody the best and worst of what we’re all about — capitalism — and so we’ve been arguing about them pretty much non-stop since landing on these shores. Given all this, I think it only makes sense that it’s the so-called “corporate rock” bands who always seem to manage personnel changes most efficiently. How many times did members come and go in and out of, say, the Electric Light Orchestra? I don’t know and neither do you, and with the possible exception of Jeff Lynne, anyone who’s ever been a member of that band could walk right down any street in America without a single person recognizing them. Yet they sold millions upon millions of records.
Where I agree completely with my friend is her point about how rock & roll often works best when it’s more about feeling than art, and that’s where today’s long and winding blather finally reaches its intended destination:
They make “art,” and they do it with “feeling,” but I’ve never really liked the Pixies, and I completely don’t get Frank Black.
This may seem like no big deal to you, but guys like me are supposed to think Frank Black and the Pixies are the greatest thing since sliced bread. We’re supposed to write about how their reunion tour is some kind of transcendent experience, and worry aloud about whether or not the rumored new Pixies album will hold up to, I don’t know, Doolittle or something. The cool kids eat all that shit up with a spoon. And then they wipe their mouths with their Coachella t-shirts.
Intellectually, I understand that the band’s exploration of hard/soft dynamics has been extremely influential, and I like “Here Comes Your Man.” But David Foster was influential too — that doesn’t make him good. That hard/soft thing has become a lazy template which hundreds of songwriters — most of them pretty bad ones — have used to pretend their work has emotional depth. Maybe Pixies songs really are deep; I’ve never been able to tell, because it’s too hard to make any fucking sense out of their lyrics. And Frank Black solo albums? Forget it. Do Frank Black and/or the Pixies make terrible music? No. But I don’t understand the orgasmic critical praise.
So it was with great trepidation that I approached Honeycomb, Black’s latest release:
It’s called Honeycomb, it was recorded over four days in Nashville with some truly major names (including Anton Fig, Steve Cropper, and Spooner Oldham), and it’s getting rave reviews. And it’s completely ordinary.
Yeah, okay, so most albums you’re going to buy won’t have something called “Song of the Shrimp” (download) on them, nor will they feature a cheerful divorce duet between two people actually going through a divorce. But, you know, whatever — there’s nothing on this album that you’d hear (without already knowing it was FRANK BLACK OF THE PIXIES OMGZ!!1!) and think it was anything more than a demo tape by a bar band with a moderately talented singer. It’s being billed as Black’s most straightforward album to date, and that’s more or less true. Like Dylan did when he went to Nashville, Black even tries his hand at actually singing, on a cover of “Dark End of the Street” (download) that is actually, in a very real way, more surreal than anything the Pixies have ever done.
To recap, then: The guys in Tears for Fears are philosopher-poets; AC/DC fans are strange; Sammy Hagar is a great American; and rock critics don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some Electric Light Orchestra that needs listening to.