Wait a Second!

No. 9 -- August 24, 1995

Easy target time: In this Sunday's SF Chronicle Datebook section, there was a big cover story by Chronicle pop critic Joel Selvin, entitled "The Pitiful Pop of The 90's." Yup, you guessed it, another "rock is dead" story. This shit has been going on longer than I've been alive (Elvis enters army! Rock and Roll Dies!! Hooray!!), and hopefully, it will long outlive me. But in this case, its just the ho-hum ravings of another boring-ass Boomer for whom the music has outlived its usefulness. Which is fine and everything: it happens, it happens. But when it happens to people who make their living writing about music, the rest of us have to hear about it, as if its the music's fault or something.

Actually, it had been quite some time since I had seen one of those -- the last time anyone had enough stupidity to wonder about popular music was back in 1991, just before Nevermind was about to start its major life-changing mindfuck.

Mr. Selvin claims that "pop music in the 90's is a dud, a bore, a shambles, a haunting shadow of its former self. The past five years have been the most indifferent, unproductive and lackluster period in the last four decades of musical history." If Mr. Selvin really feels that way, than he should give up the Chronicle pop music column to someone younger, since he's obviously lost his drive to find any good new stuff. Right.

This happens periodically, of course. And I'll admit that the last year or so has been a little fallow. It happens. Add to that just when half of the pop music community is getting past the death of Kurt Cobain (in part, by focusing their collective anger on the continuing public insanity of his wife), the other half is starting to mourn the death of Jerry Garcia.

But usually, when somebody complains about music being boring now it means that they've gotten old and boring now, and they've turned it around on the music. After all, Mr. Selvin just researched and wrote a book on the San Francisco music scene of the 60s, so exactly how much time has he even had to sit down and listen to the music of today.

Here's the truth: every pop era has its great music, and it has its shitty music. One hundred years from now, there will be a huge debate on who made better rock music, The Beatles or R.E.M. And so it goes. It actually gets ludicrous--to prove his theory, Mr. Selvin uses the fact that people like Mariah Carey, Michael Bolton, Boyz II Men, and Kenny G are some of the top sellers of the 90s. The implication being, of course, in previous pop eras, such as the sainted hallowed 60's, high quality music was also popular, and vice versa. Uh-uh. Some great stuff has also been popular, but the 60's had their fair share of hacks, one-shots and lame pop songs.

I don't have any books with charts in front of me, but weren't real heavyweights like Herb Alpert, The Fifth Dimension, Blood Sweat and Tears, The Monkees, Simon & Garfunkle, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and Herman's Hermits part of the big 60's hit parade?? I'll betcha that almost all of those acts outsold the Rolling Stones or The Who or Bob Dylan on a regular basis. Just like Pat Boone and Fabian outsold Little Richard or James Brown. Same as it ever was.

Meanwhile, The Chronicle's other pop critic, Michael "Doitagain" Snyder uses the re-release of The Who Sell Out as an indication of how bad things are now. Huh? As if. The Who Sell Out is an amazing record, one of the total and true all-time classics of popular music. For those of you who don't know, it's the one that Peter Townshend conceived as an excerpt from a radio station, commercials and all. It's full of amazing songs (I remember waking late one night while "I Can See For Miles" was on the radio and thinking "This, this, is how rock and roll music should sound), great humour and Keith Moon. So yeah, on one level, Michael Snyder is right: The Who Sell Out is better than 99% of the rock music that's coming out today. Duh. Of course, it's also better than 99% of the rock music that came out in 1967, too, a fact that Mr. Synder somehow forgets to mention. The only better record made that year -- period, fuck Sgt. Pepper and The Doors -- was the Velvet Underground and Nico. And not by much.

So exactly what does that prove, besides the fact that great music is timeless? Well, what it proves is that maybe Michael Snyder and Joel Selvin have lives, they oughta give rock criticism a rest. They obviously have no sense of what's going on today, and more damming, they don't care to find out, preferring to write off an entire scene and generation with one fell swoop. They've turned into their parents. And we all know that your parents don't know shit about rock and roll.

I can only hope to god that if I ever find myself condemning the entire music scene that I realize its time to give it up and live in the past forever.

Well, I did it! Wednesday morning I had succumbed totally to the Windows 95 hype. I was all ready to go out at midnight tonight and plunk my US$89.95 down for it. But somehow, as the day wore on, and I read more about it on various web pages scattered all through the place, I began to resist. I can wait. As my friend Barry, the juggling computer guy said: "Let America beta test it!!" He's right. I can wait for 4.1. I think.

Ok, ok -- that Alanis Morrisette (Morrissey??) song is becoming a major annoyance. Yes, it got a great hook, and bass-whore for hire, Flea, laying down some more of his solid stuff. But this is a song that is being judged on its lyrics, and I'm here to tell you: they just don't make any damn sense. Listen to it hard enough, and you start to realize that the guy in the song made the best decision of his life when he left her. After all, like she says, he left a mess when he went away. And that cross she bears, she can just drop it, you know? Does she sound like a lot of fun? Interrupting during dinner?

And it's got that "Basic Instinct" take on sex: mention it enough, show it enough, and people will think you're sexy, when actually you're anti-sex. For all of its semi-rapes, bondage scenes and (insert your own joke here) of Sharon Stone, the message of that movie was that sex was a terrible, awful thing. I hated it. I don't hate the Alanis Morrissey song, because I can enjoy a well-crafted sure-shot #1 single as well as anyone. Still.

Just because you use the word "fuck" doesn't mean you enjoy the concept, much less the act, it just means you know the word gets people to notice you. A lot of people are comparing her to Liz Phair, mostly because they mention things like oral sex in their songs. OK, but when Alanis mentions it, she's calling herself "perverted." Liz just wanted to be "your blow job queen." See the difference?? Like Richard Pryor once said in a not entirely different context: "I know which line I'm going to be in."

Me, I'll compare her to Carly Simon, and "You Oughta Know" to "You're So Vain." I'm not really prepared to back that up, except that they're both career-making singles that seem to mean more than they really do, and since both women are professional show people rather than instinctive rockers, that's about all we should ever expect from them.

But then we all know that all of today's music sucks anyways, doesn't it??

This space is available for advertising. I am so ready to sell out to corporate America for some decent money. Maybe The San Francisco Chronicle??

Love,

     Jim

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This rant written on 24 August, 1995.
I was listening to Yo La Tengo -- Elect-ro-pura