However, if you have never read Lolita you might think that the novel is instead about a seductive “nymphet” (a term Nabokov’s Humbert created) that seduces an older man. This interpretation is certainly not the story, but you would be forgiven for thinking it is, as popular culture has perpetrated this misreading since its creation in 1955. The most often-used review to accompany the novel’s cover is a line from Gregor von Rezzori’s Vanity Fair piece that calls Lolita “The only convincing love story of our Century.” What the? A more honest review might be “The only convincing story of a smug and disgusting child molester.”
It was while listening to this podcast that I came face-to-face with this week's record: Serge Gainsbourg’s Historie de Melody Nelson. Gainsbourg courted sexual controversy throughout his career. In 1969 he and his girlfriend Jane Birkin released “Je T'aime...Moi Non Plus” a song banned by The Vatican and in the United States because of its simulated orgasm sounds between the 41-year-old Gainsbourg and the 23-year-old Birkin. His icky-factor jumps through the proverbial roof on his 1984 duet “Lemon Incest,” which he recorded with his 13-year-old daughter Charlotte. He is also famously remembered for telling a 23-year-old Whitney Houston that he wanted to “fuck her” on TV. He was 58 at the time.
Released in 1973, Historie de Melody Nelson shows Gainsbourg’s continuous fascination with young girls. A fascination that biographer, Jeremy Allen notes, was evident throughout Gainsbourg’s work. He states that “There’s no doubt he [Gainsbourg] had a Lolita fixation.” Further stating that Gainsbourg “was obsessed by Nabokov’s book, wanted to make the movie, and made all his female co-singers use a high-pitched, child-like voice.” The AV Club notes that the idea of Lolita-adaption fueled Gainsbourg and that the “creepy, sad man’s objectification of a girl would stay with him” and lead “him to create Melody Nelson.” The album tells the story of an older rich man who rapes (I'm sure Gainsbourg would not use this term, but I will) a girl “Fourteen autumns, And fifteen summers.”
When released, the album was considered "steamy". A term that seems a 70s & 80s catch-all for any number of sexual taboos. However, now, in the long dark shadows of the #metoo movement and as we gain a further understanding to reassess popular culture, it seems a worthy time to re-examine Serge Gainsbourg pinnacle record.
I should note, I'm not here to cancel Serge Gainsbourg. I'm not here to say that we should throw Melody Nelson into the trash heap. However, I think we need to identify tropes from our musical past and acknowledge their existence and potential harm. What listeners decide to do with that information is ultimately up to them. As our guest, Patrick Krief, Dave, and I noted in this week’s episode, the sonic quality of Historie de Melody Nelson is stunning. Jean-Claude Vannier’s string arrangements dance over David Richmond’s groovy bass. Sparse clean guitar leads splash colour through every song. It is sonically a gorgeous record.
Yet, the Lolita effect hangs heavily over this record. But then again, the Lolita effect hangs heavily over popular music in general.
Like Humbert Humbert in Lolita, Serge’s narrative presents the young lady through the male gaze. This is, of course, nothing new in classic rock. From The Knack’s “My Sharona” to Neil Diamond’s “Girl You’ll be a Woman Soon” the genre is drenched in creepy songs about older men gawking at young girls. I recall myself at six years old singing along to the KISS’ “Christine Sixteen” in my basement. I am now struck by the predatory nature of lyrics like “But when I saw you coming, Out of the school that day, That day I knew, I knew I've got to have you, I've got to have you”. This is doubly gross when you know it is being sung by Gene “I slept with 4800 women” Simmons.
And this is where the problem of separating the artist from the art becomes problematic. In 2018, I wrote about this dilemma in a piece entitled When will the #MeToo Movement Catch Up to the Music Industry. In that piece, I noted the a slew of offenders like R. Kelly, Jimmy Page, Anthony Kiedis, Steven Tyler (this piece of shit adopted a 16-year-old so that he could legally take her across state lines), Bill “I am dating a 14-year-old” Wyman, and - the offender no one wants to hear me include in this group - David Bowie. In each case, these men groomed and abused girls. Not women. Girls. And this makes the very idea of separating the art and artist difficult. So often, art is saturated in the male gaze of the artist and therefore, the art as a direct representation of the artist is creepy and disgusting.
When reading through chat rooms, many people noted these very connections and highlighted the dangers that stem from these messages. One comment read rock music is “always emphasizing how the girl was just 17...and the singers were like in their 30s. Fucking creepy”. To that, another person responds with “because they all fucked underage girls.” Someone else adds, “back then people knew but they thought it was cool...it’s why boomers are still so against things like MeToo. They admired people for it.” At first, I was skeptical of such comments, but there is certainly some truth to them. And, that male gaze would extend even further and ultimately bleed into the production of pop culture in the 1990s.
The most obvious example is that of R. Kelly and his grooming and production of Aaliyah. As the primary songwriter and producer of his debut album Age Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number Kelly helped to create Aaliyah’s image and sound. Yet, when she parted ways with Kelly, Jomo Hankerson claims that Aaliyah - the victim of a sexual predator - was “blacklisted by industry insiders behind the scandal” and ultimately “villainized.” The same can be said of Britney Spears. (Again, I will note The Lolita Podcast, as Loftus does a terrific job at highlighting the Lolita effect on the marketing of female singers in the 90s.) The famous Rolling Stone cover from 1999 depicted the then 17-year-old Spears as a modern-day Lolita archetype. What Meenakshi Gigi Durham, in her book The Lolita Effect has called a “metaphor for the sexy girl in contemporary society” whose “vulnerability” and “alluring sexuality” can be “fabricated” and “exploited.” Those features are on full display on the cover. And, when the magazine was released it was Spears who had to address the “prostitot” image that appeared on the cover. Not Spear’s manager. Not Rolling Stone. And not photographer Dave LaChapelle.
The fact is that there is a direct correlation between the dehumanizing of young girls in the music industry and the response by today’s young people. They are tired and disgusted. In 2018, I wrote that “the narrative of rock stardom outweighs the sexual exploitation of a minor. We as a society have chosen musical greatness and a great guitar solo over even the most basic of humanity”. For me and my generation, I wrestle with an internal struggle between art and artistry. But, today’s young people do not.
Jeremy Allen, author of Relax Baby Be Cool: The artistry and audacity of Serge Gainsbourg, has said that Gainsbourg’s music “definitely crossed lines” and is a “guilty pleasure.” Such a comment makes us rethink the idea of what is a guilty pleasure. It is no longer about the embarrassment of the music’s sound. It is not about the personal character of the artist. It seems more challenging to listen to music without finding something that offends our sensibilities and elicits guilt. Music wasn't supposed to be this difficult. And, perhaps it doesn’t need to be. But, sadly for me, it is. Music fascinates us and brings us joy. When I hear Jerry Lee Lewis play the piano, the golden voice of Sam Cooke, or any number of other greats, I still hear the beauty and am still utterly fascinated. But, with every "disgusting old parasite," it is harder and harder to love the art.
After over a year in this pandemic world, the daylight is finally starting to bleed through the darkness. The end is in sight. Some people are eagerly anticipating a dinner out. Some are excited about travelling. But, for me, the excitement is about going to a live show.
This week's episode is about a live record. David Live. David Bowie's live album from 1974. This has got me thinking about the idea of the live show. Given this and the timing of second doses of the COVID 19 vaccine, I have found myself eagerly prowling listings for my favourite venues because I miss live music.
What is it about the live show that elicits such an emotional reaction?
Recently an old picture has been making its way around the internet. It reads:
Growing up in the suburbs of Ontario, finding people who liked the same music as you were rare. Those who did like the music were usually your friends. So, the experience of a concert is an act of unification. I remember in the mid-90s, I went to see Teenage Fanclub open for Weezer in Toronto. I was there for Fanclub, and I pushed my way to within the first ten feet of the stage. As the band launched into "Radio" from their album Thirteen, I looked around at the crowd. I remember watching a girl smiling and singing her heart out. She looked around, and we caught each other singing. We both smiled in the unifying moment of that moment. Now, no matter what show I am at, I always take a few minutes to look around at the fans. The fans at a concert are part of a pseudo-religious ritual. And, it is in that ritual, the audience comes together in a shared moment of unifying connection. It is not a coincidence that I bring up the religious-like experience of a live show. In our last article, I wrote about Walter Benjamin and the power of the aura. In that piece, I reflected on the aura that a vinyl record holds for many listeners. However, for me, I think that aura comes through stronger in a live music experience.
It may feel like every night there is a live show it is a reproduction of the same show, but for the people in the audience, that show is a moment in time. No matter how many times you think you will rewatch that footage on your phone, the truth is that you cannot replicate that moment. The venue, the sound, the sweat, the community, the ambiance of the show connects you to that moment. And, it is this combination of experiences that is the very emotional heart of the music. It is the very essence of the musical experience.
The live show offers you a moment of joy that comes with connecting you and fellow fans and you and the music. But, that magical moment often comes when a band thrusts themselves into the uncontrollable. At this juncture, the artist is left to their own devices. You, as the audience, are unsure of what to expect, and this is the joy of a live show.
One band that always elicits this emotion in me is Toronto's The Golden Dogs. The band's live show always feels on the edge. Dave Azzolini hurls the band into a frenzy from the start. As he does, the band seems to be playing on the edge of the uncontrollable, like a car furiously holding onto the road as it takes a hairpin turn. The Dogs hold on for dear life, and the audience is there in the back seat, worried it could fly off the road and take us with them. Yet, despite the sweat and the exhaustion, each show ends with utter joy. A live performance should in no way attempt to mirror the record but instead prevail at bringing you into a moment. Ninety minutes where you didn't think about bills, or life, your work, or anything else. Ninety minutes in which you exist with these fellow fans, and you live together off of the sounds from the band. You, the music, the venue and the moment are all together to create the aura of the live show. But, in that aura, you are lost. You are at one in the moment.
Over my life, I estimate I have seen close to 1000 acts. Some were terrible. Some were good. Most, whether excellent or awful, tend to fall into the forgetful category. It doesn't mean that in that particular moment, the artist did step up. It means that the live show secures - as Benjamin notes the aura always does - a space in time. And, because of this, the feelings cannot be duplicated. My Teenage Fanclub experience in 1995 cannot be duplicated by the band or me in 2021. The memory of that girl singing along to "Radio" is trapped in the carbonite of my imagination. A moment that can be gloriously recalled, but can never be duplicated.
It is this aura I continue to chase. Those small moments when we are lost in live performance. Those moments when we are glued to the sticky ground of a seedy bar that smells of Labatt 50 and sewage, and we don't want to be anywhere else.
This week, I got my second jab. I also grabbed my first concert tickets in well over a year. I can't wait to stand (sorry for the people forced to stand behind me) and take in the swirling, chaotic lifeblood that is a live performance once again. I will be sure to look around at you, my fellow concertgoers. But, I will do so only for a moment. Then I will turn back to the artist and smile, knowing I am in my happy place.
Photo courtesy of Zap Records, Kingston
In 1984 Canada was in the midst of the biggest recession since the 1930s depression. Dealing with substantial interest rates that loomed anywhere from 14%-18%, people worked just to keep a roof over their heads. Others walked away from their homes, seeing the ability to own a home unachievable during such dire times. My father had been out of work for months. Every bit of money that came in from my mother’s job was stretched thin. Yet, my birthday was approaching. I was turning 11, and as much as I knew that we were financially in trouble, I was 11 and expecting something.
That day my father took me to the local used record store. I loved going to the record store whenever I had a few dollars, but over the last year, visits to the record store had become rare. My father and I entered the store, and he said for my birthday I could choose any two records. He was not much of a music fan, but I remember he didn’t rush me. He looked through records with no intention of buying, and when I finally made my picks, he passed no judgement on either choice. I left the store and crossed the street rifling between sleeves deciding which record would be the first to be played on my cheap fold-up record player.
As a father, I think back on that day and think he probably felt embarrassed that this was the best he could do for his son’s birthday. But, honestly, it was the best birthday present I ever received. My choice of records at 11 year old is not important here (I am somewhat embarrassed to say they were Quiet Riot’s Metal Health and Twisted Sister’s Stay Hungry). What was important that day was that my father seemed to understand how I felt about music. Although it was not of any particular importance, he understood how I felt about it. I haven’t played either record in at least thirty years but they hold a special memory for me, and in the era of streaming services that is the conundrum that we now face about the buying of an album.
German philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote his seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in 1935. In the essay, Benjamin notes that works of art are created and imbued with an artist’s aura. However, he wonders what becomes of that aura in the age of mechanical reproduction? Ultimately, the aura is lost as it is reproduced. The most obvious case in point is the poster one might buy at an art gallery. It - as a facsimile of the original - bares little to no aura. No one will pay money to come to your house and see the poster. But, they will line up to see the original because it is the one and only. As a piece of art, we admonish it with reverence.
There is a romanticizing of art when we talk about the aura. And, for those who buy records, I would argue that the aura plays a significant role. When we interviewed Adam Sturgeon from Status/Non-Status he recalled buying Elevator’s The Such. He was on a field trip to Toronto and enthralled to buy a record at the famed Tower Records (had he been my age, it would have been Sam the Record Man). In our interview, he said “I think it is important because of how I bought it”. The record for him holds an aura, which is based on the story, the place, and a moment in time. The aura for Sturgeon, and for many of us, is created in the moment we discover or own something that shapes us into our being.
For Sturgeon, there was something about holding that record in his hands. Yes, this is nostalgic and no doubt romanticizes a commercial product. Really, what I am talking about here is what Marx and Veblen would call consumer fetishism, where the “fantasy of the appetites tricks the fetish worshipper into believing that an inanimate object will yield its natural character.” But, when we romanticize a purchase or a product, are we not objectifying it with an aura?
I think the emotional connection we make to music and a record is valuable. Valuable to us as music fans, but also valuable to record stores. Surely, the creation of aura plays a factor in the retention of the record store. We are 20 years into the advent of user-friendly streaming, and yet records sales are climbing. Pitchfork reported that vinyl sales in 2020 were up 29.2% from the previous year. But why when streaming is so easy are vinyl record sales growing?
There is no doubt that record store connects to the nostalgia I spoke about in my previous article “The Making of our Musical DNA”. The definition of self, which I argued was established between 17 and 24 is at least in part due to the grumpy record store owner telling you to put back Iron Butterfly’s Greatest Hits and instead thrusting some unknown band in your face. The caricature of the condescending record store owner has lost its reverence. But, to the record purchaser there is something in the buying of those cardboard sleeves and round discs that captures he essence of Benjamin’s aura.
When I chatted with record collector Dave Kuhr he said “there is a certain power in saying ‘I have that on vinyl’.” But, when further pressed, his explanation conjures up words and phrases that highlight Benjamin’s philosophy. He is quick to note the “tactile feeling of the physical object.” The record holds a physical place, a key idea to Benjamin’s idea. Furthermore, he talks of “the ritual of dropping the needle.” What an interesting word to use. It immediately brought me back to spending hours looking at every detail of an album cover. Sliding the record out of the sleeve. The way in which we hold up that vinyl to the sky. Not unlike a priest holding up the sacrament. The entire ritual of the record conjures up religious connotations. And in doing so, we create the aura.
The Wu-Tang Clan’s seventh studio album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is a perfect example of a band that understood the aura of its art. They produced one single copy of the record (on CD), which they sold for $2 Million, the most expensive work of music ever sold. Even the packaging of the album was an art form. The album was encased in a silver jewel-encrusted box sealed with a wax Wu-Tang Clan seal. The lyrics and album notes are leather-bound. For Benjamin, the aura is tied to presence. Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is untarnished by modern mechanical reproduction. And, by creating a piece with no replica they created an art piece akin to a religious artifact.
And this was the whole point of the record. On the band’s website Wu-Tang stated that the album was in response to a “music industry is in crisis” adding that “the intrinsic value of music has been reduced to zero.” For Wu-Tang the era of streaming or digital reproduction was all but destroying the art of music. Since 2015, when Once Upon a Time in Shaolin was auctioned the era of streaming has only grown. But, so too has the rise of the record. Are those who buy records searching for the bygone aura that that streaming doesn’t give them?
For the musician, you certainly get the sense that for some of them their music is a piece of art. It does carry with it an aura. In our interview with Status/Non-Status’s Adam Sturgeon, he said that his record is his “musical landscape” that fits perfectly onto one side of a record. Dave Kuhr similarly used that word “landscape”. This is a lovely idea. The creation of music is like a landscape forged from the earth. There is a sublimity to a landscape. It can take our breath away and inspire awe, just like a good record. Even if it you haven’t listened to it in thirty years.
Petr Janata, a psychologist at University of California–Davis, explains that our favourite music “gets consolidated into the especially emotional memories from our formative years.” He calls this a reminiscence bump. The bump is defined as “a phenomenon that we remember so much of our younger adult lives more vividly than other years, and these memories last well into our adolescence.” He goes on to point out that “when we look back on our past, the memories that dominate this narrative have two things in common: They’re happy, and they cluster around our teens and early 20s.” This, of course, explains why adults cling to the music of their discovery as the epitome of music.
So, it really should come as little surprise that our greatest nostalgia should come during our pubescent and early adulthood. In puberty, we quite literally change in all manner of ways. Not only do we sprout hair, grow uncontrollably, and vocally swerve between Mike Tyson and Harvey Fierstein, but we figuratively start to push ourselves to a greater understanding of who we are and what we think about the world around us. We are on unsure footing, but only through that unsure footing do we begin to see what we are like and what we can become.
Musically, puberty is perhaps the most obvious part of one’s musical direction. Being a bit of music dictator as a young parent, I rarely let the “wheels on the bus” go round and round in my vehicle. Instead, I remember conditioning my daughter into asking for Sarah Harmer, Stars, or The Delgados to be played “again.” However, imagine my dismay when she went to school and returned talking about Justin Beiber! Yet, as a 16-year-old, her own musical discoveries are beginning to come to fruition, and now I find her recommending artists like Inhaler, Wallows, or Woah to me. Her experience made me think of my musical journey. As a zitty-faced pubescent teen, I consumed Def Leppard, AC/DC, and Guns & Roses with abandonment. I liked it because it was kinda edgy, my parents didn’t like it, and it was - in my early estimation - “real.” In retrospect I also liked it because I was beginning to grow as a music listener. It was not the music that has come to define me, but it was the start of that journey.
That journey would continue. And, it is that next stage that Trothen notes is so important. Early adulthood is where our musical DNA is truly forged. Psychologist Jeffery Arnett notes that early adulthood “is a period of the life course that is culturally constructed.” He furthermore adds that “adult commitments and responsibilities are delayed while the role experimentation that began in adolescence continues and in fact intensifies.” Early adulthood is not about the burdens of mortgage payments, bills, and RRSP contributions. It is instead a time when you live in a crappy apartment in the city and proudly go the entire day on coffee and jalapeño poppers. You live for the weekend when you will find a club that plays “your music” and where you dance with "your type of people.” This, for Treephones, and many of us, is the time when we start to establish our musical DNA.
When writing this, I was reminded of a former student of mine named Eva. Throughout her teens, Eva "had a lot of social anxiety and hid this by keeping people at a distance." When she first walked into my grade nine class, she hid at the back of the room. Reticent to the world. In her estimation, "I had trained my body to be small and somewhat dark in appearance to fend off any unwanted attention or interaction." By grade 12, Eva had found some outlet in dance, and she was a far different young lady. However, it was in Early Adulthood when Eva found the music that would help her establish her true musical identity. African djembe drumming. "When I walked into my first djembe workshop in my early twenties I was absolutely terrified." Yet, as she played, "the feeling of creating this sound with my hands was exhilarating. Everything that we played and learned simply felt in tune with my body and I quickly craved more. I walked out of that workshop with a surge of energy and a vibration running through my body of excitement that something just felt right." In reading Eva's recollections, I am struck by the image of a young, unsure girl, who through music, grows.
Soon, this new community would shape her further. She noticed a change in her body language. "I had to sit tall in stature so that my technique was better. I had to be loud and attract attention to myself to get the notes I needed with my hands.” But, more importantly, she notes that to “achieve any rhythm, I had to play alongside and together with others.” For a young lady who identified herself as “socially awkward and distanced” the music was now foremost. “It never mattered to the people around me because I was speaking through my body and these rhythms in turn spoke for me." Daniel Levitan has said that music is about “belonging to a certain social group” and that this “melds the music to our sense of identity.” That community is strikingly evident in Eva’s reflection. The music and the community of music was there to support her and help her grow. But, perhaps, more importantly, is that through this sense of identity, Eva was able to build an enviable confidence and find some kind of existential truth.
But, that is what the music of our formative years does. In the energy of dance we find an identity devoid of hangups and reason. In the songs of early adulthood we learn empathy, heartbreak, and pure joy. For Eva, the music of the djembe is her. As she continued to play, and the energy grew, propelling her to open up “emotionally” and “socially” she found “without realizing it” she experienced “an unfolding.” Looking back, she notes that this “started at that first hit of that drum.” A drum that was hit in her early twenties and still beats in her today. The beat of the djembe is part of her DNA. Whether or not it shapes us into being, or where or not you are shaped by it. Music is you.
One can’t help but imagine the courage it must take for a writer to put those words to paper. Sea Change came after a brutal breakup and was not released until three years later. To relive lines like “It's only tears that I'm crying. It's only you that I'm losing” years after that heartbreak is incomprehensible. To have moved on emotionally and yet night in and night out face lines like “Losing strength in every hand, They can't hold you anymore” is heartbreaking. But, given how we celebrate Sea Change and mark it as a point that Beck “showed what he was capable of” we have legitimized him by his heartbreak. Beck’s heartbreak somehow equates with artistic capability. But, perhaps there is some truth to this claim.
There certainly is a cathartic truth to the breakup album. Like the confessional poets, the singer needs to put their truth to paper. Gianna Valdez noted in an article about confessional poetry that through it, “you are able to connect with your emotions while also discovering the hidden pieces of yourself.” She adds that one learns “how to talk about struggles in a safe place” and ultimately “accept” themselves. This cathartic experience is used by social workers, crisis workers, and psychologists for this exact reason. Anne Sexton, dealing with bipolar disorder, was pushed by her doctor to try writing. Years later, when she was considered one of the greats of the style, she said, “poetry has saved my life.” The cathartic release is good for the artist.
Beck’s Sea Change is not alone. And, when it comes to the breakup album, it is hard to think of a more heartbreaking record than Blur’s 13. Written in the tenuous aftermath of his breakup with Justine Frischmann, 13 is still crushing to listen to all these years later. Songs do not get more confessional than Albarn bemoaning:
“It's over. You don't need to tell me. I hope you're with someone who makes you feel safe in your sleeping tonight. I won't kill myself, trying to stay in your life.” In a retrospective look at 13 for Stereogum, Ryan Leas said that it “proved to be one of the band’s more difficult listens, but also perhaps their most rewarding.” Not only was it rewarding for the fan, it was also rewarding for the artist. In an interview in 1999 with the Irish Times Albarn said: his “way dealing with any kind of history is to concentrate on the future and accept that I'm learning all the time." The artist, just like all of us, must face the hardships to grow. However, the artist can somehow channel that horror into something beautiful.
I think this learning is part of the enjoyment (if we can call it that) for the audience.
Michael Heid recently wrote in “Why do you like Sad Songs and Movies” for the Elemental blog that it might be philosophical. H-e notes Penn State’s Mary Beth Oliver, who said that listeners are “trying to have a greater insight into the bigger questions — the purpose of life, or human virtue.” The audience lives and learns through the insight we receive from any medium, including the confessional breakup album. She adds that “this level of contemplativeness” is “beautiful.” The understanding of the human condition is beautiful. Art is beautiful.
But it is still a little freakish when you think about it. We are invited in to view heartbreak in full-ultrasonic-stereo. It may bring up memories or make us reflect on heartbreak, but I would argue nowhere near as much as the artist. Valdez writes that the audience of confessional poetry “expect the hurt,” adding we “expect the tears you cried to be turned into ink. No one reads it for beauty, but that is what they will find, despite all the pain”. Pain is truth. And, as Keats famously said, “truth is beauty.” The uncompromising beauty that is in their truth is what we want. It is why a hastily-made album by Marvin Gaye - Here, My Dear - is remembered so many years later. The album is so unflinchingly vulnerable that the subject (although target might be a more appropriate word) of the album, Gaye’s ex-wife Anna Gordy considered suing Gaye for invasion of privacy. The breakup record does just that. It breaks down any sense of privacy and puts the snot-drivelling messiness of love on full display.
In 2011, Kathleen Edwards released the raw and beautiful Voyageur. The metaphor of a journey is evident in the title, but I can’t help but wonder if the title connects to the idea of the voyeur invited in to watch. In this case, we are invited in to watch love collapse. Like 13, Sea Change, or Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, Edwards allows the listener into the innermost details. When Edwards sings, “You don't kiss me. Not the way that I wish you would. Maybe I don't look at you, In a way that makes you think you should,” the listener can’t help but feel like some awkward infringing dinner guest trying to find any excuse to leave. But, there is a tenderness that keeps us coming back. It keeps us watching the demise over and over again, like some strange rom-com breakup produced for Black Mirror. Fleetwood Mac, Beck, Bon Iver, Kanye, Edwards, Albarn, Sinatra, Dylan, the list is glorious and long, and we keep listening, rewarding artists for their heartbreak.
It has to come down to the pain. The same reason that people watch horror films. In his essay “Why we Crave Horror Movies,” Stephen King said that viewers “are daring the nightmare.” King says that horror is “unchained, our most base instincts let free... in the dark”. Unchained. Free. Dark. Is heartbreak not the same? Put aside Clichés of ice cream and binging Friends. Real, uncompromising heartbreak is something we rarely let others in on. We may let people see the frayed edges, but not the darkest realities. But, those dark realities are where the artist shines. They give voice to the pain and act as a scapegoat for our emotions. We are nothing but emotional vampires, feasting off of their misery and loving every miserable minute.
In his book The Many Lives of Tom Waits, Patrick Humphries writes that Tom Waits’ voice "sounds like it was hauled through Hades in a dredger". Waits himself likes the comparison of "Louis Armstrong and Ethel Merman meeting in Hell.” Tom Waits, the poet of the American margins, the “prince of melancholy,” is a crafter of lyrics. He is also a recording artist and live performer of legend. Yet, all of this greatness is shadowed by his voice, a voice so iconic that when Doritos and Volkswagon tried to imitate it, he sued them and won. His voice is that of legend, and yet, I think it is safe to say, we will never experience a voice like his in pop culture again.
Wait, but surely there will be someone somewhere who sings like Tom Waits. Yes, the great Canadian singer Ben Caplan comes to mind. However, that is not what I mean. What I mean is as music becomes more commodity-driven and less likely to take risks, is it safe to say that we will never have another voice like Waits in popular music again?
Recently, in a chat with my kids, I said, “you could sing it.” Their reaction was one of shock and followed with “I can’t sing.” Furthering our conversation, it became evident that the bar by which they judge their abilities are what they heard on the radio, an amalgam of pitch-perfected singers who tend to mash into each other. I am reminded of the story of Nina Simone playing piano at the Midtown Bar & Grill in Atlantic City. She was told to sing. She, like many, didn’t think she could. However, she couldn’t afford to say no to money, so she did so. Within weeks, the bar filled to hear her unique voice. However, that was a time when we rewarded uniqueness. Louis Armstrong. Ethel Merman. Hell, even Tiny Tim. Today, it seems like the pop music industry rewards music that sounds similar. Tom Waits could never exist in such a climate.
But, it is not just his voice. The Tom Waits of the 1980s was an Avant Guard artist in many ways. This week’s album Rain Dogs is a testament to this. Waits’ drummer Steven Hodges said that Rain Dogs was “dissonant enough that it was really interesting.” Killian Fox put forth a similar sentiment at the Guardian, who called the arrangements “drunk and disorderly.” Just take a quick peek through the internet to see posts that read “how would you classify Tom Waits’ music?”. Think about the last time you heard arrangements and musicianship like this on a popular record. The truth seems to be that modern record companies, production teams, and management don’t promote music like Waits anymore.
Of course, people will point out that Waits was signed to a relatively small label Island Records. And, there is certainly something to be said for small labels allowing artistic growth. However, there are thousands of smaller labels still in existence, but the corporate model that exists today seems to be one in which even those smaller labels (unless targeting niche markets) are merely imitating the sound that is evident in the charts. This culture does not allow for the originality of a Tom Waits. It does not allow for the dark subject matter that encapsulated Waits. And, most certainly, the culture of today’s music, could never allow a voice like Waits’.
In 2019 Ben Malkin called Tom Waits “music’s greatest chameleon.” Waits has always had a strange and wonderful story to tell, from ‘70 Dylanesque folky to avant-garde voice from the unknown margins to alternative music’s weird uncle. And, his voice has played a central role in that story. Over his long career, Waits has gained fans at every turn. Fans pack venues to see his rare performances. Critics, fans, and fans of music, in general, celebrate his voice as the poet of the abyss. Sadly, voices like Waits are - like the characters he so often sings about - stashed away in the dark corners of the music industry.
The idea of functionalism is one that we frequently apply to architecture but rarely do we talk about in music. Functionalism theorizes that the essence of something is in the biological and social needs of the individual. In short, the essence of anything is in its function. When I think of functionalism in music, I can’t help but think about Technotronic. Remember them? Technotronic’s “Pump up the Jam” has one function. Whether it was in a bad dance club in the early 1990s or at any sporting event you have ever attended, the song’s function is to get your heartbeat up, get you up, and ultimately “get your body pumpin’”. Technotronic has no other function.
This week’s episode prompted me to think further about the role of functionalism in music, but in punk music and ultimately Hüsker Dü. And, I can say without reservation, is the only piece ever written that connects Hüsker Dü and Technotronic.
The easiest place to start this conversation might be in mid-1960s Britain. Young British baby boomers found themselves in an economy that was finally growing after years of post-war stabilization. These young people found themselves in a new burgeoning economy that called on them to work 9-5, Monday to Friday. When Fridays came around, these young Brits called on by Friday night’s episode of Ready, Steady, Go would begin their weekend. They needed an outlet, and for the first time, many had something that working-class Brits had never had: some disposable income. Clubs were packed with the sounds of American R&B and newer British acts from London, Tottenham, and of course, Liverpool. The function of this music was simple: get people to dance. However, over the next few years, that function changed.
The musicians pushed themselves. The Beatles grew from “She Loves You” to “Tomorrow Never Knows”. Pink Floyd went from playing basic R&B to releasing Piper at the Gates of Dawn. The Zombies went from “She’s Not There” to Odessey and Oracle. The function of music changed, and with the movement, music changed from a function of entertainment to an art form.
Let’s skip ahead ten years. These art forms have been commercialized, and from that, commercialization has come arena rock. Young bitter Brits, mirroring to a certain extent, America’s young angry punk movement are looking for a basic and functional form of music. They are looking for music that was real. They were looking for music that moved them both literally and figuratively. The music they sought was punk.
We must remember that punk was happening on both sides of the pond, and at this very point in America, bands were also taking the sounds of the MC5, The Stooges, and New York Dolls and giving it their take. The truth is that to a teen with a cheap guitar, Genesis is unattainable, but The Ramones and the Sex Pistols are not. Besides, the frustrated young people coming to see late-seventies punk had no interest in Genesis, Led Zeppelin, or any other band that played in front of a gong. What they wanted was three chords and authenticity. And, this is where Hüsker Dü finds themselves.
Coming out of St. Paul, Minnesota, Hüsker Dü begins with a love of The Ramones and kick-out functional music for frustrated mid-west teens. It is worth noting that in the same year, their twin-city of Minneapolis spawns The Replacements. Black Flag and The Minutemen are just getting started in California. The Meat Puppets in Pheonix. No Means No and D.O.A. are tearing it up in Vancouver. The late first stage of American punk is frighteningly intense in 1979. Yet, as much as everyone knows The Ramones, significantly less know Hüsker Dü.
These musicians - much like their R&B contemporaries in the early ‘60s - were growing as musicians. And that growth reaches its zenith in 1984 with;
Bob Mould once said that Zen Arcade was not punk rock because "it was against punk rock”. This manifest carries a healthy dose of disdain for a genre he loved so much, but the truth is that it is not a punk record. The functionalist punk sound that was on Land Speed Record or Everything falls Apart was gone. The backmasking on "Toothfairy & The Princess" would sound more at home on a Hendrix record. Mould’s guitar on "Never Talking to You" sounds eerily like Johnny Marr. And, of course, we are talking here about a rock opera. The very idea of such a thing implies high art. But, that is just the point.
As intense and loud as Hüsker Dü was, their sound (like many of their contemporaries) outgrew the functionality of punk. And that outgrowth is on full display in Zen Arcade. It was no longer about making people slam dance. It was about making people think. 1984 is the year where punk became a thinking person’s music. In Zen Arcade Punk became “high art”.