Friday, March 22, 2013

No. 440 – Against the 70’s

Performer: Mike Watt
Songwriter: Mike Watt
Original Release: Ball-hog or Tugboat?
Year: 1995
Definitive Version: none

Like I said, for a while, if an album had any relationship to Pearl Jam, I bought it. Eddie Vedder, of course, sings lead on this song, and there’s a great story behind it. I remember it from when the album came out. Mike Watt tells it again in the Pearl Jam book, so it must have some basis in fact.

The story is the day Eddie recorded this song, he did some dumpster diving and found a wetsuit, and he decided to put it on. Unfortunately, after he did, he found that it was infested with maggots. I hear this song and think of Eddie swatting away bugs as they begin to start crawling out of everywhere. If you’re not familiar with it, the vocals definitely get more frantic as the song goes along.

Reading the Pearl Jam book is particularly interesting in the aftermath of finishing an alternate history of rock ‘n’ roll online. If you aren’t aware of it, you definitely should check out the The Winners' History of Rock and Roll on, all seven parts. It’s a brilliant deconstruction of, essentially, why rock ‘n’ roll no longer is the primary form of pop music.

The author’s thesis, in so many words, is that the rock bands that have been successful did things in a way that would make them more popular (and to a lesser extent through hook and crook, too) and expand their fanbase. Nowadays, you see rock bands that find an audience refuse to do anything to widen that audience, because to do so would be “selling out” to their fanbase. They have in effect traded popularity for integrity.

To me, that began with Pearl Jam. Pearl Jam at one time, of course, was the biggest band in the world and could have been one of the biggest bands of all time. They could have been Bruce Springsteen or U2, but they made a conscious decision to blow off superstardom and pull back, a bit with their music but definitely in their decision to not release singles, to not do interviews, to battle Ticketbastard and not play easily accessible venues for awhile. They chose integrity (and perhaps sanity) over popularity. Lots of other bands have followed their lead, but there’s a big difference.

Note, I’m not saying that none of this isn’t admirable, but let’s face it: When Pearl Jam decided that they didn’t want to be U2, let alone The Rolling Stones, they already had Ten, Vs. and Vitalogy in the books. In other words, it’s a lot easier to tell everyone that you’re going to do things your way only—and you either can come along or not—when you’re 20 million records in the black. Today’s bands that similarly want success on their own terms are finding it a lot tougher to do when they haven’t sold 20,000 albums let alone 20 million.

I’m not saying every band should “sell out” and chase the almighty buck. Money doesn’t equate with happiness. I, for example, was never happier than when I literally made nothing back in 2004. But the collective decision to do this by, well, pretty much every rock band has had ramifications: The public in general wasn’t—and isn’t—interested in the abrasive, nonmelodic hipster rock that they’re playing.

Instead they want music with a melody, that they can dance to, that isn’t all that challenging. They want to be entertained, and they’ve moved on to acts that do this and cater to pop tastes: hip hop, country, auto-tune dance crap and Adele. It’s no accident that Green Day got big when they dialed down the punk just a notch with American Idiot.

That’s why rock radio that doesn’t just play oldies, er., sorry, “classic rock,” barely exists any more. There’s no money in it for the radio stations and the suits that took control after the Telecommunications Act of 1996 led to the corporate takeover of mass media. The numbers aren’t there for stations to justify playing the latest album by Arcade Fire, so instead they’ll play Layla for the 10-millionth time.

So what does that have to do with this song? Quite a bit, actually. This song, of course, is a warning for kids to not buy in to manufactured nostalgia and, more specifically, the rock experience of the Seventies—classic rock. Now, thanks in some small part to the guy singing this here song, that’s about all they have when it comes to mass media music.

OK, so maybe I’m an old fuddy-duddy. I mean, I found My Morning Jacket, Grizzly Bear and Porcupine Tree in the past half-decade with nothing more than a recommendation here or a well-timed flick of the TV remote there. It can be done, but it’s work. I think I can speak for a majority of folks out there: With all the entertainment options available, people generally don’t want to have to work hard to be entertained. I know I don’t, and obviously I’m not alone on this.

So is rock dead? Of course not. Jazz hasn’t been the pop music of our culture for at least 50 years, and it’s anything but dead, but rock these days does seem a bit like a discarded wetsuit. It’s just sitting in a dumpster waiting for the right person to come along and try it on. Like the man said, don’t mind the maggots.

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