Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Show Me Danger!

“Art is dangerous.”
“Art should be dangerous.”

These are actually not very controversial statements in the United States. They don’t even contradict each other here. One statement could be read as a fear of subversion, the other encourages it, but somehow as a culture we have allowed them to coexist. Where is that danger now? Does it even still exist?

Anyone with a passing interest in Rock music knows that in the beginning of Rock in the early 50’s, the music was not always well-received. It didn’t help matters that Rock evolved out of R&B, which was dominated by black musicians, and it wouldn’t be until a white artist, Elvis Presley, appeared that mainstream America started listening. But even then, fast beats, overtly sexual stage presence and lyrics, an association with black Americans, and a general rebellious attitude made it seem so dangerous that on June 3rd, 1956, the city government of Santa Cruz banned Rock and Roll.

It was a dance party the previous evening that led to this reaction on the part of Santa Cruz authorities. Some 200 teenagers had packed the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium on a Saturday night to dance to the music of Chuck Higgins and his Orchestra, a Los Angeles group with a regional hit record called "Pachuko Hop." Santa Cruz police entered the auditorium just past midnight to check on the event, and what they found, according to Lieutenant Richard Overton, was a crowd "engaged in suggestive, stimulating and tantalizing motions induced by the provocative rhythms of an all-negro band." [1]

This fear of rock would go so far that J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI would maintain a file on the Beatles, including surveillance![2]

When they said you was high classed,
well, that was just a lie.
            Elvis Presley, “Hound Dog” (1956).

Maybellene, why can't you be true?
Oh maybellene, why can't you be true?
You've started back doing the things you used to do
          Chuck Berry, “Maybellene” (1955).

The danger of Rock and Roll persisted through the Sixties, which saw the birth of the Beatles. But they didn’t start out being dangerous. The Beatles early stage presence and lyrics weren’t particularly suggestive.

I've got everything that you want
Like a heart that's oh so true
Just call on me and I'll send it along
With love from me to you.[3]
          The Beatles, “From Me to You”, Released as a single (1963).

And now we come to the Rolling Stones.

Initially a blues band formed in 1962, the Rolling Stones were causing mayhem by the mid-sixties. They would soon be presented as Anti-Beatles: unfriendly, dressed in casual clothes, frankly sexual lyrics:

I was makin’ love last night
To a dancer friend of mine
I can't seem to stay in step,
'Cause she come ev'ry time that she pirouettes over me.[4]
The Rolling Stones , “Rocks Off”, Exile on Main Street (1972).

They were banned from the Ed Sullivan Show (it was a short-lived ban) when they appeared on stage in Nazi uniforms in protest of being told to change the lyrics of a chorus.[5][6] They hired the Hell’s Angels biker gang to watch their equipment at the Altamont Free Concert on December 6, 1969, one of the most infamous concerts in history where several people died, including Meredith Hunter, murdered by Hells Angel Alan Passaro[7]. With song titles like “Sympathy for the Devil,” and an album titled “Their Satanic Majesties’ Request”, the Rolling Stones were the definition of dangerous art for over a decade.

It’s not the bad behavior or well-earned bad-boy image that matters here; rather it’s the artwork that came out of this rebelliousness. The example I gave earlier from “Rocks Off” on the record “Exile on Main Street” is one example. Another excellent example is “Mother’s Little Helper”:

Men just aren't the same today
I hear ev'ry mother say
They just don't appreciate that you get tired
They're so hard to satisfy, You can tranquilize your mind
So go running for the shelter of a mother's little helper
And four help you through the night, help to minimize your plight
                 The Rolling Stones, “Mother’s Little Helper,” Aftermath (1966).
This song is interesting. Mid- to late-Sixties drug music isn’t anything new, and wasn’t really even at the time, but this example is striking to me because it refers a new sort of lifestyle by way of a common prescription anti-anxiety medication. I’m not convinced this is an insight many other bands, the ones who had any at all regard for established “rules”, would have been capable of making. The distance the Stones created for themselves from established society gave them a view from the outside looking in.
Examples of The Rolling Stones entering then-unexplored musical and lyrical territory are on probably every record they released during the Sixties and early Seventies. They were part of an entire movement that up-ended the ideas of what music could be, and for all their controversy found both incredible artistic and financial success. The financial success of the Stones itself reflects changing mores during the time, or least reveals the latent desires for that change.[8]

Skip ahead to Norway, around 1987, give or take a year. Metal fans and artists in the area had long been diverging from the British Black Sabbath- and Iron Maiden-styles of hard rock, becoming more and more extreme in their sound, more innovative and more unique. Norway in this time saw the birth of Black Metal, which would associate itself with Satanism, violence, fantasy, threatening postures and makeup, “butterfly” axes[9], parodies, jail sentences and arson, and non-stop blast beats, fast guitars and screeching “reptilian” vocals.

An especially influential (and infamous) group of this time was Mayhem. Mayhem embodied the spirit and style of Black Metal: Satanist, intense walls of sound, and frightening vocals.

The fog is here again
that'll complete this funeral.
From a place empty of life.
Only dead trees are growing here
as it comes from a far
Only dead trees are growing here.
Mayhem “Funeral Fog”, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas (1993).

Turn it up. The intensity never stops. The music is relentless. It also is stripped down to the core of what metal could be: fast guitars but no riffs or solos, fast drum beats, no breaks in the music. Very low production values, sometimes almost to the point of being unlistenable, were the norm. Money didn’t matter here, and the music achieves a purity of art and artistry not otherwise possible in an age of big-label record contracts, supported by companies who wanted a return on their investments.

It’s hard to imagine a more deranged, badly behaved group than Mayhem. The singer, Dead[11], committed suicide and was found by the guitarist, Euronymous[12]. Necklaces were made from the singer’s skull fragments, and allegedly (but not confirmed) Dead was partially eaten by Euronymous. Euronymous would later be murdered by the bassist, Count Vrishnack[13]. Euronymous himself participated in the burnings of several of Norway’s historic churches.

They made the Stones look like angels in comparison. But again, it isn’t the bad behavior; it’s the freedom from rules and the willingness to embrace something altogether different from what society wanted from them that allowed an entire genre of music to be born.

There are other great examples that could be, and deserve to be, explored: Punk in the 1970’s, Gangsta Rap in the early 1990’s, and Nirvana are a few. But I want to consider where we are now, and what genres of music have arisen in response to the mainstreaming of all dangerous music. Wolf had this to say to me:

"The idea of ‘marketable rebellion’ strikes me as very important to
understanding this transition. "

I agree. The Music Industry in the 21st century – just consider that term for a moment ­– is a multi-billion dollar industry driven by multi-million record selling marquis acts, the members of whom earn many millions of dollars, including the Stones. This money doesn’t come from challenging people, rather it comes from making them feel safe to purchase it.

The current landscape in popular music styles feels like a scam to convince someone of something; it varies depending on the genre. In metal, it’s to make the listener feel ultra-masculine:

I'm tougher than nails.
I can promise you that.
Step out of line
And you get bitch-slapped back.[14]
          Godsmack, “You were Cryin Like a Bitch”, from Oracle (2010) .

In Rap/R&B (everywhere, really), it’s not uncommon to complain about woman problems:

My psychic told me she have an ass like Serena
Trina, Jennifer Lopez, four kids
An I gotta take all they bad ass to show-biz
OK get your kids but then they got their friends
I pulled up in the Benz, they all got up in
We all went to Den and then I had to pay
If you fucking with this girl then you better be payed.[15]
               Kanye West, “Gold Digger”, Late Registration (2005).

In Pop/Top 40, a major theme is seeking nothing but sex, and getting it every time:

Lately People Got Me All Tied Up
There’s A Countdown Waiting For Me To Erupt
Time To Blow Out
I’ve Been Told Who I Should Do It With
To Keep Both My Hands Above The Bl-an-ket
When The Lights Out

Shame On Me
To Need Release (*giggles*)
              Britney Spears, “I Wanna Go”, Femme Fatale (2011).

And of course, love songs will never go out of fashion:

Hey, I just met you,
And this is crazy,
But here's my number,
So call me, maybe?[17]
                  Carly Rae Jepsen, “Call Me Maybe”, Curiosity (2012).

I really enjoy the songs I just presented, and all of them are a lot of fun. I mention them because despite what might seem like controversy-generating subjects and lyrics in some of them, they aren’t challenging. Of course, Fans’ comfort levels have changed, in part thanks to the more dangerous artists who preceded them. The bigger problem is that while the ideas and songs have become utterly safe, more important is that the artists are posing no challenge to the listeners, which means the artists are posing no new challenges to established orders. And it’s been this way the whole decade.

Popular music has stagnated. The music has become like fast food: reasonably satisfying, but only because it’s giving you sugar, fat and salt. Music is infinitely expressive, and there could be much music that challenges to see things and life in new ways, and even change our entire culture, but I don’t see it right now.

[5] Ed Sullivan demanded they change “Let’s Spend the Night Together” to “Let’s Spend Some Time Together.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ed_Sullivan#Personality
[6] The song itself is here. I couldn’t find a link to the actual show that night.
[8] Take it to its comical extreme, and ask yourself: when was the last time anyone read about the Rolling Stones doing anything dangerous? They are now so safe that Mick Jagger was made Knight Bachelor by Charles, Prince of Wales.