The face of pop-music has changed over the last few years, as the influence of '60s radicalism has waned. First, there was the swing revival of the mid-'90s. Then came a wave of Latin artists, apolitical and dance-oriented, such as the Buena Vista Social Club, a group of elderly musicians who got their start in Cuba in the 1940s. This was followed by "teen pop," over-produced music performed by teenagers, emphasizing melody and dance over the angry lyric and the raised fist.
All of this is good news for everyone, more or less. Everyone, that is, except the professional rock critic. As protest rock has given way to happier sounds, the tastemakers in the prestige media have struggled desperately to reconjure a little of that old black magic. In the process, they have defended the indefensible, denied the obvious, and made some wild rhetorical exaggerations. Rock-and-roll-as-protest has become nothing more than a psychological phenomenon, almost a self-parody, that has very little to do with music.
Exhibit A is an article titled "No Last Hurrah Yet for Political Rock," which appeared last December on the front page of the New York Times Arts & Leisure section. "Understanding the current place of protest in music…requires turning away from that old vision of a throng singing choruses written by iconic troubadours, not to mention its 1980s counterpart, the Live Aid-style celebrity marathon," writes Ann Powers. "Today's protest music more closely echoes the street politics rock has always inspired: the focus is scattered, the voices dissonant and the levels of involvement widely mixed. This noisy arena finds strength in its very diversity."
That's the nice way of saying no one is performing or buying protest rock anymore, except for a few misanthropes and kooks. But the '60s orthodoxy about popular music won't go quietly. It demands that music involve some kind of rebellion, and any music that is not about rebellion is not worth listening to. In the wake of our cultural meltdown, this has led to some delicious ironies. The foul-mouthed rapper Eminem was nominated for four Grammy awards this year, causing a tempest among homosexual-rights groups who find his lyrics offensive. But for the rock media, the only taboo is the declaration that something is taboo. These critics were then in the uncomfortable spot of defending Eminem while trying to remain politically correct. For its sins, MTV, which promoted Eminem relentlessly, aired an entire day of awareness programming, sans commercials, including a made-for-TV movie about Matthew Shepard, the gay man who was murdered in Wyoming.
Thus MTV gets to feel both hip and virtuous. Among the media elite and the culturati, the easiest path to virtue is as a member of a fringe group fighting against large, impersonal forces. What could be more romantic than the rock musician as barrier-smasher?
For the avant-garde, in fact, music isn't about music at all anymore. This is obvious when one turns to Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America (De Capo Press, 288 pages, $14), Powers' memoir-cum-manifesto. I must admit to feeling a twinge of discomfort in reading Weird Like Us because I was once weird like Powers. I was a "radical," and a lot of my life was almost identical to hers. Powers and I are roughly the same age, mid-30s. Like her, I grew up in a nice middle class home and as a youth rebelled against my parents. I too loved punk rock, the scabrous youth music that can clear a room in seconds. I spent time in punk mecca Seattle, where Powers lived and had her first acid trip on July 4, 1980, in a scene that opens the book. Like her, I worked in a record store. My politics, like hers, were on the left, and were formed, like much of my generation's, from disappointment at missing the battles of the 1960s. So we wanted to create monsters to set ourselves bravely against.
Like Powers, I was also self-aggrandizing. My friends and I were snobs whose only religious heroes were the saints of the left: Beat poets of the '50s, street fighters of the '60s, and punk rockers of the'70s, sticking it to The Man by getting funny haircuts, staying out late drinking, and annoying neighbors with loud music. It was lifestyle politics masquerading as something more, because there were so few taboos left to break. The attitudes and politics of prior rebel movements had conquered American culture. Premarital sex was rampant, as was divorce. At the Washington, D.C., record store I worked in, I was the odd man out because I'm not gay. You could wear whatever you wanted in public, publish anything, say anything. But admitting this would have left me and other "rebels" in the 1980s with no enemies to take on, and taking on America was what it was all about.
Like most other rock rebels, Powers doesn't seem to grasp the fact that she's a snob. She formed a clique every bit as insular as the jocks, cheerleaders, and religious people she claims have no use for her. Moreover, she's stuck in the ditch that hipsters and radicals dug for themselves through the better part of the 20th century. Their notion of "virtue" requires them to become marginalized, which requires them to buy into some very orthodox ideas about the meaning of marginalization. Among these is the idea that mainstream culture is terrible because it doesn't accept rebel rockers—except when it does, which them means that the rebel rocker is really a sellout.
It's all very predictable, and no one is going to hold his breath waiting for Powers to rebel by condemning promiscuity or abortion. Instead, there is plenty of vapid, self-important grandiosity that is all too common among rebels who have won so many battles they have nothing to fight against, but still feel physiologically compelled to do so. Here is Powers describing the cultural atmosphere when she was living in a group house in San Francisco:
It was mid-1980s, Reagan's American morning. We felt like we were living in an alien nation, where robotic yuppies ate twelve-dollar plates of mashed potatoes at ersatz-retro diners and neck-scrubbing Christians fought artists in the streets. The air buzzed with words, speeding toward us like bullets: virtue, morality, values. According to everyone around us, we could lay no claim to these terms; we were expected to follow in the deep footsteps of the countercultural baby boomers or to stay in our corners, despairing at the failure of their revolution. We felt like we had to start at the beginning. And so, like children, we shut the door behind us, pulled out our game board, and played the Game of Life.
Confronted with neck-scrubbing Christians, robots, and $12 plates of mashed potatoes, it's hard to blame Powers and her fellow bohemian-Americans for rejecting Reagan and retreating to their rooms to reinvent the world—oh yeah, and to take a job with the New York Times and get a fat advance to write a book for a major publisher. When the New York Times called and offered her a job in 1992, Powers says she first rejected it, thinking it a capitulation to the mainstream she'd been fighting against her whole life. And what a fight it's been, advancing up the sure path to that fringe rebel outfit, the New York Times.