Friday, November 18, 2005

Will You Pull Your Pants Down?

The subtext of all rock songs is (the question), “Will you pull your pants down?”
- Bruce Springsteen

So said The Boss during a recent interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. He added that after marriage, that question becomes “Will you pull your pants down so I can just have a look?”

Ba dum bum.

Well, I found this mightily amusing, especially coming from such an august personage as Jersey’s John Steinbeck. And no doubt he’s right to some extent.

But I always get a little nervous when someone seems to imply that rock music, by its very nature, has certain limitations that keep it from being taken seriously. And conversely, I’m bothered by fans who take it so seriously that they refuse to allow themselves to have any fun.

I remember once going to a show by an elder art-rock statesman with a group of folks, and when it was over they tore into him for what they perceived to be a willingness on his part to “entertain” the audience. He’d been too much of a “showman.” Heaven forfend!

On the other hand, I’ve grown so accustomed to critics who are now willing to let both high and low culture play on the same field that I’m shocked when I read statements like the one Andrew Sullivan posted the other day:

“I loathe most rock criticism, as I loathe most of rock and roll, because of its absurd pretension to seriousness.”

Which is, I suppose, to say that it has no business believing it has the power to move and transform an audience as, say, the latest from Philip Glass or Sonny Rollins.

He then goes on to quote admiringly from a recent Time review of the new Madonna CD:

“Before you press on with the album, you will need to ask yourself, Am I a serious person who listens to music for intellectual enlightenment and makes it a point of pride not to dance under any circumstances? Or am I merely a semi-serious person who makes it a point not to be seen dancing under any circumstances? If you're the former, Confessions on a Dance Floor is not for you. If you're the latter, close the blinds.”

Can you spell “condescension”?

Now I don’t think Mr. Springsteen was saying anything like this. I think he was merely referring to the popular notion that rock and roll, the very name a euphemism for sex, represents youth, freedom, and romance (in all senses of the word). And it’s obvious from his own records that he sees the music as a very generous continuum that can include everything from Hasil Adkins to Bobby Freeman to The Who to Suicide.

In other words, I think he said it lovingly.

Personally, I think products of popular culture get a lot more respect than they used to. I see reviews of graphic novels in periodicals and record reviews that accept pop music on its own terms. But there’s still a notion out there that there are certain boundaries that things like rock and roll or comic books should never be allowed to cross.

For all of the great reviews that Charles Burns’ Black Hole seemed to get in the mainstream press, I ran into one that damned it with faint praise because, well, they’re really just “funny books” in the end and they shouldn’t try and aspire to something that’s obviously out of their reach.

Sorry, but I’ll trade you a boxful of “exciting” new novels for an issue of Ex Machina any day.

You have to wonder what makes some critics so defensive about popular art. Do they have so much invested in the gates and passwords by which they measure their own superiority that they feel threatened when someone finds a way to sneak in through the back?

Whenever my mind runs along these lines, I have a flashback of the time a friend and I went to see improv guitarist Derek Bailey. He walked up and down the center aisle of this cramped performance space as he played and paused so you could take a leaflet from the bag that was hanging off the neck of his guitar. They advertised his available recordings.

When it was over, my friend started talking to another acquaintance. Waving me over, he asked what I wanted to do now. I mentioned that I wanted to stop at a nearby videogame arcade.

“Oh,” said the acquaintance, “he wants to play videooooo gaaaaames,” drawing the words out with disgust.

I had the feeling that he never got his pants pulled down much.


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