There’s a well known phenomenon in pop culture of glamorizing outlaws and criminals, idolizing people who, in reality, really ought to be locked up and never seen again. This is not that phenomenon. What the Clash are describing is the opposite of that. It’s the condition of living in a society where just the act of surviving puts you at odds with the law, making decent people live in fear while the unscrupulous prosper and thrive. Economic disparity and social inequality in the UK drove the punk movement in the late 70’s, and it resonated particularly strongly in totalitarian Eastern Europe, where just being alive meant police at your back. If that sense of rage and fear seemed to dissipate during an era of relative peace and prosperity, it’s seething right back into place in the unstable times of today. Too bad Joe Strummer didn’t live to see himself become the most relevant voice in rock music again, or thank god he didn’t.
This is what you get when you dig a little bit deeper into Bruce Springsteen. It seems that Springsteen only reluctantly writes the obligatory big loud hits, just to have something on the radio while he works on a very different kind of song. It’s the quiet desperation of the American working class that really interests him. That makes for a contradictory legacy, obviously. I’m curious to pick up a copy of Springsteen’s memoir; how does the superstar see his own path? What’s the trick to consistently selling yourself as a believable dude next door when you’re so far removed from your beginnings? It’s probably not that big of a stretch; all it takes is some observational skills and a sense of empathy to see that the world is full of people whose lives didn’t take the turn they wanted. For Bruce Springsteen, the contrast between his own success and the relative failure of the people he grew up with is a source of pain. He is not one of those stars who immediately uses the position of their stardom to isolate themselves from reality. Not being a drug user might have something to do with it, as well as a family history of mental illness, but he’s more clear eyed about the American condition than most of his peers, and he very emphatically isn’t enamored with the glamour he’s exposed to as a celebrity. It does seem that the reason Springsteen has been able to pull off his common man persona is that he genuinely doesn’t see himself as being all that far removed from his beginnings after all.
We are all the operator now. We’ve beamed ourselves into the future with our pocket calculators and home computers. Yet we haven’t become a world of automatons who wear identical uniforms and dance poorly. Kraftwerk certainly set a template for how popular music would be created in the future, and how it would sound, but their ‘we are all robots now’ schtick is generic sci-fi. That is, the idea that advancing technology would throw man’s soul into an endless feedback loop of alienation has been the scary story we tell ourselves ever since technology began to advance rapidly. So, at least since the Renaissance. More interesting is the idea, always contested and always proved true, that advancing technology actually leads the way to new highs for literature, music and art. New technology doesn’t make us more alienated; it gives us new options to express our ever-existing feelings of angst. If pre-industrial peoples seem to have been less alienated, it’s only because fewer of them were literate enough to write about it.
Do you sometimes find yourself wishing your life was more like a Tom Waits song? I do. My life needs more sad romance and trains. I would hop on a train when my romances got too sad and start over a few towns down the line.Tom Waits exists as the antidote to the vanguard of successful sexy people who mock your failures and exploit your inadequacies. In Tom Waits’ world, you’re not just a trashy drunk old woman down at the bar; you’re a sad luck dame, and you have a story to tell. In Tom Waits’ world, ugly old used up things have more value. Because ugly things have better stories than clean new shiny ones. Yeah, all that’s missing from my life is a Victrola, a kerosene lamp, and a mattress stuffed with horsehair.
Morrissey himself can’t play this song with a straight face anymore, but if the singer has outgrown his own youthful angst, the sentiment lives on none the less. And frankly, the sensation that the one thing that you really, really, really want is always and forever out of reach may not ever entirely go away. Sure, the world is full of people who know of no reality beyond their own entitlement; they must have happy lives, the same way that some of the less-sentient animals must have happy lives. For the rest of us, there’s the nagging and pervasive sensation that personal satisfaction lies behind a door marked No Admittance. And while lack of access to material indulgences is fairly easy to salve away through zen mindfulness or some other philosophical contortion, the disinterest and rejection we face in the interpersonal realm is wounding. Again and again we bump up against the saddening reality that our feelings count for nothing, and no matter how passionately we may feel, the feelings of others remain untouchable, incomprehensible, completely and utterly beyond influence. So we mope. We mope and we cry and we shake a wan fist at the world. Then we mope some more.
These guys were real heartthrobs in their day, weren’t they? This is Duran Duran’s debut single and my, don’t they look yummacious? 1981 was just the mere beginning of the New Romantic movement (which is referenced in the lyrics) and Duran Duran was right on the razor’s edge. Looking pretty was always one of their main selling points, even to this day, but if they’ve managed to age surprisingly well, it’s because their songs still hold up without the frippery. This song is pretty dumb, as are most of their songs, but it’s got the magic of good pop, and it’s not the disposable kind. There are so many 80’s pop songs and acts whose appeal is mainly to allow us to gawk at how strangely different and goddamn long ago the 80’s were. Duran Duran has been one of the most enduring 80’s pop groups because you may gawk at their fashion choices, but their music is actually largely untainted by the worst trends of the time.
David Byrne’s 1986 film True Stories is an exercise in speculative social anthropology. In it Byrne, the quintessential New York art school egghead, ventures into Texas to goggle dryly at how small town folks be living. Not much happens besides some comical vignettes of what Byrne gleaned about midwestern life from reading its newspapers. Whether you find it amusing or condescending depends on whether or not you’re already inclined to view people in the flyover zone as exotic and undercivilized. Obviously, Byrne is not much of film director, nor much of an actor, but he did provide enough music for the film to fill a Talking Heads album. And if he did one thing right, it was casting the eternally scene stealing but not yet well known John Goodman. In the movie’s only cogent storyline, Goodman is a bachelor looking for love (SPOILER: he finds it) and, predictably, steals the film. His performance of People Like Us is the showstopper, and though it may be intended as a pastiche of good ‘ol boy country pride, it’s still moving.