“His prophecies were you”
One minute and twenty four seconds of Tyrannosaurus Rex. That’s almost not even a full song. No, but trust me, it is an experience. I think that perhaps with the early Tyrannosaurus Rex albums, the songs don’t work so well out of context. The famous T.Rex albums that followed were a parade of hit singles, but this was a very different animal. The early albums need to be taken in as a whole. The songs flow together, and not one of them is anywhere near being a hit single. They may strike you as strange, especially alone like this, but they grow on you. You can’t help being charmed by Marc Bolan’s world, with its light mysticism and fantasy.
Sometime in the mid-1980’s, Kurt Cobain read a news story about a teenage girl who was kidnapped hitchhiking home from a concert; a pretty typical modern-day horror story, unusual only in that the victim managed to escape and went on to talk about her ordeal. Cobain was disturbed by the incident, which occurred in the Seattle area, and like any poet, dealt by writing a song about it. Obviously, some creative liberties were taken, but that is what makes it an interesting piece of work. The writer sees the relationship between perpetrator and victim as one of sick symbiosis. The condition of a man who would resort to the lowest depravity may just be a very extreme form of loneliness and alienation; he’s isolated and bored, so desperately out of touch with his own or anyone else’s humanity that only meaningful connection he can make is through violence. What about the victim, on the other hand? Here the artist takes a bold liberty, a controversial one. Is it possible that in her 14 years, being tied up and tortured by a filthy old man is the most attention she’s ever gotten? If someone is lonely, alienated, bored and ignored, then being a kidnap victim is the most interesting and important thing that’s ever happened to them. In a perverse way, they form a bond; they’re both experiencing the most intense experience they’ve ever experienced. That doesn’t make it not wrong, and it doesn’t make it worthwhile, but it does make it psychologically complex in a way that we don’t like to talk about.
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.
Would you look at those nerds. Their harmonies are angelic; their haircuts, terrible. In fact, looking at them now, I wonder if they weren’t the inspiration for Beavis & Butthead. Well, Simon & Garfunkel may have looked like bozos, but there’s no arguing with those harmonies, those melodies or that writing. Those two were both the kind of guy who seduces you by being the smartest person in the room, and wins you over completely by being the most sensitive too. How does this song, for example, not sink under its own verbosity? It has the confidence of its own cleverness, of course, but it also has heart. Paul Simon may be flexing his English Lit muscle with what may be the most pretentious closing couplet of all time, but he’s also turning a sympathetic eye on the unseen figure of the lowly subway vandal. Guys who spray paint subway cars have inner lives too! Maybe the hooligan has poetry inside him, poetry that only takes the form of gutter slang. Maybe that dick carved onto the hard plastic of the seat really meant the world to the person to took the time to chisel it there.
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.
Here is a surreal spectacle; it’s not all the time that you see a string quartet play by strobe lights. But this is Bjork, and in her world there’s no reason for strings and pulsing drums not to come together. In Bjork’s world the avant-garde plays with the punk rock. Why should those worlds be at odds? Nobody pulls together disparate cultural highs, lows, and obscurities like Bjork does. She’s created an insane number of iconic images and sounds, and even though she’s one of the definitive artists of the decade, she’s somehow managed to escape being a figure of 90’s nostalgia. Maybe because her work may have made waves in its time, but its not a product of its time. What Bjork does is a product of Bjork’s brain, and she can and will be just as singular in any given decade.