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.
I remember the exact moment I first heard Lady Gaga on the radio. Cruising through south Austin in a Subaru station wagon with a person I would now murder if I thought I could get away with it. A far from idyllic memory; the early months of 2009 were among the worst of my life. When most of your time is spent trying to become unconscious, little happy moments make a big impression, and hearing a good song on the radio stays with you. I’ve successfully repressed the rest of that day, but that moment with the radio dial will stay with me forever. Hearing the robotic chorus of Poker Face for the first time, my exact thoughts were, “This song is far too good to be on the radio; I will most likely never hear it again. Better enjoy the hell out of this.” It was like something you would hear at a leather-daddy disco, an aggressively sexual earworm too dark for anything but a three a.m. dance floor. It’s a song designed for that final desperate bout of dancing right before last call, when the fates decide who gets to ride the disco stick and who goes home to cry. That’s to say, it’s a very specific aesthetic. Before Lady Gaga exploded into the mainstream, we were in one of those boring dry spells where the kinky gay club music stayed in the kinky gay club. Now its hit supremacy feels inevitable, the hand of the pop gods at work. But at the time, in that moment, in broad daylight, it had a gorgeous feeling of misplacement, like a straggling reveler doing the walk of shame in their glitter and sweat on a Monday morning.
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.
Ahh, the poet’s age old quandary; to do a line or not to. Heh, heh. Pretty clever. Otherwise, though, it’s kind of a sad song. There’s something inherently sad about telephone numbers that never get used, calls that are never answered. It could’ve been something great but it didn’t happen, because apathy. The poet, being too busy doing lines (in all the senses of the word), misses out on whatever it is normal happy people who answer the telephone are out doing. And, the singer being Debbie Harry, she’s probably going to go out later and follow some guy around in the supermarket. But for now, she’s not taking phone calls.
One of the greatest musical artists in the German speaking world pays homage to one of the worst. The question is, why? Cultural solidarity of some sort, I presume. Nina Hagen and Falco couldn’t have been more different. She tore apart the fabric of musical convention as part of the underground punk scene; he was known for a handful of novelty rap songs. I’m sure you’re familiar with the famous hit Rock Me Amadeus. If not, just know that it is a song of such excruciating badness you can’t help but love it. Really though, Falco’s music was so, so, so, sosososo sooooo sooooooooooooo objectively bad. I mean, this guy was the German Vanilla Ice. He was also the most successful musician to come out of Austria since Amadeus himself. Inexplicably enough, the world really wanted to hear what europop would sound like with more rapping. Why does Nina Hagen, one of the godmothers of punk, see this man as a kindred spirit? We’ll never truly know, because Falco is dead and Nina Hagen is insane. No really, Prima Nina is batshit insane, which is, of course, a large part of her brilliance. Hagen is one of those people for whom aggressive weirdness is not an affectation but a way of life. She has to be weird because otherwise she would explode. It doesn’t help her harness her immense talents towards anything approaching marketable appeal, but it’s made her a cult icon to fans whose alienation is too deep to be salved with what’s readily available. Nina Hagen will probably never follow former fellow outsiders like The Smiths and David Bowie from well-kept secret to Hot Topic sales rack, and that’s ok. She doesn’t want that, and her fans don’t want that. Let the weirdness remain undiluted. So what if a lot of what she writes about makes no sense. She writes from the heart, no doubts about it. If she wants to write a send-off for the soul of a shitty half-forgotten pop-rapper who drove into the side of a bus while high on cocaine, that’s her grace. If Nina Hagen thinks Falco’s soul is worth blessing, that doesn’t elevate his legacy, but maybe we should consider that being an artist is in itself elevating, even if the art is dreck.
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.
In the face of hundred million dollar offers to ride the nostalgia bus, Robert Plant turns his nose up and says that he’s just not that bored. Sick burn, Robert! While some people *cough* Jimmy Page *cough* *cough* want to spend their time digging through their own archives, remastering the hits, dusting off old demos, and just generally living in the past, Plant is busy trotting the musical globe with a new set of friends. Maybe Plant’s contentious relationship with his old partner and their legacy isn’t very graceful and smells like the bickering of an old divorced couple, but his ongoing creative vitality makes up for it. Sure, it’s detrimental to the kids not to have both fathers hand-in-hand like they used to be. But I’d rather hear new music than forgotten outtakes from Led Zeppelin III, and Plant has been on a Renaissance tear lately. First he did the big bluegrass excursion with Alison Krauss, then he gathered the band he calls The Sensational Space Shifters for a record that pours together all of the folk music of the world. It’s quite satisfying to see him evolve his sound and build on his interests without falling back the damn tropes he helped create. He still likes magic and mythology, and he’s still interested in the heroic possibilities of British folk music, and if he’s less bombastic about those things, all the better for it. And he still has the looks and bearing of a horse lord, albeit now one who has retired with honors from the Rohirrim.