Every few years, it seems, some general interest magazine editor decides that the Death of Rock has occurred and that it's his or her civic duty to let the world know. I can only imagine the scenario: the editor, who is now edging into their mid-30s or 40s and has long since stopped listening to rock music, or contemporary rock anyway, imagines that their own boredom and that of, perhaps, some colleagues or friends, means that the music itself is bankrupt. And of course, when an editor discovers such a sea-change, they are genetically programmed to pick up the phone and locate a writer who can whip up a nicely crafted magazine article about it.
Whether that is what led to an article titled "Pop Music In The Shadow Of Irony" being published in the March issue of Harper's, I do not know. All the same, the article exists, and I am disturbed by it.
It was written by Thomas Frank, who is editor of The Baffler, a magazine that, based on several issues that I have read, seems to operates under the editorial premise -- and I am surely generalizing a bit here -- that capitalism is inherently evil, and that the powers that be, such as corporate-owned media and entertainment companies, are also evil.
It is difficult to condense the thousands of words Mr. Frank has deployed to make his case -- and exactly what case he is making is never completely clear -- but I'll do my best. Frank believes that by the mid-'90s so-called Alternative rock, the version of indie rock marketed to America by the major labels, had played itself out.
Now while it is true that some music fans have tired of such artists as Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains, Frank argues that Alternative was "fake" from day one.
"For all of its self-proclaimed defiance of formula, Alternative was also a fairly transparent fake, a caricature of the "independent" rock world that had arisen in the aftermath of punk in the late 1970s, and as long as Alternative cavorted and growled on the national stage it was handicapped by the fact that it was aping, and in considerable detail, something that had happened years before...," Frank writes. "What gave independent rock the modicum of authenticity it had was not its practitioners' fondness for goatees or some special way that they played their guitars but the fact that it did not appear on major labels, that it did not assent to or participate in the machinery of celebrity or star manufacture."
Some of this is, of course, patently untrue, but I'm not going to waste time here bringing up examples of indie artists who did "participate in the machinery of celebrity or star manufacture."
Was Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" fake because it was released by David Geffen's DGC label?
Frank's piece centers on his friend Chris Holmes, who had an indie band called Sabalon Glitz in the mid-'90s. "Pop music was in dire need of a future," he writes, and Atlantic Records thought that Holmes might be it.
Apparently not interested in the rest of the band, Atlantic signed just Holmes to a deal. Holmes then created a new band that he called Yum-Yum. "With Yum-Yum, Chris set out to create a caricature of culture-industry schlock just as Alternative had been a caricature of indie, to give voice to a sort of consumerist nostaligie de la boue in which the boue was, as he put it, 'this quintessentially American songwriting style.' "
We are then taken along for a sad ride in which Holmes intentionally creates what he imagines will be a commercial album that, Frank writes, Atlantic Records hopes will "bring middle-class America back to the malls in search of its soul."
Frank shows us a club in Fort Wayne, Indiana, populated by an audience that he goes out of his way to make sure we understand are not hip in any way. "They showed up in rural alienation-garb that would not have looked out of place at Piere's 20 years ago: Harley-Davidson caps, full mustaches and beards, chained wallets, heavy-metal T-shirts..."
The audience predictably doesn't go for Holmes' band, Yum-Yum. Though some rock critics rave about Yum-Yum -- Frank seems to delight in showing how gullible rock writers are -- Atlantic ultimately drops him.
I guess what bugs me about Frank's magazine article is that it feels to me like he is writing from such an elitist position. It is as if he is some historian in an ivory tower, looking back on the rites of some ancient culture, detailing their quaint practices. He is so above it all. And he presents opinion, as if it were fact. This is what happened, he seems to be saying. Only it's not what happened, it's just Frank's take on things.
More than that, it is obvious that Thomas Frank either doesn't like rock music, or that he bonded with the indie rock of the early '80s, and just can't deal with anything that came after that.
Of course ultimately, it doesn't really matter what Thomas Frank thinks. Bands will keep forming. Great rock will keep being made. Fans will find songs and bands they bond with. Life will go on. [Sun., Mar. 1, 1998, 9 a.m. PST]