Trying To Get To You

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

You'll Go Your Way, And I'll Go Mine?

Like a lot of people in the music business, I read Bob Lefsetz’s email blog. I find him somewhat insightful when he’s talking about tech issues, but when he writes about music, I lose interest quickly. And while some folks may find him passionate, he often occurs for me as an upset five year old in a sandbox, hurling accusations and invective in a way that I find more bemusing than illuminating.

Bob wrote a piece published this past Saturday that compared the current music climate to the 60’s, when FM was just beginning and Top 40 ruled. He made some distinctions between the two eras (the fact that top 40 then had room for an occasional older act and that now it’s mainly hip-hop and urban music), but he basically was implying that the indie sector and the internet were the underground FM of today. Perhaps there are some similarities, but I believe Bob really missed the important distinction.

What really created the underground rock audience that facilitated the move away from “teenybopper” top 40 radio was the impact of Dylan, and specifically, “Like A Rolling Stone,” which went to #2 on the singles chart in the summer of 1965. That success was not a fluke; Dylan specifically wrote the song to be a hit. After seeing other artists have chart success with his songs (the Byrds, Sonny & Cher, Peter, Paul & Mary), Dylan, who had loved rock n’ roll before he discovered folk (his high school ambition was to play in Little Richard’s band), not only wanted to play the game, he wanted to explode the game, which he did. After Dylan, artists who didn’t fit the teenage paradigm saw possibilities for themselves with their music that didn’t exist prior to Dylan’s success. It’s no accident that soon after “Like A Rolling Stone,” the Beatles sped up their path of sophistication that resulted in “Rubber Soul” in December of ’65 and “Revolver” in August of ’66 (which created a whole new set of possibilities for artists, etc.). The success of the artists who were the mainstay of underground FM in it’s earliest days would have been pretty much inconceivable without Dylan’s impact; Hendrix, Pink Floyd, the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival (who were a top 40 band as well) and a host of others. Even the Velvet Underground, who never got much radio play of any kind, would not have emerged in the form they did without Dylan. It’s not that Dylan was a huge influence on every artist; it was that his success created a whole new world of possibilities from which to emerge.

What Dylan created took ambition of Olympian proportions. He deliberately set out to impact a world outside of his own. I don’t hear ambition of that size today. What I hear are artists working with a mindset that confirms limits, rather than explodes them. The Arcade Fire may resonate strongly with an audience, but it’s an insular audience that seeks to confirm it’s own superiority as an audience. And in that mindset, today’s crew of “vanguard” artists will alter nothing and simply confirm everything; namely that we are just destined to live apart from one another – you’ll have your music, I’ll have mine, my music is smart, their music is stupid, etc. I don’t know about you, but I find that thoroughly dispiriting. And ironically, given the "Long Tail" view of our future, the only thing that will alter that is a hit. It's no accident that the last time the rock world truly shook in a large scale way, it was in the aftermath of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," a hit song that rendered one world irrelevant and ushered in a new one.

When Springsteen made “Born to Run” in 1975, he said, “I’m going to make the greatest rock n’ roll record of all time.” Does any artist even have the guts to say that anymore? Does any band have the willingness to play for those stakes? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that at this point, I’m far more eager to hear an artist go for that and fail, than I am in hearing an artist work within their range of limits and succeed.

Bob Dylan (with the Hawks): "Like A Rolling Stone" (You Tube)


Anonymous said...

I agree with you about Lefsetz. I think he's generally quite insightful and dead on when it comes to business and tech issues, but when it comes to discussing music and culture, he has a very insular point of view. He's admittedly a "classic rock guy," which is fine. However, when he tries to talk about anything or anyone outside of this world, he reveals a willful ignorance, condescension and arrogance (actually, the condescension and arrogance are apparent much of the time). In fact, I've read some comments of his that are borderline racist when it comes to discussing black artists who are not Jimi Hendrix.

Ben Lazar said...

Yeah, I just kind of tune him out when he starts talking about music. Anyone who writes lovingly of Jan & Dean and Herman's Hermits but can't write about James Brown doesn't have a musical perspective that resonates with me.

Anonymous said...

Good points about Lefsetz, Arcade Fire and, to a lesser degree, on Dylan.

If, as you correctly claim, his chart success opened avenues and vistas otherwise closed to other artists, then, by all means, he was a huge influence on every artist (or at least, close to it) based on this alone.

And, we're not even talking about his music -- which, of course, impacted every conceivable genre from rap and hip-hop to punk and indie.

Regarding both Dylan's and Springsteen's Herculean feats being on a par with David vs. Goliath, well, the business and times were different back then: Springsteen himself has stated that Born to Run would not have been realised in today's industry which eats its young.

And, on that particular note, while record companies will always exist, the behemoths are slowly but surely falling by the wayside. As a friend of recently put it, the success of independent acts--not talking indie rock here, either, but Koch's rap, and some of the metal groups on other labels, and, yeah, sure, Arcade Fire, plus Clap Your Hands' awesome DIY model--is the real blueprint for not signing, not worrying that all the attention will be paid to, say, a Bruce Springsteen (in light of his mega-re-up with SONY.)

Anyone signing to a major has already had that kind of concern. But it magnifies it.

To put this another way, the industry doesn't allow for today's artist to dare make such a bold declaration -- making the greatest (fill in the genre) record of all time, much less the chance to do so.

Ben Lazar said...

Thanks for the great comments. Here's my question for you:

I agree with your assertion that "the industry doesn't allow for today's artist to dare make such a bold declaration...much less the chance to do so." However, for years prior to the Internet and prior to radio consolidation (but post punk), that sort of ambition was verboten in "smart" rock circles. Was that due to business concerns? Or aesthetic ones?

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