Rip It Up and Start Again

British Wimps and American Weirdos
New books dissected over email.
March 7 2006 8:38 AM

Rip It Up and Start Again

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Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth 
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Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth

Simon,

Stephen Metcalf Stephen Metcalf

Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.

I agree absolutely: In America, alternative music is just that, "alternative," and more oppositional to a mainstream culture it regards as not only rote, treacly, and formulaic but deeply reactionary. Think about the innovators in white American pop music who also had commercial success: Bing Crosby, Elvis, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, the Ramones, Bruce Springsteen. Well, they're not only retro, they play (albeit self-consciously) to that reactionary streak. They sell an idea of American exceptionalism rooted in an exalted American past, all while keeping their innovations hidden in plain sight. The best example is always Wilson's. It took the Beatles to open up his little profiterole beach ditties, deconstruct them, and champion their creator as a Mozart-like genius. Now think about the great American weirdos who advanced the ambitions of pop without winning much mainstream acceptance: Captain Beefheart, Zappa, Velvets, Iggy, Television, Minutemen, even Sonic Youth. (Listen to the Minutemen, "History Lesson, Pt 2," 1984) What do they have in common? A revulsion for the toll-taking, soul-taking American spotlight. Compared with Springsteen—or even the later Scritti Politti—these are night-grown fungi.

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One thing we're missing and likely will never locate in American culture is the great U.K. tradition of heterosexual wimpiness that runs from at least Keats up through at least Belle and Sebastian and takes a nice detour through the glorious Orange Juice. Let me quote some of your book:

Orange Juice talked and acted in ways that broke with both rock's rebel swagger and postpunk's militant solemnity. They were literate, playful, witty, camp. "Everyone used to think we were a bunch of androgynous little twits," Collins recalled. This exaggerated wimpiness was a revolt against the Glasgow music scene's traditional blues-rock machismo … but also against the hooligan menace of Scottish punks …

And now for a brief aside, if you'll indulge me. As someone imprisoned within a bizarrely testosterone-addled culture, it seems to me that the hermetically sealed universe of grad student twee epitomized by Orange Juice, and later by Belle and Sebastian, does have a larger significance. (Listen to Orange Juice, "Falling and Laughing," 1980) If you're an American, the very ideas of "literate, playful, witty, camp" conjure up a gender indeterminacy that makes many American males squeamish, to say the least. You close your book by adverting to George W. Bush; you wonder if the current crop of bands that name-check postpunk can oppose Bush, and his and Blair's joint venture in Iraq, with the same intensity that the original postpunkers opposed Reagan and Thatcher. We think of punk rock as necessarily violent and loud, but does political anger always have to be violent and loud? Look at how Bush came to power, then stayed there: in no small part by feminizing his opponents, often on the issue of national security. Responding to the tone colors the Republicans surrounded him in, the American electorate saw John Kerry as French, a kept man—good god—a windsurfer. Why not say it outright: He hits like a girl. A society with such a low tolerance for the ironic and quirky is a society with a low tolerance for ambiguity and nuance, and we're paying for this fact dearly right now.

I think one reason I prefer the brand of epicene rock (Felt, Orange Juice, Field Mice, Smiths, B and S) a friend has labeled, hilariously, "sissycore" is, in addition to being a committed sissy, I prefer it to rock's more masculinist ideal. This, as you deftly point out, often slid into a romance with fascist imagery during the punk and postpunk era—at one point or another, the Clash, the Pistols, the Ramones, Pil, and Joy Division all played with swastikas or related imagery. This co-existed with a powerful streak of fringe leftism that animated punk and postpunk, though the contradiction is easy enough to account for: Both were responses to a drastic spike in U.K. unemployment in the late '70s that created an avid culture of dead-enders in search of an extreme politics. All the poses of the '60s were suddenly considered not only suspect but revolting; and this led to some pretty extreme posturing.

Now I think we can begin to piece together an idea about the English mainstream and the American mainstream. The American mainstream revives itself almost always on the backs of the legacy of Jim Crow. For the black experience, of course, is where innovation meets commercial success in American music history, from Satchmo and Ellington and Billie Holiday, to Miles and Coltrane and Sly and George Clinton and Prince and Chuck D. So familiar are we in my country with this maneuver, that when a band like Pere Ubu expands into a sound so completely outside the tradition of jazz, soul, funk, it boggles our mainstream tastes completely.

Which brings us to one final topic: authenticity. I wonder if you could talk more about how odd that dialectic is in the postpunk movement. After all, authenticity was rescued from a set of petrified counterculture clichés by bands that trampled all over the twin paradigms of authenticity—the hey, man, that singer-songwriter, he speaks to my soul of folk—and the endless attempts by white middle-class teens to appropriate the attitudes of blacks. Postpunk often took this one step further and gloried in the idea of the album/band as pure commodity. The shamelessness of Malcolm McLaren—who not only hatched the Pistols but later put his stamp on postpunk with Adam Ant and Bow Wow Wow—did rule the age. And yet, by using words like "product" and "swindle" so openly, shamelessness somehow kept rock 'n' roll true to itself.

Well, thanks a mil, Simon. Your book is a triumph.

Be well,

Steve

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