Amoeblog

COULD SOMEONE DIRECT ME TO THE CROSSROAD?

Posted by Charles Reece, February 8, 2009 09:44pm | Post a Comment
I went down to the crossroad
fell down on my knees
I went down to the crossroad
fell down on my knees
Asked the lord above "Have mercy now
save poor Bob if you please"
-- Robert Johnson, "Cross Road Blues"
Corporate-manufactured popular music aka The Mainstream is like a ninja, everywhere and yet hidden to me. The best place to hide from my ears is on the radio, out in the open. Thus, out of curiosity, I caught a bit of the Grammy Awards tonight. (It's still on as I write this: Smokey Robinson is currently teaming up with Jamie Foxx).  Here's something that I saw:
I've never been a fan of Stevie Wonder. In fact, I hold him responsible for the moribund course R&B has been on since he first appeared -- all that meaningless vocal gyration that's called winning on American Idol.  Just when I thought his music couldn't get any less soulful, he surprised me with the above. That's little Stevie performing with Generation Next's version of the Hanson Brothers. I'm guessing the Jonas Brothers are some spin off from a NIckelodeon or Disney Channel show.  Why is it that the more famous and successful a star gets, the more likely he or she has no concern for artistic integrity? I can understand why some up and coming bar band would be willing to sell one of their songs to an ad agency, but a rich artist who doesn't need the money? Hell, a Grammy appearance probably doesn't even pay, rather it's about exposure -- as if Stevie fucking Wonder needed exposure!  Anyway, his appearance reminded me of an old essay by John Densmore, drummer for The Doors.  He wrote:
Apple Computer called on a Tuesday--they already had the audacity to spend money to cut "When the Music's Over" into an ad for their new cube computer software. They want to air it the next weekend, and will give us a million and a half dollars! A MILLION AND A HALF DOLLARS! Apple is a pretty hip company...we use computers.... Dammit! Why did Jim (Morrison) have to have such integrity?

I'm pretty clear that we shouldn't do it. We don't need the money. But I get such pressure from one particular bandmate (the one who wears glasses and plays keyboards).

Continue reading...

Go Forth and Replicate: A Few Thoughts on Advertising, Christian Rock, Mad Men and Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music (2004)

Posted by Charles Reece, July 27, 2008 10:17pm | Post a Comment
I've been letting my Movies We (I) Like blog languish for far too long, so before I get to my Batman critique, I'm adding not one, but two entries to it with in the next couple of days. I'm going to try to add one a week from here on out (we'll see how well that goes). Anyway, until they appear, I won't keep you in suspense: the first pick is the pretty darn good Mad Men (which is a TV show, not a movie, but it's better shot than most movies) and the other is the surprisingly thoughtful and balanced Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music (a documentary about the current Christian rock scene).


Beginning its second season today, Mad Men is about a third-tier agency on Madison Avenue in the early sixties, a time of radical (well, pseudo-radical) change in the world of selling stuff. The first season is set in 1960, following the recent appearance of the famous Volkswagen ads by the Doyle Dane Bernbach agency. William Bernbach was a critic of advertising as a science, instead using it to convey emotions and deep-seated connotations to sell a product. His ads sold you an image of yourself, rather than a laundry list of the product's qualities that were supposed to appeal to you. The approach proved highly successful, and it's why we have the Super-Bowl commercials we do today.


There's a scene in the final episode of the first season where head adman Don Draper sells a campaign for a new slide projector to clients by using snapshots of his own family. So moving is his pitch that one of the other admen, who's currently undergoing some marital woes, has to leave the room lest he be seen crying. Ironically underscoring this heartwarming moment is the whole season where Don has been shown in the company of two mistresses. Advertising is an art that says less about itself or its creators than it does about the intended audience. It's art that's meant to be entirely consumable by being designed with the audience, not artist, in mind. If it's not understood by the target demographic, then it fails as art. That's why it's questionable to even call it art. It's not intended to offer resistance, only acceptance. Any resistance that it offers is purely manufactured, meant to play into a collective mind that wants to see itself as an uncollected group of free-thinking individuals. That Bernbach and others following him could and can walk that line -- selling individualism as a collective commodity -- is the evil brilliance of late-20th century advertising. 


I was thinking of Bernbach's movement and that scene from Mad Men while watching Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music, named after the song from Larry Norman. Norman serves as the inspirational spirit for the film, promoting God while still managing to make music that could exist on its own terms. I don't know about the rest of his stuff, but that song's pretty catchy. I love country songs about Jesus, hillbilly sacred harp, classic Gospel, old Southern and Negro spirituals, et al., but the closest I ever came to being inspired by so-called contemporary Christian was dropping acid at a Stryper show (someone had to do it, and therein lay my inspiration). When a womanizing boozer like Kris Kristofferson asks "why me, Lord," one gets the sense of some struggle going on between his beliefs and his actions.  That sort of struggle gives the song an air of authenticity. But when Michael Sweet and his band sing they're "soldiers under God's command," one gets the message that this is metal being sanitized for the easily contaminated. Little has changed since when they were on top.


Most of the bands featured in Heather Whinna and Vickie Hunter's documentary sound like particular secular bands, just with special lyrics. The ones escaping this marketing pigeonholing tend to do so by sounding so generic that they can't be ascribed a particularized label. That strategy was employed by Stryper during the metal heyday, obtaining secular acceptance by sounding blandly like the genre, rather than the Christian-Iron Maiden or -Van Halen. 


The fundamental problem with Christian rock is that, rather than build on an authentically religious tradition of struggle, it's made to serve two masters: mass culture and fundamentalism. It fails both because it has no soul, no aesthetic inner life, being entirely outwardly directed. Like a modern ad, it tells you no more than what you already bring to the table. On the one hand, it's designed to appeal to the "secular audience" (i.e., the largely Christian audience in the U.S. -- if the census is any indication -- that aren't Christian enough for the extremists). Here the connotation is that Evangelicals are just like you (evidently just as bland as you), and after conversion you can keep on liking the same stuff that you liked in your heathen days. This message is doomed to fail, I suspect, because it's saying there is no essential change in who you are when coming over to their side, so why bother? On the other hand, the music is designed to appeal to the "Christian audience" (i.e., those teens raised with a severe pop cultural immune-deficiency order) who really like music, but live in fear of its not serving God, only itself -- in a word, idolatry. By giving the fundamentalist youth what they want, the ability to rock, while only reinforcing their cultural seclusion, the music is depleted of its potential aesthetic-objective vitality, instead serving as agitprop. In making rock music easily consumable, the dialectic between beliefs and the world is cut short. The religiously conservative audience doesn't have to struggle with popular art any more, because it's now being made with only one message in mind: buy Christian. With the Christian rock scene, the religion has become just as much of a commodity as the music that it copies, easily consumable in one's leisure time.


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