I think it’s safe to say at this point that rock music is, and always has been, all about context. Take for instance a band like Green Day and what they were doing in 1994, coming out with an album called Dookie, and talking to us about masturbation and having no sex life. This wouldn’t work if it was just, like, somebody out on the street coming up to you being like, hey I jerk off and have understandably low self-esteem.
So why is “Longview” a successful mainstream rock single in our perfect little angel decade, the ’90s (I’ve even heard stoner girls talking about how much they like this song, so don’t crawl up my a** here). It’s the HUMOR of the whole thing. The fact of such a high-profile figure as a singer just signed to Warner Bros. completely throwing himself away, like that, is what ignites the crowds.
Let me backtrack here. The common knock on Pearl Jam is that they take themselves too SERIOUSLY. The second song on Nirvana’s first album is “Floyd the Barber,” which riddles the listener a la accounts of gay sex with the entire cast of The Andy Griffith Show (Kurt Cobain also wore a dress all the time, but no, he wouldn’t have been a closet bi or anything). Well could it be that if a band can’t take ITSELF seriously, then it can’t take its FANS seriously, either? I mean, it was Pearl Jam who waged the most vociferous war against Ticketmaster and their absurd surcharges on tickets; it was Pearl Jam who once played an entire concert outdoors on a 30-degree night at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin, a la Cameron Crowe’s Pearl Jam Twenty account.
Kurt Cobain also once quipped “I wish I was like you / Easily amused”, and maybe at least early on, he accumulated up so many more jaded fans within the music scene for his increased ability to be bored with the FORMAT of rock and roll, and so to play around with it more with these absurdist or apocalyptic lyrics (“Here we are now / Entertain us”, et. al.)
And as loath as I am to admit it, really, alternative rock is just one kind of music, out of many. I’ve heard cars full of horny drunk girls cheesing out to Eminem’s “Superman,” for instance, and say what you want to about that song, that it’s vague as to what his actual complaint is, that he wields an ostensibly psychotic level of vindictive rancor against a handful of various women that seems entirely unhealthy, that was at least people connecting with some sort of purchased sound waves and fully indulging in it, on an interactive level. This is what value is. In a way, then, hip-hop might be the purer art form, because if some random person on the street were to come up to you spewing all this verbiage in rapid-fire about how much they hated their ex-girlfriend and saying things like they were gonna “Put anthrax on the Tampax”, you’ve gotta admit, you’d at least be pretty entertained, not to mention shocked seeing as if contemporary this would be immediately following that big anthrax scare post-9/11.
Or maybe it’s that the “pure” and the “morally commendable” actually don’t join tractions here — abstract things like the unorthodox phrasings of the Beatles’ “We Can Work it out” or the climaxes of a Bartok concerto are “morally commendable,” but something like the blind, cathartic rage of a rapper like Eminem or DMX might actually be “purer,” the obvious appeal lying in the staggering amount of people who listen to it and own to it, embrace it as part of their own larger reference selves.
In the Grateful Dead’s live album Dead Set, they play a song “Candyman” that at the time was 10 years old but had come on the enormously successful LP American Beauty which had also featured “Sugar Magnolia” and “Truckin’.” A lot of people knew the words, that is, and although hippies are supposed to be so peaceful and of well disposition, when Garcia gets to the words “Good morning Mr. Benson / I hear you’re doing well / If I had me a shotgun / I’d blow you straight to he**”, we get an eruption of applause, an immediate emotional connection with and relishing in that blatant verbal display of the indication of homicidal physical violence.
My point here is that art will never be something that’s objective. Sure, I mean it’s good to throw unorthodoxies into your music, like the Pixies’ crazy phrasings (the three-bar pattern in “Wave of Mutilation”), but this very necessity of change also indicates the very inevitability that the righteous and true and the stale and “played-out” are in fact the exact same thing, depending on from what point in time you’re examining them. There came a point in time where SOME people got tired of ‘90s alt-rock, like the A&R who dropped Soul Asylum from their label following Candy from a Stranger, or those douche bags in Old School who make fun of it and then bring in the great master of subtlety known as Snoop Dogg, but to be honest, I never did. I can still put on Maroon 5’s old incarnation Kara’s Flowers, or early Len, or a live Guided by Voices show on Youtube, and feel like I’m at the control helm of the universe, like the Earth is turning on my own axes, in a sense. Sure, there’s danger in it. I don’t think there’s any question. The music has to be intimidating to be good. In putting this list together, I was not indiscriminate. Clearly, I’m a man of tastes, and stasis is the enemy. I guess this is my chance to be the boss of other people: to say, put out, or I’ll put you out, but hopefully I payed respects to some people who over the years lunged a little farther out of their comfort zones than the rest of the pack, and for that reason, touched us in a special way.