CORRUPTING THE ABSOLUTE
Sue got off work and drifted down the midway in a wet heat, past the American-flag petunia gardens. Screamers rammed circles in the Whirl-A-Gig cars, pasted in stand-up Roll-A-Turn cages by their own gravity. They whistled and moved in droves behind raw hot dogs. At night she lay in the top bunk naked with the lights off. Fan on full aimed at her crotch while janitors lounged in front of the garages watching the rows of windows. Rod Stewart, scratchy and loud, combed his hair in a thousand ways and came out looking just the same.
That paragraph is the last of three in a Jayne Anne Phillips story called “What It Takes to Keep a Young Girl Alive”; the title is a play on a line from Rod Stewart’s “Every Picture Tells a Story,” the tune drifting through Sue’s window. I sometimes wonder how good a song has to be to make its way into fiction like that—into lives like that. I wonder what the song does there. This isn’t the old “soundtrack of our lives” routine: you know, when Sue gets older and “Every Picture Tells a Story” comes on the radio as an oldie she’ll remember working at the amusement park. Something is happening in Phillips’s story, to her character and to the song. It isn’t clear what; maybe the contract itself is all that can be dramatized.
Beneath the drama, though, there’s an ugly, blank feeling, as if, lying on her bed in the heat, a girl with a dead-end job has found herself humiliated by Rod Stewart’s wild-oats ramble from Paris to Bangkok—or as if the facts of her life have humiliated the romanticism of the song. Or has the girl ignored the tale Stewart tells and stolen a moment from it, a moment that comforts because it tells her she’s not the only one who can’t change her life? Or is the empathy inside out—Fuck you, Rod Stewart, who gives a shit how your hair looks? Maybe none of that matters here; maybe the point is simply that Stewart was right. If a song is good enough, one story leads to another, which is what else there is after birth, copulation, and death.
As it happens, “Every Picture Tells a Story” is Stewart’s greatest performance. That means either Phillips has good taste in pop song references or that the capacity of the song to enter a situation, transform it, and be transformed by it confirms its quality. Or it means neither. The thirty-year winnowing-out of rock history by oldies programming has more or less proved that quality talks and bullshit walks—Jimmy Gilmer’s “Sugar Shack,” the top single of 1963 and, according to a private survey, one of the three most loathsome records ever made, has disappeared—but bad records too enter people’s lives, perhaps just as easily as good ones. What do they do there? Just because a bad record has been removed from the air by the common critical work of mass taste doesn’t mean the bad record disappears from the life of whoever absorbed it in the first place.
Now, by a good record I mean one that carries surprise, pleasure, shock, ambiguity, contingency, or a hundred other things, each with a faraway sense of the absolute: the sense that either for the entire performance (as in the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”), or more often for a stray moment, someone (the singer, the guitarist, the saxophonist) wants what he or she wants, hates what he or she hates, fears what he or she fears, more than anything in the world. The wonder of “Every Picture Tells a Story” is that such absolute moments occur all over the place: in the acoustic guitar licks after each verse, in the drum roll at the end of the first, in Maggie Bell’s answer to Stewart’s “Shanghai Lil never used the pill” with an out-of-nowhere “SHE CLAIMED THAT IT JUST AIN’T NATURAL!”, in a dozen of Stewart’s lines, in the unmatched openness of the rhythm—which somehow shuts up tight for the long coda, exactly as if a bunch of studio hacks had been brought in to finish off the number because, after shaking the world off its axis, the original musicians were kind of worn out. By a good record I mean one that, entering a person’s life, can enable that person to live more intensely—as, whatever else it does, “Every Picture Tells a Story” does for Jayne Anne Phillips’s Sue.
By a bad record, I mean one that subverts any possibility of an apprehension of the absolute, a record that disables the person whose life it enters into living less intensely. Words like “corrupt,” “faked,” or “dishonest” suggest themselves, but there are plenty of corrupt, faked, or dishonest records with moments just as deep and powerful as any in “Every Picture Tells a Story”—not just honorable “let’s get rich” records like Freddy Cannon’s “Palisades Park,” but “this is a load of shit but let’s get rich, maybe we can change our names and not have to tell our mothers” records like the Diamonds’ white-boy ripoff of “Little Darlin’,” which was originally made by the noble black rhythm and blues group the Gladiolas, whose version wasn’t as good. As Kim Gordon of the New York band Sonic Youth once wrote, in “rock ‘n’ roll, many things happen and anything can happen.” (Who knows what happened to the Diamonds? I saw them more than fifteen years ago in a Reno casino, singing evergreens, pretending—even though by then their mothers were probably dead—that they weren’t even the same group that had recorded “Little Darlin’,” which was still on the air.) By a bad record I mean a record that is so cramped and careful in spirit that it wants most of all to be liked—to be accepted to be acceptable.
I’m thinking of Julian Lennon, his hit album Valotte, his hit single “Too Late for Goodbyes,” and a letter in Rolling Stone where a mother wrote in with her “my kid said the darndest thing”: “Mom, you had John Lennon, now we have Julian.” Good luck, kid, I thought: What kind of wishes will be sparked in you, what kind of life can you make, out of these pathetic little Family Favorites tunes about nothing? It hurt to read that letter, not because Julian Lennon is corrupt, fake, or dishonest, but because he is probably worthy, sincere, and true.
Julian Lennon is so promotable it makes you wonder if he really is John Lennon’s son. Yes, his voice sounds just like John’s—it’s uncanny, and that’s the hook. He looks like John. But just as John’s bright sneer is beyond Julian’s smooth, sad-eyed face, the endless emotional complexities in the dumbest lyrics John ever sang are beyond Julian’s Xerox voice. Even on the earliest Beatle records, when John Lennon sang badly, which is to say emptily, you could hear failure; on Rock ‘n’ Roll, released in 1975, his last album before the 1980 Double Fantasy LP (his last), when Lennon sang badly you could hear self-loathing and doubt. When Julian sings badly, emptily, which is all he does, you hear success. It’s the success not of carrying off some intimation of the absolute, but of carrying a phrase to its completion. It may seem pretentious to throw around an idea like “the absolute” in reference to such music—or even to “Every Picture Tells a Story,” a hilariously crude set of rhymes about a young man trying to get laid–but that is what rock ‘n’ roll is all about. Can anyone argue that Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” was hedged?
What happens when a song like Julian Lennon’s “Too Late for Goodbyes” enters a life as easily, as mysteriously, as unconsciously, as “Every Picture Tells a Story”? What happens when such a song frames and defines the possibilities of life? The “root of the prevailing absence of imagination cannot be understood,” one could have read in an obscure Paris journal called Internationale Situationniste in 1962 (the subject was fallout shelters, the title of the article was “The Geopolitics of Hibernation”), “unless one attains the imagination of the absent—that is, unless one conceives what is missing, forbidden and hidden, and yet possible, in modern life.” When Julian Lennon’s songs enter a life, I can only imagine that they reduce it. His songs reduce it because, in the immediate context, they say that the person’s parents had something richer, they lived in a better time. They made or rejected better choices, their successes or failures can be more fully dramatized, they had the real thing, which is no longer on the market. But it is in the context of time passing that the real process of a bad song in a real life begins its work. A bad song is absorbed whole, in the moment, unconsciously. The person whose life it enters barely knows it’s there: it’s just part of the day. But as time goes on, and the song fails to live up to life, it begins to break down. It reveals itself as a corrupt, faked, dishonest tumor in the psyche. Never saying its name, it frames the bits and pieces the person who absorbed it was willing to settle for—and that’s all there is.
Of course, almost everyone settles. No one wins. The absolute was denied in the Garden of Eden, and the defining characteristic of human beings remains their ability to want more than they can have. That contradiction produces rage, desire, hate, and love, and real art brings all those things to life. Art that quiets or buries those cultural instincts can’t survive the human faculty—it falls apart. But as it does, it humiliates whoever carries it. If Jayne Anne Phillips’s Sue was humiliated by Rod Stewart’s “Every Picture Tells a Story,” that humiliation made her realize what she had given up, and it made her want it even more.
ONE STAR PER LISTENER
Rock ‘n’ roll, as anyone will tell you these days, is now simply “mainstream music”—pervasive and aggressively empty, the sound of the current sound, referring to nothing but its own success, its own meaningless triumph. For the first time, rock ‘n’ roll really is everywhere: Madonna’s wedding or Springsteen’s tour are hard news breaks. Old hits spout ad-agency lyrics every time you hit the dial or change the channel; with Michael Jackson’s purchase of Beatle copyrights, Beatle music may soon be run through a commercial revival that will definitely erase whatever mnemonic power the songs still retain. Imagine.
And that’s just the public service version—a Jackson tax credit.
All this is obvious. Less so is the way the shapeless mainstreaming of pop music has produced a perfect, balancing compensation: the process by which the pop milieu, now merely the milieu of everyday diversion, is continually reorganized around a single replaceable figure.
Since 1984’s Jacksons tour, performer after performer has been brought-forth-to-come-forth as a unitary, momentarily complete symbol of individual fulfillment and public conquest. As Jackson was replaced by Prince, Prince was replaced by Madonna, who has been replaced by Springsteen. At the given moment, their faces appear on every magazine cover (Bruce on the cover of Star in the supermarket: “How Marriage Has Changed Him.” Inside, “It Hasn’t”). Every single and LP, every tour, sets “records,” generates “unprecedented” amounts of money. The Guinness people can’t keep up with the ever-lengthening number of hours logged by fans camping in line for tickets. It’s no matter that much of this is pure hype; what counts is the result, and the result is a sort of consumer-fan panic, a Konsummterror (the phrase was Ulrike Meinhof’s) that suspends one’s very identity in the fear of missing out on what’s happening, or what is said to be happening. It’s a social version of the TV quiz show where contestants are asked to guess not the true answer to a question, but the answer that polls have shown most people believe is true—or is it the answer most people believe most people believe is true?
Whatever signs and meanings a performer might bring to this process are nothing compared to the process itself. Meanings are dissolved, or attached to the dominant sign systems of the moment (“Bruce—the Rambo of Rock,” reads a bumper sticker), or trumpeted as spurious, glamorized oppositions to fake versions of the dominant sign systems (“Do You Want Your Daughter to Grow Up Like Madonna?”), making real opposition incomprehensible. And as their meanings are dissolved, so are the performers. They’re used up, exiled into the wilderness where dwell those who, once, were. Jackson was not just replaced by Prince; exposed at the height of his fame and power as a celibate zombie, he was discredited by a self-made fucker. But then Prince was revealed as a megalomaniac, and so he was discredited by a down-to-earth slut, who was discredited by a man who stands for the values that made this country great, who was discredited by___________.
It’s true that this voraciously entropic process has a constant need for weirdos, for people who in prerock times would have been inconceivable as public icons. “Anarchy had moved in,” Nik Cohn writes of the mid-fifties in Awop-BopaLooBop AlopBamBoom (1972). “For thirty years you couldn’t possibly make it unless you were white, sleek, nicely spoken and phoney to your toenails—suddenly now you could be black, purple, moronic, delinquent, diseased, or almost anything on earth, and you could still clean up.” Thirty years later, though, that touch of anarchy has turned out to be a legitimating principle of control. This is the rock ‘n’ roll contribution to mainstream hegemony.Think of the sense of freedom and resistance Cyndi Lauper must have wanted to communicate. The sensual social pluralism of her “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” video, its affirmation of the pleasure of self-invention, became a reifying star turn in her following “Time after Time” piece, where her boyfriend didn’t like her new haircut. What happened to all those people on the “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” screen, whose discovery of their own autonomy created a dance in the street? They were shoved back into the same anonymous crowd that may soon receive Cyndi Lauper, and from that crowd they will watch whoever comes next and wonder where she came from, who he is. They will stand in line for a record-breaking number of hours and pay a record-breaking number of dollars to find the answer, or what most people are said to think the answer is.
Just as present-day politics are a reaction against the utopianism and doubt of the sixties, present-day rock ‘n’ roll is a reaction against the punk negation of the late seventies. As Dave Marsh has written, “the aim was to eradicate the hierarchy that ran rock—ultimately, to eradicate hierarchy, period.” But in modern societies revolt is almost always a minority tendency, and unless the moment is seized, the silent majorities always take the game away. An astonishing ten million people were on strike in France in May 1968; Charles de Gaulle came within hours of abandoning the nation to its fate, but finally he stood fast, and the next month he won a landslide vote of confidence. Punk attacked a smoothly functioning but increasingly bland celebrity culture and gave it the frisson it had lacked. Less than a decade later, the celebrity culture that punk attacked looks primitive next to our own—and the centering of that culture on a single, replaceable figure is not even its real center.
Just as, in the pop milieu, there is at any given time only one real star in the United States, today there is only one real person: Ronald Reagan. Behind all the replaceable center figures of pop is an irreplaceable center: product of grand historical forces, function of his time and place and all that, but also a unique individual with his own goals, his own fears, his own way of using his institutional power to take social power as a supercelebrity. An autonomous individual, Reagan seals the autonomy of all others, and also seals the limits of that autonomy, since all autonomy must finally be returned to him, and to what he chooses to represent. He is omnipresent, as naturalistically at home dancing the night away on the cover of Vanity Fair as he is, through the magic of electronics, chatting with the winners of the Super Bowl, making their victory his.
Making their victory his—in its primitive form, that’s how the process seems to work. In its fully realized form—the 1985 Super Bowl, say, where Reagan actually appeared in the locker room as a video hologram—it is apparent that the supercelebrity does not take, but gives. In 1985 it was made to seem as if the 49ers had not won until Reagan had joined the event—in other words, until he made it real.
This is altogether a pop process. Yes, Ronald Reagan has never said a public word about Prince or Madonna, has only had Michael Jackson to the White House and appropriated Bruce Springsteen for a campaign speech. But by those acts and thousands like them, he validated the process by which stars are validated. He became bigger; so, for the moment, did they. The difference is that he is not in it for the moment.
Artforum, November 1985
(also appears in Ranters & Crowd Pleasers)