Where's Rock's Sincerity?
MAYBE it's me, but I am so sick of sincerity in rock 'n roll. I'm not talking about the kind of sincerity that inexorably permeates your auditory system every time you listen to some vintage Stones or early Dylan or bluesy Led Zep or down-and-druggy Velvet Underground or Janis Joplin on a real bad day. You'd never catch me bitching about that because that is what rock 'n roll is all about, regardless of what Eurythmics or the Pet Shop Boys or any other ice pop syntho-technocrats might think.
The kind of sincerity that's giving me listening fatigue is the canned, planned type that sells albums because of the mistaken notion that it's selling soul. These days everyone from suburban mall kids to pseudo-intellectuals on campus are buying rock records and going to concerts seeking a genuine emotional experience when what they are really receiving is one that's once removed. Rock 'n roll these days is similar to the concept behind stonewashed jeans (the most trite and absurd and tacky of recent fashion statements). It's a way for people to buy a look of wear and tear, to look like they've been places, to appear raw and experienced when in fact they're living sheltered easy lives that afford them the capital to buy a life they'll never know except through bleach in a washing machine. It's buying life instead of living it.
In rock n' roll terms, the worst offender of this genre is U2. Enough is enough with this Irish intensity that Bono and the boys want us to believe imbues their Celtic Christian Consciousness. I don't doubt that life is tough in Ireland, but U2 music is produced for maximum movingness effect that is achieved through lots of driving thumping beats, plenty of references to a hopeless, endless search (for sincerity, it seems), and ripping guitar riffs interspersed at the right moments. One is tempted to suggest that Bono lighten up and smile for a change of scenery. If Bono could invent a barometric measure of intensity, he probably would expect that his howls and grimaces would register 100 percent pressure.
Look, I like listening to U2 too--its really chilling, haunting stuff to the uninitiated ear. But I don't buy it. When you think about it, all this pre-menstrual screaming and yelling is reminiscent of nothing so much as the whining and complaining that we used to associate with funky female folkies. Methinks that the band doth protesteth too much, and this lack of subtlety, this blunt polemicism, can cut an album but it can't cut an attitude.
OF course, the only thing worse than copping the sincere attitude (and in the case of U2 I don't doubt it started out sincere and was eventually co-opted by the forces of commerce) is having an attitude. Enough with Sting's image as the politically correct artiste extraordinare who can rock out with the boys, jam with Black jazz musicians, do the classical thespian thing, father a host of love children and be just the eccentric country gentleman donating his time and energy to worthy causes. I mean, aren't we bohemian? Gimme a break.
Not that I disapprove of the numerous benefit concerts held for the everchanging array of causes of the week, because at least then the musicians are putting their money where their vocal chords are. I'm just sick of everyone bandying about his buffet of attitudes and wearing his artistic angst like some neo-revolutionary red badge of oppression. Because, when you get right down to it, what do wealthy white men know about oppression?
Not that is isn't everyone's privilege to speak his mind about the malaise and misery of the universe, but let's get real. And record companies know that these thoughts are running through the newly awakened minds of a new generation of record buyers, so it's no accident that Tracy Chapman arrived recently at a record store near you. Because it would seem that she is the real--as in, she's been there--voice of oppression, since she is Black and female, a genuine minority. And her album could inspire an entire march on the White House--it's got racism, wife-beating, poverty--everything but the plight of the American farmer.
Sounds great? Until you realize there's something a bit too accessible about Chapman's politics. Nothing wrong with being a populist and speaking in the language of the people, but in 1988 there's something a bit trite, a bit haven't-I-heard-this-before about singing slogans like, "Why are the missiles called peacekeepers/When they're aimed to kill?" Well, why? Does Chapman think she's the first person to wonder about Reaganspeak aloud? Are we breaking new ground here? Nothing wrong with her message, but it would be refreshing if people stopped praising it as if it were prophetic, because it's not. It's just the product of a privileged Black woman who went to boarding school and Tufts University and now wants to draw on her long-extirpated underclass roots.
THE problem here is that I am describing a relentless, insidious rock 'n roll process that happens to even those--especially those--with the best of intentions. So what's the answer?
Sadly, there really is none, except for rock 'n rollers to remove all pretensions from themselves and their music right from the start. I would never advocate depoliticizing rock 'n roll or diffusing its rebel yell, but only when it expresses honest emotion and reminds us of the reason the artists got into making music in the first place. At the same time, no one ought to be trapped in a past that no longer relates to their very cushy present--Bruce should once and for all quit with the blue--collar crap-but it seems that when sincerity is real, the apple should never fall far from it's original tree of inspiration.
But there are some lesser talents who have not been mentioned in this piece who might take a cue and find a new way of working for a living. As the indefatigable Neil Young once suggested, "It's better to burn out than to fade away."