Friday, January 21, 2011

2001: General Theory of the Crap Cycle

Of course, one might argue that just like Keynes' General Theory, this one has been subverted by unpredicted phenomena. In his case, stagflation. In this case, that no new "rock messiah" has yet emerged, 20 years since the last cycle began. Or have they? I have at least one candidate in mind, but I'd rather hear what you think.

Rock music has been through four distinct crap cycles since Elvis cut his first sides in 1954. In each case, a messiah figure emerges, consolidating and popularizing what had previously been underground styles. And every time, record company weasels are mostly taken by surprise by the commercial potency of music they had previously disdained or ignored; in a panic, they attempt to sign similar musicians as soon as possible. The result is an explosion of creativity as musicians explore the inspiring new sounds (and freshly opened marketplace) in thousands of different ways. In much the same way, the unexpected success of the low-budget film Easy Rider led to studio moguls granting unprecedented artistic control to then-unknown filmmakers like Coppola, Scorcese, Spielberg and Lucas. The moguls were suddenly uncertain of their own ability to predict potential hit films, so they let the whiz kids have their way — for a while.

Of course, before too long, the second half of the crap cycle emerges: the crap explosion. The record company weasels (like the studio moguls) come to believe they have it all figured out once again. They distill the most commercial aspects of the new sound, and align their promotional muscle towards marketing those sounds they deem most likely to appeal to the widest possible range of mainstream tastes. The radio is flooded with dozens of sound-alike bands. Those who embody the spirit that made the new music exciting in the first place are relegated to cult status, or remain in the underground. Meanwhile, the original messiah has long since burned out, or shows only sporadic flashes of the original brilliance.

When the Elvis nova first lit up the sky, "race music" was suddenly reborn as rock & roll, the most popular music in the land. People had been making such music for at least a decade before that, but it was an underground phenomenon, documented in the R&B charts. In 1954, the radio was ruled by crap like "Doggie in the Window" and "Oh Mein Papa." When the hillbilly kid swept all that off the charts, he also opened up commercial space for other first-generation rockers. It doesn’t mean there wasn’t still a lot of bland crap on the radio; ’twas ever thus. But a window of opportunity had opened up.

By decade’s end, it had slammed shut. Elvis was in the army, Buddy Holly was dead, Chuck Berry was in jail, Jerry Lee Lewis in disgrace. And the airwaves belonged to Pat Boone and Frankie Avalon and Paul Anka and worse. Doesn’t mean there wasn’t some worthwhile stuff, but there was a lot less of it. That’s the pop landscape the Beatles found when they hit the US in 1964; they discovered they had to sell rock & roll to the Americans all over again. They were inspired by Elvis and the other early rockers, but also by the blues and R&B records that had set the stage for the first cycle. The Beatles also helped to popularize any number of black musicians who were relegated to the underground during the nadir of the crap cycle, and showed a knack for synthesizing emerging pop trends throughout their career.

And of course, they let a thousand flowers bloom. Along with those who followed in their wake — Dylan, Stones, Who, Kinks, Cream, Hendrix, and the re-energized Motown and Stax musicians — they turned rock & roll into a billion-dollar industry called "rock." So you all know what comes next.

By the time I was graduating from high school, in 1975, American radio was pummeling its listeners with some of the most amazingly crappy music of all time. Like I said before, there’s always been crappy music. But there’s never been a crap explosion of the likes of the mid-70s. Not only mind-numbing singles like "The Night Chicago Died," "Kung Fu Fighting," "Afternoon Delight," and... please don’t make me go on. I know they’re all humorously nostalgic little oddities now, but it was quite painful at the time, particularly if you could still recall when, just a few years before, the airwaves were ruled by giants. And meanwhile, the weasels were foisting crap like Journey and Foreigner on the masses, and making buttloads of money doing it. That was the pop universe the Sex Pistols invaded in 1977.

Johnny Rotten was quite explicit in his intention to destroy all that crap, which was what made his moment so exhilarating. The implicit critique was that "rock" had become a bloated dinosaur music, cranked out by rich, bored, stoned old farts, but also that it had simply become a cog in the machine of corporate capitalism. Which was true enough in a general sense, but the Pistols and their comrades built on the tradition left to them by their elders in the underground: Velvets, Stooges, Beefheart, MC5, Dolls, Ramones, as well as by cult oddities like Can and Lee "Scratch" Perry.

The next phase of the crap cycle was an odd one. The Pistols burned out much quicker than your average messiah figures (as seen in the fine new documentary The Filth and the Fury, at a video store near you). Like previous revolutionaries, they opened the marketplace for new sounds, and the Clash, Costello, Talking Heads, Devo and others rushed in to fill the vacuum previously occupied by the naked emperor. But much of this music stayed in the underground, and preferred it there. Meanwhile, the industry was much quicker to co-opt and sanitize the revolution.

The energy unleashed by punk continued to reverberate, inspiring countless new bands, as well as veterans like Pete Townshend and Neil Young. But by the end of the 80s, we were swimming in crap again. Rebellious new sounds like metal and rap had been almost instantly repackaged for us as hair bands like Poison, Quiet Riot, take your pick, on the one hand; and buffoons like MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice on the other. MTV had long since taken over radio’s role of defining the mainstream. And then, just like the Hollywood executives who had no idea why Easy Rider was such a hit, the music industry was stunned when an unknown band from Seattle sold ten million copies of its second album, "Nevermind."

Once again, Nirvana inspired a tsunami of creativity, and weasels signed unknown bands for buckets of money in an attempt to recreate the platinum. And suddenly radio was fun again, as new "alternative" stations started breaking the rules and playing some of the great neglected underground bands who inspired the "new sound." And boy, that sure seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it?

I don’t have to tell you at what stage of the crap cycle we currently find ourselves. The dizzying and glorious possibilities are now tightly constricted. Alternative was swallowed whole in record time, and formula resumed its reign. Of course there’s plenty of wonderful stuff percolating through the underground aquifer, but the airwaves are mostly ruled by hypermasculine rap/metal or by prepackaged hyperfeminine divas. That, or hyperadolescent prepackaged boy bands. What’s maddening is that we can still remember when the rules were thrown away, and there was room for tough women and vulnerable men and genuinely innovative youngsters.

But that was a decade ago. What we need is a new messiah to rescue us from the crap, and, naturally, start the crap cycle in motion all over again. In one sense the cycle itself has been co-opted, institutionalized, and reborn as a marketing tool for squeezing marketability out of hungry rookies. But in another sense, it can never die, since inevitably someone will come along whom the industry will not expect, blasting out rebellious new sounds they had previously dismissed.

That’s the good news. The bad news is, it may still be a while. The first crap cycle lasted ten years, but the second was thirteen, and the third one, fourteen years. Now we’re only ten years into the fourth. Gawd only knows when the fifth crap cycle will emerge, but it won’t be a minute too soon.


  1. Great stuff.
    My only serious disagreement is with your contention that pop music hit absolute bottom in the mid '70's. There was still great music coming from plenty of bands: Santana,, Steely Dan, Springsteen...and that's just the S's! Was music really appreciably better in the late '50's, or late '90's?


  2. I'm curious what you think of each messiah figure, in terms of to what extent you think they were a musical messiah, and to what extent you think they were a figurehead.
    I see Kurt Cobain as the most messiah-like, because of his talent, his isolation, and his v. early death. I see Johnny Rotten most as a poster-boy, as opposed to an actual leader of a musical movement.


  3. Re: your first comment, you misunderstand my point. It was not that there wasn't great music at that time; there was plenty - it was that the crappy music of those years was uber-crappy, a kind of crap nadir, some of the most craptacular crap ever created. And what made it disspiriting was that it was all over the radio, where as just a few years earlier, genuinely great music pretty much ruled the Top 40.

    Re: your second comment, if punk wasn't a musical movement, then I'm Dick Cheney. If there were no Johnny Rotten there would be no Kurt Cobain. I said above, though, that the punk moment presaged an odd cycle. The Pistols flamed out quickly, and much of their influence fell below the radar. Maybe the Clash are a better representative in terms of sheer artistic accomplishments. But the Pistols were the spark that launched a thousand other bands, and blazed that trail for the Clash and others.

    Lydon himself was a reluctant messiah figure, and reconfigured his stance to alienate casual followers via PiL -much like "Self-Portrait" and "In Utero" were reactions to being cast in a messiah role. But Lydon's post-Pistols music was also sincere in its weirdness, and revolutionary in its own way. Lydon paved the way for the post-punk underground to embrace the Krautrock/Beefheart axis as firmly as the Stooges/MC5 one that lit the spark.

    Does that answer your question?