I blame Elvis.
With Chuck Berry, Little Richard and other icons from rock’s first generation, he pioneered an incendiary idea: that music could be more than a medium of entertainment, that it could and should also be a tool of cultural revolution. It was not, after all, just music that moved town fathers to ban rock concerts and angry men with sledgehammers to smash jukeboxes containing rock records.
No, it was what that music “meant,” the notion of white kids mixing with black ones, of status quo under siege, of girls having sex before they were 30. More, it was the realization that the staid old lives the town fathers lived and the staid old things those angry men believed were about to be washed away upon a tide of change.
That big bang still echoes; nearly 60 years later, we are still wed to the idea that the music that has “meaning” is the music that causes unease. But it takes more to do that now than it did in Elvis’ day.
So pity Kanye West, the mercurial rapper who is in America’s dog house for his antics at last week’s MTV Music Video Awards. If you haven’t heard about it, you need to get out more. Suffice it to say he rushed the stage as doe-eyed teenage country music star Taylor Swift was giving an acceptance speech, grabbed her mike and declared that she didn’t deserve the award, Beyonce did.
It was par for the course for West, whose previous stunts and intemperate outbursts have earned him a reputation as unhinged and self-centered. Some have suggested this incident, along with Serena Williams’ tennis court meltdown and Rep. Joe Wilson’s boorish behavior in a joint session of Congress, signals a loss of American civility.
Maybe it does. But I feel it also suggests a popular culture that has run out of things to rebel against. Think about it: everything those city fathers and angry men of six decades ago feared has come to pass and then some. The black kids are making “babies” with the white ones, status quo died of natural causes and penis jokes are at home on prime-time TV. What was once the outrageous is now the everyday.
As popular music’s ability to shock has declined, its attempts to do so have only become more naked and needy. From Britney kissing Madonna on MTV to Janet Jackson’s bared breast at the Super Bowl to West’s serial episodes of juvenility, pop musicians now give us stunts that seem more desperate than truly dangerous.
It is perhaps enough to note that whereas John Lennon took a stand against war that nearly cost him the ability to stay in this country, the best many of his modern counterparts can find to stand against is the idea their pants should fit their waists. Popular culture is increasingly home to artificial outlaws and fake rebels, revolution on the cheap that looks like the real thing unless you look too close. Then you recognize the rictus grin of the birthday party magician, sweat pebbling his brow as he prays no one sees the rabbit in his cummerbund.
A few days after the MTV show, I got an e-mail from my friend, Grayson Hugh, who is the greatest singer/songwriter you’ve never heard. He was fuming over West’s behavior: “I was just reflecting how dearly I would treasure one minuscule fraction of the financial support he is being given by the record industry! It pains me (and angers me, too) to see ’celebrity’ musicians being so ungrateful and ungracious.”
But what else can we expect in an era that accepts ungraciousness and ungratefulness as synonyms for courage and rebellion? This is not, let me add, an argument about sound or style, but substance. Revolution is not a stunt.
And I submit that we actually have no shortage of conditions that still require rebellion. What we lack is the will to act. That’s sad. Once upon a time, music was brave.
Now we have only echoes of the bang.