Friday, March 25, 2011

Corporate Rock and Cultural Capital

I’ve always thought of Rush mainly as a progressive rock group. Of course, genre allegiances are open to endless argument, and Rush has been accepted at various times as a metal band and classic rock band. Some fans would argue that no genre adequately defines them.

I while back, when I was reading a blog entry from Tom Beaudoin at Rock and Theology, he talked about how he took abuse from friends and colleagues for liking Rush, as well as a host of other bands that were known in the late 70s and early 80s as corporate rock. He also liked Journey, Styx, Winger, and Billy Squier.

I remember in high school, there was definitely a demographic that listened to Rush as part of the same grouping Beaudoin describes. And Beaudoin talks about how his musical choices were informed, at least in part, by the social and economic conditions he grew up in, which sounded like a large working-class family struggling to get by. His favourite rock groups were, he says, considered déclassé by most rock critics and middle-class fans, but they were his lifeline, his means to express anger and make sense of his social experience.

However, I think that déclassé reputation is part of the reason why I always preferred to think of Yes or King Crimson as Rush’s peers, instead of Boston or Styx. Prog rock had its image problems with the critics, but so-called corporate rock is probably the most disrespected genre that ever attained popularity in rock’s history.

So corporate rock lacks cultural capital. Some of these bands aren’t even in some of the big “who’s who” rock encyclopedias – my copy of Rock: The Rough Guide contains no entries for nearly all of these bands (except Rush!). Apparently, they aren’t even worth remembering, they have no niche in rock’s history.

Like country music, it’s the kind of thing that hip, liberal, middle-class music writers despise, unless they approach it with a big dose of irony. A lot of underground, underclass and subcultural music is valued by hip, white music fans, but music preferred by white, working-class fans in larger numbers is treated like cynical pop culture garbage.

So what’s so bad about it?

A lot of Adorno’s logic gets levelled at corporate rock. It’s formulaic, it’s commercial, it’s aimed at a mass audience, it seems to have arisen at a time when rock was no longer emerging from underground scenes. Indeed, the punk and indie scenes that started springing up at the end of the 1970s seemed to be a response to this problem of rock’s co-optation by big business, and, of course, stuff like Rush, Styx and Boston were considered the “dinosaurs” the new wave was trying to displace.

There’s the problem of authenticity that goes along with corporate rock’s mass appeal. It was hard to legitimize this music with either “art” or “folk” notions; it seemed to be the result of pop craftsmanship. I have to admit, some of this kind of rock does sound like a showbiz production. I remember listening to a Styx album when I was 14, and I thought there was something very “Broadway” about it. Not just that it had a theatrical theme, but that the vocals sounded like polished Broadway musical voices. And many of the musicians in bands like this played like accomplished session musicians – the members of Toto, for example, actually were – and they played cleanly and expertly, like musicians in professional Broadway pit bands.

There’s probably a host of other reasons for these groups’ dismissal. Rolling Stone critic Steve Pond wrote an article in 1982 on this genre labelling them “faceless bands,” as imageless, uninteresting and interchangable. I remember some musician friends of mine criticizing them for their power ballads, and it seemed like the way these groups courted a female audience interfered with hard rock as a male bonding exercise.

I think corporate rock would make a great study topic from the perspective of cultural capital, at least partly because exemplifies some of the illusions Americans have about class, mass culture, taste and identity. And I’ll bet the recent re-popularization of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” by the TV show Glee has done little to recuperate the genre’s reputation among hip music fans. But who knows?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

On the American Celebrity

I'm excited to read a book that just came out -- Celebrity Culture and the American Dream: Stardom and Social Mobility -- by Karen Sternheimer.

I'd been trying to formulate some thoughts on the relationship between celebrity and class, because it's such a revealing aspect of American culture. And Sternheimer's book looks like it addresses exactly this topic.

Celebrities are kind of like royalty. Fans who meet them are often overwhelmed emotionally, a lot like people feel when they met princes, queens and kings. Indeed, the fantasies people talk about with meeting, romancing, and maybe marrying a star compares favourably with the same fantasies people had about marrying into royalty in eras past.

But there's a distinctly American aspect to the whole "star" thing. Stars are supposed to be made, not born. Celebs are people who were like us, but climbed somehow to dizzying heights. Fame and fortune, for the movie star, singer, or TV personality, is the reward for talent, perseverance, luck, or some combination of these. They embody the American Dream because they show dramatically how changeable class is in America. Rags to riches.

Of course, celebrities also aren't like us. They don't have the privacy and anonymity most of us take for granted. Their wealth and lifestyles are anything but ordinary. Whatever the exceptions, they do become a class of sorts, living in similar enclaves, dating and marrying within their class, consuming expensive clothes and gaudy accessories appropriate to their station. Celebrity is also at least somewhat inheritable -- children of celebrities often follow in their famous parents' footsteps, using name recognition and connections, just as any other kind of wealthy family would.

For me, celebrity culture is compelling to observe at least partly because it can so weirdly, awkwardly blend upper-class licence with otherwise "unclassy" behaviour. There are plenty of examples in pop music where lifestyles marked by debauchery, indulgence, and immodest behaviour is at once "trashy" and "decadent."

In rock, this mix is well illustrated by a career (replete with exaggeration and innuendo) like Motley Crue's. In a Creem interview from 1984, they describe their sex and drugs lifestyle as that of a bunch dead-end blue-collar teens, but that rock stardom allows them to continue that lifestyle with "better drugs" and more frequent sex.

It also comes though in interesting ways with recent pop divas, where the power of celebrity allows them to exploit and exaggerate their own sexuality in ways that are pretty much unaccessible to average girls. Divas may provide fantasies about glamour, sex appeal, etc., to that audience, but fame and money allows them the licence (that most others don't have) to wear the clothing, act out the moves, and sing the words.

Of course, celebrity licence isn't unlimited, as lifestyle trainwrecks from Britney to Charlie suggest, although people watch these things unfold partly because they wonder (as Sheen even has out loud) -- how much can they get away with?

American historian Peter Stearns wrote about something like this in American Cool: Constructing a 20th Century Emotional Style, where he noted that the big difference between rich people and the middle class, in terms of emotional life and style, is that the rich have licence to be outrageous. They can go ballistic, be unrestrained emotionally, pull outrageous stunts, and so on, because their wealth frees them from consequences. Middle class people need to be more restrained because their jobs and lifestyles require it. They need to avoid offending people, or appearing unbalanced or ineffective, if they want to keep their jobs and prosper. Is that one reason why we find celebrities' lives so fascinating?