Saturday, December 20, 2008

We Don't Need Another Hero

I don’t watch a lot of television. Actually I do watch a lot of TV; I watch entirely too much, but I watch comparatively less TV than most people I know. The list of things on television which I tolerate is very short, but there’s no need to get into it here. For the purpose of introducing this piece, all you need to know is that I watch the VH-1 Classic channel quite a bit. I tell myself that I watch this channel because it is the only place to see long lost videos I haven’t seen since college, but that isn’t really true now that we have youtube. I tell myself that I watch this channel so that I can see great live performances, and indeed they do show some of this. But mostly I watch VH-1 Classic for the documentaries. It isn’t that I like the documentaries or that I think they have anything interesting to say, quite the contrary, I watch like a rubber-necker at a traffic accident. I scream at the TV for giving me such bad information and presenting it melodramatically, until my wife has to leave the room annoyed with me. It’s getting so bad that whenever there’s a new one I already know everything they’re going to say. I don’t think this makes me especially perceptive. Unfortunately I think these shows are made with precisely that goal in mind: to confirm once more some cultural “fact” that we already know.

VH-1 is running this thing called the Seven Ages of Rock, inexplicably narrated by Dennis Hopper, and supposedly meant to cover the seven great movements in the history of rock and roll from Chuck Berry to something they call “British Indy Rock” which apparently has a lot to do with Oasis. Now I know that this idea is absurd, but I watch wondering if there’s any chance that something new will find its way into the narrative. To make a long introduction short, there’s nothing new here and I am particularly interested in the nothing new-ness of an episode called “American Alternative.” This is the installment where we rehash how Nirvana changed the world. The way they set it up is excruciating. Every segment between commercials relates to Nirvana in some way until we reach the final segment that details their rise and fall. It’s a story that’s been told so many times that it’s actually emerging as one of the master narratives of our culture. There was college rock; the REM got big; then there was Seattle; then Kurt Cobain killed himself; and no one has made music in America since.

I am trying to understand why the people in my generation need to be reminded again and again that Nirvana changed the world. Never mind that they really didn’t. One of the most cloying things Hopper says in the episode is that with the success of Nirvana, the “outsiders” won. What does that even mean? It’s such a shallow way to understand cultural events. No outsider won. Rather the insiders found a way to market the outsider to the mass market. Is that a victory? Do you think Kurt Cobain felt the satisfaction of victory that comes with the knowledge that jocks and date rapists dig his song “Polly?” Does In Utero sound like music that people make when they’re satisfied with a job well done? It is insane to say that Nirvana or Pearl Jam or REM or U2 ever changed anything about the culture at large. The same view that conceives of such misconception also leaves one helpless to understand why someone with so much success would kill himself.

But I should finish up with the subject at hand. I think it is more than simple nostalgia that keeps us coming back to the Nirvana story and clinging to it like a relic. Apparently we need to feel that something important culturally happened in our lifetime. And why Nirvana? Why something that happened when we were in High School? Because we have no patience. And since we lack patience we are without the context and perspective fostered by a reflective attitude. Look, here’s what has happened in American music that has been really, really, earth shatteringly important: Louis Armstrong, Chuck Berry and maybe Bob Dylan. If you want to talk about significant cultural change, in terms of popular music, those three are the beginning and the end of the conversation. After them you have to go into crazy areas like poetry, painting, theater, dance and performance art, architecture and independent film. But that would mean you have to dig. You have to look for culture that isn’t sold to you. It seems that my generation is no different than the others at finding our own way.

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