Archive for September, 2013

Manufactured outrage rules the pop world

Posted in Bent Notes Column with tags on September 17, 2013 by Todd

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While the hoopla generated by Miley Cyrus’ performance at the VMA’s grabbed all the entertainment headlines last week, The Replacements, a band that once embodied every outrageous impulse the former Disney cash cow strains so hard to project, were reuniting for a series of shows across the U.S. and Canada. The two acts offer a striking contrast between blandly manufactured pop rebellion and the kind of wild-eyed devilry that’s been carefully scrubbed from modern day music.

Cursed with a genetic inability to conform to an industry approved image, The Replacements broke out of Minneapolis Minnesota in the early 80s with a sound that combined equal parts hard rock, 70’s pop, blues and wrenching noise into music that looked beyond the punk clichés of many of their peers.

Composed of guitarist and vocalist Paul Westerberg, drummer Chris Mars, and brothers Bob Stinson and Tommy Stinson on guitar and bass, the band combined two unique qualities that immediately set them apart, the most important being Westerberg’s songwriting. As tossed off and random as they could at times appear, his song’s delved deep into the terrors of approaching adulthood without ever succumbing to teenage angst clichés or maudlin, emo posturing.

The songs also possessed something rare in any art form: a sense of humor. Leavened with huge dollops of black wit, Westerberg’s best material fused lonely ache and anger with an attitude best exemplified by Mad Magazine mascot Alfred E. Neuman—“What, me worry?”— to form a music that could be enjoyed both for its lyrical insight and its brain rattling momentum.

The bands other claim to fame, or infamy, was their, shall we say, casual relationship with sobriety, a state of existence that derived from the band members lower working class pasts as much as any search for mythical rock and roll excess.

The band’s records and live shows reflected that lifestyle. Though poorly recorded, The Replacements studio output is vividly alive, thrashing itself to the edge of chaos while somehow retaining enough control to avoid total collapse. Wildly accomplished pop melodies collide violently with swinging bass lines, corroded guitar leads and Westerberg’s pitted, barfly yelp to deliver some of the finest performances ever laid down by any American rock act.

On stage, however, the band was wildly erratic at best, often ranging from turbulently brilliant to painfully incapacitated over the course of a single show. To their credit, The Replacements never pretended they were anything other than what they were: improbably talented losers determined to break away from their bleak pasts despite their own worst inclinations. While the sight of an overweight, bald Bob Stinson peeling off jarring guitar leads while donning a pink tutu may have been somewhat disconcerting to audience members, it was by all accounts a wholly spontaneous act of celebration.

If anything, The Replacements were a throwback to the early rock and roll spirit of abandon, which was itself merely a remembrance of the rites once associated with pre-Christian Mystery religions, which emphasized the abandonment of the ego, intoxication, and musical transcendence. Or as Christopher Knowles’s, author of “The Secret History of Rock N’ Roll” describes it, “A personal connection to something deep, strange, and impossibly timeless. An opportunity to escape the grinding monotony of daily life and break all the rules of polite society.”

Which brings us back to Miley Cyrus and her utterly predictable attempt at provocation. Cyrus is the latest in a long line of performers dating back to Madonna and continuing through Brittney and Rihanna who are forever trapped in a world of sadly diminishing returns, where shocking the adults has usurped any attempt at musical relevancy, where age and maturity are no longer assets but foes to be fought tooth and nail once they begin to interfere with ones ability to writhe seductively or don translucent bikinis on stage.

As an end result, we now have the sad spectacle of a 50-something Madonna contorting her grizzled frame across concert stages in the same pseudo-erotic manner as she did 25 years ago, desperately seeking her bygone youth. It’s not outrageous or shocking, it’s simply depressing.

Sadly, the type of unpredictability exemplified by bands like The Replacements is simply no longer allowed in the entertainment world. It can’t be easily marketed or controlled. It doesn’t sit or fetch—or twerk—on command.

There’s no real happy ending to The Replacements’ story. In 1991 the band broke up, with not a bang and barely a whimper. In 1995 Bob Stinson died following years of drug and alcohol abuse. Westerberg, a high school dropout who was working as a janitor when he joined the other three members, has only recently returned to the performing world after years in the music business wilderness.

The reunion, which consists of Westerberg, original bass player Tommy Stinson and a host of hired hands, could never hope to approximate those early performances, not with half the band missing and the creak of age audible through the onstage roar.

But still, the songs remain, and words like this:

The ones who love us best, are the ones we’ll lay to rest

And visit their graves on holidays at best

The ones who love us least, are the ones we’ll die to please

If it’s any consolation, I don’t begin to understand them.” (Bastards of Young)

The Replacements genuinely loved rock and roll, and were laid to rest as little more than a footnote in music history. Miley, meanwhile, will continue ramping up the outrage on command until her pale, sneering visage is too withered to titillate. And, on command, the public will respond.

If it’s any consolation, I don’t begin to understand.

 

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