Saturday, April 24, 2010

Where Does Dylan & the Folk Revival Fit in the Mass Culture?

"In the United States we have, in a word, witnessed the decline of the “folk” and the rise of the “mass.” The illiterate folk, while unself-conscious, was creative in its own special ways. Its characteristic products were the spoken word, the gesture, the song: folklore, folk dance, folk song. The folk expressed itself" (Daniel J. Boorstin: 1992, 56).

"His milieu [Dylan’s] was that of the folk revival – an arena of native tradition and national metaphor, of self-discovery and self-invention…I was a place of the spirit, where authenticity in song and manner, in being, was the highest value – the value against which all forms of discourse, all attributes inherited or assumed, were measured" (Greil Marcus: 1998, 19).

In the United States, the folk revival represented a movement that gave a voice to the younger generation during the palpable social and political transitions of the time. It was the rise of a countercultural movement which took on the musical folkloric traditions of the time when the US was facing economical turmoil. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, a working class folk singer by the name of Woody Guthrie wrote realms of simple yet prevailing songs that vividly detailed the American experience. From Guthrie came the idea that songs could carry hard-hitting messages of social and political protest. A decade after, Pete Seeger, the Harvard college journalist student dropout, also projected a leftist ideology with songs of protest with his banjo.

The folk revival of the 1960s took on a similar philosophy to the ideals of Guthrie and Seeger. The moment that the “king and queen of folk” Joan Baez and Bob Dylan represented confirmed that music can challenge the political system and inspire the masses – all in the while of remaining as organic and truthful through the songs. Joan Baez has been a social commentator and a political activist till this day. In the PBS film, Joan Baez: How Sweet the Sound, she states that it was her duty to be a political activist as her social position was in the spotlight, and because the songs she sang about needed to parallel with her actions. Even though Dylan attended a few political demonstrations in his early stage of his career, I theorize he never wanted to position himself in the place of that political commentator.

Albeit his songs, especially for his lyrical content, which echoed anti-war and civil liberty sentiments, I feel it is safe to say that he did not want to carry the responsibility of being a representational leftist politician figure-like. I say this in the respect of directly voicing out the institutional discomforts without the song such like his comrade Baez did in every protest she attended. Dylan during the 1965 press conference interview in San Francisco was asked if his songs are “supposed to carry a political message,” of course Dylan’s answer was “Where did you hear something like that?” implying a “no” on my point of view. On a similar note, Baez states in the documentary No Direction Home by Martin Scorsese that she was always asked by protest attendees if Dylan would be joining her in political demonstrations. Joan would reply “You know he never comes to these things.” During his 1965 tour of England in the film Don’t Look Back he is interviewed by a Times Magazine journalist. Dylan says to the journalist:

"Are you going to see the concert tonight? Are you going to hear it? Okay, hear it and see it. It’s going to happen fast. You’re not going to get it all. You might even hear the wrong words. Afterword, I won’t be able to talk to you. I have nothing to say about these things I write. I just write them. I don’t write them for any reason. There is no great message. If you want to tell other people that go ahead and tell them. But I am not going to have to answer to it. And they’re just going to think: What is this Time Magazine telling us? But you couldn’t care less about that either. You don’t know the people that read you. I’ve had this hall [Albert Hall] filled up twice. I don’t need Time Magazine."

Furthermore, Dylan states that any classification that Time Magazine would imply on his persona would be wrong, and that they can not afford to print the “truth.” Dylan demonstrates honesty in his point of view as a musician while pointing out the falseness of corporate magazines such as Time. He points out the “pseudoness” and the sensationalism in the respect that the press may “hear the wrong words”.
On another angle, Dylan’s image with his acoustic guitar and harmonica, and the worlds of philosophy in his songs, was already in itself a symbol of resistance to the sociopolitical discomforts – with or without stating it directly in interviews or protests. From Dylan’s early albums such as Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin’ and so on Greil Marcus in Invisible Republic describes Dylan as “He was no longer merely a singer, or a songwriter, or even a poet, let alone simply a folk musician. In a signal way, he was the Folk, and also the Prophet.” He continues, “The sound of his hammered acoustic guitar and pealing harmonica became a kind of free-floating trademark, like the peace symbol, signifying determination and honesty, in a world of corruption and lies” (x). Furthermore, this demonstrates Dylan’s authenticity in the false industry of popular music. Though, during the height of his musical career during the mid 1960s, he was labeled of being a “sellout” during his transition from folk to folk-rock by going electric most notably in the Newport Folk Festival of 1965, were he was referred to “prostituting himself” with his leather “sellout jacket”. Although, looking at Dylan’s musical trajectory, the lyrical content remained similar with the exception of the amplification of volume and inclusion of rock instruments. I argue that he remained honest in the respect of representing his “true” self in the world of mass media and therefore authentic. It is “The advertising world [that] has proved the market appeal of celebrities” (Boorstin 58); the veil which hinders the folk hero’s authenticity.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Kurt Cobain: Telling It Like It Is

While acoustic instruments played a representational role in classifying the “folkness” or authenticity of an artist, like Dylan’s evacuation of authenticity according to the folkies in the 1965 Newport Festival performance, heavily usage of technology and electrical instruments may have seemed as inauthentic. The emergence of the conglomerate network of MTV in the 1980s with its MTV Unplugged was a method to demonstrate the authenticity of an artist under the close examination of lenses, despite the obviously “plugged” instruments – more heavily so after the Milli Vanilli lip-synching scandal and their revocation of their Grammy. Barker and Taylor state, “Clearly, MTV Unplugged fails this simple test: for it to be unplugged, we’d have to unplug our TVs. But on a less basic level, by presenting artists in a more-or-less “acoustic” environment, the program pretends to show us the most “authentic” aspects of the performer” (23). The 1980s and 1990s rock music went on several transitions, and the emergence of grunge was that which represented a raw, loud, and organic form of music, unlike the highly made-up and multi-layered rock-haired bands of the era – and despite its “plugged” elements. Grunge carries on punk rock messages of “being authentic…and simply telling it how you saw it” (Barker and Taylor 265).

Kurt Cobain popularized punk rock and experienced an incredible success. But people loved him not only for his music. Kurt also remained true to his roots. The higher he rose to success, the more evident it became for Cobain’s attempt to remain authentic. Barker and Taylor state, “While he loved a wide variety of music, a large part of his ethics regarding the music business came from the punk movement, were bands prized sincerity over skill and saw the corporate nature of the business as an enemy” (20). As only a selection of well known celebrity can land on the cover of the most popular yet commercial music magazine, such as the Rolling Stone, Cobain with Nirvana chose to cooperate, yet repress from diving full on to the integration of his new found celebrity. In the 1992 cover of the Rolling Stone magazine featuring Nirvana, Kurt wears a t-shirt that says “Corporate Magazines Still Suck”. Boorstin points out about the transition from heroes shifting to celebrities in magazines: “Studies of biographies in popular magazines suggest that editors, and supposedly also readers, of such magazines not long ago shifted their attention away from the old-fashioned hero. From the person known form some serious achievement, they have turned their biographical interests to the new-fashioned celebrity” (59). Barker and Taylor commented on Kurt’s choice of t-shirt by stating he “castigated himself publicly for selling out while continuing to strive for further success.” Furthermore, Barker and Taylor quote Cobain: “I don’t blame the average 17-year-old punk-rock kid for calling me a sellout. I understand that. Maybe when they grow up a little bit, they’ll realize there’s more things to life than living out your rock & roll identity so righteously” (4).

As shown in the documentary Kurt and Courtney by Nick Broomfield, this is what he said about his new found wealth and money:

You can’t buy happiness. I mean that made me happy for a little while. I look back at going to second hand stores and I was almost just as happy finding a little treasure. That actually meant more to me because it was more of a stab in the dark in a way. You didn’t know if you were going to be able to afford it and what you were really looking for. When you find it its more special to you rather than having a thousand dollars and going into a store like that or buying the whole store. It’s not as special.

He died at the peak of his career and many people have found it difficult to accept.
Kurt has been labeled a folk hero and called a God in his own right. But unfortunately “While the folklore of hero-worship, the zestful search for heroes, and the pleasure in reverence for heroes remain, the heroes themselves dissolve” (Boorstin 48). Barker and Taylor’s explanation of Kurt’s persona and his public deterioration was due to his struggle to remain as rooted, honest, and authentic despite the pseudoness and illusion of utopia that comes from being a celebrity. These authors state, “Kurt Cobain first approached music as a fan…Many of his attitudes came from observing how his musical heroes saw the world and wanting to emulate them…When he became a successful performer himself he knew well how the fans felt about him, the demands they would make, and the emotional connection they had with him. He knew that above all, his fans expected him to keep it real and to not forget where he had come from” (19).

In both cases, Dylan and Cobain represented a musical embodiment of their heroes in their own ways. They too remained heroes in their own right. Kurt Cobain’s final statement proved to be the most powerful, saddening, and enduring in the line between mainstream and authenticity.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Heroes in the Eye of the Hurricane: Dylan and Cobain

On many levels, music, authentic or not, has inspired new attitudes and trends, social movements, alternative ways of perceiving the world, and so on. Yet, on the other hand, it is clear it has also catalyzed a mass market for consumerism, commercialization, and therefore a world of utopian illusions. Both sides of this equation in the world of music and entertainment, authenticity have served different purposes for musicians and their celebrity statuses. Boorstin says, “Having manufactured our celebrities, having willy-nilly made them our cynosures – the guiding starts of our interest – we are tempted to believe they are not synthetic at all, that they are somehow still God-made heroes who now abound with a marvelous modern prodigality” (47).

The struggle for authenticity in the world of mass media, popular culture, and mainstream music has shown extreme results in the musical trajectory of many artists, as well as for Bob Dylan and Kurt Cobain, hence my two posts above. While they both represented their corresponding genres the best, Dylan as the folk rock legend remained genuine and pristine as a musician philosopher that sways mass media’s deceitful representations. And Cobain’s raw and raucous noise did take another approach on the notion of authenticity, but empathetic to the 17-year-old punk rock garage kid, who he justified himself to, as being real and honest. Just like Cobain expected for his personal heroes as a kid.

As Boorstin prophesizes, “While the folk created heroes, the mass can only look and listen for them. It is waiting to be shown and to be told. Our society, to which the Soviet notion of “the masses” is so irrelevant, still is governed by our own idea of the mass. The folk has a universe of its own creation, its own world of giants and dwarfs, magicians and witches. The mass lives in the very different fantasy world of pseudo-events” (56). As folk heroes rarely blossom today to their full potential due to the over sensationalism and falseness of media’s pseudoness, the greatest heroes of them all are those who have kept it real in the world of pseudo-ness in mainstream media representation.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Party Death and the New York Rock Scene

Raw, rowdy, straight up on the rocks, rock and roll – the Party Death emerges into the New York party scene. Appearing in 2006, the Party Death wrote their first self-titled song about of living life off the edge of a cliff which then became the name of the band. Having a series of break ups and different members, the current quadruple are together since 2008. The rock and roll group is composed of lead singer Joshua Lee, guitarist Jack Nightrain, bassist Dynamite Dave, and never least drummer Nathanial John.

While some of their early crazy adventures begin at Arlene’s Grocery making a pack to ‘destroy everything’. "I ended up doing a front flip and tackling Josh. I had my front tooth chipped and we ended up being banned from Arlene's," Nathanial explains. Their attitudes on stage as to the themes of their songs represent a revival of heavy rock bands like GNR intertwined with the psych of modern New York rock attitude. Though Josh highlights, "If you don’t write how miserable your songs are, then you get compared to 80s".

Currently, the band has a debut EP single “Mary”. They’re hitting up many of the New York rock ‘n’ roll venues and bars either performing, DJing hard rock classics, or just throwing down at parties.

While Jack Nightrain ferociously spits out dueling guitar riffs and hard rock power chords, Joshua Lee screeches out his tales of sex, drinking whiskey and apathy in the big city; bassist Dynamite Dave and drummer Nathanial John are a powerful and limber rhythm section that keep the music tight and solid. As Dave humorously encourages kids to "Not smoke cigarettes or become musicians," all in good fun of drinking whiskey and staying up till the morning, the Party Death’s music is gritty, loud, with a solid hard, and bluesy base. Like in the words of Jack, "We're a fuckin' dirty and hard rock 'n' roll band", and that's how it should be.