Glam Rock Monday (Against the Culture Algorithms)

I have this little thesis that the height of western culture was at some point around 1975, with the crescendo beginning in in 1965 and the echo slowly fading through the late 1980s. As evidenced by the fact that popular music from that roughly twenty-year period, give or take, is awesome.

The best genre to illustrate this, in my view, is progressive rock – though all manner of art back then, from popular music to children’s films, sought to edify their “consumers,” and elevate themselves, by aspiring to the status of “high art.”

For this reason, I have a series of blog posts I occasionally write, called Prog Rock Mondaywhich highlights the best examples of this edifying trend in American and European culture in those two decades – mostly focusing on the “rock music” genre where there is little innovation today. I have majorly dropped the ball in recent months but I am going to try to make these posts now on a weekly basis.

“But, wait – people who were adults in those two decades – those are the baby boomers and Gen Xers!” I hear you cry. Yes, we’re talking about the achievements of a group of people who used all of the world’s oil in 50 years, bankrupted state pensions/social security and eviscerated America and Europe’s manufacturing base. While ruining the environment and causing the oceans to rise by half a foot at the same time.

We can forgive these folks for their failings, however, because (a) Elon Musk will fix them and (b) Boomer culture (dominated the 1970s) and hybrid late Boomer/early Gen X culture (dominated the 80s) was second to none. Literally all of it:

  • In film their generation can take credit for the Godfather, Shawshank, and Jack Nicholson. Star Wars (70s) and Indiana Jones (80s). Rocky. They even beat Peter Jackson to Lord of the Rings. By 30 years. Without computers. 
  • Broadcast television was actually an art form (compare Johnny Carson with the yell-loudly-banging-the-desk-and-say-its-2016 humor of John Stewart and his many clones, or the patently unfunny Jimmy Kimmel. Or Walter Cronkite-style news with any of these cable-anchor clowns today. No contest.) 
  • In technology, this was the generation of Gates and Jobs. They gave us mass air passenger travel, the personal computer, mobile telephony, and routine spaceflight.
  • And the Internet. They created that too (although the task fell firmly on mid- to late Gen X to perfect it. Then shitty millennials came along and gave us dank memes like Pepe the Frog and Instagram for Dogs).
  • In politics, they passed the Civil Rights Act (USA) and took the Falklands back from Argentina (UK).  
  • They also defeated the Communist death cult and its nuclear-armed state sponsor, the Soviet Union. By comparison, these days the U.S. can barely contain a few thousand lightly-armed jackasses throwing rocks at each other in the Levant. 

I’ve left quite a bit out, but you get the point. Much of this work (including building the first computers) was borne of raw human creativity, without the use of computers.

The glow of our laptops and cell phones disguises that we are living in the darkest of dark ages.

When it comes to music, the achievements of the late Boomers/early Gen Xers are simply overwhelming (Nile Rodgers, David Bowie, Moody Blues, Zeppelin, Floyd, Yes, Rolling Stones, Prince, the Beatles, Chicago, Allman Brothers, Michael Jackson… the list goes on). Much as Europe did with its music during the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, American musical prowess set itself apart from the rest of the world during the Long Peace of the 20th. 

These achievements stand in very sharp contrast to the cookie-cutter Taylor Swift / Beyonce / Carly Rae Jepsen / Justin Timberlake / Mumford & Sons and clones of today, whose modus operandi is to print off formulaic records that sell extremely well and can be produced (and impulsively purchased over the Internet) extremely quickly, but age extremely poorly.

Don’t believe me? Let’s compare some epoch-defining sounds of the 1970s against the epoch-defining sounds of today. Such as

  • the Millennial Whoop, a meaningless and unpleasant noise, alien to any style or musical lineage, which has come to be the part-yodel, part-mating call of an effete generation endowed with taste as discerning as a herd of starving goats and five-second attention spans optimised to the 172 different ‘apps’ on their phones, the 1,000 accounts they follow on Instagram and the time remaining until their next dose of Ritalin.

There is a reason that, after 40 years, Chic is still good while Katy Perry’s rise, peak, decline, and desperate, public clinging to what few shreds of relevance she has left can be measured in a little more than five. That reason is that the biggest stars were still creative individuals, upstarts, back then, and could do things like, oh I dunno, play a musical instrument or record vocals without the assistance of an auto-tuner.

For this reason well-packaged corporate acts in those days were less successful than the spontaneously-organised genuine article (see: difference between the Beatles and the Monkees).

And in the context of 1965-89, more people had the freedom to produce genuine art (and had the means to consume it) than ever before, mainly in the U.S., as this was America’s golden age, in the glow of which the rest of humanity basked as they recovered from two ruinous world wars.

Hence why American culture is so dominant today.

But it is not the same. Since then, both the speed and scale of our culture’s decline is alarming. People will still listen to Diana Ross and Led Zeppelin in 50 years. I doubt highly they’ll listen to Jepsen or Mumford & Sons.

This week’s example of aspiring to High Art – “Transformers: The Movie” (1986)

Anyway. Now that you know what Prog Rock Monday is about, this week, I give you the Transformers theme tune by 1980s arena rock group Lion. If you needed further proof that the 1980s were the zenith of American cultural empire, this is almost certainly it.

The film, designed to sell Hasbro toys, 

  • was animated-by-hand, feature-length, cinema-grade, and made for children
  • starred Eric Idle, Leonard Nimoy, Judd Nelson and Orson Welles, and
  • was set to glam metal.

Laptop speakers will spoil this, so you’ll definitely want to put on headphones or pipe it to your preferred high fidelity jambox:

And how the (abbreviated) hair-metal anthem appeared in the opening credits:

And here’s a bit of dialogue between two of my favourite actors, Orson Welles and Leonard Nimoy:

Such thoughtfulness. Such care. Such top-flight acting talent. For an advertisement for cheap plastic toys! 

They could not have made a more American film if they tried. 

What is beyond doubt, at least to me, is that 1986’s Transformers: The Movie could at least claim to have an artistic style to its presentation. Sort of like a really low-budget Akira,  except the supernatural world-destroyer – and indeed every other character in the film – is a giant space robot that can turn into a car. 

As to the theme tune, there is a strong argument to be made that this too aspires to high art. The combination of heavy metal and animation was firmly established as high art with Gerald Potterton’s 1981 classic Heavy Metal (with an accompanying soundtrack that ranks among the best of any in film):

And as it appeared in the film: 

This is, admittedly, one of the more light-hearted segments, and this film gets plenty dark in places. Definitely high art in my book.

But I digress. Transformers: The Movie‘s choice to go hair-metal is a clear acknowledgement of Potterton’s style, and an attempt to adapt that style and package it up in a way that was suitable for its younger audience and more commercial subject matter.

It may have fallen a little short. But I mean, come on – it was a movie for five-year-olds and they cast Orson Welles as a giant space robot. Credit where it’s due.

The culturally bankrupt successor – Michael Bay’s “Transformers” (2007)

Fast-forward to 2007, and all pretence of artistry was abandoned when Michael Bay directed the reboot. The new film, in its effort to appeal to the broadest possible audience – made more money as a standalone film, but wasn’t nearly as good.

They went through a lot of trouble to disguise this from their audiences. The newer version was live-action, but did not cast elder statesmen (i.e. Orson fucking Welles), choosing instead then-hottest-woman-in-the-world Megan Fox and then-not-totally-batshit-crazy, then teen-aged method actor Shia LeBoeuf in the lead roles. It furthermore sported lots of fancy gee-whiz CGI animation (sex appeal and polish of presentation which the hand-drawn original utterly lacked).

Together with some post-9/11 pro-American military propaganda to boot, which was conspicuously absent from the 1986 original:

Likely because nobody needed reminding, back then, that America was the biggest baddest country on the block. 

Anyway. On balance, the original was still a better film. The bells and whistles were enough to make the reboot a smash box office success, but not enough to conceal two decades’ worth of pervasive corporatist appropriation and cultural rot which spawned it – as betrayed by the faceless, cheap Hans Zimmer knock-off, hybridised mish-mash of a score to which film is set. 

Solemn-sounding yet simple, we’ve heard this theme song – this abomination – a hundred different times before in a hundred different films featuring gods and heroes of various kinds doing epic shit which we are meant to consume in a state of alert distraction: not thinking too much, nor having much regard for aesthetics.

Not memorable. Not fun. Not original. No artistry. This here is the “millennial whoop” of modern film. 

Frankly, it’s dreadful. Yet no-one seems the least bit bothered by it – I’ve never heard anyone walk out of a movie these days and says, “interesting film, but man the theme music was forgettable as f***.”

It’s forgettable of course because it’s designed to be – deliberately written to appeal to the widest possible audience, to cause the least possible controversy, and keep everyone firmly focused on car chases and explosions so as to draw in the largest number of paying cinema-goers.

This is a problem.

What went wrong in the last 30 years?

The core mistake of the second Transformer film from an artistic perspective is that where the first movie was unashamedly designed to sell toys, the second was designed to sell a movie and sell toys. 

For those of us who have seen both, this ruins the film. The integrity of the artists was at least somewhat firewalled from crass commercialism in the former; it was completely abandoned in the latter.

This is part of a broader cultural phenomenon which, while not unique to Millennials, is currently in a highly advanced form, and advancing faster every day.

That phenomenon is data-driven culture.

Screen Shot 2016-09-05 at 14.31.29.png
I don’t buy it

Back in 1986, a movie required effort to go and see. When you got there, you were there for two hours. You could not pause it or save it for a later day. Today, by contrast, we consume what we want – only watching this scene or that, only downloading three songs from an album.

Picking and choosing in this way from the Who’s Tommy, for example, would be desecration, like deciding you only want to read the first, fifth, and ninth chapters of Moby Dick, burning the rest in your back yard, and then solemnly declaring that Melville is your favourite author.

But doing that with Taylor Swift is expected and encouraged. Ours is a world where those who make the most money are the ones who appeal to the basest impulse, most effectively, in a manner which can result in a one-click conversion into a sale.  So our art is reduced to algorithms, probabilities, and “trending.”

If we can even call such material, which does not spring from the creative drive of an individual member of a culture but rather passively collects data about culture and attempts to adapt itself to it, “art.” 

In any event, we should be grateful we have the old art, because without it we would not have cognizance of how appallingly awful this new “art” is. This is why prog rock is special: prog rock was the last gasp of the American enlightenment before crass corporatism overwhelmed music, and indeed most of contemporary art in the West (leading to such talentless monstrosities as Damien Hirst).

Prog rock didn’t want to be easy to listen to. Prog rock fought back. And, ultimately, prog rock lost. But at least it tried, and fortunately it was recorded for our common posterity and a handful of bands, such as Phish, treat music seriously enough to be worthy heirs to its legacy.

I seem to recall Theodor Adorno once saying something along the lines of “the absence of a style is the surest sign of barbarism.” Deliberate avoidance of style for the sake of an algorithm, however, is something far worse. 

The solution, either way, is individual – either individuals working against market forces to try to come up with original ideas and succeed in the marketplace despite the culture algorithms, or individuals who (as I have) decide to opt out (with the exception of the box set of The Wire, I haven’t watched television for 10 years). 

That said, considering contemporary audiences neither want nor possess the patience to sit through an entire performance of something like The Wall anyway, why should anyone involved in the production of “art” have any incentive to care?

4 Comments

  1. Well said. Musical creativity only settled in popular music for a brief and shining moment in the 1970s (could Kansas exist or make Leftoverture today?) and 1980s. Since then real creativity has shifted to prog rock (Nightwish’s Imaginaerium album and the associated movie is a tour de force of meshing genres to communicate stories and music that is simply impossible in mainstream pop; Spock’s Beard produces prog rock albums that require multiple listens beginning to end before you can appreciate) or hard metal genres like thrash, symphonic metal, and even folk metal — where the center of gravity is Europe and largely Scandinavia.

    It’s the same phenomenon that caused the tasteless and utterly useless leaf known as “iceberg lettuce” to be the most popular form of lettuce in America. It is simply the least offensive (because it is nothing more than water-based texture) lettuce out there. Arugula is tasty, nutritious, and awesome, but some people don’t like the slight nutty / spicy flavor. So it’s out. Kale is tasty, nutritious, and awesome, but some people don’t like the thickness of its leaves or the texture. So it’s out. And so on. What we’re left with is a neutered banality that offends the least number of people at the lowest cost.

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    1. Couldn’t have put it better myself. Completely agree.

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  2. You guys act as if you can’t eat kale or arugula because Katie from 7th period prefers iceberg lettuce. Who the F cares what Katie thinks … buy some arugula, bake some kale chips, and eat the hell out of it.

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    1. You misunderstand us. Using the salad analogy, it’s not that we can’t eat kale or arugula (we can and we do) it’s that 30 years ago it would have been more likely that someone in the business of making salads for mass-consumption would have been willing to take the hit on profitability in order to provide kale and arugula as part of their offerings.

      We bemoan not the lack of kale, but the relative paucity of kale and the fact that most people seem content with iceberg meaning we are unable to relate to them by sharing our enjoyment of kale.

      Such shared experience among a people is commonly known as a culture, and its dumbing-down through inoffensiveness makes culture less interesting.

      What once passed for popular culture is now relegated to sub-culture; what once passed for trash now passes for popular culture. Adorno had the same complaint in the 1960s (one with which I agree). The thesis is that the 1970s was the last fight-back, the brief flowering of the American enlightenment, after which our culture irretrievably descended into barbarism. A decline which the culture algorithms are driving at an ever-faster pace.

      Just look at the iPhone 7 launch earlier today. Half of Sia’s performance was auto-tuned (and did have a millennial whoop as well). That passes for art? (She was better in her Zero Seven days.)

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