The Musical Avenger

BY JEFF LEVEN

Years ago Uncut, one of my favorite pretentious English pop culture magazines used to run a feature called “Sacred Cows: Reputations Reassessed,” in which they devoted one column a month to flat-out trashing bands who otherwise get a lot of adoration or unqualified praise. In some cases, they were clearly taking candy from a baby (bands with massive pretensions – Pink Floyd, for example, or even Frank Zappa, had careers full of overwrought missteps even if they were brilliant in their better moments), and in some cases they were definitely stretching matters (I mean, c’mon: even some mediocre songs, over-inflated egos, and self-seriousness notwithstanding, trying to earnestly malign the Beatles is just sour grapes.) But, anyway, the point of these columns was a good one: some bands get way too free a ride, particularly those that everybody loves and that sell a lot of records (funny that). And, to boot, I imagine those columns were great, great fun to write. So anyway, as I malinger through the rest of 3L year, stressed to the breaking point with massive final papers unwritten, student organization commitments yet to culminate, it seemed only appropriate that I avail myself of the Record’s column space to vent my feral elitist spleen, piss in a few people’s Cheerios, and trash some of the world’s favorite bands:

The Band: U2

Massive Weak-points: hmm….maybe the fact that, with a few late-career exceptions (which, with the exception of Achtung were almost universally sub-par), they’ve been making more or less the same album every two years, and even that sounds like Joy Division….then there’s the obvious point that Bono clearly thinks he is rock’s own version of the Pope, Jesus, and Gandhi rolled into one, but with way less fashion sense… why exactly do you make massively overwrought records with lyrics that say nothing in particular? “stuck in a moment and you can’t get out of it?” No one with less than a fourth grade reading level could have come up with that clever refrain… message for the Edge: smile grouchy – you’re a millionaire!

Cynical Explanations for Why People Ignore Their Faults: Bono used to be handsome, I suppose. Angst over lush guitar-work is always conceptually attractive. Longevity.

The Artist: Norah Jones

Massive Weak-points: has anyone noticed that the girl wrote less than half of the songs on her last Grammy-sweeping album?! If you are going to become the poster-child for all that’s good and holy in modern music, shouldn’t you at least craft some tunes? But of course, she fills a totally empty niche… an unassuming songstress with limited vocal range? We haven’t heard that since, oh, India Arie, Alicia Keys or Nelly Furtado!

Cynical Explanations for Why People Ignore Her Faults: She’s nice, it’s true, and we all want to root for that. A degree of Jakob Dylan syndrome – celebrity dads, high expectations and all that stuff tugs our heartstrings. Plus, Bonnie Raitt hasn’t put out an album in a while and the Starbucks pseudo-roots music rotation is getting stale.

The Artist: Eminem

Massive Weak-points: almost all hip hop in which guys talk about how cool they are and how long their penis is and how much dope they smoke and how many girls they sleep with is disposable which makes most of Eminem’s songs, um, disposable….but beyond that, Eminem takes the extra step of talking about how controversial he is, so controversial, in fact, that he does duets with Elton John, gets Academy award nominations, and…you get the point- Earth to overblown windbag – get over yourself.

Cynical Explanations for Why People Ignore His Faults: He’s lasted more than three full solo albums, which you won’t be able to say for 50 Cent, Ludacris, or DMX. He’s funny in a Bart Simpson potty-mouthed little kid kinda way.

The Band: Aerosmith

Massive Weak-points: for guys who used to be drug-swilling, groupie-chasing hellhounds, of late they have displayed a particularly aching desire to write hackneyed sellout treacle…to wit: the unforgiveable crime: “I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing”…Joe Perry mouths off about how the next album is gonna “rock,” and then we catch him selling signature tamale sauce and prancing around in videos with Cirque de Soleil… is it me or is Steven Tyler a Jim Henson creation…the Perry/Tyler schtick was way cooler when it was called Mick and Keef.

Cynical Explanations for Why People Ignore Their Faults: Kitsch value? Residual attraction to Alicia Silverstone? Sympathy? Boredom.

The Artist: Jimmy Buffett

Massive Weak-points: here’s a formula…people like to drink, so if I write a buncha songs about drinking, being drunk, and being bored with being drunk, and play them slow enough that middle-aged couples can waltz to them, I’ll be famous! Running a little bit of pot in Florida in the 60s and 70s does not make you a pirate, a renegade, or even a Berkman fellow…just poseur-island-music for Carlos n’ Charlie’s worldwide.

Cynical Explanations for Why People Ignore His Faults: The numbing powers of seasickness and tequila.

The Artist: John (Cougar) Mellencamp

Massive Weak-points: if Bruce Springsteen had less class, fewer teeth, and a tendency to imagine himself to be Van Morrison, he’d be Mellencamp… why take out the Cougar? It made you sound so tough…when you write something as subtle as “Small Town,” let me guess, you’re angling for invitations to the Iowa State Fair? Score points for preemption – it’s hard to typecast someone who typecasts himself.

Cynical Explanations for Why People Ignore His Faults: Well, Hee-Haw was popular, wasn’t it? Bruce tickets are hard to come by.

The Band: The Doors

Massive Weak-points: harrumphing Transylvanian mock-operas with a front-man who sounds like Robert Goulet on an absinthe bender…the fact that the bloody keyboard player was the brains of the group and yet insists on ruining its reasonably good name with ill-advised reunion tours…pure poetry like “ride the snake around the lake” – this kinda stuff gives hallucinogens a bad name.

Cynical Explanations for Why People Ignore Their Faults: The fact that Jim ruined the Ed Sullivan Show. The fact that Jim made our lives seem securely sober by comparison. The fact that their good songs are almost as overplayed as their bad ones.

The Band: Sonic Youth

Massive Weak-points: being the Jackson Pollacks of indie rock means just about anyone can copy your sound just by detuning their guitars, crashing around the studio a bit, dressing in Salvation Army gear and calling it art…gratuitous stabs at Madonna with their whole “Cicconne Youth” phase…a tendency to form side projects every bit as pretentious and boring as their latter day albums… it’s so hard to be cool when you’re too cool for coolness.

Cynical Explanations for Why People Ignore Their Faults: Indie snobs like me are clueless.

The Artist: Lenny Kravitz

Massive Weak-points: his alarming inability to write a song that doesn’t sound like a Hendrix, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, or Led Zeppelin knockoff…the fact that his band looks like extras from the Studio 54 set…that incessant “I Want To Get Away” song that he insisted on selling to one of those car commercials than ran twenty-three times every baseball game…his tendency to date and cheat on emotionally troubled actresses…that’s what we have Mick Jagger for.

Cynical Explanations for Why People Ignore His Faults: We did like Hendrix the first time, and instead of a visionary genius, we’re happy to settle for a retro fashion model.

The Artist: Ozzy Osbourne

Massive Weak-points: this may be kicking a dead horse, but when you have mush for brains, have trouble operating the remote, and still insist on mooning concert audiences with your wrinkly merchandise, is it really possible to insist on calling yourself the Prince of Dar
kness when the scariest thing you did was bite a bird when you were off your gourd on cognac twenty years ago? If this is what passes for scary, I’m way more afraid of Sebastian Bach – at least he threw bottles at teenage fans and stuff. The dirty secret about Ozzy is that there’s nothing he did that guitarists Tony Iommi or Randy Rhodes (RIP) didn’t do for him.

Cynical Explanations for Why People Ignore His Faults: Good bands, the fact that people were over-sensitive in the 80s and still got riled up about album covers, and the fact that he alone has been willing to let the cameras into his home to show how unscary he really is.

The Band: Led Zeppelin

Massive Weak-points: the fact that everyone who has come since sounds like them has proven to be a relatively bad thing- the format they’ve spawned has subjected us to hordes of Nicklebacks and Creeds with almost no “Kashmir”s to speak of…their tendency to rip off blues songs without crediting their original writers…Robert Plant’s over-indulgent castrati vocals wreck as many songs as they make… Jimmy Page’s willingness to pimp himself out to P. Diddy and David Coverdale, and a geriatric “let’s-do-every-song-Indian-style” Robert Plant only to bail on the Black Crowes tour when they finally goaded him to rock.

Cynical Explanations for Why People Ignore Their Faults: “Get the Led Out” has been drilled into our feeble, riff-craving minds. “Stairway.”

The Band: The Beatles

Massive Weak-points: Yeah, you heard me, it’s time for some sour grapes…let’s take Paul McCartney – what a talent he’s proven to be! Wings? “Silly Love Songs”… yup, sounds like “Yesterday” wasn’t a fluke! John Lennon- the only guy more obtuse than Bob Dylan, egocentric than Bono, self-righteously political than Neil Young, and insane enough to think that people really want to hear more about his Ben and J.Lo-esque private life on “the Ballad of John and Yoko”… the Beatles, the world-shaking rebels who wrote such rocking songs as “I Am the Walrus,” “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” and “Octopus’ Garden”…visionary. Good thing they toured a lot…oh, wait a minute – instead they spent time with the Maharishi, holed up in their mansions, and complained about each other’s writing styles…well, at the very least it’s a good thing they didn’t haplessly ply the nostalgia market thirty years later by churning out six discs of studio outtakes… oh wait. Nevermind.

Cynical Explanations for Why People Ignore Their Faults: Few people are as nitpicky as I have been in the last 1500 words.

While I suppose the above makes me a bad person, I for one am happy I got that off my chest…

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