Pawtucket, Rhode Island, 2017:
I have a love/hate relationship with Patti Smith. She was visually compelling, and her music is excellent, but she’s preachy as shit and pretentious. There’s some quote from Jim Carroll’s “Forced Entries” — Jim is hosting Ginsberg, and Allen says something to the effect of, “Your poetry’s great, but what are you going to write about when they throw us in the camps?” Carroll was, of course, ambivalent towards the criticism. His life was framed by the Cold War, and he preferred to write about fantastical, experiential shit unrelated to current events. That was his happy place, and that was his prerogative, thankfully, and the elders of literature would probably agree.
Carroll found a band and applied his poetry to their musicianship at Patti Smith’s insistence and with her assistance according to his account. They exist as male/female counterpoints in the same musical game, only Carroll did it better. Smith’s lyrics are demanding, overly confident, and annoyingly self-righteous. She knows her opinions are right, at that moment, 1977-1980-ish, and her saintly scream grates the ears with ego-driven false martyrdom. It’s irritating. Yes, you were the hippest thing on the planet in the second when you shone brightest. Don’t have to fucking advertise it, bitch.
Jim Carroll’s lyrics from the same period are self-effacing, funny, and, appropriately, display the exact opposite attitude. He’s doubting it all in those three records. He’s examining his own mistakes, documenting, writing about life the universe and everything, but in a speculative, questioning fashion. He doesn’t pretend to know shit. He makes declarations, but they’re all honest, class-based declarations. “No more luxuries,” is a point and a laugh more than a political statement. Carroll was poor. Smith chose to be poorer than she was. Seems small, but there is a distinct difference.
As a result, in my opinion, Carroll’s work will hold up longer if the world can manage to remember he existed. It speaks to the universal human condition and not the time in which that shit was written, and last I checked, that was the definition of timeless. Could be wrong, but that’s the basis for the following argument.
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In 1976, David Bowie caught crazy shit in the British press for being a coked-up working actor and spewing impulsive nationalist rhetoric all over the American music media. It probably lined up with his Thin White Duke character in his poor, pretty, drug-addled head, and by his own admission, he didn’t think the comments through, and some of it derived from an obsession with the Templar knights or some crap. He eventually said something like, “Fuck, man. All my musicians and half my girlfriends are black. Fuck, man. you thought I was serious?” I believe him, having watched the end of the story, the artist’s full development as a human being/character in popular culture.
As it happens, almost everyone else believes him now, too. Everyone loves David Bowie in 2017. He’s a fucking dead Da Vinci in 2017. In 1976, the National Front didn’t get the joke, didn’t accurately assess the sanity of the messenger. They seriously considered him their Aryan advocate within the world of rock until about 1983, when he hijacked an MTV interview in order to demand of Mr. First VJ why so few black artists were featured on the station. I’m sure there were some hangers-on for a bit after that, but marrying Muslim Iman was probably the last nail in the coffin for any remaining idiot Nazi stragglers.
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Taylor Swift releases a new single. I don’t care for most pop music from the past decade. Katy Perry and Lady Gaga are both fun to watch with the sound off, but their songs are shit. Kanye West is a better slow-motion car accident than performer. Frankly, I lost interest in rap shortly after “Doggystyle,” so all that bullshit’s out of my realm of legitimate criticism. Rap went from honest writing about hard fucking life to gloating about ones finances nearly twenty years ago, and it’s a damn shame as far as I’m concerned. The only two bright spots are, as far as I can tell, Beyonce and Taylor Swift.
I had to actually educate myself on Beyonce’s latest work for this piece, which is embarrassing. I was a teen musician in Houston when Destiny’s Child was a local act, same time, same general scene I suppose, but completely different venues, and I certainly read about her in the Houston Press and later the Chronicle. I should have kept track out of sentimental hometown pride, but I didn’t.
Take-away: Lemonade reminds me of Smith’s Horses. She knows her opinions are correct in this era, mid-twenty-teens, and she’s shouting those opinions from her rooftop to vast, smug applause. The poetry is sound, as is Smith’s, a litany of words that are beautiful to the ear, validate quite obvious emotional sentiments, and offer no solutions to the dilemmas presented nor original ideas. The music’s delicately produced, songs are pretty enough, but none are mind-blowing. In the end, I found the pregnancy photos more artistically compelling.
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On the flip-side, I immediately fell in love with the campy, catchy, satirical, and frivolous new video from Taylor Swift, “Look What You Made Me Do.” It made me do all sorts of terrible things, like buy a shirt and pre-order the album, if only to rip it and then film a video of the physical copy on fire to promote my punk band, The Inhumanoids, who by artistic concept hate everything, even things I may actually like.
A few days after accepting this ear-worm into my life, alongside 1989 and some of her back catalogue, I began to notice a slew of anti-Swift articles. No quotable substance, just… Yeah, haters hating. I couldn’t understand why — the work was good, irrelevant to current horrible events, and the video was funny, self-effacing… re: Jim Carroll and not Patti Smith.
I see the comparisons to “Formation” in the fanning, unfortunate, antebellum portion of the video. I believe she’s referencing its pop relevance and not mocking it, but even going there is tone-deaf as fuck. Personally, I wouldn’t have touched that with a ten-foot pole, not as a white performer navigating a much-needed civil rights revolution, but she did, and so it goes.
Reminder to everyone who loves Bowie in 2017: It was equally tone-deaf when Bowie ignored the economic plight of late 1970s England and eschewed punk, believing rightly that he’d already conquered that genre, and instead fled to Berlin and made music that ranged from incomprehensible to interesting to genius according to the current British and American press. The content of the Berlin Trilogy is almost exclusively narcissistic. The only social issue addressed is wife-beating, and it appears on the last of the three albums, not-even-arguably the worst, when Bowie’s habit of phoning-it-in began to first emit odors, the infamous Lodger.
Why didn’t Bowie write about social issues before 1979? Because he was young and more interested in writing about his personal experiences, even if he was too shy to do more than hide his life’s story behind heavily caked artifice. He wasn’t especially concerned with creating social change; he was motivated by his artistic ambition, and only addressed his fear of creeping fascism through allegorical sci-fi rock opera. In short, politics wasn’t really his shtick, and as proven by our current American administration, that’s probably a wise life choice for any eccentric performer.
Bringing us back to Taylor Swift: She appears to be in a similar situation. I didn’t realize this a month ago, but apparently the hard, racist white right thinks she’s a goddess. She’s blonde! (Is that it?) They think she voted for Trump because she didn’t say she didn’t. (Is that it?) Let’s all sit back and remind ourselves: She doesn’t have to reveal for whom she voted, her original genre is country, The Dixie Chicks never recovered from criticizing Dubya, and she has no control over who likes her or why, and neither did David Bowie, everyone’s current “Hero” extraordinaire, back in the dark ages of 1976 when he was being vilified on an equivalent level.
She’s no Bowie, not even close, not by a scintilla, but she’s unique, and her work’s distance from reality shouldn’t make her a pariah. I prefer that it isn’t about the shit currently going on, actually. She’s not qualified to talk about it, it’s admirable that she recognizes that, and the current state of affairs is fucking depressing subject matter.
I’ll probably write about this again once I hear the whole album. If it sucks, I’ll eat a basket of crows happily. If I like it, I might forget to say more, and simply post a video of Reputation in the backyard fire-pit without explanation. Let it be said: No disrespect intended. There’s the moment, the second the work exists, and then there’s eternity. Beyonce will be Patti Smith in the twenty-teen pop history books, and Swift won’t be Jim Carroll, nor Bowie, maybe Cyndi Lauper or some crap, but she’ll be there somewhere, doing whatever the fuck she does, sure as shit.
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Aw, shit, I almost forgot. Next week: Nothing! Don’t you know by now to check in once a month at best? Okay… ahhh…. a complete examination of which woman turned me gay, Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman or the Lubriderm spokeswoman with legs to her face snuggling an alligator. ‘Night!