31 August 2010

Johnny, don't point that gun at me

This morning I listened to an old Fresh Air podcast that featured John Mellencamp. When I'm choosing what to listen to on my commute I don't pay much attention to detail - just that it's the latest episode that I haven't listened to yet. When I heard Terry Gross introduce John Mellencamp, I almost turned it off. I figured, having no real interest (read: admiration for/respect) in his music, why would I be interested in his personal life? But that's exactly the argument I used to convince myself to keep listening, and I'm glad I did. I mean, I never hated John Mellencamp, but his music was always just kind of not entirely unpleasant background filler.

During the interview, he played bits from some songs off his latest album, which came out in 2008, as well as some of his old stuff, the popular (pop) stuff, but note, not poppy stuff. At least not now. He kept insistently reiterating to Terry, who was harping on the old John Mellencamp, that he is now, and has always been, a folk musician. The "old" John, he of "Pink Houses" and "Small Town," he was made, puppet-like, to craft his songs for the general public. He made his folk songs with an anthemic twist, because that's what the people (and the record labels) wanted. When he played them in the studio on his acoustic guitar, they sounded vastly different - the entire mood changed. He refers to Bob Dylan as the greatest songwriter, ever, citing him as one of his biggest influences - and you can hear it on the 2008 album. The first song he learned to play on guitar was the ollllld folk song "Railroad Bill." So there's a little street cred, if you needed it.

After all this talk about Mellencamp, it's not so much he the person, the musician, the interviewee that, ahem, struck a chord, if you will. It's what he said about anthems - the way he seemed, well, almost revolted by them, as if they're a sub-par musical form. This sentiment resounded so deeply with me because we, the generation that had John Mellencamp and like tunes fed into our earballs at knee-high to a grasshopper type ages, seem to love us some anthems. But also it seems like Mellencamp's revulsion is justified - those anthems, back then, were cookie cutter stadium rock anthems, one hit wonder types (with a few worthy exceptions, notably U2). Our primal musical inspiration comes from those catchy, danceable, sing-along-able anthems, but we've done something to the form - we took that tired old cookie cutter and molded into a a thing of beauty - sweeping, orchestral, uplifting songs - thoughtful and well-crafted but equally (or more?) catchy, danceable, and sing-along-able as the old anthems, the ones John Mellencamp finds so unbearable. Of Montreal, Arcade Fire, Muse, Temper Trap, to name a few obvious one. How about this new Deerhunter one (a particularly epic performance of), or this  Hot Chip cut? Bangers count, by the way (think summer 2k7, when MGMT, MSTRKRFT, Peter Bjorn and John, and J.U.S.T.I.C.E. were blowing the fug up). So, somehow, predictable, and yet complex enough to satisfy the aural cravings of even the most cynical music critic. Actually I guess that's a kind of redundant statement. DId ever there live a remotely un-cynical muisc critic?

To call it primal musical inspiration brings to bear two instances of primality - ontogenetic and phylogenetic. There's the individual's relationship with music - I grew up listening to Beastie Boys, Rick Astley, and Depeche Mode. That's me, in a nutshell. Then there's the species - humans are musical creatures. There's something about the anthem, something visceral that communicates with the collective unconscious - the anthem is not about being alone in your room chillaxing at the end of a long day - it's about being-with, it's about experiencing musicality, with others, in a pre-verbal way; sure, songs have lyrics, and sure lyrics matter (for me, they matter a lot), but it's not really about the lyrics - it's about the feeling of singing them together - even when you're singing alone.

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