The Grammys: ‘Conservative’ art vs. conservative art

As Sunday’s Grammys proved again, the Recording Academy isn’t the most forward-looking institution. While it wrings its hands about piracy, even as the music industry crumbles all around it, the Academy lavishes honors on the retro pairing of metal dinosaur Robert Plant and bluegrass craftswoman Alison Krauss — just as in recent years, it’s chosen Herbie Hancock, Ray Charles, Steely Dan, the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack, Santana, Tony Bennett, and Natalie Cole (her Unforgettable duet with her late father took Album of the Year in 1992, when Nirvana’s earthshaking Nevermind wasn’t even nominated). I don’t mean to slight Plant and Krauss’ Raising Sand, an album I really enjoyed, but the Grammys have a long history of not recognizing the most innovative new music until the train has long since left the station. For anyone who was paying attention, last year’s most notable efforts in new music were Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III and Radiohead’s In Rainbows; at least both got nominated for Album of the Year.

It would be easy to conflate the Grammys’ aesthetically conservative taste with politically conservative taste, had not the fish in a barrel over at Big Hollywood reminded us a couple of times last week how absurd that path is. First, there was the post “Republican is the New Punk,” which tries to claim everyone from Johnny Cash to Johnny Rotten for the right, and which is historically wrong in about 563 different ways. Then there was the fine eulogy for Cramps frontman Lux Interior, a guy few conservatives had anything nice to say about when he was alive. In the comments for that item was the suggestion that punk is conservative because it was the back-to-basics reaction to the excesses of pretentious hippie art-rock (which, of course, came to call itself “progressive rock”). Here, the Big Hollywood folks are confusing aural conservatism (little “c”) with ideological Conservatism (big “C”). Of course, prog owed much of its artsiness to old-world modes of classical music, while punk’s shock came in part from its building on the experiments in noise and feedback launched by the Velvet Underground. Which genre, then, was really more innovative? About two minutes of listening to one of the Clash’s reggae-based numbers should be enough to disabuse any thinking, listening person of the notion that punk was conservative or reactionary in either its sonic palette or its politics. Still, the notion persists that there must be some correlation between forward-looking music and forward-looking ideals. If anything, the BH response to punk, like the Grammys’ response to today’s innovative music, shows that that correlation doesn’t exist.

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3 Comments

Filed under Grammys, In Memoriam, Music

3 responses to “The Grammys: ‘Conservative’ art vs. conservative art

  1. Jeff Blanks

    Ehhh… Hendrix was obviously doing “noise and feedback” at the same time, maybe before.

    The point about prog-rock is that it looked to other traditions as a way of expanding rock’s vocabulary–“priming the pump”, so to speak, making these other traditions serve rock. Maybe the time for doing so quite so blatantly has passed, but it had the right idea, and it’s still the right idea. (You might as well, say, call Eugene Delacroix “backward-looking” because he took Diego Velazquez as a prime influence.)

    Punk, in the meantime, despite all the noise sprinkled on top, is really a back-to-basics movement largely aimed at repealing the late ’60s and ’70s–it’s essentially a way for people who didn’t like what was going on at the time and preferred the rock’n’roll of the past to find their own way forward. That’s fine, I suppose (though obviously it’s not my own way), but if they want to have their party, they have to let me have mine, too. And look at rock history since then: The Ramones look back to 1964. Green Day looks back to the Ramones (or maybe the Descendants)–so now we’re looking back at music as old as the jazz some prog-rockers looked to (to say nothing of the fact that the prime source of classical influence in prog-rock was 20th-Century stuff on the Bartók/Stravinsky model). Anyway, Green Day have unbroken success and wide influence to the present day, making essentially the same music throughout, not growing as musicians and songwriters to the extent that the Beatles or even Yes did. No one calls them out on it. No one calls them “old” or “dinosaurs”. No–they, and punk in general, are lauded for sticking to their guns. Classic rockers and prog musos tried to be “flexible” in the wake of punk and new wave, with negative results on balance. Why shouldn’t they have held fast, too? Doesn’t that seem hypocritical (the very accusation punk likes to hurl most at others)?

    Yes, there were problems in the late ’70s–big ones. But punk wasn’t the solution (at least on the surface), because style wasn’t necessarily the problem. Now who could even imagine punk being “overthrown” the way punk meant to do to classic rock? It has too many friends in the press and the industry–the fix is in and no one questions it. (Though I’ll admit classic rock has been less well-served by its fans that it could’ve been.)

    Point is, it’s perfectly sensible to frame punk as conservative, because more than anything else conservatism, like punk, is about repealing the ’60s (or at least The ’60s, Maaan).

  2. Jeff Blanks

    ADDENDUMB: OTOH, there are passages in the Clash clip that actually remind me of ’60s, Maaan rock (despite the insultingly bad vox). In any event, it’s a somewhat different, updated flavor of I-IV-V rock’n’roll, not something fundamentally innovative. Here’s the test: Would it sound as innovative in a more “conventional” arrangement?

  3. Pingback: Are the Oscars Liberal or Conservative? | Pop Culture Warrior

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