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It just doesn’t hold up

By most definitions, “Art” is that which withstands the test of time.

I know, I know, that’s rather like saying “A sunny day is defined by a general lack of clouds,” or “If you don’t like a lot of talk about God then The Bible is not the book for you,” but I hear more palaver about what art is or is not than I can stomach. “It’s art because it makes so many people happy,” or “It’s so disturbing and revolutionary, it must be art,” are arguments so thin and inconsequential that they hardly deserve notice.

But notice them I do, usually with a bilious and truculent response. James Boswell well may have said of me, “He does not suffer fools gladly.”

I proudly embrace that I have no background in aesthetics, preferring to defer to Kant that the discipline (along with ethics) has no proper place in philosophy. The rigor of logic cannot be applied to it, there is no propositional calculus that can help us determine what is art or what is pap. No problem there: art really defines itself. No matter how many critics acclaim something as The Great New Wonder or how often the media injects us with the meme that we must simply adore this, that or the other, true art will ride out the phony babble storm and emerge as it is: an ageless, universal work of substance and influence.

Excuse the pedagogy, there really is a point here (in contrast to the usually pointless columns I slap up on this page) and it is here that I’ll declare that some music and bands — stuff I really love — has not held up well over the years.

As always, this is not an inclusive list; I could change the name of this column from “Random Shuffle” to “Music That Has Started to Suck” and reckon I’d kick that puppy into the era of flying cars and intergalactic skateboarding. Not a particularly interesting column, granted, and one with a shelf-life shorter than some of the music I’ll discuss here, so maybe it’s a good thing I never went down that road.

The Who. I struggled with this one as The Who has been one of my favorite bands, being one of the only “traditional” rock bands I listened to during the time I was completely immersed in Punk. Also, I have to say that some of their earlier stuff like, “Substitute,” “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” “My Generation,” or “I Can See For Miles” manages to hold up rather well. It’s their later stuff that has grown stale.

The worst thing about the Super Bowl this year was The Who’s decrepit performance. It was like watching a break-dancing competition between U.S. Senators. With their set list heavy on AOR playlist staples (and theme songs from the CSI franchise), the 12-minute show felt like the last lingering weeks of an antique relative who refuses to die.

Conflicted as I am by The Who’s inclusion here (Who’s Next is a great album), it pains me to say that their music — especially their output from Tommy, on — feels dated and irrelevant. I’m sure I’ll have a lot of detractors on this one (and my sympathies are with those critics) but I have to confess that my old Who albums have all the utility of one of Aunt Millie’s crocheted doilies.

Rap. Before any of you go all thug on me, I have to say that I like Rap, I’m not one of those relics who declares it’s just angry (or useless) noise.

Unfortunately, Rap has a very brief “Use By” date. What’s known as “Old Skool” comes across as quaint and nostalgic, not truly classic — a chance for has-beens to break out their harem pants, lycra and come their hair (or what’s left of it) into a fade.

The problem with Rap has always been that it lacks any real depth or musical complexity. Whatever innovation is introduced to the genre (and it’s a form that is extremely thin with originality) gets quickly dispersed, a sound dispersed across a thousand records over the next few years, until it is tired and overdone.

Furthermore, no Rap album has been consistent in excellence, from start to finish. Truly great albums possess a uniform quality across all cuts, such that the least selection would be a standout on a lesser band’s release. I can’t say that’s true of any Rap album I own. From Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet (or It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back) to N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton to Dr. Dre’s The Chronic to any of Jay-Z’s or Kenye West’s later work, no album maintains the kind of consistent virtuosity that holds the album up as a true classic.

’80s New Wave. The synth-pop and skinny-tie stuff from the early-to-mid ’80s is sufficiently charming (in a “Let’s get the MILFs up and dancing with one another,” perverse sort of way) but the music has, in general, all the appeal of an old gravy stain on a diner menu: you know it’s there, you kind of cringe, and then you look past it as you decide on your selection — with a slightly diminished appetite.

Even when it was fresh and new, the “dance” new wave of the Reagan years (not to blame Dutch, by any means) was kind of novelty music, anyway. Fun, mindless and infinitely danceable, the music was like lox at brunch: delicious early in the day, best to leave alone after noon.

Bands like Missing Persons, ABC, The Go-Go’s, Tears For Fears, et al, just don’t stay with us in the way that bands as U2 or R.E.M. have survived. The music is anything but timeless; it is decidedly locked into a time and place and fashion, with the reek of stale Le Jardin and cigarette smoke on a Desperately Seeking Susan Jacket.

This is not music to put on for any occasion other than a class reunion or for the entertainment value watching soccer moms get jiggy wit it.

Talking Heads. Again, I’m conflicted as I truly love this band (and, until a few years ago, counted Remain In Light as a stalwart Desert Island disk). Thus, it’s with a heavy heart that I admit that their music has not held up very well into this decade.

Which is tragic because the promise of the band was tremendous. Integrating world-beats, straight-ahead hard rock, ambient and quirky pop (early in their career they covered hits by ’60s bubblegum bands such as the 1910 Fruitgum Company and the Ohio Express), the Talking Heads were creating something different, new and exciting, embracing Rap and Disco at a time when Rock was in ferocious (and too often racist) opposition to both those forms.

So, what happened? After breaking up in the late 80’s (the band’s last albums were desultory affairs, indications of a unit in disintegration), lead David Byrne immersed himself in Latin music while the other members involved themselves in various collaborations that never went anywhere. The bold innovation of Remain In Light and Speaking In Tongues (or even More Songs About Building and Food or Fear of Music) hasn’t transferred to the new century.

The music Talking Heads created should have (I believe) been assimilated by modern bands but that hasn’t happened. Music took another direction and the Talking Heads seem to have little influence on that direction. Although songs like “Once In a Lifetime” or “Life During Wartime” or “Burning Down the House” are (over)played on film soundtracks, those are too often clever winks by a director attempting to make a sly point. As much as it pains me to say, Talking Heads have only made it that far into 2010 — and they deserve better.

XTC. There was a time in my life when I believed Andy Partridge to be one of the best songwriters and composers in Indie music and that XTC’s album English Settlement was a modern classic. Having moved away from an aggressive style of New Wave in the late ’70s, XTC started crafting a style of Beatles-esque pop that was both beautiful in execution and biting in its lyrical content.

I’m not exactly sure where XTC went wrong but my suspicion was they went far too overboard with their Sgt. Pepper’s obsession. While English Settlement had more than its share of Beatles-like harmonies and melodies, it was balanced with Partridge’s jaundiced view of the world and our society along with a heavy beat that indicated an evolution from their obvious influences.

Unfortunately, Partridge and XTC seemed stuck in a vortex between Sgt. Pepper’s and Magical Mystery Tour. Creating a too-clever-by-half side project (Dukes of Stratosphere), that extended Beatles psychedelia to overindulgence, XTC continued attempting to play in Pepperland, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies — all to saccharine effect. Indeed, their later work devolved into the innocuous Indie pop that Public Radio programmers love to play in order to prove their hipness.

Still, XTC looked to be hugely influential. There’s no doubt in my mind that bands like The Shins, Fleet Foxes, White Lies, etc., have had more than an herbal flirtation with XTC and while XTC’s music sounds badly dated today, their is more than a slight nod to their influence on today’s Indie pop music.

The The. Coming out of the Industrial scene in the U.K. during the late ’70s/early ’80s, The The looked to move Industrial from mere noise to something dangerous and danceable. Unlike noise merchants like Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle, This Mortal Coil, et al, The The not only possessed the gift of melodic sensibility but had the smarts to make it marketable.

The sole domain of Matt Johnson (with exceptional session musicians rotated for touring and recording), The The released two brilliant albums in the early 80’s that should have secured Johnson’s place in pop-music history. Both Soul Mining and Infected drew on a mixture of R&B and synth-noir (as well as dark Industrial roots) to have suggested a bright future.

The future never responded. As Industrial gradually embraced heavy metal (with bands like Nine Inch Nails and White Zombie), Johnson’s music grew more confused, less melodic. Had he continued with his muse (and bands like Muse appear to have borrowed a great deal from The The), the band’s influence might remain today. As it stands, it remains stuck in a stale zeitgeist.

I think all the music mentioned here does something well — captures a moment and holds it. But that moment is where we look back, not look forwards or even look at ourselves in this moment. And that, unfortunately, is not art.

jim@pagosasun.com