Defending the indefensible

Diane,

One good that has resulted from the Age of Irony is that it opened a raging debate on liking unhip things.  The debate is simple: we all agree that it’s now cool to like things that aren’t cool, but is it cool because we’re doing it ironically, or is it cool because we don’t care how uncool we are when we do it?

Chew on that for a minute.  Hurts your teeth, eh?

We all got here via trucker hats and Pabst Blue Ribbon and, I dunno, “The Real World”?  ABBA?  Lots of crap I guess.  Some of these things have inherent worth and some of them are pure dreck elevated to popularity with a knowing wink; the latter items we can completely disregard, because (as I hope I’ve made clear before) liking things ironically is no longer in this agent’s wheelhouse.  If it’s dreck, out the door with it.  If it has some inherent worth, I’d like to find it – and thereby plant my Flag of Coolness in the fertile ground of Not Giving A Shit.  Chuck Klosterman charged this hill with the fully automatic weapon of hair metal in his hands, but I’d like to go him one better and defend the truly indefensible – the stuff that you can ONLY like because you think it’s good, because it’s not silly or retro enough to like in any other way.

So let’s get to it.

1. Lynyrd Skynyrd.  I’m here to tell you, Skynyrd gets a bad rap.  They’ve become a kind of dividing line – Southern rock (and now classic rock, even) that identifies so strongly with red-state/old-white-guyness, that hipsters are forced to steer clear.  It doesn’t help matters that after the ’77 plane crash that killed or seriously injured basically the whole band, Skynyrd was reinvented in the nineties and aughts as a shitty modern country/rock band, pandering to redneck fantasies with some of the worst songs ever recorded.  Modern-day Skynyrd is inches away from being Toby Keith, and as such has no inherent worth, ironic worth, or even accidental/associated worth.  They are a black hole of suck from which no light can escape.  And that almost goes for the old, good Skynyrd as well; they’re captured in the new Skynyrd’s gravitational pull.  They’re in need of rescue.

Yes – I just said GOOD Skynyrd.  I stand by it.  Nobody did the Southern rock thing better – not the Allmans, not the Eagles (gag), certainly not Molly Hatchet (hack choke spew).  Pound for pound, Skynyrd was the best fighter in that division.  They had the songs – “Tuesday’s Gone” and “Gimme Three Steps” are personal favorites, but really you can’t fuck with any of their hits – and the lean, fat-free sound that made them rock harder than their peers.  Not only that:

– They had the most tolerable epic length, classic rock ballad that you’re totally sick of.  Listen to it again: even though it’s become a punchline for a post-modern non-joke, “Free Bird” is a better song and a more identifiable sentiment than “Hotel California” or “Stairway to Heaven.”  And between those three, the inevitable rock-part-at-the-end-with-lots-of-soloing works best in “Bird.”

– They often had a great lyrical and narrative stance.  “Gimme Three Steps” is the opposite of everything the band became by the time of “Red, White & Blue”; if the latter song is all about South’ren Americans gettin’ ready to kick some ass and take some names, “Gimme Three Steps” is a self-deprecating ode to being the LEAST tough guy in the room.  Great idea, great execution.  On another front it’s no accident that “Simple Man” was co-opted for beer ads a couple years ago; the song summarizes everything that’s good and nothing that’s bad about the mythologized American working class.  The theme is dead obvious: don’t be greedy, weather bad times with grace, be humble, be true to yourself and your family, blah blah blah.  Finally there’s the huge hit “Sweet Home Alabama,” maybe the band’s best-known song – which has lyrics regional and dense enough to have prompted either a feud or a long-standing relationship with Neil Young, and to get the band (mis-)billed as racists.  See here for a lengthy explanation.

– Their lead singer didn’t sound like a muppet.  I’m looking at you, Molly Hatchet.

2. Friends.  Part of the joy of this entry is laying bare the soul of my generation, which conceals the dark secret that almost all of us have secretly seen every episode of “Friends.”  It’s hardly my favorite sitcom – in fact I think the first season and the last couple basically suck.  But when I’m casting about for the TV equivalent of comfort food – when I, in short, need syndicated pablum to sooth my nerves after a work day – “Friends” fits the bill pretty regularly. 

What’s more, I pass no value judgement on this kind of programming.  I stand by comfort food and comfort TV as reasonable pleasures for a person to indulge in.  I like mashed potatoes, and I like “Friends.”  Nothing wrong with it.

“Friends” is not without flaws.  Far from it.  The early episodes were a Frankenstein’s monster of cheap and lazy ideas – a lot of stolen “Seinfeld; too many crummy pop culture references a la “Family Guy”; stupid gimmicks like the pet monkey and Ugly Naked Guy that plugged holes where humor should have been; and tacky, tacked-on drama that usually didn’t work.  Yet somehow the leaky ship got to floatin’.  The actors settled into their characters and produced a pretty great comic actress in Jennifer Aniston and a reliably funny sideplot guy in Matt LeBlanc – the latter surprising nearly everyone, since Joey started out as a sub-sub-Tony Danza conception with almost no use on the show except to trigger many of Chandler’s wisecracks.  The show found a better balance between the funny and the heart-tugging partway through, although later it tilted so much toward the funny (or attempted funny) that the rest stopped working altogether.  And it had a secret weapon: it attracted a roster of great bench players, those sitcom cameos and three-episoders that can sink or elevate a story with just a few tossed-off lines.  Tom Selleck did solid late-career work and fit right into the groove of the show; Hank Azaria did his best stuff outside of Springfield; Adam Goldberg played Chandler’s terrifying new roommate for a few episodes; and Jon Lovitz did one of his standard creep jobs opposite Courtney Cox. 

In hindsight, what was “Friends”?  Shallow, derivative, often gimmicky, sometimes too shrill and self-recycling.  Certainly not without its problems.  But for a massively syndicated show you can watch while you make and eat dinner, it glides in only behind “Seinfeld” for rewatchability.  “The Simpsons” weighed itself down with too many years of horrible episodes, and I don’t think I need to comment on “Two and a Half Men” or “The King of Queens.”  (Your mileage may vary on the issue of “Everybody Loves Raymond” – to me it’s the kind of stodgy, reliable/predictable show that I might have liked when I was 16 but have no use for now.)

3. Dane Cook.  Ha ha just kidding.  Fuck that guy.

4. Pop/punk, and anything else that commodifies edginess and rebellion for mass consumption.  We get it, Lenny Bruce: you were really dangerous before your hair started thinning, and there was a time when you woke up in ditches and attended anarcho-syndicalist meetings and whatever the fuck.  And yes, Hunter S. Thompson is great, and The Clash > Blink-182 by a factor of at least a hundred, etc. etc.  But here’s the thing: you can be mostly right about all of that stuff and still be kind of wrong in spirit.  And also, be a tireless bore to listen to.

Commercialized danger is as old as pop culture itself.  Make a little horror movie that has church groups up in arms but turns an enormous profit?  I guarantee a huge studio will want to fund your sequel and remake, and get you to direct their next blockbuster project.  (You just won’t be able to put any “tree rape” scenes in any of them.)  So you have a mohawk and tattoos – if your choruses go down like a sugary blast of Kool-Aid, we will get your body-art-festooned ass on MTV post haste.  If there was any money in it, Time Warner and Universal and Clear Channel would gang up to bring you “Piss Christ: The Musical: The Movie Adaptation Thereof” for summer 2009, starring Brad Pitt as Jesus and George Clooney as the guy who pisses.  And you know what?

– This ain’t new.

– This doesn’t really bother me.  Because your revolution was at least 90% in your head to begin with.

Since when does “pissing off people who are easily pissed off” amount to meaningful social or cultural subversion?  More to the point – and here’s the really interesting thing – IF IT DOES, THEN ALL INDICATIONS ARE THAT YOU MAY ACTUALLY BE ACCOMPLISHING SOMETHING.  You shouldn’t cry about how punk lost its edge; you should rejoice to see Bible thumpers on TV with their faces screwed up about nipples and curse words in prime time broadcasts.  Unless of course your entire and only goal was to bring down capitalism – in which case I have advice for you: break up the band and do something more useful with your time.  Don’t just rage against the machine – steal some blueprints, put on your ski mask, and go disassemble the fucking thing.*

The truth is that a lot of people who claim to want to be subversives are more interested in establishing and maintaining their outsider status.  And that’s fine, but it’s hard to stop my eyes from rolling when they get all self-righteous about it.

I feel like I’ve made enough stands for one day.  What else ya got?

* Special Agent Dale Cooper does not condone violent overthrow of the American government.  Or anything else.

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8 Responses to Defending the indefensible

  1. JimPanzee says:

    “…and there was a time when you woke up in ditches and attended anarcho-syndicalist meetings and whatever the fuck. And yes, Hunter S. Thompson is great,…”

    Just who were you talking to here, pal–me or Lenny Bruce? I’ll have you know that 1) my hair is not thinning and I’m still potentially dangerous.

  2. I’m talking to you, but calling you Lenny Bruce… see?

    But not really. I’m actually talking to a few mouthy media types whose tastes dovetail somewhat with yours (and mine, for that matter), but are REALLY angry about how everything today is less “dangerous” and “rebellious” than everything from the 60s or 70s (depending when their teenage years took place, or how nostalgia-prone they are). Sir, I hope you won’t think I’m flattering you, or secretly insulting you, when I say this: you’re smart enough to know better.

    The ditches/Hunter S. thing was an unfortunate coincidence. I should have gone with “dumpsters” and/or “G.G. Allin.”

  3. Ryan says:

    I think a more detailed comparison between the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd is needed – their catalog stands up stronger for me, but they rarely need defense from the critics.

  4. themcp says:

    I’d second Ryan, more discussion is definitely required on this topic. I dunno which I prefer between the Allmans and the Skynyrds… but I do like me some Allman Bros.

    In addition, re: the time before Skynyrd’s post-crash Red State incarnation– I submit to you the song “Mr. Saturday Night Special,” about as clear an anti-handgun statement as you could write. That song would simply not be written by post-crash Skynyrd.
    I also just want to say that “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” is awesome.

  5. I was going, but somehow failed, to mention “Saturday Night Special.” Good song, and just underlines the fact that the original band were hippie peacenik types. That was a much more interesting image than their current one (pro-war, deeply conservative assholes).

  6. Ryan says:

    Yep, just like Charlie Daniels moving from “Uneasy Rider” to “Uneasy Rider ’88.” I blame Reagan.

  7. themcp says:

    Charlie Daniels also had a psychedelic song called Rainbow Ride (I think?) that was clearly about drug use, and on the same album as The Devil Went Down to Georgia. And he appeared on a couple of Leonard Cohen albums.

    Maybe redneck Country Rockers start going conservative when they stop taking drugs. Like a lot of other people, I suppose.

  8. All that can be said now is – Neil Young won. He’s making albums about how much Bush sucks, and Skynyrd is making albums about how if you disagree with their Republican values, you can leave the country pronto.

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