December 02, 2010

Quintessentially Shallow and Timeless

Sometimes it seems as though the Internet is always listening, and contrives to place documents before you to prove you wrong from time to time, just to show you that it can.

To wit: just last week I was telling tales of days of yore to a person who wasn't around all the way back then. She was amazed and I believe a bit shocked to learn that there was a time when the Monkees would often be cited as the defining example of "lame" when it came to pop music. If you wanted to say something was devoid of value and beneath contempt, you would compare it to the Monkees. If you wanted to insult someone's musical taste, you had only to say "he probably thinks the Monkees are real boss," or something like that. This was standard. It worked on people, too, though it didn't work on me. I was weird. I loved the Monkees back when people still mentioned them primarily as an easy insult, and I love them even more now, if such a thing is possible. They may not have been Dylan or the Beatles, but their records hold up quite well compared to those of everyone else who wasn't Dylan or the Beatles, and even compared to some of the ones recorded by people who actually were Dylan and the Beatles. Everyone can't be D. and the Bs. Not being Dylan or the Beatles is a category that encompasses the entire population of the world, other than five people. If you're going to judge pop music that way, you're going to have to rule out a lot of great stuff. I mean, do it if you want, but it's your loss. (In fact, though, in my time, the Great Big Important bands people were always comparing the Monkees unfavorably to were apt to be, like, Boston, Rush, and Jethro Tull rather than Dylan and the Beatles. So that's funny.)

I believe this Monkees derangement syndrome had its roots in the 60s generation's misguided pretensions about authenticity. How could something be good, I imagine them to have reasoned petulantly through a haze of marijuana smoke and unkempt bangs, if it didn't spring from the ground of its own accord, like the Doors, man, or, you know, a flower? (I guess I'm kind of picturing a room full of stoned Lori Partridge-y TV hippie daughters complaining to their parents about how things aren't "relevant.") How could something contrived , fabricated, and hyped by the great brainwashing machine of commercial culture be worth listening to?

Well, genius songwriters, top-notch arrangers, engineers, producers, and musicians, as well as genuine talent (Mike Nesmith is the celebrated one, but let's not forget Mickey Dolenz, one of the truly great pop vocalists of his era) -- that all had something to do with it. It's not much different from the elements that allowed the more authentic-seeming acts to spit out great records. If Boyce & Hart (not to mention all the other Brill Building greats who wrote so many of the Monkees' songs) weren't quite Lennon and McCartney, they were formidable songwriters nonetheless, and I don't see how anyone could deny that. Ironically, once upon a time, this material was often unthinkingly derided with the same breath that heaped extravagant praise on people like Barri & Sloan or Curt Boettcher. But this substantial group of American pop songwriting's best and brightest wrote, and the collective project known as the Monkees duly recorded, some of the shiniest pop gems of the time. Why should it matter so much that they were sung by television actors playing recording artists rather than by recording artists whose frequent television appearances didn't happen to include membership in the cast of a weekly sitcom?

It shouldn't, it needn't, and it really doesn't. Since those days, we've learned, I believe, that authenticity per se isn't ever all it's cracked up to be; that is, you have to work pretty hard to create the impression of authenticity. Nothing just springs out of the ground, not even the Doors. In other words, if there is a great brainwashing machine, everything's part of it, man. Haven't we learned that? And given that, the precise difference between playing the role of a pop star on a TV show, on the one hand, and playing the role of a pop star in "reality," on the other, can be a little hard to spot. (But chances are that Glen Campbell, rather than the actual guy, would have played guitar on the record either way.)

Now my point in this conversation was that using the Monkees as a synonym for lame, or dumb, or vapid, or, God help us, "irrelevant" isn't something that people do anymore, though they used to.

But the internet knows better, and lo and behold, the words were scarcely out of my mouth before I clicked on an essay (via Andrew Sullivan) that cited the Monkees in precisely the way I had claimed no longer happened. The author enlists them to help sling a backhanded compliment at rap-rock star Kid Rock, absolving him of his "cultural irrelevance" like this:

Slowly, he has turned himself into the turn-of-the-millennium answer to the Monkees or, maybe even the late Rolling Stones: quintessentially shallow, timeless pop music that does nothing new and enforces old clichés, forever recapitulating them until, at the end, we can finally come around to enjoying it.

I have nothing to say about the late (post-Tattoo You, I assume) Rolling Stones or about Kid Rock (though I checked out the clips and, let's just say: Boyce & Hart he ain't.) But this gets pretty much everything wrong about the Monkees except the timelessness, and it appears to misunderstand the timelessness as well. That is, it seems to miss the point of pop music itself, or at least, it misses a great deal of why people enjoy listening to it. Great pop songwriting isn't great because it knocks us out with "relevance," or because it wears us down with clichés till we get used to it enough to embrace its shallowness against our better judgment. Pop songs work best, as a rule, when they manage to re-animate a familiar emotional state or experience; for two and half minutes, someone else's words and music become your own personal anthem; the song, you feel, might as well have been written about you. In turn, such a song can, in a small way, restructure the way you view the genuine experience you associate it with. It melds with your soul, and remains a part of you forever. That's a kind of magic, and it's not that easy to pull off. There's your timelessness, and there's nothing shallow about it. Several songs from the Monkees catalog do it for me, as they have for many others, which shouldn't be too much of a surprise, considering the quality of the operation's songwriting and recording talent pool.

I fail to grasp how anyone could listen to "I'm a Believer" or to the carefully constructed compositions of the Boyce & Hart songbook and hear nothing more than a "recapitulation of old clichés." But even granting that that's all that's going on in there, the recapitulation of such clichés (e.g. love, loss, pain, joy, anticipation, frustration, verses, bridges, choruses) in the hands of a great writer can be uniquely, even transcendently, thrilling when it is done right. There's no accounting for taste, of course, but if the Monkees conglomerate didn't do it right, I don't know who could. Dismiss those records if you like, but in doing so you are dismissing, in a way, an entire era -- some would say the best ever era -- of American pop songwriting. I would put my Brill Building Wrecking Crew Monkees up against your Boston or your Hold Steady or whatever it is that is supposed to be all big and important and authentic these days, and they'd win. So do what you have to do, but I'm listening to "Valleri" now and it's ruling my shallow little world, irrelevance, clichés, and all.

Okay, back to work now.

Posted by Dr. Frank at December 2, 2010 05:18 PM | TrackBack

I think there are at least two camps of dismissors in the Monkee bunch. The hippie daughters dislike the separation of the writer/composer/creator from the performer (and would, I'd guess, give credit and perhaps even sympathy to Boyce & Hart) while the Sullivans of the world dislike the "lowest common denominator" approach to songwriting & performing (and might consider Dolenz/Nesmith/Jones/Tork the sympathetic bunch as they seemingly were pushed away from doing "deeper" material).

Posted by: Dave Rutledge at December 2, 2010 05:46 PM

Do you think the Bay City Rollers were your wife's version of the Monkees (sans TV show) while she was growing up across the pond? The relationship between music in the UK and USA would lead me to think that there had to be a UK counterpart to the Monkees at some point, maybe even the Rutles.

Posted by: ben at December 2, 2010 06:37 PM

The Bay City Rollers did have a TV show, though it was American. (A Sid and Marty Krofft production.) I believe they have been unjustly maligned as well. They produced some great recordings, including at least one genuine classic ("Rock and Roll Love Letter.")

I don't know if the Monkees TV show was broadcast in the UK at the time (though it was later at the same time it was revived by MTV over here) but they were extremely popular there as well. Brits tend to take pop music more seriously than we do, and when the complaints about session musicians on their recordings surfaced the controversy was major news over there.

There was, of course, an unlimited supply of Beatles imitators in the UK, but nothing exactly equivalent to the Monkees that I'm aware of. Herman's Hermits, maybe, except that their claim to fame, like that of so many British acts, had to do with their being big in the US. I'm pretty sure "I'm in to Something Good" was a Goffin/King composition, so they drew from the same writing talent pool to a degree.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at December 2, 2010 07:01 PM

This is solid gold, through and through.

You could gone farther. The reference to Glen Campbell and the Wrecking Crew pointed toward an even more radical assessment.

There were no "authentic" bands. That was a myth, a fraud, a marketing gimmick. They were ALL The Monkees. The Beatles would have been children lost in the woods without George Martin. He was not the fifth Beatle, he was the first Beatle, the one indispensible Beatle. Jimmy Page played on some insane number of hit records. The British Invasion was a professional operation by a large group of people working in ad hoc collaborations making professional quality products, with a bunch of fresh faces put out front as mostly as marketing. The total number of professional musicians, songwriters, producers and songwriters in London and in New York and in LA was very small. This small network was a prolific and in my view as talented and as life-affirming as the very small pool of Renaissance painters and sculptors and their studio staffs who all lived mostly in Florence in a fruitful relationship of collaboration and imitation and rivalry.

The infusion of teenage enthusiasm gave the whole era pep and vitality, certainly. But none of that would have mattered without the adult supervision and craft skills that made actual records that were listenable possible. For example, the Hollies were genuinely brilliant, and sang very well. Live videos of them from the mid 60s available on YouTube are literally jaw-droppingly beautiful. But, they reached millions instead of dozens or hundreds in small halls because there was a whole industry capable of gearing up and turning that raw ore of talent and energy into finished, gleaming slabs of precious gold -- or discs of vinyl.

The exceptions are few. The Stones recording Exile on Main Street are probably the nearest thing there was to the idealized image of the artists banging away and creating authentic stuff without all the industry apparatus. But, of course, first, the Stones were stuck and had to do it that way,and had the genius of desperation. And, second, they had so mastered the process and had assembled, and become, such brilliant musicians who could play as a nearly telepathic ensemble, that they could do it that way. Once. Ever.

The Monkees are no more "not authentic" because they are a result of a large team of talent than another great product of that era, say a Mustang convertible, in pale pink, with a white rag top, was not authentic because it was the product of a huge team. The 45s and the automobiles were both things of beauty and the process was roughly similar. At their best, they were also labors of love and sources of pride as well as wealth. And that is also completely consistent with team effort and large scale collaboration.

Anyway, you touched on a favorite subject of mine. Bravo.

And, I trust you have read this, which my wife and I both read and could not put down:

Posted by: Lexington Green at December 2, 2010 10:41 PM

The only thing that I would take exception to is this:

"Since those days, we've learned, I believe, that authenticity per se isn't ever all it's cracked up to be;"

If by "we" you mean you and I, well okay. Bu the cult of authenticity is stronger than it has ever been. In fact, "authenticity" and fashionableness are almost synonyms at the moment.

A related phenomena, is the "auteur" theory which now more or less dominates all artistic production. I suppose its a natural result of human tendency toward hero worship, and its much more sophisticated to say that you love the films of John Ford than the films of John Wayne, though they are the same movies. Great pieces of collaborative art (Frank Sinatra's I've Got You Under My Skin) are not worshiped the way pieces attributed to a single "genius" are,

Posted by: josh at December 3, 2010 01:35 PM

I spend Thanksgiving weekend doing two thing -- re-reading A.K. and fruitlessly trying to get a Monkees CD to play. Anyway, the link to that essay speaks more to Andrew Sullivan being hopelessly out of touch than anything else.

Posted by: chris at December 6, 2010 08:53 AM

Chris: you're right there. Some of the entries in his pretentious musicians "contest" have been infuriatingly dumb. Merle Haggard! Thanks for re-reading, btw.

Lex: great comment, and I agree completely. They WERE all the Monkees.

Josh: you're not wrong that the cult of authenticity is alive and well, and maybe even more annoying than ever. However, I think even die hard contemporary authenticity fetishists are a bit "meta" about it in a way that isn't quite the same as the situation I was describing. Does anyone truly believe that "reality tv" is actually reality? I think it's more like this:

esp. the point made by the Mitchell character at around 1:25.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at December 6, 2010 05:55 PM

Love it, dude.

Posted by: Matt R. at March 1, 2012 05:53 PM

love it Frank...this comment is what I think about MTX songs..."Pop songs work best, as a rule, when they manage to re-animate a familiar emotional state or experience; for two and half minutes, someone else's words and music become your own personal anthem; the song, you feel, might as well have been written about you". Great post!

Posted by: Wendy Corr at March 2, 2012 04:19 AM
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