Here at the Oakland Mind Control Laboratories, we consider it part of our ongoing mission to monitor emergent trends in popular culture that have the potential to significantly affect the quality of life on earth. One such phenomenon that has grown to concern us in recent times is the growing pervasiveness of what we call (stealing a phrase from Negativland) moribund music -- that is, the music of artists who had their heyday in another era but, despite long since having lost any possible relevance to the present, simply refuse to go away.
We are of course speaking specifically of rock music. Other forms of music also have their undead practitioners, and we assume that musicians throughout history, being a lazy, free-spending and insecure lot, have always been wont to milk their gifts beyond the point of decency. But the dinosaur-rock legion strikes us as being the most alarming example, both because of its sheer size and power (not to mention the vast sums involved) and because rock and roll's image as being "rebellious" and "young people's music" is naturally in conflict with the spectacle of the slowed, aging rocker.
This is not a new problem; rock reunions have been around almost as long as rock has, and the baseball-stadium tours by reunited dinosaur bands have become a staple of the summer concert season. But the whole thing has reached a terrifying crescendo in this, the summer of 1995, when it seems as if anyone who has ever played rock and roll, however briefly or poorly, is staging a reunion, making a comeback, recording an acoustic version of their biggest hit, doing an "Unplugged" album, or releasing a double-live CD of new versions of 20-year-old material. Sweet lord, does no one just retire anymore?
We would like to clarify a couple of points before we begin. First, we are not ageists. We are not arguing that all rockers should be euthanized upon reaching the age of 40. It is possible to age with dignity and to continue to evolve artistically, making worthwhile contributions to the culture. Unfortunately this rarely happens. More typical is the recycling and repackaging of old, tired ideas in an increasingly desperate attempt to garner further profit and attention in the new era. It sometimes requires a finely honed sense of discrimination to tell one from the other, along with expertise in minute matters of musical ideology. This is an expertise which we possess.
Nor do we subscribe to some ludicrous notion that new=good and old=bad. Good music stays good and bad music is bad from the day it is birthed, while the mediocre gets worse the longer it sticks around. Moreover, band or artist as entity must be considered separately from recorded music; recordings remain what they are forever, even as the entity that produced them deteriorates.
We do not comdemn the pursuit of money per se. It is a fundamental part of life. But the potential profit from any enterprise must be weighed against the potential harm. In this case, that means considering the embarrassment to the artists, the waste of resources, the creation of artistic monstrosities, and the possible damage to the delicate musical ecosystem.
Finally, we are not oblivious to the fact that many purveyors of moribund music are rather sad specimens who spent or snorted their initial windfalls, and now find themselves trotting out their musty hits to ever-shrinking audiences simply to eke out a living, forever trying to once again find the bright spotlight that once fell upon them. But we have not allowed this awareness to enter into our conclusions. These matters are too important for mere human sympathy to interfere. Besides which, they could always get jobs.
In the course of our research, we have spent many a long hour at the Labs puzzling over this, particularly over the supply/demand quandary. The motivation on the supply side, of the artists perpetrating these acts, is fairly clear: there is money to be made and ego to be soothed. But what, we asked ourselves, is the motivation from the demand side? This is more mysterious in some instances than in others. We all know who will be at the Page and Plant show (we've seen them laying around stoned in living rooms across the nation); but who's buying those Boston tickets?
No sooner had we voiced this exact question than a timely profile of several Boston fans appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle (July 25, 1995) to provide some insight. A little too much insight, really. Though we strive at all times to practice scientific methods and eschew prejudice, this article reinforced all of the worst stereotypes of the dinosaur-rock fan. We're talking greasy little mustaches here. We're talking Kansas-T-shirt-with-the-arms- cut- off-wearing, '70s-shaggy-haired, puffy white trailer trash. Genetic defectives, frankly. We hate to say these things, we really do; it puts a blot on our objectivity. But we must speak the truth. A couple sample quotations will give you the flavor of the Boston-aficionado view of the world (all quotes real and actual; named have been changed to protect the innocent):
1987 was a great year for rock. It was when the Def Leppard album Hysteria came out. Boston played the Coliseum. I haven't worn the T-shirt since that show. I preserved it. I got six T-shirts from Rush. I haven't seen AC/DC yet. I'm looking forward to that.
--X, 32 years old
I'm pretty devoted to Journey* and Boston. People who don't like them, they're all losers. Seventies music is a lot better than the crap they have today. Music today doesn't have a style. It's all so repetitious.
--Y, 21 (!)
Bands like Boston and Kansas are a dying breed. The level of songwriting and creativity. The bands of today aren't worthy to spit-shine their shoes. What do you got today, that grunge thing? People make fun of Boston? Not when I'm around.
--Sleeveless Kansas T-shirt guy, 25
So, in considering why the moribund music problem has become so colossal, it is tempting to say "people have bad taste" and leave it at that. But of course, this is too simple, too elitist, too self-serving. Few are those among us who do not have some weakness for something they know is outdated and uncool. We ourselves will admit to having enjoyed the music of the Cars on more than one occasion when the workday is over and the machines have been shut off. There must be something deeper at work here than mere class differences.
Having engaged our craniums on this matter, we have decided that at the heart of it lies one simple fact of human nature: human beings do not necessarily seek out the new. It is often quite the contrary: deep-down, we are frightened little mammals seeking warmth, familiarity, comfort, reassurance.
This theory is not original to us, nor is it particularly brilliant, nor does it come as news to most people. But it is often overlooked by music critics and other hyperhip, jaded intellectual types. People seek out music that is old and familiar precisely because it is old and familiar. They don't always want new experiences; they want to be gently reminded of old experiences and provided with a sense of continuity and connection. No one is immune to it, and we're afraid the need will only grow stronger in these accelerated and troubled times.
And herein lies the real problem. Both the old and the new have their place in the musical spectrum, but there must be a balance. If endless repetitions of the same old sounds and faces continue to fill up more and more of the available media spaces, the whole thing will be thrown out of whack. It is already true that mounting concert tours is so expensive that only recognizable names get funded. With classic rock and sounds of the '70s taking over radio, where are the opportunities for new artists, outside the few designated hypes of the year, to penetrate the public consciousness? What will people seek out in 20 years to remind them of today? By then, key members of the Stones, Eagles, Floyd et al. will be dead. Maybe then we'll get to start over from scratch. Or, more likely, franchises made up of young lookalikes or animatronic robots will be created ... a dozen faux Led Zeppelins will roam the earth, filling a dozen stadiums every night ... a different Doors will pass through town every week.Š It is truly a future too horrible to contemplate.