June 8, 2013

Beyond the valley of the dull

How did paunchy, middle-aged hair rock – thinking of Journey, purveyors of the endless “Don’t Stop Believin’” – survive and adapt? Track the song’s meaning, its … journey. On the soundtrack of Monster, songs by Journey were the kind of thing a mass murderer in Florida in the 1980s would slow-dance to. “Don’t Stop Believin’” was playing at the very end of The Sopranos, when the lights went out. Once this kind of thing was a disgrace, now it pretends to be the great American songbook: the first song on the first Glee CD is a Journey cover, followed by a REO Speedwagon cover. (I blame American Idol.) In Darren Aronofsky’s tragic, brilliant The Wrestler, hair metal was the natural soundtrack (songs by Ratt, Quiet Riot and Guns N’Roses), with Mickey Rourke’s ruined, terrified Randy the Ram as a version of Axl Rose.

A crowdpleasing musical had to be the next step. I was going to watch Adam Shankman’s film of Rock of Ages (Adam Shankman, 2012), in which Tom Cruise is the part-Axl, part-Vince Neil hair farmer Stacey Jaxx, and I was going to quote Dennis Potter’s famous thing about popular music, which is an impenetrable defence against accusations of bad taste:
I don’t make the mistake that high culture mongers do of assuming that because people like cheap art, their feelings are cheap, too. When people say, “Oh listen, they’re playing our song,” they don’t mean, “Our song, this little cheap tinkling, syncopated piece of rubbish is what we felt when we met.” What they are saying is “That song reminds us of the tremendous feeling we had when we met.” Some of the songs I use are great anyway but the cheaper songs are still in the direct line of descent from David’s Psalms. They’re saying, “Listen, the world isn’t quite like this, the world is better than this, there is love in it,” “There’s you and me in it” or “The sun is shining in it.”

So-called dumb people, simple people, uneducated people, have as authentic and profound depth of feeling as the most educated on earth. And anyone who says different is a fascist.
That was Potter’s view, and it was fair and wise (it was cited by Greil Marcus in his book about the Doors). And then I actually watched Rock of Ages, and saw that there was simply no defence. First scene: passengers on a bus from Oklahoma, bound for Hollywood, break into song. The song is Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian”. The girl who wants to be a star sings, the bus driver sings, they all sing. It was worse than we could have imagined. Glee metal! The songs may contain those feelings Potter speaks of, but the film has drained them. We lasted one minute.