SAINT-REMY-DE-PROVENCE, France — The full-page ad gracing the back of last week’s Village Voice hit me like a heavy pointy object. “HOT SUMMER TOURS,” the headline blared. As a U.S. citizen residing in the city of New York, I enjoy the golden opportunity to see ’70s band Steely Dan perform at the romantically named PNC Bank Arts Center on July 7. Alternatively, “Margaritaville” ’70s crooner Jimmy Buffett will perform his hits Aug. 29 at the Jones Beach Amphitheater, and ’70s diva Diana Ross is at Madison Square Garden July 6.
It’s just as if, as a gifted music critic whose name maddeningly escapes me at deadline said, punk never happened. Remember the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Dead Kennedys? Aggressively political, sonically stripped down and violently opposed to the pretension of musical masturbation, the punk era of the late ’70s and early ’80s tore down the old order. Dinosaur rockers like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were history; 22-minute guitar solos were consigned to the dung heap. But not really.
In reality, brilliant punk poets like the Adverts and Avengers never sold any records, radio never played their music and the musically illiterate masses spent the ’80s buying the same old classic-rock crap they did in the ’70s. The art-rock band Genesis became Kenny G-lite Phil Collins’ Noo Wave wannabes; the Police became Sting, who wanted nothing more than to become the next Air Supply. More often, the old simply became the new: Yes became Asia, Foreigner became Toto.
But then 1991 became (again) the “year punk broke.” Nirvana led the grunge pack, and the buzz was that a public exposed to Mudhoney and the Swans would never again be seduced by such brainless drivel as Def Leppard (Jones Beach, July 24), much less guys whose success predated the birth of the average music fan (The Who, Jones Beach, July 9). Then Kurt ate a shotgun and Courtney, the punk princess-turned-widow, became a pretty damned good actress, and hip hop stole all the smart white music fans and the kids turned to the Partridge Family and the Monkees, er, ‘N Sync and Hanson.
Which is all OK, because, after all, it has to be. What the hell am I able to do about the fact that a thousand times more CD consumers would rather hear the Go-Gos sing “Vacation” (who and which, incidentally, you can hear and see July 21 at Jones Beach) for the thousandth time than check out the brilliant new J Church album (I know, who?)? If people want to be stupid in an area that doesn’t make human beings starve or commit suicide, it’s fine with me. Besides, popularity ruins good bands.
What’s disconcerting, though, is how the ’70s remains the decade that just won’t die. Station wagons are now called SUVs, president-apparent George W. Bush is about to reappoint Nixon’s old Cabinet, and suburban homes still come with brand-new orange, yellow and/or brown wall-to-wall carpet. Blink your eyes while you check out girls walking down the street: It’s not just the careful retro tops and the retro-designer designer jeans or even the exquisitely crafted Farrah hair. These chicks actually have ’70s faces, the same way Elizabeth McGovern had a ’50s face during the ’80s.
Despite the persistence of all things ’70s in politics and fashion and other things that don’t really matter, musical revisionism jars the most.
“KISS was really cool back in the ’70s,” a teenage boy in a St. Paul used-vinyl outlet informed me the other day. When the Me Decade ended, he couldn’t have been more than minus 3 years old.
“Um, actually,” I began slowly in order to prepare him for a reality check, “KISS was played out by the time I hit high school, and I’m 36. And even then the only people who ever liked them were losers, stoners and stoner losers. They’re much bigger now than they ever were at the time, sort of like President Bush. At the time, smart people liked Devo, the Talking Heads, the Dead Boys.”
He looked at me for a few seconds. “You didn’t like stoners?” he asked. “Maybe that’s the real problem.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.