Corporate rock

by Rob Horning

17 April 2006


Maybe its the immigration debate, but I’ve been thinking recently about Foreigner, the band masterminded by session musician/A&R man Mick Jones that in many ways combatted the untoward effects of another band formed by another Mick Jones around the same time, 1977. Foreigner, the epitome of what would be reviled as ‘corporate rock’, served as an antidote in America to punk rock (I see puts this argument forward as well), which never caught on or made any sort of commercial impact as it did in England. Along with Journey (Escape), REO Speedwagon (Hi Infidelity), Rush (Moving Pictures) and Styx (The Grand Illusion), Foreigner defined what rock radio sounded like in America in the late 1970s, before bands had images really in the last gasp before MTV changed the whole business model. Bands now associated with new wave—the Cars and Blondie for instance—and singers now dubbed Americana (Springsteen, Tom Petty) were part of the same milieu then. I can remember going to Listening Booth and buying Double Vision and The Cars with the same batch of birthday money with no sense of cognitive dissonance.
While the Cars have some credibility—thanks probably to Ric Ocasik’s taste in bands to produce—you won’t find many bands citing Foreigner as an influence or hipsters jamming Head Games at their loft parties (that is, without a healthy sense of irony). Foreigner embodied an outdated system of hitmaking to closely to be comfortable. But in preceding the band-image selling point and the “New Wave” novelty selling point, Foreigner had to rely on things that punk rock repudiated, things that would eventually become passe: songwriting craftsmanship and musicianship. Once image became a selling point, these two qualities, which are much harder to come by, went out the window—a simple economic decision really.

Post-punk is rock conducted as if it were a graduate seminar, typically in an elitist tenor with a contempt for a general audience. Its primary function today, now that it has been adopted as the sound of hipster America, seems to be to make one feel youthful, edgy, superior. It works well in that capacity because it was almost meant to be a divisive music, meant to scorn the conformist masses. Simon Reynolds book on postpunk argues that postpunk is derived from modernist art, which was also deeply antipopulist, wary of the reasons people generally are attracted to culture (to form community, to have a good time, etc.), and intent on establishing the artist as a kind of radical innovator discovering new forms to suit the “alienation of modern life” or whatever. But it could be that modernist art produces alienation more than it reflects it; the same could be said of postpunk. Those who respond to it seek alienation, because they fear being subsumed in the mass, of losing their identity, which hangs in the balance with their publicizing the sort of music they prefer.

Why is corporate rock detested? Because it reflects that kind of economically driven calculation? Such calculation is mirrored by the would-be avant-garde (or postpunk), except they play for different kinds of capital—Foreigner and its record label want money; a band purveying shrieking noise on Troubleman Unlimited wants artistic credibility and cultural capital. Is there more dignity chasing one rather than the other? Foreigner operates on the basis of an inclusionary ethos—as many people as they can draw in, the more pleased they are with what they’ve made. Avant-garde music works by the opposite principle—its purpose is exclusionary, to weed out the people to ignorant or ill-trained to understand what is going on so that the people who do can find one another more easily and get on with congratulating one another for their erudite tastes. The Foreigner fan expects his musical taste to say nothing about himself; the avant-garde fan expects it to say everything. Which of these fans cares more about the music enriching their lives? Which one has reduced music to a tool? To a self-marketing tool? To a corporate practice?

That said, I’d rather have a punch in the kidneys than have to hear “I Want to Know What Love Is” or “Waiting for a Girl Like You” again. I’ll listen to 45 minutes of Lydon droning on and on during “Albatross” any day of the week.

The best part of corporate rock is not merely the anonymity it grants to its fans, the shelter from the game of subcultural identity through pop—it’s the lyrics. Foreigner’s lyrics have brought me more joy than just about any band I can think of. The bridge in “Cold as Ice” is surprisingly evocative when you detatch it from the melody: “You’re digging for gold, you’re throwing away a fortune in feelings, but someday you’ll pay.” And consider this conundrum from “Double Vision”: “Tonight’s the night, I’m gonna push it to the limit, I live all of my years in a single minute.” The wailing sax is not all “Urgent” has to offer: It has the brilliant “You’ve got fire in your veins, burning hot but you don’t feel the pain, your desire is insane” verse. And the fade-out “urgent, urgent emergency” is great, lest you think its just a run of the mill emergency. And “Hot Blooded” features the all-time classic, “Tell me, are you hot mama? you sure look that way to me.” But this has to be my favorite couplet, from “Dirty White Boy”: “I’m a loner, but I’m never alone / Every night I get one step closer to the danger zone.” I should start signing off my emails with that.

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