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The birth of the wrongness

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Monday, Aug 18, 2008

I’m still thinking about wrongness, purposeful attempts to alienate an audience through a kind of puerile repetition or offensiveness that on its face contains no politically subversive content. Pop music has been a fertile ground for breeding wrongness, as PopMatters’ recent list of Detours, unlikely albums by established artists, makes plain. Wrongness may be defined as the attempt to reject aesthetically or repudiate the constraints of popularity after the compromises to achieve it have already been made. (Think Metal Machine Music or Jim Morrison’s Miami performance on March 1, 1969.) Since it is so self-referential, it tends to be politically and artistically sterile. The appeal of such wrongness is limited mainly to connoisseurs of disillusionment and cynicism, and more important, to those “true fans” of the contemptuous artists. By sticking with performers no matter how much hatred they direct at their audiences, these fans prove they are not dilettantes. 


But the 1990s may have been the heyday for wrongness, as college rock became indie rock, which became alternative, which became profitably embedded in the established mainstream of pop genres. Efforts to preserve indie credibility and maintain integrity in the face of commercial success were played out at the aesthetic level at the very moment when what had first been seized upon as the sign of integrity—grunge—became a highly marketable and easily duplicated commodity. Elaborate simulacrums of lo-fi ineptitude became a calling card in alternative rock and graphic design. Grunge could connote integrity and/or authenticity without its purveyors needing to have any. But, of course, that has been true of many up-and-coming commercial forms emerging from various subcultures. What was interesting about the 1990s was that authenticity for the first time became the main appeal of the new style, its basic substance and message, the organizing principle for all its hallmarks. Hip-hop moved in the same direction, fetishizing authenticity as an end in itself rather than serving as an ex post facto description of a style that was ultimately “about” something else.


When grunginess became a mainstream cliche, something more heinous was necessary to demonstrate how alternative you meant to be. Hence, wrongness, or being “brown” as ‘90s alternative rock band Ween called it. Around the time the band made the quintessentially “wrong” move of putting out a straight contemporary-country record replete with the genre’s cliches and lyrics full of derogatory stereotypes—all the while insisting they were fully in earnest—it would play shows featuring limit-testing 20-minute versions of b-side “Vallejo” and “Poop Ship Destroyer,” an epic tribute to brownness. These were the antithesis of hippie jams (though Ween ironically would later become embraced by the jam-band scene), meant not to be expansive and pleasing to drug-altered minds, but to be abrasively tedious and mind-numbing, forcing observers to question when, if ever, it will end, and cleasing the mind of all remembered pleasures in the show, perhaps so the band could start fresh afterwards, trying to re-earn the audience’s trust and approval. In this was an analogue to all indie bands’ predicaments, having full knowledge of their own selling out and wondering if it were possible to regain integrity somehow, through some purifying ritual of awfulness.


Anyway, with the Family Guy‘s success, it may be that wrongness of this sort is in the process of going the way of grunge. What will the new oppositional aesthetic be now that wrongness and purposeful annoyance is losing its ability to repel?

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