The look of music

by Rob Horning

9 January 2006


I’m not sure if I am the exception or the rule, but as I was organizing the music on my computer into some semblance of order, trying to sort it by decade (so I don’t have to scroll through 250 songs from the Complete Hank Williams and another 250 songs from the Roy Rogers collection or the Trojan reggae boxed sets every time I want to look for something to play), I realized that I don’t have any idea what any of the bands I have filed under “2000s rock” look like. For a moment I thought that maybe I was representative of the future, where free-flowing digitized music data signals the end of image-conscious pseudo-bands and the marketing of records by the amount of makeup the musicians wear. But then I returned to earth and realized that I’m almost certainly in the minority on this. I’d be happy if I never saw another semi-bearded 20-something holding a guitar ever again—if that’s what indie rockers even look like anymore—but many people consume the image along with the music and would feel gypped if all the bands became anonymous. And since I don’t go see rock shows, I have nothing invested in a band looking or acting interesting (hence I can listen to Wilco). But when I used to go out to see music, I used to be the first one complaining about the dismal lack of showmanship and charisma in most acts and yearn for Darkness-like spectacle and absurdity. I hated the idea of approachable, regular-guy rock stars and yearned for what I remembered from my youth, when rock stars equalled larger-than-life lunatics like Paul Stanley shouting his head off or Freddie Mercury in a spandex checkered bodysuit—in other words, people who could have no place in this world off of a stage. If rock stars seemed like someone who would hang out with me, then they were pretty lousy rock stars—the point is to live something extreme and decadent through them so you can go on with your ordinary, productive and comfort filled life. It means enjoying a vicarious evening of chaos so you don’t have to actually live in a filthy apartment with a dung-encrusted toilet and a carpet dense with cigarette ash and spilled beer, like the one the Brian Jonestown Massacre appeared to inhabit in Dig. The point is that pop music is an avenue for vicarious experience, and therefore the music is often secondary to the implied lifestyle of the “musicians” involved. So it makes no sense for me to pine for image-free rock, no matter how blinkered and band-blind my peculiar manner of acquiring music makes me. When you are no longer interested in the fantasies that go along with listening to pop, but you are still drawn to music, you probably at that point begin listening to virtuosic performances and classical music on NPR. Where does that leave me, then—what do I get out of these bands with no image cluttering my hard drive? Honestly, not much; I can barely tell them apart,a nd they leave no impression on me other than to remind me of bands I’ve already liked intensely in the past, reminding me to go back and listen to them—meaning digging through the piles of CDs collecting dust and ripping it afresh.

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