South by Southwest 2000

One of the interesting tensions at SXSW this year, being played out on today’s panel discussions is an old one. Patti Smith invoked it in a one-person session, John Cale and others invoked it in a tribute/memorial session to Sterling Morrison (guitarist for the Velvet Underground), and a panel titled “War Stories; Writing About Music Then & Now” more or less highlighted it in what turned out to be, in part, a kind of nostalgia trip by middle-age journalists that romanticized the “golden years” of rock criticism. What was the tension? The fact that music is a creative art form but also that economic imperatives and the commodification of live and recorded music have a huge impact on music production and consumption. While many younger artists and critics understand this seeming contradiction as a unresolvable condition that simply comes with the job, older musicians and journalists bemoan it — as if there the “good old days” were in fact different. But were they?

Patti Smith began her session somewhat disoriented by the camera flashes (there are plenty of journalists and documentarians here) and by the format of the session (an “interview”), but recovered after the first half hour to give a graceful and thoughtful performance. Among the highlights were her comments about her album Horses: “I didn’t feel, in 1975, that anyone was speaking anymore for me. I felt I needed to produce something that spoke for me and for an untapped audience who felt like I did.” How did she feel — besides alienated? While that wasn’t altogether clear, it had something to do with the serious of issues raised in the Bible (her mother was a Jehova’s Witness) — including the subjects of sex,community, prayer, redemption, and identity — and something to do, on an aesthetic level, with Rimbaud, surrealism, and rock as an art form.

She made the point that rock music, for her, was a matter of “communication,” that the artist can usefully address both “issues” and “fun” but that “communication” was at the heart of rock — and that clothing lines, and product endorsement were beside the point. Not evil, exactly, but matters of consumerism that had nothing to do, as she understood it, with the “art” of rock and roll. And yet — and here is the contradiction in her own talk — she paid homage at great length to Clive Davis, her mentor and economic benefactor (Smith’s albums, as the session’s moderator pointed out,generally break even or lose money) at Arista Records where she has been for 25 years — as if all “true-to-one’s-artistic vision” artists could find such a person to endow their experiments without “outside”(read: commercial) support.

But of course the truth — and many younger musicians realize this — is that the development of fan support and consumer demand requires an enormous amount of capital, and not every musician or band will find a Clive Davis. Music companies, agents, promoters, and others within the music industry must invest in new artists if the artists are to achieve national and international success. The expense of producing, distributing, and promoting recorded music creates economies of scale and competitive advantages that enable a handful of successful companies (like Arista) to dominate the contemporary recorded music industry, and though fans might think their favorite bands’ CDs are “true expressions” of their creative talents and might dismiss other artists’ CDs as “sell-outs,” all are commercial products sold as commodities in the popular music marketplace.

Smith’s take on things — which appears in various guises in the histories and biographies of popular music and musicians — assumes that certain artists can transcend the otherwise materialistic music industry to create moments or careers of innovative, powerful, and often politically significant music. In such biographies and histories, however, including Smith’s as she relayed it in this session, the industry is either an adversary attempting to ignore or suppress the creative intentions of the transcendent individual artist or is simply absent (or endlessly supportive), having no effect upon the artist’s creative impulses. This is the musician as a transcendental, romantic figure whose only responsibility is to the “authentic” self — this is Smith’s story as narrated by others, including her interviewer today, and, more problematically, as narrated by Smith herself.

The critics panel, which included Evan Smith, Stanley Booth, Ben Fong-Torres, John Morthland, Ann Powers, Jaan Uhelszki,and Ed Ward — all heavy-hitters, former contributors to Rolling Stone, Creem, and other mainstream rock venues — concentrated on the ongoing tension between music’s role as a form of cultural expression and music’s position within an economic and industrial context. For the most part, the tone was one of nostalgia — a sense that the golden days or rock criticism and critical opportunities had passed. And now, in the Age of Celebrities (and ventures), what was left was gossip, the digital vaporousness of the Web, the odd job here and there — all of it mostly without seriousness of purpose or the romance or rock as transcendent, artistic, counter-cultural.

There was a bitterness oppressively present — a sense of having been passed by: a few of these well-known rock critics, for example, were now mostly “travel” writers, seldom attentive to the rock beat. Among them, perhaps only Ann Powers, the youngest member of the panel, was still “optimistic.” Her background, foregrounded in the introductory comments, was as a student of cultural studies in a graduate program that she left to become a critic at the New York Times, and hers was the most persuasive. That is, instead of understanding pop music criticism as being largely a biographical or psychological enterprise (read: old school) with an emphasis on countercultural values, she understood it as being sociological (thinking about fans, not stars), gendered, complicated in ways that had to do with race, political economies, aesthetics, and so on.

It’s a generational thing — or a media-leap thing which seems to be connected to generational habits and temperaments. But for “students” of popular music — as most of us fans are — the new spaces of cultural production and reception, including the Web and other venues and channels, offer ample opportunity for considering the complex social and cultural processes at work in the business of popular music, which simultaneously enables and commodifies an expressive, creative art form and active audience participation. As Mark Fenster and I wrote, in a piece for the book Key Terms for Popular Music and Culture: “from the global heights of popular music — such as ‘We Are the World’ and the phenomena of Michael Jackson or The Spice Girls — to the localized moments of a struggling local band hawking its self-produced compact disc in a small, neighborhood bar, the music industry and its structures and processes are present. ” And there’s no use whining about it…but rock depends on such complaints, I suppose — for its lifeblood in this still-transitional age.