The tropic of Sir Galahad

The Wall Street Journal‘s pop culture coverage always strikes me as pretty random. Yesterday the paper had an article by Ethan Smith about the soft-rock band America, who are in danger of suddenly becoming cool after years of rock cognoscenti ridicule for seeming to epitomize 1970s FM radio singer-songwriter mediocrity. (What’s next? The Seals and Crofts revival?) The band name is generic and awful; it’s hard to trust a band that thought calling themselves America was a good idea and without that trust it’s hard to let yourself be entertained. Their hits — “Horse with No Name,” “Sister Golden Hair,” “Tin Man,” “Ventura Highway” — were ubiquitous, almost taken for granted, songs I knew intimately without ever once having chosen to hear them, my familiarity bred from hearing it during rides in friends’ parents cars, or in the orthodontist’s waiting room, or as bumper music for TV shows, that sort of thing. Actually, one of the first songs I learned to play on guitar was “Horse with No Name” (Em and some weird D chord). I always regarded them as a second-rate Bread (not a second rate CSNY, as Smith suggests was the put-down), but basically harmless and clearly preferable to James Taylor, Don McLean or the Eagles, mainly because their lyrics had only a casual relationship to planet Earth. In general, America has bubbled along through the decades as an inescapable part of the pop culture wallpaper, popping out from the background now and then in mainstream places (Janet Jackson’s sampling “Ventura Highway”) and indie (the Loud Family naming its first album “Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things” after a line in “Horse with No Name.” Lately, having exhausted the novelty of the neglected Bread catalog (On the Waters is a great album, and so is Baby I’m-a Want You — seriously) I’ve been appreciating America’s hits, for their mellowness and familiarity. They seem to have no image; I don’t know a single person who can even name one member of this perfectly anonymous band. I just read the article in the paper, and I couldn’t remember any of them without looking again.

Now, apparently one of the guys from Fountains of Wayne has decided to try to rehabilitate America the way Rick Rubin tried to do for Neil Diamond last year, the way Joe Henry has for Solomon Burke. The Fountains of Wayne guy recruited members of My Morning Jacket, Ryan Adams, Ben Kweller and James Iha from Smashing Pumpkins to help America make a new album. Having looked through many a thrift store album bin in my time, I can’t help but feel there is already too much of America out there. But now we’ll have more, a double disc, no less. This would seem like a fortunate turn of fate for America, but there are risks to becoming cool. Being adopted by those whose business it is to cycle through culture — make it cool, use it up, make it forgotten — has a tendency to backfire.

But even if America does become cool again — or for the first time — the group may want to retain some of its ways from the decades it spent as workmanlike players on the nostalgia circuit.

“We’re mulling the concept of doing some kind of hip club tour,” Mr. Bunnell [that’s one of the America guys] says. But “frankly, we have to weigh economics. You can’t just find the hot club and go in there and play for 200 people” since that wouldn’t yield enough revenue to meet expenses. America’s typical appearances in recent years have drawn 500 to 2,000 people at larger venues.

Being cool has a way of taking a backseat to more practical concerns, Mr. Bunnell notes, “when you’re in your 50s and you’ve got mortgages and record sales aren’t what they used to be.”

If America has the misfortune of alienating the heartland fans by becoming a recognized symbol of encroaching hipsterism, they stand to lose a steady gig. But I suppose they could be hoping for a bigger pay off than touring or record sales — getting their songs in a commercial, something they seem to feel is long overdue:

Mr. Bunnell says he’s always been puzzled by the sparse interest among advertisers in using his band’s hits in commercials. “I always thought ‘Sister Golden Hair’ would be a Clairol ad,” he says. “And maybe ‘Ventura Highway’ would be a car ad.”

Poor America; they had sold out from the get-go, but never got to take full advantage and they yearn for even less credibility then they have ever earned, in a way, back when indie cred meant not caving in to commercialism. But credibility and commercialism have a different relationship now; indie bands make their name by being adopted by a commercial. Music supervisors for TV ads are today’s A&R men. America has come full circle; they now hope to sneak back through crass commercialism’s back door by seeming obscure and hipster enough to be discovered for kitschy use in an ad looking for snippets of melody that are catchy and distinctive. Unfortunately, America’s songs have long been too recognizable; they probably seemed overfamiliar and generic the moment they were written. So America’s trapped in a tricky spot — they can be appreciated in an ironic fashion by hipsters, which may cost them their mainstream nostalgia circuit fans without gaining them a lucrative return to the spotlight, because vanilla blandness and their continual ubiquity means their retro appeal can’t be made ironic enough.


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