Classic Rock Canon - "The Joshua Tree", Part 2

I feel that I must apologize for my previous post about the U2 album The Joshua Tree. In contrast to my other 'Canon' posts, I apparently fell briefly into my reviewer headspace. Even in my prior rants about my most hated bands/musicians, I at least attempted to place those artists in the continuity of pop music development. Not so with this album. I will attempt to amend that mistake here.

The problem is, I'm not really sure how. In listening to the The Joshua Tree I had hoped to discover why it was not only beloved by people but also widely acclaimed by critics. It was brought up ad nauseum as a landmark record, and I fail to see why.

In terms of sound the record doesn't differ wildly from any other U2 album, and the few significant deviations that exist are rank and file for the album's producer, Brian Eno. When I listen to an album like "Heroes" (another Eno produced work, this time by David Bowie) I can understand why that album was so significant in a historical context. Albums such as those sound like nothing else from their period, and in certain cases they sound like nothing else at all.

The Joshua Tree was released in 1987 and, as far as I can see, fails to differ even from the band's own catalog. The more experimental aspects had been done by them before, specifically on 1984's The Unforgettable Fire. Every feature of the album I can put my eye too seems to be made by routine. It certainly doesn't express the 'Americana' ethos that the band hamhandedly shoved in via harmonicas and... crickets I suppose.

So what makes other albums significant? Sheer quality is rarely sufficient for anything more than good reviews; landmark albums generally blend genres, twisting their definitions. London Calling brought the ska influences of first-wave punk from subtext to text, Sgt. Pepper and Pet Sounds both broadened the scope of then current pop music to include avant-garde and heavy baroque influences, and Thriller similarly streamlined R&B, pop, and dance. The Joshua Tree does none of these things. It fails to merge blues or folk with the post-punk/arena rock embodied by U2, nor does it contain songs of particularly transcendental beauty/artistry. There's no edge (do ho ho) to it at all, which is probably what undercuts the blues influence. The blues, after all, is all about expressing emotion in the purest manner possible, which is impossible to achieve if you overproduce something (more on this in another post). This doesn't mean that you have to record blues music on old equipment (as Jack White appears to believe) but it does mean that you have to allow the musicians to express whatever it is they want to express. There has to be a sense of humanity to the music, and nowhere on The Joshua Tree do I see this.

Of course, there's another confound to this. Making blues music is impossible if you're not expressing something personal. Folk music can (and often does) express the ethos or zeitgeist of a time period, but blues is all about the story. That story can be allegorical, but it has to stand on its own. I think that's the real problem with The Joshua Tree, as U2 have consistently shied away from purely individual emotion. Their music is always big, not expressing things from the perspective of one person but rather from a universal or collective viewpoint. They don't make music about one person's emotions, but instead about peoples emotions/beliefs/whatever. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that their music simply isn't suited for blues influences. And it also means that when they fail, they fail big. Case in point, The Joshua Tree.


Classic Rock Canon - Guns 'N' Roses

In my opinion, Guns 'N' Roses, along with latter-day U2, Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Depeche Mode, represent the changing of the guard from classic to modern rock. U2 helped pave the way for heavily political and emotional music (twee), Madonna codified dance music, Michael Jackson helped popularize and transform R&B into contemporary R&B (a depressing legacy to be sure), and Depeche Mode proved that emotion and rock instrumentation is not necessary for success, giving alternative, trip hop, and (partially) house a pop blueprint.

Guns 'N' Roses is similarly connected to alternative, not necessarily in terms of inspiration, but in terms of popularization. It's a tricky distinction, that I'm going to do my best to justify. Basically, the public was primed for alternative's distorted guitar and huge percussion by Guns 'N' Roses and other bands like them (metal, basically). I've mentioned before the straight line between first-wave metal (Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath) and certain alternative bands (namely, Soundgarden) so this shouldn't come as a surprise.

The similarities are clearly apparent in terms of the sound/volume. All the bands I mentioned in the last paragraph are characterized by being fucking loud. Turned up to 11 loud. There was variety in their music (acoustic numbers, power ballads, etc) but the loud bits tended to get noticed more, and became a part of all the groups' popular identity. Remember, the obvious/frequent bits are the ones people remember.

Guns 'N' Roses serve as a good example for a turning point mainly due to their place on the musical history timeline ('87, right before Surfer Rosa and Daydream Nation (both from '88)) and their time capsule-esque status. No one really cares about Guns 'N' Roses outside of their first album, Appetite For Destruction, and even if they do it's mainly for certain singles ("Civil War", from Use Your Illusion for example). This is partially because following up on Appetite in a satisfactory manner was virtually impossible (the thing was positively massive, remember) but also because the band began imploding almost instantly. They were working with Axl Rose, one of the biggest assholes in the history of music, whose pride was based on... his... great voice? His lyrics? No, just his image.

That's another bit that directly inspired alternative music. Like Led Zeppelin before them, the sheer excess and grandiosity of Guns 'N' Roses and other, similar bands helped create the cultural context for the stripped down, bare bones approach of grunge and alternative rock. More specifically, it helped create an appetite for such stripped down music (an appetite for destruction you might say. I apologize, that was terrible).

This is not unusual. One can trace musical history as a repeating process of building up and then stripping down. We went from baroque pop to singer-songwriter and folk music. From early metal to punk. From hair metal and R&B to grunge and alternative. Even hip-hop shows this ebb and flow; compare the relatively early major hip-hop albums like Illmatic, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), and Reasonable Doubt to recent albums like Speakerboxx/The Love Below, The E.N.D. (FUUUUUUCKING shit), and especially My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. From classy skeleton to dressed up in a puffy coat and venetian shades. Which you prefer is a matter of taste. I personally prefer the stripped down stuff, but I still love some of the more bombastic pop music out there (Motown, for example). Either one can be done brilliantly (Leonard Cohen vs Queen, for example) or terribly (Jason Mraz vs Rihanna, for example). Neither is inherently better than the other, though later examples of bands/albums in either period tend to look a little worse for wear. Pop music can't stay the same forever, and I'd put my money on a retreat from bombast in the next ten years or so. Especially now that Kanye's topped us off.


Critical Hype - Christmas Time Is Here

Well, not really, but the corporate world certainly seems to believe so. We have entered into that disquieting period of late-November where we become inundated with holiday images and fair wishes. I know for a fact (thank you so much office work) that certain radio stations have begun playing Christmas music. In November.

This is not a cynical rant on how the "holidays have become too commercial" because there's no way to do that without sounding like a tremendous prick. I'm more directly concerned with something that I didn't even know was possible until recently; people actually enjoy Christmas music. There are people who choose to listen to the musical equivalent of stuffing Wonder Bread down your ears. There are people (I'm sitting in the same room as them) who whistle along to this beige-colored noise.

It's not that it's offensive to me, it's just completely beyond belief. I do not understand it. I was raised in a family of capitalism rather than Christianity, so maybe I just lack the cultural context for this kind of thing. Not that Christmas music is very religious. Most of it sounds like national anthems or high school pep songs; descriptions of the idea of something instead of the actual subject. I'm willing to bet that'd you find the word 'snow' in Christmas music lyrics more than the actual word 'Christmas'. And I'd put my life savings behind it if you replace 'snow' with 'Santa'.

The imagery of Christmas gets a lot more attention than the holiday itself because there's really nothing there. Holidays aren't real, they're just days. What would a song about Monday sound like? I'm willing to bet it would mostly be about bemoaning a wasted weekend and how horrible office buildings appear when you're walking through their doors. You sing about "Christmas-time", not "Christmas".

I don't know why this is so fascinating to me. Chock it up to my fascination with social psychology and how certain things get stuck in peoples heads, becoming part of their identity. I'm a "bah, humbug"/Scrooge/Grinch type myself (gee, I bet you're shocked) but I don't hate Christmas itself. I fucking love Christmas and most other holidays (except Arbor Day; fuck Arbor Day), but I hate the culture surrounding it. And I hate the fact that people are expected to adore the culture even more. When I tell someone to turn down their favorite music I usually get a brief, albeit slightly hostile conversation out of it, but telling a Christmas lover to turn down "Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire" seems akin to digging up their mother's grave and dancing with her skeleton. It seems unthinkable to most people, my bizarre hatred of Christmas artifacts and ideology.

So why do I hate it? Because it never changes. Because there's no variety; it's all the same shit, repeated every fucking year. The same songs, the same colors, the same trees, the same jokes and phrases. The British monarchy has seen more change than the Christmas tradition!  And the fact that people can listen to this year after year puts a serious dent in my love of the human race. It terrifies me. Pep rallies in high school filled me with similar existential dread, but at least I could transpose that pride onto my classmates rather a brick building. What am I supposed to do to mitigate my Christmas dread? Worship Santa?

It's not a capitalist thing either. I know because I understand capitalism and its trappings, I understand how people get whipped up into a frenzy over the Stock Market or taxes; because it's money! Wonderful, precious money. Most of the Christmas culture seems to revolve around nostalgia for your grandmother's house in the woods or something. Like I said, I just don't get it. Holidays are always more of a backdrop for the alcohol and food in my family (thank god) so I never got this whole idolization at our gatherings. When it did come up it was as more of a joke than anything.

I don't know. Maybe I'm just an asshole. Maybe I'm just a city boy working with country bumpkins. Who can say?