Friday, January 17, 2020

Putting the 'pop' in populism: Glam Rock and Trump

Is politics the new glam rock?

The Guardian, 14 Oct 2016

by Simon Reynolds

Look back at the history of glam rock, and you keep running into things that seem like premonitions – previews of the scary and dangerous man running for the American presidency right now. In his mid-1970s interviews, David Bowie talked about “a strong leader” destined to “sweep through” the western world: a charismatic superhero who might emerge not from conventional politics but from entertainment. Sometimes Bowie’s tone was ominous. At others, he’d make it seem like a necessary corrective to a Weimar-style state of decadence, talking with seemingly approving anticipation of “a rightwing, totally dictatorial tyranny” that would clean up all the mess made by the permissive society.

At his most extreme, unguarded and cocaine-addled, Bowie proposed himself as a candidate for the job, whether as British PM, as the “first English president of the United States”, or maybe even as ruler of the world.

Another future-spectre of Trump was Alice Cooper’s pretend run for the presidency in 1972. It took the form of the single “Elected” and its hilarious, delirious video, but nonetheless had a curiously convincing tone of megalomaniacal demagoguery about it, as Cooper boasted that he and his “young and strong” followers would take “the country by storm”.

On the surface, Trump and the glam era’s stars couldn’t be further apart. What does Trump have in common with Ziggy Stardust, apart from orange hair? The Donald is a bigot, a macho bully, a philistine, a proud ignoramus. Bowie and the brightest of his peers were androgynous aesthetes, intellectually hungry and sexually experimental.

And yet there are some unlikely affinities, as I discovered while researching Shock and Awe, my history of glam. As signaled by his gilded tower on Fifth Avenue, Trump surrounds himself with glitz. Trump and the glam rockers share an obsession with fame and a ruthless drive to conquer and devour the world’s attention. Trump actually plays “We Are the Champions” by Queen (a band aligned with glam in its early days) at his rallies, because its triumphalist refrain – “no time for losers” – crystallises his economic Darwinist worldview.

A mirror of oligopoly capitalism, pop is a ferociously competitive game that sorts the contestants into a handful of winners and a great mass of losers. Propelled by a stardom-at-all-costs drive, many of glam rock’s principal characters nimbly reinvented themselves and in some cases trampled others on their way up. They willed their fantasy selves into existence. This same ethos of “Don’t dream it, be it” (as articulated by The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Dr Frank N Furter) could be seen in the type of fandom that glam inspired. It had an imitative quality never really seen before in pop: audiences dressing up, copying the hair and makeup. Roxy Music’s fans, responding to the sophistication of the group’s image and artwork, to audience flattering lyrical winks such as “sure to make the cognoscenti think” – costumed themselves as members of a make-believe aristocracy. Bryan Ferry recalled how some would turn up to the shows in full black tie, as if attending an Oscars ceremony.

Trump’s appeal is generally seen in terms of his doom-laden imagery of a weakened, rudderless America. But there is something else going on too: an admiring projection towards a swaggering figure who revels in his wealth, free to do and say whatever he wants. Trump is an aspirational figure as much as a mouthpiece for resentment and rancour.

“I play to people’s fantasies,” Trump wrote in The Art of the Deal, explaining the role of bravado in his business dealings. “People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.” He and co-writer Tony Schwarz coined the concept “truthful hyperbole”. That sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it cuts to the essence of how hype works: by making people believe in something that doesn’t exist yet, it magically turns a lie into a reality. As the saying goes, fake it till you make it. Bowie’s manager Tony Defries used this technique to break the singer in the US: travelling everywhere by limo, surrounded by bodyguards he didn’t need, Bowie looked like the star he wasn’t, until the public and the media started to take the illusion for reality.

Early in his career, Trump grasped that – like a pop star – he was selling an image, a brand. Licensed out, the Trump name gets affixed to buildings and businesses that he doesn’t own, let alone run. He’s an extreme version of what people on Wall Street call a “glamour stock”: an investment that outperforms the market based on an inflated belief in its growth potential or on even more intangible qualities of cool and buzz. Twitter has been described as the ultimate glamour stock, its attractive image vastly out of whack with its ability to make money. A glamour stock will keep on winning right up until it loses – when the gulf between its perceived value and actual wealth-generative potential gets too huge, when reality finally disrupts the reality distortion field surrounding it.

Self-reinvention was the strategy used by glam stars such as Bowie and Marc Bolan. You can see the same chameleon-like flexibility at work in Trump’s career. Once upon a time he was a Democrat, on genial terms with the Clintons. Years ago he used birtherism as the launch pad for a political career; now he’s dropped it, as a political liability. It’s the same with his recent rabble-rousing rhetoric about “building a wall”. Conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer analyses the agility with which Trump evades attacks by discarding ideas: “He merely creates new Trumps.” Bowie conjured up new personas to stay one step ahead of pop’s fickle fluctuations and keep himself creatively stimulated. With no fixed political principles, Trump’s only consistency is salesmanship and showmanship: the ability to stage his public life as a drama.

And it’s the drama that holds the public’s attention – the edgy promise of a less boring politics. The New York Times recently quoted a voter who confessed to flirting with the idea of voting for Trump because “a dark side of me wants to see what happens… There is going to be some kind of change, and even if it’s like a Nazi-type change, people are so drama-filled. They want to see stuff like that happen.”

Emerging after the earnest, authenticity-obsessed late 60s, glam was a period in which rock rediscovered a sense of showbiz and spectacle. Pop history has repeatedly cycled through such phases of glam and anti-glam: Bowie/Roxy razzle-dazzle was supplanted by scruffy pub rock and street-credible punk, which in turn was eclipsed by the neo-glam of the new romantics. A similar shift occurred in America when glitzy hair metal was displaced by grunge’s mud-slide sound and earth-toned clothes.

You can see similar dynamics at play in today’s politics. Hillary Clinton sits squarely in the unglam corner: a worthy but dull public servant, supremely accomplished at everything required of a leader except what the public perversely craves – being an entertainer. She’s a “value stock” – one of those companies that over time doggedly outperform the glamour stocks, but simply don’t inspire spasms of irrational exuberance.

The real anti-glam leader of our age, though, is Jeremy Corbyn. Bearded and low-key, he’s the UK political equivalent of Whispering Bob Harris, the presenter of The Old Grey Whistle Test, who couldn’t hide his distaste when visually flashy, image-over-substance bands such as Roxy Music, Sparks and New York Dolls appeared on the TV program.

Corbyn is viscerally opposed to – and fundamentally incapable of – political theatre, the very thing that has carried Trump so close to the White House. Corbyn tried to change the format and feel of prime minister’s questions, saying he wished to “remove the theatre from politics”. In one particular PMQs, he responded to Cameron’s slick pre-scripted gags with the schoolmasterly reprimand: “I invite the prime minister to leave the theatre and return to reality.”

As for oratory, Corbyn seems instinctively averse to all those elements of spoken language – cadence, musicality, metaphor – that sway the listener irrationally. But as Gary Younge argued recently, his plain-spoken delivery is taken as a token of sincerity by his followers, who “have not come to be entertained; they have come … to have a basic sense of decency reflected back to them through their politics”. This is how a personality cult has built up around him, despite his honest and accurate admission: “I’m not a personality.” It’s very indie, very alternative rock, the way that the absence of charisma has become the source of a curious magnetism.

Once in a blue moon, a politician comes along who combines pop star allure and all the less glamorous qualifications such as temperament, competence and knowledge. Barack Obama has both kinds of cool going for him: perfect comic timing at the White House correspondents’ dinner, calmness and clarity during moments of Oval Office crisis.

Politics without any element of charisma is certainly a dry affair. But the cult of personality can be dangerous outside the realm of showbiz, its proper domain.

“I could see how easy it was to get a whole rally thing going,” Bowie said in 1974, recalling the height of Ziggymania in Britain a few years earlier. “There were times when I could have told the audience to do anything.” In another interview of that era, Bowie spoke of the way Hitler “staged a country”, combining “politics and theatrics” to create the ultimate spectacle. “Boy, when he hit that stage, he worked an audience … [Hitler] created this thing that governed and controlled the show for those 12 years. The world will never see his like.”

Let’s hope the Trump show will be cancelled next month.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Pompes of the Divell: Guitar Solos and the Majesty of Maximalism

(the piece I most enjoyed writing this year, apart from this one maybe)

Flash of the Axe: Guitar Solos
from Excess All Areas issue on musical maximalism, The Wire, September 2019.

by Simon Reynolds

I can distinctly remember the first time I let myself enjoy a guitar solo.  1983, I’m at a party, “Purple Haze” comes on - I just went with Jimi, surrendered to the voluptuous excess.  There was a sense of crossing a boundary within myself, like sexual experimentation, or trying a food that normally disgusts you.

You see, growing up in the postpunk era, we were all indoctrinated with less-is-more. Exhibitions of virtuosity were frowned upon. Folklore told us of a time before punk, a wasteland of 12-minute drum solos and other feats of “technoflash” applauded by arenas full of peons grateful to be in the presence of their idols.  Minimalism wasn’t just an aesthetic preference but a moral and ideological stance: an egalitarian levelling of rock’s playing field, letting in amateurs with something urgent to say but barely any chops. Gang of Four went so far as to have anti-solos, gaps where the lead break would have been. Postpunk was an era of amazingly inventive guitarwork, but even the most striking players, like Keith Levene, were not guitar-heroes in the “Clapton Is God” sense. The guitar was conceived as primarily a rhythmic or textural instrument.  An example of how the taboo worked for punk-reared ears: David Byrne’s unhinged guitar on “Drugs” sounded fabulous, but Adrian Belew’s extended screech on “The Great Curve” made me flinch. 

There was a sexual politics aspect to postpunk’s solo aversion: the guitar, handled incautiously, could be a phallic symbol.  Willy-waving nonsense was resurging with the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Bands like Iron Maiden were competing for the hearts and minds of youth. So if you supported the DIY feminist-rock revolution represented by the likes of Delta 5 (tough-girls and non-thrusting males united), you made a stand against masturbatory displays of mastery. Solos were, if not outright fascist, then certainly reactionary throwbacks to guitar-as-weapon machismo.   

In those days, on the rare occasions I liked anything Old Wave -  Blue Oyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” say – the solo would be something to grimly wait through until the good stuff resumed (the Byrdsy verses). Then came Jimi, triggering a rethink. Another key moment in  punk deconditioning came ironically courtesy of one of the class of 1977: Television, who I also heard for the first time in 1983. Where Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” solo lasts just 20 seconds, Tom Verlaine’s in “Marquee Moon” is a four-minute-long countdown to ecstasy. Its arc is unmistakably a spiritualized version of arousal and ejaculation, building and building, climbing and climbing  until the shattering climax: an extraordinary passage of silvery tingles and flutters, the space of orgasm itself painted in sound. 

The mid-Eighties was coincidentally when the idea of the guitar-hero began to be tentatively rehabilitated within post-postpunk culture, from the Edge’s self-effacing majesty to underground figures like Meat Puppets’s Curt Kirkwood, who channeled the spectacular vistas and blinding light of the desert into his playing.  Then came Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis and his phalanx of foot-pedals, churning up – on songs like “Don’t”– not just an awesome racket, but solos that were sustained emotional and melodic explorations.  In interviews, Mascis namedropped long-forgotten axe icons like James Gurley of Big Brother and the Holding Company. Paul Leary and his band Buttholes Surfers signposted their influences more blatantly: even if Hairway to Steven’s opener hadn’t been titled “Jimi”, its blazing blimps of guitar-noise would’ve reminded you of “Third Stone From the Sun”.

This kind of winking, irony-clad return to pre-punk grandiosity was the rage in underground rock as the Eighties turned to Nineties. But where Pussy Galore covered (with noise-graffiti) the entirety of Exile on Main Street, that band’s Neil Hagerty, in  new venture Royal Trux, stepped beyond parody towards something more reverent and revenant. The pantheon of guitar gods – Neil Young, Keith Richards, Hendrix – inhabited ghost-towns-of-sound like “Turn of the Century” and “The United States Vs. One 1974 Cadillac El Dorado Sedan”.  But the effect was more like time travel than channeling – the abolition of a rock present that Trux found unheroic.

As a young critic during this period, I tried to stage my own abolition, a transvaluation that erased the now stale and hampering postpunk values I’d grown up with and ushered in a new vocabulary of praise:  a maximalist lexicon of overload and obesity. Revisionist expeditions through the past were part of this campaign.  When Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird” had been inexplicably reissued as a single in 1982 and became a UK hit, I could not have imagined anything more abject. But reviewing a Lynyrd box in 1993, I thrilled to the swashbuckling derring-do of that song’s endless solo, a Dixie “Marquee Moon” whose slow-fade chased glory to the horizon. 

This was the final stage of depunking: the enjoyment of lead guitar as pure flash. At a certain point in rock history, solos ceased to have an expressive function and became a self-sustaining fixture, existing only because expected.  Soon I found myself taking pleasure in such excrescences of empty swagger as John Turnbull’s solo in Ian Dury’s “Reasons To Be Cheerful.” I even started looking forward to Buck Dharma’s spotlight turn in “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”.


Apart from a few academic studies of heavy metal, a surprising dearth of serious critical attention has been paid to the guitar solo. The exception that springs to my mind is the novelist’s Geoff Nicholson’s Big Noises, a collection of pithy appreciations of thirty-six notable guitarists, ranging from obvious eminences like Jimmy Page to cult figures like Allan Holdsworth and Henry Kaiser. But although Nicholson is insightful and evocative when it comes to a particular player’s style or sound, and generally revels in loudness and in-yer-face guitar-heroics, he rarely dissects specific solos.   Perhaps it is simply very hard to do without recourse to technical terms. At the same time, the mechanics of “how” do not actually convey the crucial  “what”—the exhilarating sensations stirred in the unschooled listener. 

Why does the discrete spectacular display of instrumental prowess get such short shrift from rock critics? Partly it’s because of the profession’s bias towards the idea of communication—seeing music as primarily about the transmission of an emotion, a narrative, a message or statement. Prolonged detours into consideration of sheer musicality is seen as a digression, or even as decadent. I think another factor behind this disinterest in or distrust of the guitar solo is a lingering current of anti-theatricality – the belief that rock is not a form of showbiz, that it has higher purposes than razzle-dazzle or acrobatics. A guitar solo is like a soliloquy, but one that is all sound and fury, signifying nothing (or nothing articulable, anyway). It’s also similar to an aria, that single-voice showcase in opera, the most theatrical of music forms. Adding to the distaste is the way that guitar soloing is typically accompanied by ritualized forms of acting-out: stage moves, axe-thrusting stances, “guitar-face.”  This makes the whole business seem histrionic and hammy, an insincere pantomime of intensity that’s rehearsed down to every last grimacing inflection rather than spontaneously felt; an exteriorized code rather than an innermost eruption.  

How would you start to formulate a critical lexicon to defend, or at least, understand, this neglected aspect of rock? In the past, I’ve ransacked Bataille’s concept of “expenditure-without-return”, seeing a potlatch spirit of extravagance at work in the sheer gratuitousness of sound-in-itself. That in turn might connect the soloist’s showing-off to an abjection at the heart of performance itself – the strangeness of exposing one’s emotions and sexuality in front of strangers. Another resource might be queer theory and camp studies, especially where they converge with music itself, as in Wayne Koestenbaum’s book about opera, The Queen’s Throat. The guitar hero could be seen, subversively, as a diva, a maestro of melodramatics.

The ultimate convergence of these ideas would be Queen - the royal marriage of Freddie Mercury’s prima donna preening and Brian May’s pageant of layered and lacquered guitars.  Queen’s baroque ‘n’ roll made my flesh crawl as a good post-punker, but as a no-longer solo-phobe, I’ve succumbed to their vulgar exquisiteness. From the phased filigree of “Killer Queen” to the kitsch military strut of “We Will Rock You”, May’s playing is splendour for splendour’s sake – a peasant’s, or dictator’s, idea of beauty. Anti-punk to the core, and perhaps the true and final relapse of rebel rock into show business.

Image result for Histriomastix , William Prynne

Image result for jonas barish antitheatrical prejudice