I’ve written before about my strong belief that the best music ever made is the music being made right now, no matter when right now happens to be. To believe otherwise is to accept that it’s not worth looking for new music, and I won’t psychologically bow before the notion that music’s best days are behind it. Because of that, I hate it when people make sweeping statements about “The best music ever was from the ’60s” or “It’s all been downhill since the ’70s” or other such guff, since there are just as many musical geniuses plying their trades now as there were then, if you’re willing to hunt them down. I view claims to the contrary as nothing more than admissions that the claimant’s musical tastes have ossified, typically around the tunes that defined their teen years. And I don’t want to be one of those people.
That being said, while I love a lot of new stuff coming out these days, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I like the constructs within which that good stuff is created, nor the contemporary terminology used by critics to describe it. One of the most annoying musical trends of the past decade is the rise of the so-called “musical collective,” where a bunch of folks of varying degrees of musical talent get together and record some stuff under one big umbrella band name as though they’re all a bunch of pals on equal footing, hunkered down around a campfire together, even though (a) there’s almost always one or two primary guiding forces behind the proceedings, and (b) when there’s not, the product probably should be released by five separate artists, since it sounds like a compilation album more than it does a cohesive piece of work. Bands that fit those criteria, and that I’ve seen publicly labeled (sometimes even self-labeled) as musical collectives include, but are not limited to: Animal Collective, Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, Bruce Peninsula, Hidden Cameras, The New Pornographers, Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeroes, and various artists associated with the anticon label and Elephant 6 label/band.
I actually like the music made by many of those groups, but I wish they’d embrace a fundamental truth of rock and roll and do away with the whole myth of the collective. Because the reality of the situation is this: no proper rock and roll band can have more than five core members, and anybody else who plays with them is a side person, not a band member, not a fellow collective musician, not a peer, not an equal. You can send me the names of any bands with more than five members, and I can tell you precisely which members were side people masquerading as actual members of a group. Go ahead! Try me! I dare you!
It’s not, mind you, that large numbers of people working on an album together is anything new, it’s just a matter of how such albums are packaged and marketed. Let’s look through the lens of musical collectivism at a record that many listeners and critics alike might consider to be the ultimate rock and roll statement of intent and execution, Exile on Main St. by The Rolling Stones. Sure, there were almost two dozen people whose voices and instruments appear on the final product, but how absurd would it be to see it presented in 2010 collective style, thusly:
Equals on Grand Street!
By The Rolling Stone Collective
Featuring (in alphabetical order): Venetta Fields, Shirley Goodman, Joe Green, Nicky Hopkins, Mick Jagger, Bobby Keys, Clydie King, Jerry Kirkland, Tami Lynn, Kathi McDonald, Jimmy Miller, Al Perkins, Bill Plummer, Billy Preston, Jim Price, Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack, Keith Richards, Ian Stewart, Mick Taylor, Richard Washington, Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman.
No, no, no, no, NO! There were loads of people playing on that album, but there were only five Rolling Stones, and everybody else was the help. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you. Good help makes for great music. Backing singers, string and horn sections, percussionists, guest soloists, all of them can do wonders for an album. But when their time in the studio or onstage is done, they should take their session fees, they should go home, and they should let The Rolling Stones get on with the job of being The Rolling Stones. Rock and roll is not democratic. Rock and roll is not nice. If you play the triangle and glockenspiel on a backing track of a Rolling Stones album, this does not make you a Rolling Stone, nor a member of a the Rolling Stones Collective. You are a side person. You are the help.
So how have we come to a point where rock and roll collectives are increasingly viewed as the norm? My theory is that collective fever is a defining trademark of a generation of overly-sensitive young people whose formative childhood experiences were shaped by overly-cautious, overly-involved, late Baby Boomer and early Gen X parents, who discouraged serious competition, scoring in sporting events, and unstructured violent childrens’ games. In the world that these children inhabited, everybody was considered to be a winner, all the time, as long as everybody tried their best.
Sure, Strapping Young Lars over there may have scored six goals and assisted on another this afternoon for the St. Sensitive School Soccer Superior Superstar Greatkids, but would he have done so if Little Thad wasn’t on the bench rooting for him the whole time? Of course not, so that’s why Lars and Thad both deserve a blue ribbon for excellence on the playing field, right? That way, Thad’s parents aren’t ever forced to have that conversation where they explain to him that, Son, some people are good at soccer, and some people just aren’t. Because that conversation might hurt Thad’s feelings and cause him to have socialization issues, and we wouldn’t want that, would we? I mean, how will Thad get into Colgate or Sarah Lawrence or Amherst if he can’t socialize properly? We can’t force his future into an aimless existence of State colleges and cubicle jobs by not embracing and affirming his desire to be successful at soccer, can we? What kind of parents and teachers would that make us? So give him the damn blue ribbon already!!! There, Thad! You’re a winner!
Well . . . fast forward 20 years, and Thad is now one of 17 members of the St. Sensitive Collective, where he sits on a bench backstage and hums guide vocals while offering encouraging rhythmic claps of affirmation. He’s a winner and a member of the collective, because he tries his best, and no one has the heart to tell him otherwise. Thad’s Mom and Dad, for their part, are still paying off the $97,000 worth of loans that he incurred over three years as a Sociology of Maoist Interactive Media major at Hamilton, before he left college without a degree to become a member of a musical collective. This tale has no happy ending, especially when you discover that Strapping Young Lars later married the prom queen and is now making a quarter million clams a year working for her dad’s financial advisement firm. Now, there’s a winner!
I conclude, therefore, that musical collectives emerge when the should-be-dominant singers, songwriters, guitarists or other musical personalities never develop the spines they need to assert themselves as rock and roll dictators, who will keep the musical trains running on time, just so as long as their backup singers, string sections, and percussionists do their jobs, just as they are directed to do them. These collective musicians may make nice enough music accordingly, but none of them are going to change or chart the future of music as long as they’re trying to maintain a fair one-eleventh creative stake in the collective of their choosing.
Personally, I look forward to seeing the alpha members of some of those aforementioned “musical collectives” wising up, growing some stones, relegating their peripheral “members” to side person status, and getting on with the mean, ugly, unfair business of rock and roll. That way, glory lies. And I want images of glory when I rock, not images of PTA meetings crossed with hippie drum circles.
That way, madness lies. But at least it will be a democratic madness, to be fair to its practitioners. Here . . . have a blue ribbon. Feel better now?