Saturday, July 24, 2010

What is a Classic? or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Everything (except all the shit I don't like)

When I'm doing some work in my apartment, whether its compensable or not, I usually like to have some music in the background. Sometimes, rather than crank up my ancient and increasingly decrepit desktop to which the stereo speakers are attached, I click on Radio on the TV. Today I made a rare visit to the galaxy of "Classic Rock". There are some curious decisions being made somewhere. It got me to thinking about what constitutes a "classic" in terms of contemporary popular music.

It doesn't necessarily indicate that such a recording or album was really all that good. It could very well be a distorted remembrance, a nostalgic re-appraisal of something that was once so ubiquitous and saturated popular culture to the extent that an annoying piece of shit can now be fondled as a re-discovered mole that was dormant for decades. Surely it was a masterpiece, because it is remembered so easily.

In general, there are as many canons as there are individuals. And I'm just thinking about contemporary popular music, not, for example, the tired debates of literary culture and the human sciences, fraught as they are with canon making, unmaking and remaking. And by contemporary I'm referring to the recollections of MY contemporaneity: the 1970s (faintly), 1980s (regretfully), the 1990s (exultantly) and the 2000's (ambivalently, if not despondently).

But someday, SC, we're going to have to compare our respective cinematic canons. Just promise that you won't begin to pummel me with a Criterion copy of Yojimbo.

Anyway, it seems to me that the term "classic", in terms of how Radio on the TV uses it, is pasted upon anything that is generally considered to be a particularly salient exemplar of its zeitgeist, a protuberance of the spirit of an age. Or, given that it is such an elastic term within contemporary popular culture, sometimes it appears to signal a cultural contribution that is somehow transcendent or universal, and can be appreciated beyond the straight jackets of period, genre or reception. Or sometimes its just a heuristic to encompass those things that "we" really liked at the time and still do, the problematic part being that pesky matter of the "we". But can I have something to say about that? Do I have to know something before I can?

Within our listomaniac North American popular culture, the general qualities of things are given hierarchical order and structure through a cognitive reflex of relative rank and distinction. This helps to lighten the burden of the past and calm the anxiety of influence. As an interpretative community, "we" know what the "classics" are, or we're told what those are by an acceptable arbiter of aesthetic Taste at either end of the spectrum, from bohemian e-zines to faceless corporations (or websites like Pitchfork who exemplify the qualities of each). And then there are standards to either emulate or somehow surpass. Or fall miserably short of. Then again, the merit is in the Form, so you really can't fail as long as you have a model. Go ahead, borrow what you want. Stop waiting for the divine afflatus of original genius, its never gonna blow again. Let's see how you can build on this, as long as the appropriate nods and internal footnotes are provided. Formalists unite!

But back to Radio on the TV. On the "Classic Rock" channel, you'll get your steady diet of Dark Side of the Moon, but you're not likely to hear anything from Meddle. Is there no paternalistic arbiter who considers that a "classic"? Can I make line changes and substitutions? What about a little less of The Wall and anything from The Final Cut. Can I trade that Joshua Tree for an Achtung Baby? Instead of Peter Frampton's talking guitar, can I get some Frank Zappa? Every once in a while though, "Classic Rock" will surprise you with a Fairies Wear Boots, a Jailbreak, or a Tom Sawyer, as it just did.

Generally, "Classic Rock" appears to cease remembering around 1983. And it doesn't seem to acknowledge 1970s instrumental music. What, no "Frankenstein"? The album cover alone was classic. I'd post a picture but it may frighten younger readers. It still scares the shit out of me.


  1. Marketing, my friend. Why? Because in what other genre besides Pop Music is something considered a classic after a mere decade or two or three? To me, a classic should stand the test of time. That time being longer than going from puberty to your first kiss. On another point: I grant Scorecese made more good movies than Coppolla. And they both made, I would say, four masterworks each. It is just that Coppolla's three best masterworks are greater in scope than Scorecese's, hence he is the greater director. The Godfather movies: about the immigrant experience; about America moving into the modern age; but mostly about the family. Apocalypse Now: about war and the barbarity, the savagery of the human soul. In conclusion, I am absolutely, one-hundred percent correct about this. Anybody who challenges my opinion is as wrong as wrong can be. What I am trying to say is: my insight on things great and small is beyond reproach. A gift from God, I might add. Case closed. Also, Chinatown is a better movie than Goodfellas. Don't get me wrong, I liked Goodfellas. But Chinatown was better written. The characters more complicated. The arch of the film better. Once again, my reasoning is infallible. If you disagree, you're completely wrong. By the way, liked your post. Reminded me of my peerless intellect.

  2. CHEZ - just hurts - classic rock is, as you say, anything pre-83. The date signifies the classicness not the quality. CHEZ still goes for "radio friendly"...Eagles lots of Eagles.

  3. FEL,
    Great post. A topic well examined, this is. SC has stiff opinions. They were hardened fighting in Korea much like his manhood in the whore houses along the coast. I tend to agree with Olie about the regurgitation of not just the Eagles but the same gawd dam songs from them. Unfortunately, I feel the same way when I hear Hotel California as I do when I hear Barracuda - that is to say, I am equally tired of Johnny Winter, er, Edgar, Johnny Winter?

  4. Another classic post from FEL, who seems almost always to be complaining about his being stranded in the present, about the crumpling up of temporal structures and about the marauding effects of time. You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.