Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The worst band in the world (worth hating)

I've long had this theory that the worst music ever is not the worst music ever. That is, not a record/band you loathe but one that no one loathes. And one that no one loves. Something inconsequential rather than godawful.* Godawfulness is frequently fun - William Hung or maybe Mrs. Miller. And even when it isn't (as with new age or acid jazz), it still provokes a reaction. You really want to beat the shit out of an Enya or a Galliano after sucking back their puke. But inconsequentiality is the true musical menace. A CD that fails to make any impression whatsoever actually makes me angrier than one that, well, makes me angry. In fact, inconsequentiality elicits all sorts of similar contradictory statements - "I can't figure out if this CD is worth figuring out;" "I hate that I don't hate them," which latter designation I recently pronounced upon Coldplay. Coldplay epitomize inconsequentiality and therefore might very well be the worst band in the world.

Think about it. Who on earth could truly despise Coldplay? And who can absolutely adore them? They are the inevitable culmination of alternative in ambience. Not noticeably tangential like Spacemen 3. But also not as illegible as The Verve Pipe. Just...there. Even grandma doesn't mind them unless she's the type who becomes enraged at the hum of lights. We always wanted a U2 without pretensions and unfortunately, we got it.

You can glean all this simply by considering Coldplay's lead singer. What's his name? Brad Robinson? Matt Jones? My guess is that he was born John Smith and changed his name to something less conceptual-sounding, something that wouldn't draw undue attention to its blandness. "John Smith" always raises an eyebrow. But "Chris Martin" (it turns out) can slip by the front desk as imperceptibly as electrons.

And he has looks to match. Look.

Neither prohibitively beautiful like Ty Cashe my all-time favorite porn star

nor like this Commie

nor stop sign ugly.

To quote famed Canadian queer Buddy Cole, he and his band are the porridge Goldilocks chose.**

An apt analogy too. Think of where the straight and narrow got Goldilocks. Nowhere. No one seems to recall exactly what happened to Goldilocks at the end of the story. All most of us know is that she chooses, a perfect model for the era of indiscriminate downloading without consequence (we hope). And Coldplay is the apposite soundtrack to this tale told in an extended present.

The gift economy of Soulseek and mp3/entire album blogs hasn't allowed music to finally shake off its commodity status; quite to the contrary, it underlines that status. What matters here is less the actual act of listening than music's convenient position in the orgy of acquisition (no surprise that one P2P program is called Acquisition). Judgments of good and bad, feelings of rapture and disgust meet in an "eh" middle, forever delayed until we've acquired every sound ever recorded.

In the eternal meantime, we have Coldplay, the sound of unbridled access rendering music listening inconsequential, the paradoxical sound of all that music we download but never hear. Listen hard and you just cannot hear them. There is no exhausting mastery, no rank offenses. They are just...there, a representation of the totality of music just there for the downloading. They are the worst band in the world because they epitomize the lack of imaginative resources necessary to escape that totality.***

Ok all that's quite lovely if a mite overstated. Many of us do still listen to music even if while downloading it. So in an "imperfect" world of Rapidshare uploads expiring and music actually turning your stomach, what is the worst band in the world? My vote is Chicago.

But already the question needs qualification. Where it would be impossible to hate Coldplay, it would be pointless to hate, oh, Deeds of Flesh. Pointless for 99.99% of the world, that is. I'm sure making a distinction between Deeds of Flesh and some other death metal band would signify in some communities. But those are extremely small communities. What good (or bad) would it do to stand in the middle of the street and shout "I have heard Deeds of Flesh's Inbreeding the Anthropophagi and it is indeed an atrocious album"?**** They're so information poor that I'm not going to be able to enter into any meaningful discourse with the pronouncement above. In short, they're not worth hating.*****

Chicago are worth hating if only because everyone with whom I've ever shared my Chicago hatred has had an immediate reaction. Some other reasons:

1. They've made an obscene amount of money, money that could have been given to the New York Dolls.

2. They've enjoyed three irritating runs at the top of the charts: the jazzier early period, the Peter Cetera-led rock ballad era, and the Peter Cetera-less hook-up with hack songwriter Diane Warren in the late 1980s. Christ, even The Bee Gees weren't so lucky.

3. They're still hacking away at the festival circuit most recently with Earth, Wind & Fire for one of those evil package tours designed to maximize (more) profits by cutting out half the backstage salaries.

4. On two volumes of The Heart of Chicago 1967-1997, I knew almost every single song. You do too.

That's why they're worth hating. Now why are they the worst band in the world?

1. Jazz-rock. In the late 1960s, rock-n-roll 'bettered' itself into rock and one of the ways it achieved that betterment was by fusing with more respectable musics - classical in the case of a lot of prog and jazz with Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago. More often than not, the result failed miserably at both, Chicago most definitely included.

2. Horns. Horns and rock do not mix well and I've never been able to figure out exactly why. Maybe because as not part of the basic guitar-bass-drums combo, they tend to announce themselves as little more than conspicuous consumption ("Look what we could afford!"). In any event, Chicago had lots of them and they sounded rich (and I don't mean aesthetically).

3. Pretentiousness. If rock needs betterment, why bother playing it? This is not a rhetorical question. I really want to know how Chicago would answer it.

4. Fickleness. When their ballads started to hit, they abandoned those jazz pretensions right quick.

5. Peter Cetera's voice fails to conceal his profit-taking motive. Listen to "If You Leave Me Now" (in your head because sadly, it's there). He doesn't sound like he cares that her leaving will take away the biggest part of him (and which part is that, Pete?). "Ooo, ooo, ooo, ooo, no, baby please don't go," he sings. But why the "ooos?" The Mr. tried to convince me that he's actually happy she's leaving thus cementing the song's complexity. Karen Carpenter did something similar with "Rainy Days and Mondays" in that her blissful rendition lets us know that she gets down (with her man) on rainy days and Mondays. But as a victim of all sorts of repressions, Carpenter had to sing under veils, through scrims. What need would Peter Cetera have for such lyric-voice tension?

6. Geographical location as band name. It never works. Witness Kansas, Alabama, Boston (despite the magisterial "More Than A Feeling"), um, Foreigner (despite Greil Marcus's favorite single of the 1980s).

If you notice, most of the above concerns money on some level which suggests that music becomes soiled once cash is exchanged. This conclusion goes against my fervently held popist belief that the profit motive is responsible for more great music than not. And other reasons just don't hold water in and of themselves. Such as

7. Anonymity. Peter Cetera is replaceable and has been ever since he left the band. But so what? Many of the masterpieces of dance music are more anonymous than that as are many of my favorite singles of the 1990s. And here, K-Punk reveals how one of the best albums of the 1980s was about the self as pure fiction. So maybe the difference is that Chicago is merely anonymous rather than about anonymity. Or they don't instantiate anonymity in a compelling way.

8. "They demand next to nothing from the listener," I recently told the Mr. But you could say the same of Subway Sect or Low or Smog. Not big fans of any of them but they've popped off more good minutes than Chicago ever has.

9. They're making really fucking tired right now.

10. No one has come up with a better alternative for the worst band in the world worth hating even though most people with no special relation to the band seem oddly compelled to defend them whenever I bring up the charge. So pipe up. What am I missing?

* I always say that the first rule of rock criticism is "better godawful than boring" after Xgau's review of the graded-much-too-low-at-B+ Upstairs at Eric's here. But instead of "boring" or "bland," I think I've always meant "inconsequential."

** Gad, even wife Gwyneth fits snugly in this matrix, she being the star of Shakespeare in Love, the most okay movie ever to win the Best Picture Oscar.

*** Unsurprisingly, this entire post was inspired by an afternoon of music sharing with Nick Marx. Part of the afternoon was spent debating whether or not to leech albums I already had on vinyl from Nick's iPod. I wound up getting Electric Ladyland only to discover the next day that I already had the fucker on CD. Grrrr.

**** I have actually heard this album. The Mr. brought home a stack of free death metal CDs from one of the Metalfests in Milwaukee which would seem to suggest a certain indifference towards Deeds of Flesh for even the death metal faithful. And click that link - it leads to a rare negative (or, rather, exceedingly blasé) Allmusic (that phrase again!) review. And dig that title which intensifies the band's insular obscurity. Anthropophagi are cannibals, obscure right there. But inbreeding them? What effect does that have?

***** Another idea stolen from Xgau in his review of Ministry's Filth Pig here.


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