A couple things of note, as I try to get back in the habit of blogging:
* Ben Joravsky and Mick Dumke have been writing about the new-look Todd Stroger, who’s attempting to reinvent himself as a good-government type just in time for re-election. Of course, careful Stroger-watchers were waiting for the other shoe to drop, specifically on his head, and it didn’t take long – Eric Zorn and Steve Rhodes flag his absurdly ham-fisted mishandling of the Donna Dunnings maybe-scandal.
Stroger’s biggest problem has never been nepotism or financial mismanagement. He’s an incompetent boob, which may be the only unforgivable sin in Chicago politics. No matter what happens with Dunnings, my favorite Stroger mishap will always be Cook County Magazine. It’s not so much that he invested taxpayer money in thinly-veiled hagiography, it’s that he fucked it up so badly it had to be scrapped. When Stroger couldn’t even do self-regard right – at the cost of $24,999, I figured he was doomed.
* DeRo has an amusing roundup of the 2009 Lolla lineup. Lou Reed is the only real surprise in the SOP lineup, though for me the whole thing is poisoned by the presence of Asher Roth; I cannot fathom why anyone would want to see him live. Nonetheless, I have been accused of being “down” with his music. It’s not true, but it’s not false either. I think he’s pretty interesting. America gets the art it requests just as much as it gets the art it needs, and Roth has bravely stepped forward and forged a sound for the age of Twitter and Livejournal: a memento boring.
Popular music has an uncomfortable relationship with privilege. When musicians address it, they do so with scorn (“Common People,” “Like a Rolling Stone”), arty ambivalence (a lot of Liz Phair), or, at best, abstract it into something pretty (Pavement’s Brighten the Corners or “Fillmore Jive”).
So to see a popular musician fearlessly bragging about the wonders of privilege and suburbia is, at least, pretty novel, given that sensible people are perhaps rightfully too self-conscious to try such a stunt.
And it fails horrifically, but in not-uninteresting ways. His music is boring, but profoundly boring. Take, for instance, “Bad Day,” which you can listen to on his MySpace page. The genius of it is that what he describes isn’t even a bad day in any context. He has an aisle seat on a flight next to a fat guy; there’s a screaming kid; he forgot his iPod; they fly through turbulence; the hotel room doesn’t have HBO. The obvious instinct when telling a story about a typical day would be to exaggerate it in amusing ways (cf. “saw the lights of the Goodyear Blimp / and they said ‘Ice Cube’s a pimp'” or even “you could call me Aaron Burr from the way I’m droppin’ Hamiltons”). Roth doesn’t do that. It’s as banal as a Warhol film – radically dull.
Give a listen to “His Dream” while you’re at it: it’s a totally pro forma narrative about a middle-aged man who kind of wants to be an artist but has to make money to support his family. The sentiments are perfectly fine, and beyond cliched. He’s trying to translate the hip-hop mama-tribute standard into a ballad about a wage-earning dad who wants to dream big but can’t, and Roth’s inability to find anything interesting to say about it actually adds to the tension. Whether or not it’s from artistic restraint or a complete lack of imagination I’m not sure.
Historically, the solution for budding artists without much to say or anything terribly interesting to draw from is to go out of their way to find something. Maybe by taking acid, worshipping Satan, moving to boho New York and hanging out with cross-dressing heroin addicts, or listening to a lot of Woody Guthrie. Roth is as far on the other end of the spectrum as any artist I’ve ever seen (not only are his stories and situations boring, his flow is totally affectless and his rhymes flat, to the extent where I’m almost convinced it’s part of the artistic project).
It’s really just the other side of the coin, ultimately. So much of popular music–both in the act of creation and the act of consumption–comes from raging against the suburban machine that the well has run dry. Rather than rage against it, or run from it, Roth immerses himself in it, and its banality is as raw and resonant as anything the angriest McMansion garage rocker has ever come up with.
Popular musicians will do almost anything for art, or money, or sex, but it’s a rare one who has the guts to be boring. Roth may be the last real punk we have left.