Leaning against a wall, rail-thin, bright and youthful, clothed in what would make the rest of us look ridiculous, he’s surrounded. By admirers. By shadow people waiting for his light to shine in their direction. Every party has one. He’s magnetic. Guys want to be him, girls want to be with him.
Randomly, you wind up next to him in the kitchen. The interesting rings on his fingers, which you’re sure have stories as inspiring and unique as their intricate designs, rest on top of the open fridge door, the balance of him rummaging around inside.
He emerges, holding a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. You normally dislike PBR but you suddenly wonder if maybe you’ve judged it too harshly. You quickly duck in and grab something imported and obscure. Something you normally enjoy but now makes you feel gauche. Maybe it’s the price tag, or even just the shape of the bottle, but the drink seems overwrought next to such breezy simplicity.
You break the ice. You say hi. You make small talk. And now you’re in. You can feel your stock rising by proximity. Your posture straightens. People are looking at you differently. It feels good. You’re kind of star struck but you don’t know why. You don’t know anything about him, other than that people really seem to like him.
He’s nice. Nice enough. His hair is perfect. He must’ve spent all day on it. He’s put together, like he was composed, or curated. Like a magazine ad. Or one of those boxed Halloween costumes we wore when we were kids, with all the clothing and accessories inside. The ones that make it easy. The ones that make you indistinguishable next to all the other six-year-old plastic ghosts in your class.
The white, paper-thin V-neck beneath his casual cotton blazer begins to reveal much more than his smooth chest. His PBR starts to resemble an accessory. You remember why you don’t like It. You now feel like you’ve made a mistake. The conversation won’t end. It’s as if it was rehearsed. You’re trapped, and you wish you could wrap his decorative scarf around his face so he’d just. Stop. Talking.
Recently, catching up on Aquarium Drunkard posts, I came across the band the Allah-Las, their song “Every Girl,” and the comments that followed:
Aw man hell yes.
love love love love.
the las are badass.
I WANT TO SHAKE THEIR HANDS!
I like 60s rock. I like reverb. I like sloppy tambourine, tape delay on the lead vocals, and songs about girls. So why don’t I like the Allah Las?
If this song (and the balance of the band’s catalog) was a formulaic movie played in extreme fast-forward, it would render thusly: Crane shot of an idyllic, tree-lined street. A young girl and boy playing together in a backyard, dating in high school, breaking up (because of college? Viet Nam?), until eventually realizing they can’t be without each other (she cries; he furrows his brow). Their relationship rekindles, they live happily ever after. House, kids, roll credits. Sound familiar? It’s the path well-trampled. It’s sole purpose is killing 90 minutes on a cross-country flight. And content like this doesn’t normally get exuberant praise.
But I couldn’t bring myself to hit Submit with the previous paragraph occupying the Aquarium Drunkard post’s comment box. I chickened out. I didn’t want to kill the buzz. But I did want to say what I thought needed to be said. And here’s why: I love music. And I love when other people love music. But I expect them to expect more from it. The Allah-Lahs’ music is the guy at the party who dresses cool but can’t hold a conversation. He may get some phone numbers but never gets a second date. He’s shallow, one-dimensional, and best used as an occasional drinking buddy — not one that you text ahead of time, but one you’re willing to tolerate at the bar, provided there are no other open stools.
I want to be clear, though, that the Allah-Las are not at the center of my criticism. They just have the dubious honor of being the last straw. There’s a bigger issue. Derivativeness is passing for a genre within all types of media. But it’s within music, for me, that it stings the most. Bands are no longer focusing on writing the best songs. They are too busy competing for who can out-curate each other. Who can be the first to unearth a niche, or present a cultural nugget that hasn’t seen the light of day since the last time someone chose to repackage it.
These musicians are soft-palmed, clever-named irony farmers too reliant on other musicians’ visions and too scared to present their own. It’s as if they’re all working the soil of a single vintage store, racing to dig out the choicest items before anyone else. And the fact that these items have all been previously owned, worn, strutted in and ultimately discarded is going conveniently unacknowledged. For these musicians, success isn’t writing the best song, it’s beating the others to the cultural punch.
Imagine a scene, a network of musicians unafraid to find and use their own voices. To show us who they really are. To tell us something new. About themselves. About their days, lives and relationships. Are current musicians afraid that their real lives aren’t interesting enough? Compelling enough? Worthy? Are they worried that their life stories are so trite and typical and boring (and similar to ours) that they have to adopt other peoples’ road-tested relationships, work struggles, and financial drama as fuel for their music? They’re even hiding their eyes behind someone else’s bangs. Imagine what music could be if musicians were just a little more brave.
It’s no secret that rampant derivativeness isn’t limited to music. We’ve all complained about Hollywood scraping the bottom of the remake barrel. (Was the “Red Dawn” reboot really necessary?) But at least Hollywood remakes are promoted as such. The Allah-Las would never admit their derivativeness, just cite their influences — the storied drafters of legendary blueprints — and take all the credit.
In “Something to Say,” Leonard Bernstein said that “all musicians write their music in terms of all the music that preceded them.” He makes it clear that he’s “not talking about derivativeness or being imitative of other music,” but I think that when musicians are being derivative or imitative they certainly prove his point. He’s right though, that musicians’ minds are sticky for music. We take it with us. But the good ones know where to draw the line.
Conversely, 33 years after Bernstein dropped his knowledge, Guy Picciotto sang in “Blueprint,” “Never mind what’s been selling, it’s what you’re buying.” The onus isn’t solely the musicians’ — it falls on us fans, too. We have a responsibility to challenge our musicians, to make them even better.
Musicians and fans want the same thing. For their music to survive. But if looking backward continues to be the cultural predisposition of the present, our music doesn’t have much of a future.