Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Art Pop

What was the single greatest year in rock history? As with most critical thought experiments, it's a question without an answer, but fun to argue about anyway. The way we respond to it probably says more about music's present than its past. Do we revisit the primordial ooze of 1951, when Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm recorded "Rocket 88," a contender for the first rock and roll song? What about 1956 or 1964, when Elvis’ and then the Beatles' Ed Sullivan performances heralded successive tidal waves of youth culture? Or '67, or '69, when hippie culture coalesced at Woodstock, a generation-defining event of the boomers' own making? And of course there are the definitive moments of the 70s; the one that may get fewer accolades than it deserves is 1971.

In his recent book Never a Dull Moment: 1971—The Year That Rock Exploded, British music critic David Hepworth argues that 1971 "saw the release of more influential albums than any year before or since." (Hepworth happened to be 21 at the time, which either kills his credibility or renders it unimpeachable.) Led Zeppelin IV, Joni Mitchell's Blue, Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, David Bowie's Hunky Dory, Carole King's Tapestry, Sly & the Family Stone's There’s a Riot Goin' On, Leonard Cohen's Songs of Love and Hate, and Black Sabbath's Master of Reality are only the beginning of the list. 

Despite the fact that 1971 began with the legal dissolution of the Beatles, a moment Hepworth identifies as the end of the pop era and the beginning of the rock era (not buying into that one), what's remarkable here isn't the boldness of declaring a post-Beatles year the apotheosis of a genre they're credited with perfecting, so much as the fact that the opinion no longer reads as contrarian or even particularly controversial. Hepworth sets out to "shatter the cliché that the early ’70s were a mere lull before the punk rock storm." Without many of us even noticing, the ’70s—funk and glam's early years included—have carved out as exalted a place in the pop-music canon as the 60s. In many ways, their masterpieces speak more powerfully to the present than the highlights of any other decade in the 20th century; yeah, Sinatra included.

In the mid 1960s, British and American pop musicians began incorporating the ideas of the pop art movement into their recordings.  English art pop musicians drew from their art school studies, while in America the style intersected with the Beat Generation and folk music's subsequent singer-songwriter movement.  After its "golden age," art pop would thrive as post-punkindustrial, and synthpop, as well as the British New Romantic scene of the 1980s. The genre further developed with artists who rejected conventional rock instrumentation and structure in favor of dance styles and the synthesizer; bands like Depeche Mode and The Pet Shop Boys. The Teens saw new art-pop trends develop, such as hip-hop artists drawing on visual art and vaporwave artists exploring elements of contemporary capitalism. Paul Lester, from The Guardian and Melody Maker, stated, “…the golden age of adroit, intelligent art-pop, to the days when 10cc, Roxy Music and Sparks themselves were mixing and matching from different genres and eras, well before the term 'postmodern' existed in the pop realm." Certainly no one would argue the carefree and stylized hippie ideology, but there was something in the 70s air far more disconcerting to parents than long hair and Renaissance Faire wardrobes: Glam was just weird. When my father saw the album covers for Transformer and Aladdin Sane, and, heavens, Jobriath or Klaus Nomi, I never heard the end of it. From his POV, Jim Morrison was just a young Marlboro Man, but Bowie in a dress? I don't think he was ever the same; at least not until I got married.

The Velvet Underground, which interpolated raw Garage Rock and psychedelia with lengthy drone and noise passages, unorthodox guitar tunings and feedback, and subject matter generally centered around stark lyrical topics, are considered the starting point of art rock. Where the VU were art rock's Genesis, Roxy was its catalyst alongside Bowie and Iggy and Lou, though the movement wasn't all glam and androgyny, it included jazz, western classical, funk, avant-garde and electronica, including in its grasp Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel, John Cale, David Sylvian, Sparks and the myriad of incarnations that have been and will be King Crimson. Today, bands/artists like Radiohead, The Mars Volta, Muse and Sufjan Stevens have picked up any slack and the artistry carries on.