Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Bound For Whoring

“Lame, Corporate Freeze-Out!”

Serendipity is indeed a strange bird.

Last night, I found myself up late watching perhaps my favorite TV channel—Turner Classic Movies, and their theme (which continues into today) is biopics of famed musicians. Last night they screened 1976's grossly unsung (at least nowadays) “Bound For Glory”—a phenomenally skillful depiction of the life of the late, great American songwriter/musician Woody Guthrie. Now, I was familiar with Guthrie's life —its up and downs, and the amazing art he created therein, but seeing the movie, one of the most beautifully shot films I've ever seen (thanks to the golden-eyed cinematographer Haskell Wexler), depicting dust-bowl America as a wonder of desolation, hopeful sunrises and bleary-eyed sunsets.

Guthrie's story itself was something that kept me thinking much of the night, too. David Carradine played Guthrie with a deft, naturalistic ease—conflicted and determined, but most of all, as a man of rich levels of empathy for his fellow man, and the state of world in general. His (and history's) Guthrie traveled with (via the rails along with the hoboes), and documented the travails of the millions of Americans left adrift in the economic hell that befell the Wsetern U.S. with the Dust Bowl and the latter stages of The Great Depression. He documented these American “voyages” through his songs—songs celebrating the American ideal that was not being put into practice by too many in power, and songs celebrating the spirit of the “little guy” worker at the mercy of his moneyed “betters” who ran everything that mattered in the U.S.

There's a key set of scenes in the movie where Guthrie, after receiving some fame for his musicianship and vocal styling nabs a job at a Los Angeles radio station. He sings a slew of the Okie standards of the time, but began to slip in more than a few of his decidely pro-“the little guy”, union and anti-corporate bully songs. He of course, runs into trouble with the station's boss who then asks Woody for a list of every song he'll perform before each week's broadcast because of fear of upsetting the sponsors—namely many of the farms and growers who took deep advantage of the poor migrants who came west seeking a way to survive. In one passage, Woody, who's ducked the angry station manager for days, finally shows up. The manager angrily demands the list of songs which Woody reluctantly produces. The manager goes over it, nodding his approval at the non-controversial tunes on the list until he stops at one and hesitates over the title. He's not familiar with it.

“This isn't one of them...union songs is it? I mean Woody, our sponsors...”

“Oh no.” Woody reassures him. “THis one's about a man who catches his wife cheatin' on him. He kills her.”

“Oh.”, says the suit. “That's okay, then.” And Woody looks at him with naked disgust.

Guthrie would battle constantly with that paradox of entertaining the masses, and remaining true to himself as a supporter of progressive causes, so much so that he is pretty much the avatar of that sort of putting one's self on the line that way. Not very many would follow him and be able to maintain a popular audience as he did. But a few have managed to do so.

One was the several posts aforementioned Curtis Mayfield. I wrote plenty on Curtis, but it's a comment by one the readers here that stuck out for me days ago, and even moreso today.

“Curtis always seemed to be relevant no matter what was going on.

To get the full flavor of that era, add Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder. Sly had his moments during the Psychedelic end of the Sixties, but never got as deep or as meaningful as the other guys. Perhaps he would have if he hadn't let his talent dissolve into the drugs.

Somehow, despite what must have been great commercial pressures to stay within the old "love and lost" formula of pop music, they were able to make music that spoke of the fight for freedom, to comment on the war, to say things that may have been a bit on the edge.”

Carol 10.28.07 - 3:45 am #

Carol hit that paradoxical “"ars gratius pecunirus” (art for money's sake—thank you, Amuseinc) note perfectly. Then, I saw “Bound For Glory” last night which dealt with this subject again.

And then in my blog trawling, this story today completed the serendiptous circle with a pen-jab right through the paper to the table top:

(Hat tip to Atrios for pointing the way to this at Down With Tyranny)
For all the kudos Springsteen's new Magic album is earning for the joyful rocking it delivers, it's rife with self-doubt, disillusionment, anger and acceptance of the disappointments and compromises life inevitably presents the thinking person.

A couple weeks ago the new album was #1 on the Billboard album chart. Kid Rock's new album knocked it down a peg and this week, Springsteen disposed on Kid Rock and is back at #1. The album is already gold and headed right towards platinum and he's got a great shot to win a Grammy for Best Album of the Year. Magic's reviews virtually everywhere are over the top and the intro to his latest interview in Rolling Stone refers to the album's subject matter as "weighty stuff like the direction of our democracy and party stuff that recalls the days when sparks first flew on E Street more than three decades ago."

Republican radio network Clear Channel, a monopoly in many cities and a dominant player in most of the rest, isn't interested. Is it because Springsteen has been an outspoken campaigner for Democrats and progressives? Clear Channel has taken a political stand with its programming in the past. Just think back to their boycott of the Dixie Chicks. Oh, no... not way back, just back to when they released their most recent album. Despite being one of the top 10 best-selling American albums of the year-- across all genres and demographics-- radio studiously ignored it. There were maybe half a dozen country stations that even played it at all. What Clear Channel did to the Dixie Chicks is a watertight case for the need to break the media companies up into a thousand pieces. (John Sununu disagrees; he's pro-censorship.) I spoke with an old friend who heads a record company and preferred to speak off the record.

"When you have artists like the Dixie Chicks and Bruce Springsteen who have overtly spoken out against this Administration, they are taken to task in spite the clear and undeniable indications from the marketplace that people want to hear their music. What seems to be happening-- if sales are any kind of a barometer of what the marketplace is-- is that these politically-connected radio networks like Clear Channel are not looking to succeed as radio stations as much as pushing forward some political agenda.

Another friend of mine distinctly recalls the Senate hearings on radio consolidation in light of the Dixie Chicks boycott where Barbara Boxer and John McCain heard testimony including an internal Clear Channel memo threatening "Just wait and see what happens if Springsteen tries this." I guess we're seeing that right now.

Of course, Clear Channel hasn't publicly said they are boycotting Springsteen's music. But they are. Fox News, hardly a hotbed of liberal alarmists, reports that "Clear Channel has sent an edict to its classic rock stations not to play tracks from Magic...

“Meet the new boss...same as the old boss.”—The Who

What's chuckle-worthy here is the silly-ass irony of it all. Here you have Clear Channel clumsily acting the role (again, as first noted in their Dixie Chicks ban) of the out-of-touch, corporate-whore, hayseed radio station owner from “Bound For Glory”—except, they're not answering to any aggrieved sponsors per se. Because the radio game is a lot different than it was in the 1930s. In fact, it's a lot different than it was a mere eight years ago, as the medium has lost 20% of its listeners since 1989. Ray-diddi-o is NOT about pushing records up the charts anymore. My kids—13 and 18 years old don't listen to the radio AT ALL. And neither do their friends. They get their music via the internet. They haven't turned on the radio tuner of my stereo in at least two years, which is kind of scary to a person who grew up on terrestrial pop radio like I did. In fact, what with the new music delivery systems in the computer age, like the iPod and internet and satellite radio, a recent study shows that terrestrial radio actually hurts record sales. And with the steady bleed-away of the listener base, the big ad rate money of the old days is just that—of the old days. What radio is now is little more than a massive corporate entity owned lock, stock, and barrel by a few large mega-companies. It's a corporate entity that leverages its monopoly powers and reach as a political weapon to be used by the most desperate bidder. But it is in fact, an increasingly toothless tiger, as broadband access finally reaches deep into once-isolated rural outposts and gives listeners a wider range of music and general programming and eats deeper into an already disappearing audience. Still, Clear Channel uses what power it has left in the service of furthering their goal of total domination of the medium, and wields its increasingly brittle cudgel for their wingnut masters on Capitol Hill who either pass laws that favor the company, or scuttle laws that could hurt them.

But they couldn't kill The Dixie Chicks...and in spite of their lame-assed “Boss Ban”, the album's gone gold in three weeks, (rapidly headed toward platinum status) and been the #1 record in two of its three weeks of release, slipping to #2 against the human Hep-C culture Kid Rock's release for the middle seven days.

What's the saying? “They're already dead...they just don't know it yet.”

And the secondary irony in their lead-eared mishandling of the Springsteen album lay in “The Boss's” tack of late as a performer. For the last decade, he has very much embraced the ethos of Woody Guthrie, in singing about the plight of “the little guy” on his own albums, and yes, singing several Woody Guthrie songs (“Riding In My Car”, “Deportee”, “I Ain't Got No Home”, and “This Land Is Your Land”) on various tribute albums and concerts. This note on Springsteen struck me:

Rather than continue as the wealthy rock-poet of the American grunt and risk being labeled inauthentic, Springsteen set out for new territory. As he put it in Better Days, a 1992 song, "It's a sad funny ending to find yourself pretending/ A rich man in a poor man's shirt.”

Then in '95 he put out an album of folk songs, The Ghost of Tom Joad. It won a Grammy for best contemporary folk album, but it felt more like a Woody Guthrie tribute than a Springsteen record. The songs were stark and compelling, but the old optimism was gone. The characters of Tom Joad lived on the fringes of American life...

The funky parallels to the radio battles Guthrie found himself fighting as an artist, and that Springsteen now finds himself embroiled in are just plain...weird. Ghost Of Tom Joad? As in The Dust Bowl, The Grapes Of Wrath Okie Tom Joad? Who Woody Guthrie wrote a 1940 song entitled “Tom Joad” about?


But in the end, the “Boss Ban” is a failure, as Clear Channel continues to “Yee-haaaaah!” in between wheezes— every gimpy-ass step of the way to history's dustbin. They're in the same position as the “record” industry nowadays—spindly legged on a trembling sea of sand. And the same way that record companies fought so damned hard, and in the end futilely to retain their monopoly over content delivery, terrestrial radio with Clear Channel as their paragon wil lose its battle as well. They've got so much invested that they have to fight it. Take a hard look at who's backing the congressmembers against Net Neutrality and you won't be surprised to see the names of giant telecoms and “Old” media protecting their asses. Trying to smack down a Springsteen and his ilk is a chump-change favor in return for the legislative hook-up from their boys on Capitol Hill.

The ghost is already out of the machine, though. They've already lost. As I said, my kids and their friends ain't checking for radio at all. And when's the last time you saw a kid listening to a portable radio of any kind? Who's the last person you know who said “Hey! I bought a new radio!” How much has your own listening dropped in the last 10 years?

Yeah... I thought so.

So they have their moment, Clear Channel does. I'm not going to say don't fight them. But I am saying they're pretty much just a punch-line to a joke we'll soon forget the set-up to. Besides, it's so God-awfully easy to sidestep them in this age. Time was, you had to wait an hour or two until you heard the song you wanted to hear. Now, you go online.

You hear the song.

You see the video.

Just like that.

Ain't America a grand place?