A few days ago I threw up a post on Facebook asking people what their most overrated album is. For me, it’s always been London Calling, which is a perfectly decent pop album but routinely shows up on Top Ten or even Top Five lists as one of the greatest albums ever. I honestly don’t get it. I’m not surprised that a lot of people like London Calling, but as one of their favorite albums? These are, presumably, people who have listened to a lot of music, and that’s what goes near the top of their lists? Anyway, “overrated” doesn’t mean bad, just, you know, rated more favorably than you’d think. I got some good answers – Thriller, any KISS album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (that’s Hatcher’s contribution), Exile on Main Street, Nevermind, and Bat Out of Hell (that’s FotB’s Tom Fitzpatrick’s suggestion). I also got Born to Run, and the post sidetracked into bashing Springsteen and The Clash. This is where I’d like to focus, although if you have some overrated albums (again, not necessarily bad, just not as good as everyone thinks), feel free to chime in.
FotOB Daniel Joyaux, whose opinions about music and movies are very well considered and I enjoy reading them, said he shouldn’t have waded into the discussion because two of his favorite acts are The Boss and The Clash, and people were just bashing them. Our old buddy Dan Apodaca wrote that “Thunder Road” has “one of the worst mismatches of lyrical content to musical tone” he’s ever heard, which Joyaux disagreed with, but it’s an interesting take. I disagree with Joyaux that everyone was shitting on two of his favorite acts, because I still like The Clash and while I’ve never really liked Springsteen, I certainly wasn’t bashing him. I can’t even really comment on whether Born to Run is overrated because I’ve never heard the entire thing. But then Daniel wrote something interesting:
I think the biggest reason that Bruce and The Clash have become the two biggest targets for this question is the same reason that I love them so much–because they represent a heightened passion, conviction, and urgency in music, and we’ve become far too cynical a society for most people to buy into anyone treating their message and their art with that much romanticism and clear belief that it could matter to people.
When my friend Jeff noted that Springsteen and The Clash don’t have a monopoly on this kind of attitude, Daniel expounded:
I never remotely claimed they had a monopoly. But those are traits widely believed to define Bruce and The Clash far more than they do for other artists (beyond, perhaps, U2, who are subjected to the same kind of hatred). … Bruce and The Clash were artists who, first and foremost, believed rock and roll had the power to save people’s lives. So I get why it’s cool in our contemporary mode of rampant cynicism to hate on that. But it still makes me sad.
It’s this that I want to write about, as you can probably tell from the title of the post.
Daniel’s comments got me thinking about how I approach art. You might have noticed that I’m a bit cynical at times, something I get from my father, who’s wildly cynical (he calls himself “skeptical” rather than cynical, but he can be both). I know I’m cynical about a lot, but I’m also idealistic about a lot, as well. I don’t think one precludes the other, although many seem to think it does. I can be cynical about the apparatus of society and art and sports and anything else while still recognizing the creative impulse and the love of the game and even a yearning to serve the greater good. I don’t know if you believe me, but here I am, trying to convince you.
Let’s consider the statements from my Facebook post. Springsteen and The Clash represent a heightened passion, conviction, and urgency in music, and they treat their music with romanticism and clear belief. Springsteen and The Clash believed rock and roll had the power to save people’s lives. That’s what Daniel wrote, and I have an issue with that. First of all, I think a lot of art has passion, conviction, urgency, romanticism, and the belief that it can save people’s lives (whatever that last bit means – I think that’s a bit hyperbolic, but let’s move on). I listen to a lot of musicians like that. When someone is singing a great song or making a great movie or creating a great comic or writing a great book, I have no doubt they feel passionate and urgent about it. I will never not get choked up at certain moments in movies (particularly) but even in certain songs, because they reach something in me emotionally that the artist probably feels as well. This scene always – ALWAYS – gets to me, even though I know it’s fucking coming and I steel myself for it:
GodDAMNit, Emma Thompson.
Now, Emma Thompson is just an actor. She played Nanny McPhee, for crying out loud. That scene isn’t real, although it’s “based on a true story.” But that scene kills me. And it’s not just that, and it’s not just movies. The end of Morrison’s Doom Patrol guts me. Every. Single. Fucking. Time.
Sorry, I know it’s a lot, but GodDAMNit, Grant Morrison.
I get this way about music, too, when I believe that the singer is singing from the very depths of their souls. Maybe they are. Maybe they aren’t. But I believe it in many songs, and I believe it more in hundreds of other songs than I do when Paul Simonon sings “You can crush us, you can bruise us, but you’d have to answer to … the guns of Brixton,” to use a completely random example. So I tend to reject Daniel’s assertion that Springsteen and The Clash are defined by these traits far more than other bands. Tell me you can’t hear the resignation, despair, and ultimate triumph in the vocals of this song, another one I chose completely at random:
One reason why art is so wonderful is because it touches our souls. It entertains us, sure, but it also lifts us up, it inspires us, it soothes us, it challenges us, it disturbs us, it amazes us, and it makes us believe there are better things in this world than the mundane shit of existence. The Boss and The Clash do not have a monopoly on that, and they are far from the only bands defined like that. I don’t even know if they are defined like that, at least not all the time. How is this rather mundane yearning song more passionate and urgent than any other random yearning song I could play?
Man, that poor girl at the end. This was really the highlight of her life, wasn’t it? Even the only Springsteen song I really like, “She’s the One” (which is on Born to Run!), as good as it is, isn’t more heart-rending than my favorite Marillion song:
(Fish’s lyrics are better, too.)
My point is that good bands, even bad bands occasionally, can reach into you and make you feel something. Springsteen and The Clash are not the only ones who sing as if their entire worlds are ending and they desperately need to get their message out. They’re not remotely the only ones who can sing with an anger that makes you angry, a yearning that makes you yearn, a sadness that makes you sad, or a euphoria that makes you euphoric. Bands you’ve never heard of can do this:
My point, of course, is not to bash Springsteen and The Clash or Daniel for feeling the way he does. As always, I do not care what you listen to, read, watch, or enjoy in your popular culture, and if it brings you joy, more power to you. But Daniel’s invocation made me think about more than just this, because in his statement is implicit something else – that Bruce and The Clash make music for idealistic reasons, and this is where it all breaks down for me.
I might enjoy art, but I’m not naïve about it, either. Do you know why all of the things in art that you love or I love exist? Because the artist wants to make money. Yes, there are many reasons to create art, and I know them all. But the artist wants to make money. Does Springsteen give his albums away for free? Of course he doesn’t. Do creators give away their comics for free? Well, occasionally, I get them for free, but that’s because I have a tiny reputation as a reviewer, and they want me to review their books so … people buy them! I know, shocking. This sounds cynical, but I don’t think it is. I can love the emotion behind a song or a movie and still recognize that the person is doing it for money. Maybe Springsteen wanted to be a singer because he had a burning desire to tell the world about growing up in a shitty state1 or because his girl ripped his heart out or because being a kid in Eisenhower’s America sucked. I don’t know. But I do know he also wanted to make money, and if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have remained a singer for long. How do I know? Because there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of examples of artists giving up to take more lucrative jobs. Some of them had to be as passionate about their art as Bruce is, right? But they couldn’t put food on the table, and so they did what they had to do. This is perhaps most prominent in the field of comics, because it’s such a small field and it’s hard to make money, but maybe it’s just because I know more about comics than I do about other endeavors. But do you think Bernard Krigstein said to himself, “Sure, I can create masterpieces like ‘Master Race’ and other brilliant works of art, but my real passion is advertising!!!!” when he quit comics? Of course he didn’t – he did it because after the Comics Code came into existence, companies were forced to lower their page rates. Krigstein himself said so, and he couldn’t continue in a job he obviously loved, instead going off to tell corporate robots how to sell more Pall Malls.2 The comics world is littered with people who go into advertising or animation to make ends meet. Yes, those businesses allow them to use their skills, but they’re also far more lucrative than comics. Even if they remain in comics, they go where the money is. I own a lot of comics series that ended abruptly, simply because it wasn’t financially viable for the creators to continue. They went to Marvel or DC because that’s where the money is, even if the money isn’t that great. One of the best comics creators of the 21st century, Ken Krekeler, does hardly any comics because they don’t sell. In the larger artistic world, we have one-hit wonders who have to live for the rest of their lives, so what do they do? If they could continue to make money doing art, they would. But they still need to eat. Maybe they become the parent of an obnoxious teen and a far-too-precocious tween:
This is where I’m cynical. I get the creative impulse, I really do. I love writing, and although I’ve only been published once – in a tiny, barely-there magazine – I still love to do it, because I’m a creative person. But I get why people do it, and I’m sure, when they start, they want to “keep it pure” and do it for high-falutin’ reasons. I’m sure Springsteen would still say he does it for high-falutin’ reasons, but he’s able to say that, because he’s made a crap-ton of money over the years. This isn’t a new phenomenon, either – in the book I read recently about Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, it was funny to see that whenever he wasn’t working on the ceiling, our dude was bugging the Pope for money. Like, all the time. So it’s not like olde-tyme artists were any less concerned about putting quail on the table and a nice thatch over their heads. And we can’t forget the ego boost, either. Performing is a rush, and if you’ve ever been applauded by a large group of people, you’ll know what I’m talking about. It’s a great feeling, and a lot of these performers don’t want to give it up. These are cynical ideas about artists, but they’re not less relevant than the desire to elevate the human spirit. Acknowledging that fact doesn’t make the art less emotional, and while it’s working its magic on you or me, we don’t have to think about it. But it’s still there.
1 Sorry, Pennsylvania bias there. New Jersey is mostly quite lovely. Now, the people …
2 I have no idea what Krigstein worked on, but Pall Malls seem like such a 1950s brand.
You might disagree with me, and that’s cool. You may agree with Daniel, and that’s cool, too. Daniel, from what I know about him, is passionate about art himself, and that’s great. I’m passionate about art, but not, I think, to the extent that he is. I’m always trying to discover the reasons why choices are made, what extenuating circumstances play into the creation of art, and how the art was created. I’ve been this way for a long time, and maybe it is the influence of my father. I’m not terribly analytical in terms of figuring out how things work, but I am in terms of figuring out how art works. It’s fun. I love watching television and trying to figure out why a certain character has appeared or why that scene was in there, because, as I tell my daughter, film costs money, so they’re not going to put something in just for the fun of it. I love all of that, and I don’t think it hinders my enjoyment of art in any way. So while I’m cynical, I also get emotionally affected by art. While I love what art brings to my life, I recognize the realities behind it. And to me, there’s nothing wrong with that.
What do you guys think? Or do you just want to throw some overrated albums at me?