There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
By melding R&B and hillbilly music and appealing primarily to a teenage audience, Elvis changed much in the realm of popular music. But he didn’t change everything: He was still a pop singer. In fact, the first time I ever asked an adultone who had never been a pop fanabout Elvis (then well past his prime), she dismissed him as a latter-day Frank Sinatra. He wasn’t, of course, and yet, in some ways, he was. He was rock ‘n’ roll, but he wasn’t the singer in a rock ‘n’ roll band.
These days, we take rock ‘n’ roll bands for granted. But it’s worth remembering that the Beatles didn’t invent the idea of rockers who wrote their own songs or sang close harmoniesor even of grown-up males who wore longish hair. What they did invent was the modern notion of the band, a self-contained musical unit of (more or less) equals rather than a conductor or singer and his hired accompanists. The true rock ‘n’ roll band was composed of friends and collaborators who worked, dreamed, and, quite possibly, lived together. (At least they did in Help!.) They were allied against the world on a noble quest, and their purpose was never (entirely) mercenary. They were the shock troops of a new generation that didn’t believe in every man for himself.
Of course, the myth is more appealing than the reality. Lots of ’60s rock groups were in it only for the money, were assembled through auditions, and were groomed and guided by mastermindsjust like today’s boy bands. Yet the great rock bands of the ’60sand the successors who tried to live up to the mythdid have common histories and goals that transcended the music biz’s customary procedures. The Beatles existed both before and after Brian Epstein, and the Rolling Stones have lasted more than 30 years without Andrew Loog Oldham. Whereas the Monkeeslove ’em or notwere never really a band.
Few mainstream acts today know or care about really being a band. But from an unexpected domain has come one group that understands: Josie and the Pussycats. Yes, I realize that the stars of Josie and the Pussycats are actresses playing cartoon characterswhich would seem to make them far more akin to the Spice Girls than to the Beatles. And these simulated Pussycats don’t actually play their own instruments, sing their own vocals, or write their own songs. The Pussycats’ handlers left the lead vocals to Kay Hanley, formerly of middling Boston pop-rock band Letters to Cleo, and hired such songwriters as Ivy/Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger, Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz, Jason Falkner, and (most appropriately) once and future Go-Go Jane Wiedlin to craft the melodies (which is as smart as the Monkees’ employing Neil Diamond and Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart). Still, it would be hard to name a contemporary group that is working harder to uphold the mythos of the rock band than Josie and the Pussycats (except Fugazi, of course).
“We will all be friends first and a band second,” vows Josie in the movie, and, naturally, one of the first things the fictional trio’s label bosses do is try to undermine that bond. For contemporary music-biz Machiavellis, however, such maneuvering is seldom necessary. Many of today’s top groups are actually show-biz concoctions, assembled on Orlando, Fla., soundstages like so many animatronic Disney World attractions. Among techno kids and indie rockers, the idea of a band has also taken a beating. A collective name could just be a front for one guy with a sampler or a big studio budget, and actual band members often make a point of playing with several groups, as if loyalty to any one group is kid stuff. (This is perhaps a way of avoiding the post-Nirvana stigma of the whole alternative genre: I’m not really an indie rocker. That’s just one of the many roles I play.)
Blame Ayn Rand, professional wrestling, or TV shows like Survivor, which establish teams only to tear them apart in an orgy of bourgeois individualism. (Next up: a show called The Weakest Link, which should thrill social Darwinists everywhere.) This is clearly not an age that extols collaboration. Instead, we’re presented with pop-Stalinist figureheads such as Britney Spears, the creation of a team (including ghostwriters, apparently) that’s focused on exalting the one as an expression of the will (well, the purchasing power) of the many.
The idea of solidarity among rock stars does seem a little dubious. Courtney Love, for example, hardly seems like an exemplar of collaborative culture, even now that her rock-collectivist manifesto has been published in the estimable Nation with an introduction by the estimable Johnny Temple (who’s actually one of those guys who plays with several bands; his primary group is Girls Against Boys, which just extricated itself from a contract with Universal Music Group, the label Love is suing for her own release).
Still, the collectivist image of the Beatles, partial fiction though it was, did shape the spirit of the late ’60s (all the way, perhaps, to such grim manifestations as the Symbionese Liberation Army). And the myth proved even more powerful (if less saleable) when adopted by punks from the Ramones to the Clashwho passed it on to the Dischord bands and others that keep punk’s eternal flame. Josie and the Pussycats, of course, are sheer simulationbut better cartoon solidarity than another round of divas, solo albums, and singer-songwriters. Mark Jenkins
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