Friday, October 20, 2006

Rod Stewart Is Not Original

Because my parents are '50s babies, I grew up with Rod Stewart in my life. Every day on the way home from school, Mom would blast Unplugged...and Seated, and I would have to endure "Waltzing Mathilda" or "Downtrain Train" across the Crescent City Connection. The cassette for Rhythm of My Heart was always sliding around on the dash of our station wagon too, but I don't remember her ever playing it; it was almost always some form of Greatest Hits. From a young age I was familiar with the man, but I usually encountered him in some past tense--not only because of my mother's personal taste for the old songs, but because he hadn't contributed any relevant work during my lifetime.

"If you like my bod-ay, and you think I'm artistically reprehensible..." Great photograph, incidentally.

He's a man who became famous for adapting his own sensibilities into whatever the listening public wanted--blues rock with The Jeff Beck Group, folk rock with the Faces, disco with "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy," pop to fit the MTV age, and so on. (Not to be underestimated in that equation are his genuine sex appeal and the most inimitable hairstyle this side of Marge Simpson and Morrissey.) Considering that background as the blueprint for his stardom, it's notable that he has stayed famous, and rich, this decade by doing the opposite: by regressing, by repeating, by re-heating. I say this because his "new" album, Still the Same: Great Rock Classics of Our Time, is the number one album in the country, and it's the sound of a man exploiting his fanbase for everything they're worth, choosing continued fame and fortune over artistic challenges and evolution.

This is Stewart's fifth consecutive album of, quite literally, unoriginal material. Seven of his last nine major releases were covers records or hits collections. It breaks down like this:

No, but close, Roderick. Your music's more like beating my head against a wall. You're just kind of snuggling it.

2006: The aforementioned Still the Same. Rod treats classic rock tunes with his raspy voice, smirk, and unbuttoned shirt. If you've ever wondered what "Fooled Around and Fell in Love" would sound like neutered of any character, this CD's for you.

2005: The Great American Songbook, Volume IV- Rod croons old standards. See below.

2004: Stardust: The Great American Songbook, Volume III- "Blue Moon" just didn't do it for me before. I needed Rod's version.

2003: As Time Goes By: The Great American Songbook, Volume II- Man, I was thinking that George Gershwin was a total hack, and I'm glad Rod finally validated that suspicion. He blows that dude out of the water. Volume II is the twist in the GAS quadrilogy because some of its singles were duets. After all, Cher and Queen Latifah need to eat too. Those "Living Single" syndication checks are split up five times, you know.

2002: It Had to Be You: The Great American Songbook- If Clive Davis is Satan, Rod Stewart is at least the mourning face of Brutus attached to the right side of his head in the ninth circle. Dante? No?

2001: Human- This is the unmitigated failure of an original album that prompted Rod to pander to old people. He was replicating a more contemporary, urban R&B sound--there's even some Mary J. on one track--but it sounds like that scene in Weird Science when Wyatt and Gary are drunk at that black club on the Wrong Side of Town (TM), talking jive. You can preview all the tracks at Allmusic, which I recommend you do. The production is like a more retarded Jermaine Dupri.

2000: When We Were the New Boys- A covers album of Britpop tunes by the likes of Oasis and Primal Scream. More interestingly though, Rod covers "Ooh La La," a song he had performed decades earlier with the Faces. Rod's covering his own song. That's about as postmodern as Roland Barthes pissing on a picture of himself pissing on himself.

Anyway, how does he possibly have the gravitas to get away with this? How can any major artist stay in popular demand, like Rod Stewart is, bringing nothing original or creative to the table? How can you make a living by just referencing other things. (Get it?) It's not like he's washed up. He has over $100 million in the bank, which I read somewhere I don't remember.

The whole album's worth of covers is a dangerous idea. This month, Tony Bennett paced Duets: An American Classic. Clay Aiken got Michael McDonald with his grind and released his own version of the idea, A Thousand Different Ways. Although he's basically the anti-Rod Stewart, awkward and gay, he too appeals to the same audience: old people (read forty-to-fifty) who are so bewildered by new music that they would rather buy inferior versions of songs they already know.

Smirk for me, Clayton. Hey, it could be worse. Ruben Studdard just made me a chalupa.

Because it's not as if anyone believes that Rod Stewart can sing a Sinatra song better than Sinatra. It has nothing to do with the music at hand: Stewart and company are selling nostalgia.

Before you judge this as callow or simple, imagine what this would be like with a musician you've grown up with, someone you like and respect. In my case, let's say Beck remade "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Hypnotize" and "Float On" and packaged it with a smirk-ass cover photo like this:

The hand says "ahoy," but the eyes say embarrassed. Also, do these guys have to have that undressing me with their eyes look?

From a practical standpoint, no, it wouldn't be successful. First off, regardless of whether or not you even appreciate hip-hop as a genre, rap covers don't work. So much of a hip-hop track is invested in the personality of its creator that a cover can't help but be disingenous in anyone else's hands. "Dear Mama" is Tupac's story, "Dead Wrong" is Biggie's bellow; it doesn't even really have anything to do with the music itself. The only hip-hop covers that exist--I'm thinking Jonathan Coulton's "Baby Got Back" or Dynamite Hack's "Boys in the Hood"--resort to irony because a white person is embracing and/or ridiculing something patently black. So that takes out any rap. Most of the other popular songs, covers on that hypothetical Beck record, would also fail because a cover of something as popular as anything resembling a standard these days would be seen as ironic too. It works on Clay Aiken's album because his listeners weren't implanted with that sense in the same way people who grew up in the '80s and '90s were. To my parents, you either like something or you don't.

Indeed, could any kind of earnest covers or greatest hits collection sell for our generation? Greatest hits will probably be obsolete because people will already own, in some fashion, all the songs they deem essential, picking them up piece by piece with iTunes or its future equivalent.

So are we, Generation Y and Z, above this whole buying nostalgia thing? I'm still not convinced.

As I write this, I'm listening to my iPod on shuffle. I keep it on random because there are over 10,000 tracks for me to sift through and manage, and my mood or musical inclination can't process that much. My mom doesn't have enough time to investigate enough new music; I have too much time to consume too much new music. While she's buying new Rod Stewart, same as (yet different from) the old Rod Stewart, I'm nostalgic for nothing. I'm spinning my wheel, I'm looking for something to catch my eye, I'm sensing that I downloaded something I really wanted to listen to, I'm sensing that somewhere on this playlist is something I will know by heart. Our methodology might be different, but our feelings are the exact same.

1 comment:

P.T. said...

Good work. Every time I think of Rod Stewart now, I think of that dude who appeared at Ms. Mae's on three separate occasions who looked enough like him to act the part. And then Burt said something stupid and almost got us kicked out. Thus ends every night at Ms. Mae's.