Punk icon loves Elton John – fashion is out of style

Earlier this week, record label head, old skool LA punk Brett Gurewitz tweeted that he loves Elton John. He’s not kidding. His Last.fm playlist is linked on his bio. The queen of pop piano is number 3 in the most-played artists list, next to the Killers, the National, David Bowie, Hot Chip, and LCD Soundsystem.

Back in the day, the punk ethos was aggressively opposed to middle of the road, safe, pretty, pop/rock music that got radio airplay and commercial success. If you were cutting edge, then you liked things edgy, dark, weird, ugly, distorted. Either brutally curt or meandering.

The thing is that when you are a rebel, you are defined by your enemy. In retrospect, maybe the taste of the avant garde was harmed by the dominance of the commercial. To be hip, you needed to sneer at music that was popular, pretty and well-structured. That eliminated a lot of mediocre and well-forgotten schlock, but also cut out a lot of music that, in retrospect, was great or good.

So Gurewitz saying he loves Elton John comes across a radical statement. Now, Bad Religion the band always liked melody, and maybe they were never as punk-elitist as the Bad Religion fans I knew back in the day. Publicly coming out for Elton John, or Crosby Stills, Nash and Young (or pick your fashion poison) is an expression of the spirit of the time right now.

By contrast, Jim O’Rourke, the Chicago avant-guitarist who completed the studio production of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, appears to have hipster contempt honed to a fine art. While Wilco is less avant garde than it thinks it is, O’Rourke on his home turf is a master of truly “out” experimental improv. In 1999 and 2001, he made a couple of albums, Eureka and Insignficance with stripped down and much more straight structure and melody.

Seemingly in exchange, the lyrics are misanthropic edging at times into sociopath territory (seriously, I’m not gonna link to 3-way, having friends with disabilities who’ve had problems with fetishist stalkers). These albums seem like they’re intended to be a rude joke on bourgeois fans of artful music who’d love the elegant spare guitar and not bother to listen closely to the lyrics until it’s too late.

But the joke is on O’Rourke – the economic structure that drove the hostility is crumbling. The message from Gurewitz is that in age after the fall of the megahit, you don’t need to hate on things that are pretty and people who fall for the pretty. You can pick and choose, because pretty doesn’t mean selling out anymore.

As the big hit model fades these days, a lot of people are listening to older stuff. Only 35% of 2008 album sales were for 2008 releases; the lowest ever measured. Some of the older stuff is deep back catalog that never was popular. And some of it is music that once was both very popular and very unhip.

So we’re going through older stuff to find the things that were good even though they were popular. Part of the difficulty here is that the popular stuff was way overplayed – we’re retrieving it not from obscurity but from seemingly knowing it too well. The catchy tunes are stuck in our heads and our guts whether we like them or not, whether they ever were good or not.

When Cake covers Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, people think the band is being ironic, but they say they’re not, and I believe them. Sincerity is the new sincerity. Art-guitarist Bill Frisell covers Streisand’s People because he likes the tune (there it helps that he’s an instrumental guy and leaves out the words). The cool thing is to find what speaks to you and what you think is genuinely good, and rescuing songs from decontexualized top 40, where all you heard was fashionable sound.

p.s. Epitaph is a Socialtext customer.

p.p.s. Edited to cut a few paragraphs on my personal explorations of the tensions & relationships between the popular and the specialized. Folks who are interested can find that thread on Last.fm and occasional link notes on FriendFeed.

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