by carl wilson

Horrified Observations of Horrified Observers

HOPE.jpg
Have you heard about this group Horrified Observers of Pedestrian Entertainment, who are giving people (mostly) old rock albums if they get rid of their Ashlee Simpson discs? In this week's Overtones, such forces of smug condescension meet the spirit of idiosyncratic eclecticism .... and the wrong side dies. Witness the showdown.

Who are they to say that Britney's trash?

OVERTONES
By CARL WILSON

The Globe & Mail
Sat. Nov. 20, 2004

This week only, The Globe and Mail offers a reprieve to the good people who have been duped into buying "classic" rock: Turn in your substandard albums by U2, Led Zeppelin or the Grateful Dead and we will supply superior CDs by Justin Timberlake or Britney Spears.

If this deal sounds ridiculous, it should, since I by no means intend to honour it: Who am I to tell you what's substandard or superior? And what would I want with your stupid Led Zeppelin albums?

Yet if I made the exact opposite appeal, as a coalition of cultural smugs in L.A. and New York did this week, it seems I'd get a tastemaker's bouquet.

A group called Horrified Observers of Pedestrian Entertainment (HOPE) has garnered ovations from Rolling Stone to the BBC for offering to exchange any CD by lip-synch-scandal singer Ashlee Simpson for "one of a higher entertainment quality." Egged on, they expanded the trade to Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez, Linkin Park and "any boy band."

HOPE admits lip-synching is a red herring: It's been all over music for decades, mostly to permit acrobatic concert choreography. Their beef is "low quality." Measured with their own Qualitometer.

The daring crew's proposed substitutes are safe, canonized 1960s and 1970s rock and soul stars. The few fresher offerings include Neil Hamburger, a standup comic whose shtick is that he's not funny - oh, I bet Britney fans are going to like that tons more than dancing to the percolated beat of her hit Toxic.

When HOPE first began punking celebrity culture, it targeted Paris Hilton, who is renowned due to what Daddy rakes in and a talent on view only in a fuzzy clandestine video. HOPE picketed her "book" signing with placards: "Why are you famous?" and "I'd rather watch a Stephen King porn than read a Paris Hilton book."

That protest seemed like a clever attack on the wealth-worshipping cult. This one is just a bunch of stiffs looking down on other people's ideas of fun, specifically HOPE's "entertainment and media professionals, students, journalists and citizens" (read: insular honkies pushing 30) sneering at the pleasures of teenaged girls: Shut up, little fillies, making us antsy with your semi-orgasmic squeals. Sit down and nod along to old hippies. For four hours. I said shut up.

Another group, called You Have Bad Taste in Music, is more direct: They attend pop concerts in army helmets and shout abusive slogans through bullhorns at the crowd in the parking lot. It's much like the Bush regime's foreign-outreach program, You Have Bad Taste in Religions and Political Systems.

I dislike some of the music on these groups' hit lists, too, just not on principle. Some is gaudy, body-wriggling pop joy; some ain't. But their stunts are only smarmy genteel sequels to Disco Demolition Day in July, 1979, when a mountain of disco records got torched at a Chicago baseball game and the smoke cut short a double-header.

Disco was indeed oversold then, as teen-pop is now. But the vitriol is never so caustic when we're flooded with weak rock. The backlash always seems the worst when the top tunes are being made for black people, girl people and gay people: "Disco sucks, dude."

That 1979 campaign forever smeared one of the most technically, rhythmically inventive genres in pop. Lingering discophobia was one reason that techno, house, jungle and other 1990s innovations never broke big in North America. Likewise, today's rockin' reactionaries are missing out on the producers who fill the best bubble-gum chews with startling flavours of dissonance, sliding slantwise beats and psychotic sonic comedy.

All us would-be snobs could take a lesson from a recently rediscovered patron saint of the open ear: Arthur Russell was a classically trained cellist, rock and folk fan and composer from the cornfields of Iowa who spent much of the seventies studying Indian ragas, befriending Allen Ginsberg, curating performance art and nearly joining the Talking Heads. But as a young gay man in New York in the mid-seventies, one night he inevitably ended up at a disco.

Beyond the throbbing sexuality, Russell heard a universe in the reverberating drums, ululating divas and hand-claps of the anthems at Paradise Garage and Studio 54.

Soon he was collaborating with disco producers to mix his own silky, drifting compositions into big-beat banquets such as Dinosaur L's Go Bang and Loose Joints' Is It All Over My Face, underground classics at last available on 2004's The World of Arthur Russell. Now they'd call it "Intelligent Dance Music," but Russell would snap back that dancing was always pretty smart.

He also crossed over the other way, smuggling disco's looping hooks into his minimalist experiments, speak-singing along with his wired-up cello in a way, as his friend Philip Glass said, nobody's done before or since. He said he was after "Buddhist bubble-gum," a goal best realized in the vast oceanic flutter and cerebral lullabies of 1986's World of Echo, finally out on CD this month (with a haunting DVD). Pop variations occupy a less-consistent archival disc, Calling Out of Context.

Russell was sadly forgotten by the time he died of AIDS in 1992; the loss is just being recognized. Yet he was also a maddening tinkerer, forever revising his music and leaving it incomplete. What remains is like a torn notebook of half-remembered dreams of steamy dance clubs and cloud-covered aeries. The wending melodies suggest someone blithely tossing away his heart's desire, and then at the last second stretching out, diving to rescue it.

Russell's story cautions against ever presuming to know what history will consider trash. And that gives me hope against HOPE.

cwilson@globeandmail.ca

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, November 20 at 1:36 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

COMMENTS

eh, not so sure on this one. why should you have the right to comment on the whole thing then? who's allowed to comment and who is not? led zepplin does suck though

Posted by MJ on March 30, 2005 6:46 PM

 

 

carl wilson you are good people.

Posted by greg on December 7, 2004 3:54 PM

 

 

Ho ho ho! HOPE?!? Hilarious.

I think I tried to pull that shit with my own family when I was 17... Umm... I think I took away my brother's I Mother Earth records and bought him some Sloan instead. Eeeee.

But reading about HOPE brings up an interesting topic. The qualitometer? I use one for sure.

Like, I can't really criticize Led Zeppelin except by saying "they're bad, okay?"

Is that wrong?

Posted by Owen on November 27, 2004 12:16 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson