John Lennon used to tell the story of the first time he met Bob Dylan. It was the Beatles' second trip to America, and he was all puffed up with success, ego soaring about as high as it could go. When he asked Dylan what he thought of their music, Bob said, "It's nice, but it's not about anything. "
The Beatles proceeded to go from "Love Me Do" to "Revolution" in about 5 seconds flat.
Here is the opening lyric from Justin Timberlake's new hit single, "Future Sex Love Sound": You know what you want and that makes you just like me. See, everybody says you're hot, but can you make it hot for me?
Or how 'bout Avril Lavigne's "Girlfriend": Hey! Hey! You! You! I don't like your girlfriend! No way! No Way! I think you need a new one. Hey! Hey! You! You! I could be your girlfriend. As could a pile of poo.
I added that last part to round out the rhyme. In Lavigne's version, it just repeats itself again and again.
Apparently, Mr. Timberlake wants to get laid, and Avril wants a guy to get rid of his old girlfriend and get with her.
Or how about My Chemical Romance? These guys are huge. Emo, they call it, which basically means mired permanently in the bottomless angst of teenagerdom. Here are the opening lyrics from their hit song, called, oddly enough, "Teenagers." They're gonna clean up your looks with all the lies in the books, to make a citizen out of you because they sleep with a gun and keep an eye on you, son.
It all makes me wonder if maybe rock 'n' roll is dying this time. Over the years, there have been rumors. Disco, for example, tried to knock it off in the '70s. But along came Springsteen, who resurrected it with a fury. The 1980s were pretty gruesome: Flock of Seagulls, Spandau Ballet and Tears for Fears, but then came Nirvana, and they blew that shit right out of the water.
Nirvana was the last honest rock 'n' roll band. Kurt Cobain, with his horrible sweater and filthy hair, his working-class misery and cosmic genius, literally gave it his all. He jolted us into remembering what rock 'n' roll is supposed to be: honest, raw and unconcerned about consequences as long as it's clawing at the belly of hypocrisy. It's not supposed to be a load of cloying claptrap pandering to the masses.
I don't blame Timberlake, Lavigne or any of the rest of them. (Well, OK, maybe a little.) What I blame is corporate America for co-opting everything that's hip the minute it occurs. "Hip," by rights, belongs to kids; there used to be considerable lag time between young people coming up with something new, and corporate or establishment America catching on. That's why for people of my generation, television programs like The Brady Bunch were so funny. Those weren't kids. They, along with their dorky clothes and dorkier interactions with the world, were what adults imagined kids to be. Shows like this illustrated brilliantly one and only one thing: They really didn't know what we were about. Young people had something they could hold close, and rock music was what it sounded like.
These days, the very moment youth come up with something new--whether it's a hairstyle, clothing style or dialect--it's ripped off by some multinational corporation. Clothing companies have people whose job it is to hang around inner-city enclaves just to ferret out what young people are wearing, sounding like and doing. They report to their corporate masters; it's copied, and 5 minutes later, it's on some sitcom produced by a subsidiary of Viacom.
This is exactly what's happened to popular music. The record companies, almost all parts of giant communications conglomerates, catch a whiff of something interesting or different, and wham bam thank you ma'am, young musicians desperately try to approximate it with the hope of cashing in.
It's not that there isn't any talent out there. Maybe there is another The Who or The Kinks waiting in the wings. But without time, guts, indignation and smarts, all we're going to get is, Hey! Hey! You! You! I don't like your girlfriend!
It's a big load of poo.