Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, October 08, 2006

a working-class hero is something to be

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Our seemingly endless yard project -- we’ve been working on it more than a year -- is coming near the end. On recent week-ends I’ve brought the boombox out for musical accompaniment to our labors. A few weeks ago I had a Boston v. Replacements face-off and came to a few tentative conclusions.

Four-square electric-guitar tuneful male rock and roll, Boston & the Replacements have basic qualities in common. But subculturally they signify differently. Boston was hugely popular, Replacements inspired deeper, longer-held fervor from a fraction of Boston’s fan base -- the dictionary picture of a “cult band” and “critics’ band.” I loved the Replacements too -- saw them twice, two unforgettable shows, owned most of their albums at different times, including the cassette-only The Shit Hits the Fans. But I loved Boston too when they came out, when I was in junior high, and I never stopped being happy to hear those songs.

Boston signifies “assimilation” -- the type of band beloved of cheerleaders and football players; while the Replacements signify “alienation” -- the type of band beloved of outcasts and nerds. And both bands encode these subcultural signifiers in their sound, clearly, to those who know the codes. The question is -- how?

The lyrics jump out. Boston’s lyrics are all confidence, the Replacements’ all insecurity. And the sounds of the bands mirror this distinction: Boston’s singer sounds robust, vital, cheerful, healthy; the Replacements’ singer sounds energetic but wracked with doubt and probably bad posture. The overall sounds of the bands mirror this distinction. Boston sounds like gleaming polished chrome; the Replacements sound like a rusty rambler -- the timbres are rougher, the guitar incorporates more dissonance, the palette is somewhat broader.

People understandably have allegiances to their own subcultures, and gleam, polish, and confidence signify “bad music” to lots of people. But one thing that struck me listening to the Boston’s self-titled debut and the Replacements’ Let It Be (their best albums, in my book) -- the singer in Boston sounds like the nicer guy. He’s confident, but not abrasive or macho about it. Both singers want to have a good time, but the Replacements’ singer sounds doubtful about the prospect. His doubt is compelling and resonant and sympathetic, and he’s wittier and verbally more interesting than the Boston singer, but sometimes I just want to have a good time. Rock puritans think I should feel guilty about that; keep that mess in Salem, is what I say.

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Joshua/Jane reminds us to consider class as we consider collectivity, groups, or community, and the indie-rock subculture exemplified -- and in significant ways brought into visibility in part -- by the Replacements is all about class. I’ve nattered on and on about the blue-collar chic of rock fashion in general and indie rock in particular, a fashion preference for the most part brought to the fore by people from the white collar middle class (the class most of my friends and I hale from and have returned to). In my work and social life I have seen it repeatedly: it usually happens that the people least interested in blue collar chic come from blue collar families; on the back cover of Boston’s first album, the guy who went to M.I.T. is wearing a T-shirt and the guy who worked in a factory is wearing a sport coat. Why I’m revving my engines about this again tonight -- besides Joshua/Jane’s reminder -- is this tidbit I recently read:

Bill O’Reilly’s father worked as an accountant for an oil company and made an upper-middle-class salary, and yet O’Reilly fronts as blue collar.

Baby that is rock and roll -- and hip hop. The first hip hop stars to dress consistently “street” came from middle class families -- Run-DMC.

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