Loose canon

The Year in Music 2008: A new set of touchstones for rocky times
Watch out for Mochipet!
Photo by effery Cross


Pet Sounds (Capitol, 1966) not Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Capitol, 1967). For that matter the Plastic Ono Band rather than the Beatles, and Brian Wilson before Paul McCartney. Scott Walker, not Paul Simon. Arthur Russell, not David Byrne — though regards to the Talking Heads. 'Fraid no Bruce Springsteen but plenty of Neil Young. The Band not ... well, Bob Dylan hangs on despite the unfortunate I'm Not There (2007), the seeming party-stopper in a never-ending stream of Dylan books and arcana. Prince, in lieu of Rick James, bitch.

Low-budg bedroom production, not Chinese Democracy (Interscope). Not reggaetón but Krautrock. Not Afro-Cuban but African. Not doo-wop but girl group. Nope to Phil Spector but yes to Lee Hazlewood or, better, Lee "Scratch" Perry. Stock on the Replacements and Hüsker Dü is way down, but Bad Brains and Black Flag shares are up. Sorry, the Who isn't all right but Zep's song remains the same. Nevermind Nirvana but hello, Sparks — and no, not Jordin Sparks. And oddly enough, not the Tubes or Huey Lewis and the News, but Journey — and specifically "Don't Stop Believin'."

Now repeat, twirl around, pat your head whilst rubbing your stomach, click your heels together twice, and commit the aforementioned to memory: this is your new rock canon.

Just trust me on this. I've read a lot of music stories and CD reviews in '08, and since I'm missing the crucial math gene, I can't quantify the exact number of times the hallowed names of Arthur Russell, Neil Young, or Brian Wilson have been invoked, but believe me, they have, more times than group-think-phobic music writers care to admit. And that's not to say the artists and recordings these canonical creators have displaced are now worthless: even admitting that a canon (or three or four) exists, let alone articuutf8g one, can be a dicey proposition — whether you're among lit professors or cruising music crit circles. The very idea evokes exclusivity, hierarchy, neocon grandstanding, worries about exclusion, and allusions to dead white men. "I think most professors would not want to say there's a canon but if you teach a course on American literature there are still things you want to teach," opined one tenured prof pal. "They're critical of a canon but they still are creating a canon. It's very implicit and unconscious in some ways."

Yet anyone who's cared deeply enough about pop to critique it can't help but notice the seismic shift in the '00s — even as the state of criticism seems to wax and wane with the fortunes of a music industry still searching for an uploadable business model; music mags busily folding or scrambling for lifestyle advertising; and newspapers gutting their staffs and substituting arts criticism with reviews wrought by, say, sports copy editors. Meanwhile blogs generate a still-fluid mixture of earnest criticism, bracing truth-telling, and hands-free promotion. A canon — or the very idea of classics and common musical references that all agree on — presupposes a foundation of critical thought, and who can afford to judge amid the hand-wringing desperation of today's music marketplace?

Who instigated this changing of the guard, this revised rock 'n' roll canon? Tastemakers, tastefakers, marketing minons, and branding blowhards? Writers, DJs, musicians, music store staffers, promoters, and Robert "Dean of American Rock Critics" Christgau? All Tomorrow's Parties, Arthur, Pitchfork, and the Chunklet writers who dreamed up issue 20's music journalist application form ("Would you admit to not actually being that familiar with your frequent points of reference you name-drop [e.g., Captain Beefheart or Gang of Four]?")? This very humble independently owned, independent-minded rag?

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