July 25th, 2005


Why don't rock critics understand Adam Green?

When I was living in my art gallery in New York, I found myself listening to the music of David Bowie's Deram period. Songs like "Uncle Arthur" and "There Is A Happy Land" sounded good in an art gallery, and I found myself thinking the counter-intuitive, counter-canonical thought: "This is the closest David Bowie ever got to making art music." Sure, the public may prefer the vampy glam of "Ziggy Stardust" and the critics (not to mention Philip Glass, and Bowie himself) might be unanimous that it's the experimental rock of the Berlin trilogy which represents his artistic peak. But the oddness, detachment, narrative clarity, eccentricity and subtlety of the Deram material ("Silly Boy Blue" and "When I Live My Dream" are both generic yet completely defiant of genre, their arrangements full of subtle discords) marks it out as something closer to what we think of as art: something disturbing, something that throws genres into crisis rather than riding them home to the usual "triumphs", something that abjures easy power or cheap cool. The power of rock and cool is "easy power" because it's a Faustian pact, undermined by its own eternal, deadly effectiveness. In exchange for a Pied Piper-like power over the masses, rock performers give up their right to art's real strength: its detachment, its capacity to alienate and estrange experience. Rock power appeals to the adrenal glands; it's viscerally interesting but conceptually boring. What works in a stadium doesn't work in an art gallery, and vice versa. If rock is mostly recognition, art is cognition, the first encounter with something new and potentially disturbing.

Another reason it might be sensible to poke around in Bowie's cabaret period for stuff which reminds us of what we think of as art is that rock music is rooted in Romantic ideology. It cannot get away from corny Romantic-period cliches about the authenticity of the self, the vision of the artist, the struggle for passion and commitment, the capacity of art to elevate the human spirit, the individual struggling against society, and, of course, transcendence through drug experience (yes, we're back in that "stately pleasure dome" in Xanadu, doing drugs with Coleridge and Kubla Khan). Bowie bought into these values big time in the late 70s; the song "Heroes" is rotten (and resplendent) with them. The "Heroes" album, with its Egon Shielesque sleeve, updates Romanticism to the Expressionist period, Romanticism's zenith, the last time it could stand proud before Hitler—the ultimate Romantic artist, as Syberberg points out in Hitler, A Film From Germany—ruined it forever for most of us.

It may work well in arenas (and the Nietzschean, cocaine-and-Crowley-addled 70s Bowie wasn't averse to describing Hitler at Nuremburg as "the ultimate rock'n'roll showman"), but when you put rock Romanticism in an art gallery it can't help looking terribly 19th century, which damages its chances of being taken seriously as a work of contemporary art. What can work in an art gallery, though, is cabaret. Strange cabaret. Cabaret that's so whimsical and odd that it unsettles. Cabaret that's sonically incredibly tame yet conceptually or lyrically more aggressive than any screechy rock noise. Cabaret that asserts no humanist values, and wears its playful blank flatness as a badge of honour. Cabaret very much like the kind Adam Green croons his way through on his 2005 album "Gemstones".

Critics mostly hated Green's album. Q magazine gave it zero out of ten and said it was "as worthless as it's possible for music to be". "His tunes and/or jokes plop out like forced turds," said Spin, and Neumu concurred: "Gemstones is shit. It's awful. It really, really is." Neumu thought the problem was that Green was now working with "a bunch of slick session musicians, a posse of paycheck-cashing guns-for-hire... What's most noxious, though, is the way that Green sounds perfectly at home with them, his singing on "Crackhouse Blues," in particular, being just as self-conscious and soulless as the musos he's playing with." Pitchfork thought that Green failed the Jonathan Richman test because Richman "means it. With Green, that's never been clear."

There you have it, a postmodern artist being hammered through a premodern hole, being judged by the presuppositions of an essentially 19th century rockist Romantic criticism. Session musicians = money = no soul = not meaning it. The hidden inverse of those associations is pure Romanticism: amateur musicians = poor = soul = meaning it. It's a pre-Adorno vision of soul, because Adorno nailed the paradox beautifully: "in the end, soul itself is the longing of the soul-less for redemption". Romantics project authenticity onto the poor, and see it missing in situations where professionalisation and money dominate. The trouble is, that's all situations ever in popular music, a professionalised commercial venture. So why single out Adam Green for paying his musicians? Such criticism isn't postmodernist, and it isn't even modernist. It hasn't even reached the 20th century yet. It hasn't read Adorno, let alone Warhol or Derrida.

I would recommend anyone to watch the Gemstones Promotional Film made by Adam Green (amongst others). Apart from being very funny and entertaining, it shows very clearly how absurd it is that we demand musicians to "mean it" in a world dominated by the endlessly fragemented, reflexive and artificial surfaces of television. Like Dylan in "Don't Look Back", Green is surrounded by rockist critics, the Mr Joneses of our time, who show every time they open their mouths that they don't know what is happening here. Green adopts the Warholian technique of faux-naivete, answering with a "Yes" or a "No" or an "I guess" when people ask stuff like:

Breathless Humanist Interviewer: Your previous band the Moldy Peaches had a bratty immaturity, which was fine at the time, but I think the stuff you're doing at the moment is a lot more... there's a lot more depth to it, you seem to be enjoying it more. There's a sense of wonder in the songs, and love, I guess, for a lot of things, and I think that's a lot nicer. Do you feel that you're more comfortable with music and performing and stuff nowadays, or...

Green: Yeah.

Green's music is art in the same way the Chapman Brothers' work is art: because of the utterly relentless trenchancy of his nihilism, all the more powerful for the fact that he lays it down in a crooning baritone over cabaret tracks. (The session musician thing is the whole point, Neumu!) But even his defenders don't feel free to celebrate this playful nihilism for its own sake. They try to smuggle in a bit of humanism through the back door:

"Green's warped imagery, and the way he plays everything to the hilt, cover up the fact that there's real emotions in his songs, real feelings of confusion and loneliness. Occasionally, in the middle of a song, those feelings will come across in a completely pure way, where you realize that he's not winking or joking in any way. Then a few seconds later he'll be singing about someone biting his cock." Pop Matters review.

"There’s a lot more behind the rude words to be discovered only by people with the perception and persistence to discover. So, “Carolina,” far from being a piece of scatological sniggering, is actually about coming to terms with a girlfriend’s abortion. Deeper than dirty water." Stylus review.

The thing is, this is liking Green for the wrong reasons. If you wanted deep and heartfelt stuff about abortions, I'm sure you could find more of it elsewhere. But maybe the absurdist, fuck-you nihilism of Green's shiny and bizarre cabaret music is bound to contain a repressed sincere other which is all the more powerful for being repressed. It's almost like a ghost we collectively create because we're so terrified of the idea of pure, playful nihilism, of "This means nothing at all, and it's great".

It's ironic, but when we try to claim the status of art for things that aren't automatically art, we reach for quite the wrong tools. We employ the ideologies of dead movements from long ago, like Romanticism and Renaissance Humanism. Now, you may want to accuse me of being ahistorical here. "Sure," you may say, "rock criticism draws on Romanticism when it evokes laughably retro notions of the rock artist as a lone genius struggling against, well, drug addiction or world hunger or the faceless crowd or whatever it is. And sure, that retro claim actually disqualifies rock from being taken seriously as contemporary art. But rock is a form that falls within the historical era of Postmodernism. So the Romanticism you're describing is a revival, a retro postmodern echo of the Romantic era."

I'd say you're absolutely right about that, but by the same token, that makes Rock Romanticism a form of kitsch much more egregious and corny than the kind the critics are accusing Adam Green of. So it comes back to the work's relationship with "easy power", with genre and ambivalence; its capacity to disturb us. It might turn out to be the most "kitschy" work which is the least kitschy, because when kitsch is disturbing and off-kilter it combines all the power of archetypes with all the power of defamiliarization. It stretches all the way from recognition to cognition. It becomes something very like contemporary art.