For good or ill, self-consciousness really was the beginning of the end for rock.
In the good old days, recalled wistfully by a million drywall contractors who are cooler than you, rock stars sang lyrics like “Feel like makin’ / Feel like makin’ love / Feel like makin’ love to you” with sublimely moronic conviction while finding room for occasional flute solos. They were ambitious and unhinged. They did lots of drugs and bought fast cars that they drove into the swimming pools of five-star hotels. They set their instruments on fire and bit the heads off animals. They were narcissists. They told reporters about how they were “into” meditation or vegetarianism or the occult and people got mad but bought their records anyway.
These days when some indie luminary gives an interview to Pitchforkabout the latest deluxe 180-gram vinyl reissue of one of his early neglected masterpieces, he does not show up high and gloat about “the chicks.” He speaks in quiet clipped sentences and uses words like “prevaricate.” He quietly donates $4,600 to to the moderate liberal senator who represents his adopted home state. He does not care about “the chicks” or “the money,” which thanks to the advent of streaming music isn’t really more than what slightly above average upper-class college-educated professionals are making — which is fitting, because college-educated professionals is in fact what they are.
I cannot be the only one who misses the former type. Which is why it was hilarious watching an entire generation of 20- and 30-something adults get genuinely upset by Kanye West’s vague and inconsequential tweets about President Trump on Wednesday. How dorky have we become when all a rapper has to say to “offend” us is that he does not hate the president of the United States?
Kanye is America’s last rock star. This has been clear for ages now, and it is not only a question of personality. Part of what defined the rock ethos was ambition and a desire to do things that were different or absurd. For a progression as varied and bizarre as the one that leads from The College Dropout to The Life of Pablo by way of 808s & Heartbreak you have to look back to, well, The Beatles.
I’m sure those who consider themselves very “into” music can name 15 different Animal Collective EPs that they consider highly experimental. But as far as music that people who have never asked their creative writing professor at Bard for an extension on a personal essay goes, Kanye is the only answer to Neil Young asking himself what would happen if he made an entire record of proto-techno songs about Aztecs with his vocals distorted to make it sound like he is singing underwater.
Then there is the man himself and his life. Does anybody actually care what the guy from Bon Iver does with his time when he is not breathing shakily into a tape recorder? People are obsessed with Kanye and his personal life. Dare I suggest that Mrs. West belongs to a long tradition of rock-star trophy wives and that it was perhaps not her no doubt sparkling and jolly personality that initially brought her to her husband’s attention?
Nobody since David Bowie has had more personas than Kanye. Something like his recent pro-Trump turn has been in the works for years now. Before the meeting at Trump Tower there was his Confederate flag jacket-wearing period. In the middle of an ongoing national conversation about police violence and the legacy of racism, walking around a gas station with the Stars and Bars on his back was a crude gesture calculated to make people upset.
In other words, it was exactly the sort of thing we used to expect rock stars to do. When John Lennon told a reporter in 1966 that The Beatles were “bigger than Jesus,” he knew exactly what he was doing. He was being willfully naïve about how his words would be interpreted, and he loved every outraged minute of the response. This and a million similar gestures in rock history were as important as the big, dumb, bombastic music itself.
At some point we seemed to have changed our minds about what we expect from these people. Today our idea of a famous person is a tepid Hillary Clinton supporter.
Maybe as a culture this means we have moved past rock and roll. If that’s the case, fine. There are certainly dated things — handwritten letters, for example — that are more worthy of being defended.
Somebody call Tipper Gore and let her know she won.