Friday, October 22, 2004

THE REPLACEMENTS

It’s been hard for me to get any blogging done recently not due solely to a lack of time (I’ve been busy, but I’m always busy), but due to a high level of distraction. We have visiting relatives at casa Murry from about a week and a half ago till about 2 weeks from now, and we spent the last (long) weekend at USC for the game and visiting my oldest son, Brandon (I’ll have to talk more about USC, LSU, and the collage football thing later). There is also a week at Disneyland in my near future. So, though I probably could have made the time to write, it’s just that nothing has pushed past the other these more pressing mental concerns.

Not that there hasn’t been anything to write about. The few comics I’ve had a chance to read have been good (Ocean, the 3rd issue of Ultra, etc.), and the Brubaker interview in the Comics Journal is above average for a Groth/Spurgeon interview (which is to say slightly better than really really good). The TV season has been shaping up nicely with many shows putting up terrific episodes (Las Vegas’ George Hamilton episode was nearly perfect), Veronica Mars shaping up better and better with each show, and Lost holding the high note of interest on which it started (it’s pretty clear there is some sort of material manifestation of the id thing going on now, so the show is going in that psycho fantasy direction I speculated on earlier). But nothing pushed me over the hump to get to the keyboard until now.

The point of interest that got me a thinkin’ about a bloggin’ was this post at the Crooked Timber. The “Friday Fun” question is, on the surface, a mildly interesting one in a wish fulfillment sense – if you could replace one member of any musical group, which group and who would you choose. This allows for the obvious choices (though I guess it’s too late to kick Linda McCartney out of Wings), bold choices (like the example of a Jagger-less Rolling Stones), and funny choices (Black Sabbath fronted by Tiny Tim was recommended). Everyone has at least one favorite group that they feel are (or were) one member away from perfection. But the interesting part of the question, I think, is in the qualifiers.

“You need not be bound by practical considerations; you’re free to ignore the fact that (say) Peter Criss was the only one who could properly apply the KISS makeup. For example, you can replace Liz Phair (the singer) while keeping Liz Phair (the songwriter). How do you use this power, and why?”

This brings up a host of issues that are probably best addressed by specifically tackling the Liz Phair example.

Now, I admit that Liz Phair is one of those artists that I think about much more than her impact on my life dictates that I should. She came to my (and just about everyone else’s) attention when her first album, a song for song answer to the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street,” was released. This was an interesting experiment that was, other than this high concept/marketing gimmick, simply a low key examination of how sometimes it’s hard to be a girl/woman because men are pigs, and it’s hard to know what you want when you’re young. A few of the songs were good (I still love “the Divorce Song”), but the project was so compelling not because of the music but because of the context, ambition, and Phair’s image.

The image in question is that of the fragile f**k me feminist. Phair is cute, with somewhat elfin features and a horn-rimed mouth that has two modes: winsome smirk and come hither sulleness. She seems to know this and uses traditional modes of seductive posturing and dress to achieve a degree of empowerment through enticement. At the same time, she manages to project a slightly damaged quality, fragile as if she’s been beat about a bit. And she also radiates minor instability, like she might get a little crazy if you caught her at a bad moment.

Whip Smart, Juvinallia, Lilith Fair, Whitechocolatespaceegg, and the newer self titled album followed, and really have added nothing. The author of the C.T. post claims to want to keep Liz Phair “the songwriter,” but I am (mostly) a fan and even I can’t think of 5 of her songs I consider essential. It’s hard to imagine anything good coming out of someone covering one of her tunes. So why do I read about the new album, follow her career, etc.? It’s the primarily the enigma of the image, with enough interest in the music to support it. If you replace her because of her thready, flat voice, get another songwriter too, but keep the personality, the attitude, the look, and the mystery.

Thus, applying this to one of the other examples, if we replace Mick Jagger with Otis Redding, do we have to watch Otis onstage, or do we get Mick with Otis’s voice? Because if it’s the former, it’s not the Stones no mo’. This gets to the crux of why this is an interesting question – can you replace a central member of a group and still have the same group, even if you cheat with the above songwriting proviso. Someone probably has written a thesis on this topic (with Pink Floyd as the primary subject), so I won’t delve further, but if we set up rules for this game, we need to consider the physical presence as an entity separate from the musical ability.

The other issue of inseparability is that groups often evolve their sound around the weaknesses of the members, such that a given weakness can be converted into a strength. Black Francis, who was a candidate in the comments section for insertion into other groups, can’t sing, but developed a perfect working relationship between his voice and the Pixie’s music. The Filth and the Fury (the excellent Sex Pistols documentary) contains a top-notch discussion by Johnny Rotten of how he developed his style of vocal delivery despite the fact that he had a “defective instrument.” Since this is a developmental issue, it is often off beam to suggest that someone should be replaced because they can’t sing. Jagger, Morrison (Jim), and Daltry (all mentioned in the post or comments as replaceable) are examples of voices inseparable from the groups they helped define.

That said, I wish Nick Rhodes would get the hell out of Duran Duran. Then life would be perfect.

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