Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Minimum Rock'n'Roll (Requirement)

A question that any reasonably obsessed music fan has presumably asked themselves about their own personal store of knowledge: "What do you do with all that crap?" (It's a particularly thorny question when your livelihood will depend, as ours will, on absorbing and doing something with a large load of other, marginally more culturally respectable crap.) Yet lately I get a strong sense that pop trivia is moving definitively away from silly life-encumbrance (as in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity) to a genuinely valuable, completely legitimate form of highbrow cultural capital. That is, knowledge of pop music, past and present (but especially past), works for people today the way knowledge of art, literature and politics customarily has: as a means of distinction and generator of standards and values. Which means it can also, not incidentally, make material for (other) art. I have two particular recent examples in mind: Todd Haynes' movie I'm Not There and Tom Stoppard's play Rock 'n' Roll.

Dylanology is perhaps the most highly developed symptom of this trend, so it makes sense that Haynes' film "about" "Dylan" is one of the best examples of what I'm talking about. As you all probably know already, in I'm Not There six different actors portray aspects of the main character, a risky Bunuelian move that comes off in large part thanks to the amazing wealth of sources and references Haynes has to work with. So what in lesser hands might have been just another patina of mythology on Dylan's already heavily lacquered bust becomes, under Haynes' direction, a meditation on lore itself, on the propensity of any person — but especially celebrities — to generate their own personal information-cloud, which can be just as much an obstacle to interpretation as an aid. Sometimes I think I like people like Dylan less for their music than for the simple fact that there's so much stuff out there about them: music, films, books, bootlegs, record reviews, scholarly articles, anecdotes, cultural detritus of all kinds. Judging by I'm Not There, I'd say Todd Haynes feels the same way.

And of course, where there's detritus, there's discourse: Dylan is a perfect subject for a movie like this not just because of his "greatness" — or his protean Americanness or something impressive-sounding like that — but because of the fact that there's already been so much talk about him, so there needs to be further talk to organize the talk that's already occurred, to figure out what's worth preserving, to make distinctions and counterarguments. If you're recognizing an "academic disposition" in Haynes' film or its reception, it's because this is one way cultural legitimation is accomplished: by transforming a given figure, or genre, or form, from a mass of empirical data and consumption statistics into a "field." And where there are fields, there are experts.

What's interesting about Tom Stoppard's new play Rock'n'Roll — which spans the period from 1968 to 1990 — is that it not only recognizes but narrates this same transformation, which is arguably only now coming into its own. The historical background of the play is the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and ensuing twenty-two year occupation, paralleled with the family saga of a British Communist academic (based loosely, maybe, on Eric Hobsbawm). The title is, in a way, ironic: though several of the play's characters care passionately about rock'n'roll (especially Jan, the émigré Czech graduate student and sometime dissident who travels back and forth between his homeland and the Cambridge home of Max, his mentor) it is, in a world-historical sense, the least important part of the era depicted. (As usual with Stoppard, there are various big ideas and issues floating all over the place: censorship and political repression in the Eastern Bloc, the decline of British Socialism, the irresolvability of mind/body dualism, problems of translation in Sappho — you know, like that.)

But rock 'n' roll — and, maybe more importantly, intimate knowledge of rock 'n' roll — continues to assert a powerful presence all throughout the evening, never quite being bested by the more legitimate areas of erudition on display. The rock-besotted Jan — who, it should be stated, also has quite cogent intellectual and political views — is by far the most sympathetic character, and the moments when he reacts with joy to some new record or fact about a British or American rock group are some of the most real-feeling emotional moments in the play. In fact, after a while you start to wonder about Stoppard's own feelings on the matter: would he recognize a hierarchy of value that sees political philosophy and Greek poetry as more consequential than the Rolling Stones? In Stoppard's play, everyone considers it utterly ridiculous that Jan would gauge the cultural health of his nation, and even make important life decisions, based on something as trivial as music (consider his rationale for not accepting an academic post in Frankfurt: "You know… German rock bands.") But today, that same narrow aesthetic fixation appears as prescient, not only because Czech rock turned out to play a catalytic role in the 1989 "Velvet Revolution," but because a knowledge of late 60s progressive rock is, in all kinds of contexts, more effectual than a knowledge of Soviet Communism, or politics at all for that matter: more relevant and "usable" for our lives today. Thus a theatregoer who misses the finer points of Marxist theory and dissident realpolitik in Rock 'n' Roll might not feel so bad, as long as they're able to appreciate the ramifications of the perfectly-judged references to the Beach Boys and Syd Barrett; they might even feel that they ended up on the right side after all. I mean, Soviet Communism (a regime and ideology begun ninety and extinguished almost twenty years ago, that maybe was never effective or tenable or even worth attempting in the first place)? Czechoslovakia (a country that doesn't even exist any more, in a unified form)? What do you do with all that crap?