June 8, 2004

Type Slowly

The best song of the last three years, and the most beautiful response to any of the horrible American tragedies to occur during that time, was recorded by Fred Durst and Johnny Rzeznik.

Incidentally: Fred Durst is the lead cretin of Limp Bizkit, possibly the worst band ever, and Johnny Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls is an ersatz Jon Bon Jovi. Once the accounts are settled, Durst will be shown to have done more damage to American popular culture than pretty much anyone alive, and Rzeznik will be utterly forgotten.

The song they recorded was Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here," for America: A Tribute to Heroes, which aired Sept. 21, 2001. This should have been one of the true low points in American cultural history. Anyone with a sense of common decency should have seen this combo on paper and run screaming. Instead, they caught the tastemakers sleeping—or mourning—and ended up proving something extremely important about American art.

Technically, there's nothing special about their version. It borrows the flattest part of the original, the monaural guitar line, and establishes it as the backbone. Furthermore, Durst isn't half the singer that Doug Gilmore was, though he doesn't try to be; clearly self-conscious about his ability to actually carry a tune, Durst gives no verse or word precedence over another. He seems lucky just to make it through the song.

And that's touching. That Durst, whose idea of vulnerability is to whine about he said/she said bullshit over a protective coating of blockheaded corporate rock, would submit himself to trying to actually sing a song, not to mention one from consummately professional late Pink Floyd, is testimony to either a core of humanity within him, or the gravity of the moment, or both. When Bruce Springsteen does a touching version of "My City of Ruins," none of us should be surprised. Which isn't to take away from his contribution, only to recognize that there's something pro forma about it. Fred Durst bringing a sense of very human poignancy, if not competency, is something more interesting to consider.

Which goes to demonstrate a lot about competency and professionalism, I think. That Springsteen's contribution is both more appropriate and less interesting in contrast to Fred Durst reflects on the vitality of imperfection, more pretentiously termed "authenticity," in American culture.

Probably a lot of you who read Voices regularly over the last four years wonder what the fuck is up with indie music. Bands like Pavement, Palace, and Archers of Loaf have long been its lifeblood. And what they have in common is an inability or unwillingness to sing or play instruments in a way that's anything like what you would expect from someone who makes a living doing so.

I think that the beauty that us indie kids at Voices find in music like this goes not only back to Fred Durst carefully trying not to mangle "Wish You Were Here," but back through the punk generation, the folk revival of the '60s, and the origins of rock 'n' roll. This vein of popular music has always had a complicatedly aggressive relationship to artifice and professionalism. With the punks, musical training was something that warranted suspicion. The touchstone of the movement is a 'zine page that shows three chords with the dictum: Here is one chord; here is another; here is another; now go start a band.

The folk revivalists found their inspiration in isolated musical movements, the further removed from any commercial impulse, the better. Likewise, an earlier folk generation, including quasi-sociologists like Alan Lomax, whose folk-song collections would inspire artists from Bob Dylan to Keith Richards, established the heart of American music along its byways. Not to mention Aaron Copland, unless he took the idea from Bela Bartôk. Or did he get it from Alan Lomax? Or the WPA? Point is, authenticity is generally an unavoidable facet of music.

Problem is, after several generations of cultural arbiters establishing the essence of the musical impulse out in the blank spots on the map, it gets hard to tell what's authentic and what's not anymore. Now that we're all superconnected, it's difficult for a musical genre or practice to emerge unscathed by the light of the superculture.

And that's where I think the indie impulse comes from: It's a response to the question of authenticity. If we're all too immersed in popular music to do anything that isn't influenced or commanded by it, the authentics are those who emulate it without the training, or the money, or the ability to be part of the actual commercial aspect of it. If the original folk musicians came from the wilderness of rural America—"unschooled" practitioners of inherited musical forms, whose "imperfect" accents and "exotic" instrumentation are signifiers of authenticity—what we have in their absence are the kids in the wilderness of the suburbs (or the cities outside of the American cultural establishment), whose passion in the face of their complete lack of skill signifies their authenticity, despite the fact that they're inspired by commercial music in the first place.

Completing the circuit: Fred Durst and Johnny Rzeznik are two musicians who not only signify the acme of the commercial impulse but who more or less set the two ends of its spectrum. Durst got rich and in Britney Spears's pants by cultivating an extremely careful and calculated sense of rage multiplied by entitlement. Johnny Rzeznik made money hand-over-fist to by nixing his punkish roots and emerging as a one-man FoMoCo of adult-contemporary ballads produced to within an inch of their life.

And then something happened that made them get together and rush out the sort of cover that's the essence of tiresomely earnest high school bands, and perform the thing on national television, despite not doing an especially good job with something they weren't really suited to do in the first place, not on their own and God knows not as a duo. And by doing so they stepped off the savage escalator of American Geschichte and returned to what got them behind a microphone in the first place, and back to some elementary concept of why people want to make music at all. Back to a place where the impulse was pure…no, not pure, because it never was, but innocent.

If that explains why their version of "Wish You Were Here" is beautiful, and by extension the music I [we] love and (if you'll give it to me for my last column here) something about America itself, then maybe I'll have done something for someone tonight.

It's been fun. I'll catch you on the flipside.