The least thing a critic can do is complain about how this summer’s songs are just like last summer’s, or some summer 35 years ago when the world sparkled and we all lived in a utopia of the new. It’s not just that there are new songs (there are). Or that you should mistrust anyone whose code reduces to “the world was better when my body was younger” (you should). It’s that originality is overrated. The way a song can point at another and another in an endless chain is one of the essential things that makes songs great. Let 99 and 44/100ths of everything be a rip-off, a cover, a mechanical reproduction. Radio can still do its trick of pouring out a half-remembered, half-invented landscape in which we live.
Will Smith is exactly enough the auteur to impose his personality on any track the producers jack, but it’s a boring personality. Even in the wild, wild west he’s tame and hard-to-place; representing anything but huggability would cut into his crossover appeal. Still, “Wild, Wild West” puts me four places at once: in the here and now, and there in Kool Moe Dee’s 1987; thrown back to 1976 with Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish,” and sideways to Lauryn Hill’s “Every Ghetto, Every City.” That’s not even counting Once Upon a Time in the West or Escape Club. But the Fresh Prince’s waxploitation can’t escape L-Boogie’s look back in funkiness; she puts his pale Hollywood nostalgia trip to shame. “Every Ghetto” is not just New Jersey’s finest’s finest; it’s the best Stevie song since he was swapped out for a Hallmark Card.
Smashmouth’s “All Star” opens in Joe Jackson’s 1979, its bassline promenaded by pretty women and gorillas; suddenly the song veers
into the New York summer of my old roommate Nina Harris, who I believe to be the inventor of the L-on-the-brow “loser” gesture. “All Star” is awesomely unoriginal, but it’s
infectious—like a parasite latching onto my life story. And then it turns reggae, two little birds mixing up Marley quoting Shakespeare against Spirit of ’76 riffology and last year’s basketball sloganeering, everything all the time until it ignites, as if musicology were a form of self- immolation. And the clock face is melting.
Natalie Merchant’s “Life Is Sweet” promises folk-song politics, sweetly raging against “your daddy the war machine.” Maybe she’s pointing at Papa Ike’s military-industrial complex, or Mario Savio’s speech about laying your body on the gears. Or maybe Maria McKee’s bittersweeter 1996 “Life Is Sweet.” But mostly she’s pointing at the halcyon days which, in their ending, made her irrelevant before she could even begin her career as the belle dame of La Vie En RoseColored Glasses. She’s not melancholy about suffering, but about how the world can’t support a “Hard Rain” or an “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” anymore. That kind of folk song died in 1970, when the Guess Who institutionalized “the war machine” as an empty wank-rock cliché.
Wouldn’t you know it, retro wank-rocker Len Kravitz just rerecorded “American Woman”; this pointing isn’t going to stop any time soon. Walter Benjamin dreamed of a city made entirely of quotation, which would not just contain the history of the 19th century, but be its capital. And radio is in turn a city made of mnemonic devices, referential mania and pet sounds—the capital of a certain part of the 20th century.
Pearl Jam’s “Last Kiss” covers the 1964 hit for J. Frank Wilson & the Cavaliers. It turns out that, led by Jan & Dean’s “Dead Man’s Curve,” car-crash songs were a fad that year—replacing all the twist songs, I suppose. Let’s Crash Again. Peppermint Crash. Crashin’ the Night Away. Maybe there was never a utopia of the new after all. 1964’s followers were all picking up on the trail from “Teen Angel,” Mark Dinning’s 1960 weeper. It’s a trail that leads all over the map; you can find an anthology called Dead Man’s Curve and another called Doo-Wop Car & Angel Songs.
My friend Darcey says “Last Kiss” reminds her of the Smiths’ “Girlfriend in a Coma”: an ode to low maintenance. Dying in his arms, she’s an easy lay. One perfect kiss and no commitment whatsoever! For a boy, that’s just like heaven. Don’t you know, itdifferent for girls. For one thing, the fantasy of a bizarre love triangle with God just isn’t as popular. For another, screw that beautiful-corpse nonsense. In The Avengers’ punk-era “Car Crash,” true teen Penelope Houston takes the tradition and rips it up: “Dreamed you had a car crash, now you’re dead in the road with your head smashed!” And she just screams (you can hear it on the new compilation The Avengers Died for Your Sins). No crying out to the angelic orders for her. Maybe that’s the difference between 1964 and 1978: the life’n’death urgency didn’t change, but suddenly it had to live in a world without heaven to follow.
Watching Eddie Vedder sift through history and choose the moment when his operatic voice and Johnny Overwroughten melodrama made sense is poignant. It’s like watching a guy wandering around a dream city which has stopped dreaming of him, trying to find a house that can be a home, trying to make sense of signs that point every which way.