In the tidy, fun Punk Lust exhibit at the Museum of Sex, there was a famous photograph of Stiv Bators on stage at CBGB, in front of the Dead Boys, getting head from either one of two people: the club’s waitresses, who had been encouraged by the Dead Boys’ manager Genya Ryan, or else, according to Bebe Buell in her autobiography Rebel Heart: An American Rock ’n’ Roll Journey (2002), “America’s number-one punk groupie, Damita X.”
An on-stage blow job used to be subversive, provocative. But once it moves to the opera stage—as it has in at least simulated form in several productions I’ve seen this decade—the paragon of establishment high culture, it's as safe and ordinary as can be. What once curdled the sensibilities of people who imagined they were dictating proper behavior and manners to the country is now entertainment to the same. The people with all the money have now appropriated the blow job.
And speaking of class, the head-giver in Thomas Adès’ opera Powder Her Face (1995) is the actual Duchess of Argyll, Margaret Campbell. Meanwhile, the good Christian leaders of America lay hands on a man who lays his tiny hands on O.P.P. Perhaps there is some benefit to the prigs of Washington, D.C. (politicians and news media alike) recognizing that sex is a thing that exists, we just haven’t seen it.
No, sex is no longer counter-cultural. Likewise, there used to be a thrill of transgression in seeing Sam Peckinpah movies, or having Howard Beale assassinated on (fictional) network television. Now we have John Wick 3 (2019) (number 4 is on its way!), and lawyers who argue that if the current president did indeed shoot someone on Fifth Avenue, the police wouldn’t be allowed to even investigate it.
But it's not all, lol, nothing matters, because the same bullshit matters to the same people. In other words, don't be Black, don't be poor, don’t be a woman, and above all don't voice any displeasure about the experience of any or all of it, or else you're just asking for whatever comes your way. The status quo has never stood for anything other than an unearned deference and respect, and now that the façade of civilization has been stripped away, it's clear that conflict in this county is only superficially pro-Trump/anti-Trump, or right/left. It’s between the small class of people who, without merit, are insulated from the vicissitudes of life (viz. the editorial pages of The New York Times and Washington Post) and everyone else. That latter group encompasses extraordinarily brilliant, talented, decent people who will never have a chance to make the world a better place because they were born to the wrong parents, grew up in the wrong town.
Where is the music of, and for, those people? Where is the music that offends that status quo, that can’t yet be co-opted, that is subversive and itself cannot be subverted? Bators was getting a blow job at CBGB because the music he was making was a big fuck you to the established everything, and fucking was a part of that—play and fuck your way out of the way society expected you to behave, which was to never question it. That hasn’t changed, it’s just been rebranded as “civility.”
In the extended punk era, as Tim Mohr has shown in his excellent book, Burning Down the Haus (2018), punk rock was essential in bringing down East German totalitarianism. And as Ted Gioia's great new book Music: A Subversive History (2019) (see the web exclusive review in the November Rail) proves, counter cultural music has threatened political power for close to 10,000 years.
Where is our counter-cultural music? Why is music today so civil? Looking back on the past 36 months, I've heard nothing that in any way would threaten the status quo, only what’s acceptable to the fans across the web. The internet has balkanized the world, and not just via Facebook. The premise of Ben Ratliff’s book, Every Song Ever (2016), is wrong; genres and labels matter more than ever, the algorithms of streaming services are used to take a listener's notion about a genre and set it in reinforced concrete.
Our expectations are met in all the expected ways, nothing is upset, least of all us, most of all society. Metal brings you to more metal, hip hop to more hip hop. Atonal high modernism, dance pop, sensitive-guy alt-folk, all bring more of the same. Individual songs may elicit some spike of thought, but even the possibility of surprise boils down to a new band or artist working in a familiar style. The contemporary listening experience is all about creating a feeling of safety.
The criticism I read is just as safe in that it accepts the expectation and delivery of safety as not just a given but a goal. Unspoken but in plain view is a longing for the relative comfort of college. Yes, it’s a crushing financial burden now, but the rigid predictability of those four years must have an appeal compared to no-guarantees-you’re-on-your-own-fuck-off present. Because for the life of me I don’t get the appeal of the wan blandishments of Vampire Weekend, or the overproduced clichés of Billie Eilish.
These times are unsafe for most of us, incomprehensibly secure for the oligarchical collectivists above us. We need some sounds that will make them feel less secure, like whoever is singing just around the bend of the road is heading toward them.