Pompous? Moi?

Apropos of Neil Strauss’s interview with Billy Corgan, the lead singer of the Smashing Pumpkins, in Wednesday’s New York Times, Culturebox was moved to ask several real and self-styled rock historians (and who isn’t the latter?) the following question: When did self-important pomposity become an acceptable cultural style for a pop star?

The answers:

“I date it to the Vanilla Fudge recording of ‘You Keep Me Hanging On.’ I associate this with Quaaludes. Vanilla Fudge made a brilliant discovery. They covered a Supremes song at half the tempo. My theory is (I have no evidence for this, of course) that in a drug-addled state, they put the 45 on and switched it to 33. It turns out that any cheerful pop jingle slowed down and its key lowered by a fifth sounds important. It’s the rhetorical trick of speaking very slowly when you want to say something important. The wonderful thing about Quaaludes is they do that for you. I recommend, if anybody still has 45s, that they go through the entire Supremes catalogue and play them at 33. It sounds like Vanilla Fudge. It sounds like the Deep Meaning Songbook. You play these songs at 33, you will believe you have discovered the secret of life. You will be wrong, of course.” –Randy Cohen“I associate this with things like having a guru and putting out three-record sets. The kind of thing that really broke out after Woodstock, after the break-up of the Beatles. You could say in a way that John Lennon was a pathbreaker. There was the whole bed-in thing. It had a humorous quotient to it, there was something disarming about it, but just think of anyone else doing it and you realize just how fatuous it was. And then all these also-ran groups started throwing their weight around. Everybody was making some kind of grand statement. It was the era when the Bee Gees could release a record in a red velvet jacket. It was called “Odessa,” by the way, and it wasn’t half bad.”–Luc Sante“I would say the Moody Blues and the London Symphony Orchestra. That was pretty seminal.” –Mickey Kaus“When Buddy Holly started adding strings.”–Jack Shafer“I think it was once rock stars starting going to rehab. In rehab you sit down and think about all the people you’ve screwed over, you’ve done horrible things to so many people, and people have let you because you’re a rock star and you sell records and they want to do anything that will keep you selling records. You realize you were an asshole, you meet somebody who lives in the real world, maybe he’s your roommate in rehab, and you realize how far away you’ve gotten from all that. Then you become a rock star who doesn’t live in the real world who thinks he or she has got a corner on understanding the real world. That’s where the pomposity comes in. Who am I thinking of? Courtney, I guess.”–Kim France“The classic thing is, John Lennon made that statement about how we’re bigger than Jesus Christ, and people started burning records in the South. But there was always something about the Beatles that was self-deprecating and charming. The question is, when did things really become so completely without irony? In the late Sixties you get the concept album, which is what the Smashing Pumpkin’s “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” [a two-CD set] is. Other things that come to mind are The Who with their rock operas, Tommy and Quadrophenia, the way they presented those as overarching allegories about everything, and Pete Townshend, who always seemed so humorless about it all. There was this band called Iron Butterfly and this 18-minute song called “In A Gadda Da Vita” and that just seemed overweening. There was the concert for Bangladesh. 1972. George Harrison organized it in Madison Square Garden with Ravi Shankar. George also had a triple-record set called All Things Must Pass which was pretty pompous. One other thing: The Last Waltz and The Band. I love The Band deeply but here’s this band already in decline having a farewell concert and they invite everybody–Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan. They get Martin Scorsese to orchestrate everything, then they interview themselves at great length not being that interesting.”–Alex Star“Contrary to conventional wisdom, pretension was introduced into mainstream pop not by the Beatles but by the Rolling Stones. The Stones made a movie with Jean-Luc Godard, something you could not imagine even John Lennon doing. The Beatles produced sophomoric concept albums, like “Magical Mystery Tour,” but they never made anything as fake as “Their Satanic Majesties Request.” And I have always regarded “Anastasia screamed in vain” as the most pretentious line in rock and roll. Do you think Chuck Berry had even heard of Anastasia?”–Louis Menand“It’s a combination of groupies and the rock press both serving to inflate the egos of these guys. If on the one hand you have somebody telling you you’re a great artist and on the other girls wanting to sleep with you every night, it’s hard to stay humble. Some of the pomposity is insecurity over the incredible brutality of the recond business and recording careers. You have to have a sort of bluster. Authors like to complain, of course, but it is so rare for any recording artist to put out records over more than a three-year period. They just chew you up and spit you out. All these guys just have to be worried.”–Nicholas Lemann“Actually, self-important pomposity is out right now. People want flossier and poppier rock stars and pop stars. There’s something about [Corgan’s] whole grandiosity that is very four years ago. Did you know he is boycotting Spin because he felt we weren’t reverential enough to him? When the “Reason” album came out he made sure his label pulled his ad from Spin. It was a full page ad, too. But the high point [of pomposity] might be ELO–the Electric Light Orchestra. They performed a very vital function for me. I was able to convince my parents that it was OK to listen to them because it was sort of classical. This was back when you still had to justify your pop taste to your parents, before they started lighting up and handing you joints. But pomposity is a perfectly legitimate cultural style. The audience for music is very susceptible to pomposity. They haven’t developed their sense of self-irony yet. It’s a good mirror to their own puffed-up souls.”–Michael Hirschorn

Readers are of course invited to submit their candidates to the Rock Pomposity Sweepstakes at Winners to this and last Wednesday’s Spiterature Contest to be announced next week.

Judith Shulevitz