Rock n’ Roll Ethics as Style
Since their 2007 Berlin residency, Canadian art power couple Hadley + Maxwell, have dealt with the aesthetics of music—most specifically rock n’ roll. Their Berlin project, 1+1-1, was a multi-media installation examining the ethics and aesthetics of rock rehearsal through a re-presentation of Jean-Luc Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil or One Plus One, as the director’s cut is known. For AKA, the duo worked with Saskatoon subject matter albeit at a distance from Worpswede, Germany where they recently relocated. The project was seemingly simple. I was charged with the task of photographing publically posted advertisements looking for vocalists, instrumentalists or entire bands. Then I was to e-mail the photographs to the artists who would redesign the ad and have a sign painter transpose the image onto AKA’s and Paved Art’s newest shared exhibition space—a massive billboard covering the entire second floor of the gallery’s façade. However, things did not quite work out as planned, although you would not guess it by the finished product.
After three hours of scouring the streets of Saskatoon, the only ad I found was from a brass ensemble searching for a leading cornet. I even had to explain, at length, to one 20-something store clerk what a band wanted advertisement was. This absence shocked the artists who were expecting a number of ads from greasy-haired Nirvana-inspired grunge guitarists looking for their perfect bands. Eventually I discovered that instrument rental stores had, rather than publically visible bulletin boards, discreet spiral bound notebooks containing a modest selection of mostly handwritten ads, although none that cited Nirvana as inspiration. It was eventually one of these not-so-public ads that H+M used for the billboard.
But what does this absence say about Saskatoon, a small prairie city that is known for the strength of its community? Is there really such a lack of lonely grunge guitarists looking for a band? Has my generation (the crowd who first heard Nevermind at the age of thirteen and were blown away) overestimated the Nirvana legacy? Should we be surprised that hardly any ads cited Nirvana as their influence even though thousands dyed their hair blonde and wore Kurt Cobain t-shirts after his premature death in 1994?
In H+M’s Berlin residency catalogue, Eric Fredericksen cites Jaques Attali to show that in a capitalist economy, music becomes desacralized ritual reduced to commodity. This commodity is consumed through repetition—through the CD and now, the MP3. Indeed, past rock n’ roll ethics that equated live performance with honesty have been subsumed by a larger commodity culture that engages with issues of authenticity and community in new ways. Not only are many live performances lip-synched but the now ubiquitous DJ sets simply involve off-the-cuff remixing of recorded material. In fact, a growing number of people prefer recorded over live sound. The results of studies cited on CBC Radio One’s program Spark show most people think rock music actually sounds best as a low quality mpeg file. It is an ironic yet fitting fate that this value of raw, honest home-recorded sound has come to mean little more than a low bit rate.
In the years since the height of Nirvana’s fame, we have seen the emergence of faster and more efficient communication, the mainstream development of a diverse range of music as well as a reconfiguration of the traditional studio space. The story of Nirvana seems quaintly outdated in a time where studios can be, and often are, wired by network and band members can collaborate and record without living in the same city. Moreover, the rise in DJ culture has seen many dump the guitar for the turntable. A remix culture is far less enamoured of the authenticity that drove Cobain to take his own life when he believed he could no longer be true to himself or his fans. It seems that we have not so much forgotten Nirvana, as the very cult of authenticity that allowed the band to rise to fame. Nirvana is yet another genre, another sample. “Keepin’ it real” is no longer an ethical imperative—we are more postmodern than we think.
The internet has certainly played a role here. It is a much more efficient and easy form of communication that can reach a large audience in a matter of seconds. There can be no competition from the hundreds of photocopied ads with their flimsy tear-strips that curl up and fade with humidity and weather. A free local classifieds site posts over 100 Saskatoon and surrounding area band wanted advertisements. Why scour the streets of the city for three hours when you can make a post in less than three minutes? True, the individuality and community forming ethic of the traditional band ad is traded for efficiency, but it is a tradeoff most people are willing to make, at least until they find their band. Indeed, Saskatoon boasts a very lively and diverse music community. This sort of thing does not just happen by itself but its avenues of communication and collaboration appear to be changing.
Perhaps the shock of absent public ads, and in particular ones that cite a Nirvana influence, says more about those who expect to find them. Perhaps we are still holding on to older notions of authenticity despite the fact that In Bloom plays as background noise in malls and grocery stores. Once the hype is over, the commodified repetition of bands such as Nirvana has allowed them to maintain an existence as style and/or sample. It may not be a far stretch to say authenticity has its own particular set of stylistic identifiers that were no truer in their time than they are today. And so the lack of band wanted ads may simply be a sign of the times rather than a lack of involvement. Other modes of collaboration are now easier, faster and, more importantly, in style.