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The Rules Of The Game No. 7: Hero story

What we tell ourselves to justify our tastes

Frank Kogan

Music moves people to love or loathing, but people often don’t know why they like or dislike a song, and when many of them try to say why, they rarely talk about what the music does, much less why it moves them in particular, but rather they revert to a Hero Story or Villain Story about the social conditions under which the music was made.

A basic Hero Story goes like this (a mock review that Richard Meltzer inserted into his Aesthetics of Rock):

“While other groups were turning out carbon copies, each fighting the other for the same identical sound, the (blank) decided to be different and daring. Then in August 1963 they cut their first record, (blank). It was a sensation overnight, zooming straight into the English music charts where it stayed right on top for (blank) consecutive weeks. The outcome was the first ballad-style record by a group ever to hit the top since the beat was beat.”

The story has this form:

1. The Hero faces a world of conformity.

2. He flouts this world, putting himself into opposition to some authority—say, record companies, commercialism, trendiness, the audience.

3. The very world he opposed recognizes his merit, sees substance, rewards him with success for being daring and different.

I like this story; it’s a good one; it’s even true occasionally. And it’s told throughout the culture, not just in rock or pop or music (Meltzer connects it to art criticism). And it’s not just the other guy who’s telling the story. You and I tell it; pretty much everybody does.

But what most interests me about it is its tension: not the blatant dramatic tension of Stage 2 (Hero flouts authority), but the built-in tension between Stage 3 and the first two stages. In Stages 1 and 2 the world is being obtuse, calling for the same ol’ same ol’, and in Stage 3 it’s suddenly perceptive. So we, the storytellers, seem to be saying two opposed things about ourselves: First, that we’re fundamentally obtuse and conformist; and second, that we’re ultimately perceptive and like to be challenged.

One way out of this paradox is to think of the story as one of growth: We start off unperceptive and conformist, and we grow intellectually and morally from there—and so the performer is emancipating us from our previous immaturity. The problem is that the next time we tell the story, with a different performer as Hero, we have to revert to being the dumbasses of Stage 1 so that we can tell the story over again.

Another way out is to say that the audience that acknowledges the Hero in Stage 3 is somewhat different from the people who stood in his way in Stages 1 and 2 (the word “somewhat” being my fudge factor). So it can be the record company or the suits or the “mainstream” whom the Hero squares off against in the first two stages, while it’s a somehow different—but massive—audience that embraces the Hero in Stage 3. But then this audience has to put the suits and the mainstreamers back in charge next time it tells the story, right? And where was this perceptive audience in the first place?

Of course, the easiest way out of the paradox is to rewrite Stage 3 so that the Hero doesn’t achieve mass popularity but only limited success, or maybe just finds a handful of people to appreciate him. So the Hero fails at or even shuns commercial success but achieves artistry. The disadvantage of this variant is that you don’t get your happy ending—you don’t get the world validating your Hero or validating you as the fan of the Hero—but its advantage is that it allows the fans and the critics to participate in the Hero Story themselves. Our fandom and perceptive criticism put us at odds with conformity, make us daring and different.

Other variations have the critic or fan lauding an artist whom people in the critic’s or fan’s social circle dismiss (e.g., an artist such as Mariah Carey or Phil Collins whom most critics dislike), or have the critic or the fan at odds with what he thinks everyone else thinks about an artist (e.g., praising Donnie Osmond for his metal tendencies), or have the critic/fan lauding himself for making a set of assumptions that he thinks are different from everyone else’s. “While the Village Voice is turning out identical, snide reviews that extol the young and hip at the expense of the true and the valuable such as [Barry Manilow/Rod Stewart/Bob Seger], I, writing the letter to the editor, am different and daring, recognizing art when I see it.” And, “While rock criticism is swamped in rockism, with one review after another extolling the performer’s ‘authenticity,’ I am different and daring, the person who sees through the rockist façade to the conformity and vacuousness underneath.” And on like that, and this piece is something of an example itself, is it not? While other critics pump out reviews and artist profiles and trend pieces, Frank Kogan decides to be daring and different and write about the myths and legends that help shape rock criticism.

And, of course, saying something different about an artist is something one often wants from a critic. That’s why this is a good Hero Story. I mean, why read me if I’m saying the same thing as everyone else?

What a couple of months ago on a blog I jokingly called Hero Story Variant 7b goes, “Everyone is getting snookered but me.” Again, it isn’t just the other guy who tells it. E.g., Ashlee-bashers think Ashlee (or Ashlee Plus Handlers) is selling her audience a bill of goods. But then I, who champion Ashlee, think that the Ashlee-bashers are selling their readers a bill of goods, are pretending to be incisive while ignoring the actual smart lyrics and music and therefore playing to the readers’ bigotry, dismissing the music without examining it. Of course I’m right, and the Ashlee-bashers are wrong, which makes a difference; and I’m proud of myself for giving close attention to the chords and rhythms and words of the Parises and Lindsays and Ashlees and for knowing good music when I hear it. But the problem with the Paris-Lindsay-Ashlee haters isn’t that they tell the Hero Story, but just that they’re wrong, and that few of them have anything interesting to say. The problem is with the telling, not the story. (There is a lot of crap entertainment, after all, even if it’s not by Paris, Lindsay and Ashlee; just as there’s a lot of crap criticism.) The story is all over the place, whether it’s applied well or poorly, whether it seems appropriate or seems obviously inappropriate (this from an actual press kit):

“As witnessed by his debut album for Row Records, Real, Marshall Madison is breaking the mold in country music. With a vibrancy and a passion for old-fashioned values of God and country, he seems destined to rewrite the book on what defines ‘stardom’ in today’s music marketplace.”

The passage explodes itself in your face, as paradoxical by accident as anything that Eminem or Jagger has done on purpose. I admire the PR lady’s desperate backflip onto a tightrope, her trying to align “old-fashioned” with “breaking the mold” while not losing her balance. But this shows the social strength of the Hero Story, that it can assert itself in the least-promising circumstances.

So the question: Why is this story so ubiquitous? What do we get out of it? An incomplete answer would be, simply, that it is a good story, in that it’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s moving, it’s satisfying, both in history books (ragtag band of Lexington farmers stand up to the British redcoats) and popular literature (lone detective has to sidestep an ineffectual and corrupt bureaucracy in order to defeat the bad guys who threaten us all). So perhaps we tell the story because we like it, and not necessarily because we think the story reflects what the world is like in general.

Let’s take an example of Variant 7b. The Idolator website’s piece on the Paris Hilton album goes: “A woman whose only prior music experience was dating a second-tier Backstreet Boy—and whose curiosity-object album could easily have been downloaded for free—still sold more copies in its first week than the last Slayer and Obie Trice efforts, and came close to beating Johnny Cash’s American V debut. The lesson here: If you really want to get people out to the stores, make sure you get them a TV gig in which they can give handjobs to farm animals.” Now, disparaging Paris’ lack of experience seems rather specious (don’t see how Paris had any less experience than Johnny Rotten had when he joined the Sex Pistols)—but then, I don’t think Paris’ supposed lack of experience is the Idolators’ reason for disparaging Paris. It’s not their general view that women of little musical experience have nothing to offer music.

So I want to partially reverse what counts as cause and effect here, to note that there’s a self-feeding circle: What’s going on isn’t only that the haters make certain assumptions about Paris being inherently worthless and about the bizzers manipulating an audience of suckers. Rather, the haters (also) make such assumptions so that they can tell the story. Now, I don’t want to go all French here and overstate the case by saying that the story is paramount—it’s not as if everyone must tell the story, or that the story exists for no reason. But rather I want to keep in mind that what we’re calling “assumptions” are usually ad hoc. E.g., someone can dislike Paris’s breathy singing, and can feel uneasy about the whole web of fame, sex, beauty, reality TV and cross-promotions of which the Paris album is a part, without necessarily fitting oneself as critic into a Hero Story. But in the Idolator instance the story is already there, in waiting, not just as a motive for hearing the music as poor and seeing the audience as duped, but as an impetus to create a principle on the spur of the moment—no prior musical experience!—that can serve to disparage both album and audience. In fact, Idolator posted about Paris a number of times—for example, a brief story regarding a drunk, sick Paris vomiting onstage at a Jay-Z show, the piece’s headline being “Not Even Paris Hilton Can Stomach Paris Hilton’s Music”—without ever getting around to analyzing either the music or the marketing. So the Hero Story Variant 7b exists in almost pure form, as a bright, know-it-all “we are not fooled” tone of voice with an ad hoc, specious principle to back it up, the attitudes and principles momentarily supporting the Snooker Story but doing no other work. The effect, the outcome—these other people are getting snookered, but we are not fooled, so we can indulge ourselves by sneering—actually causes the complaint (Paris has no previous musical experience) that supposedly leads to the outcome. The result is smugness and yuks for writers and readers alike; fun for everyone.

But to say that we enjoy the Hero Story doesn’t really explain its ubiquity. There are plenty of other fun stories, too, so I’m wondering why we—especially we who talk about music—tell this story, why we want heroes who slay Conformity and challenge Authority rather than heroes who slay Dragons and subdue Chaos. Actually, that’s too simple a distinction, since detective stories and Westerns, for instance, are full of heroes who have to overcome or get around Conformity and Authority in order to slay the Dragon and save the community from Chaos. But the fundamental question remains: Why the need to attack Authority and Conformity on the way to the Dragon?

Bearing in mind that different people can like the same story for different reasons, I want to suggest that we persist in telling the story because our attitude toward it is ambivalent. We don’t know where we stand—or where we want to stand—in relation to conformity, authority, rebellion, difference, risk, heroism. In fact, where we want to stand is likely to change from situation to situation, and the story doesn’t tell us where to stand. It gives us options instead, allows us to embrace contradictory self-descriptions simultaneously (conformist and rebellious, obtuse and perceptive, against authority and with authority). Even if you think of the story as just a tale we like to tell and its “assumptions” as just conventions we adopt in order to spin our yarn, the story doesn’t take a consistent position as to how legitimate or corrupt authority is, how gullible or wise the music audience is, and so on. So the story doesn’t tell us who we are or what our world is like but rather gives us the opportunity to keep playing at figuring such things out from moment to moment. So the tensions in the story are what keep it going.

That said, a major source of its tension is that you don’t even have the story without the possibility of corruption and gullibility. So the story doesn’t contain the idea of a beneficent order for the world to return to, even when you give it a happy ending. But nor does it insist on a necessarily malignant order.

And this is where I’ll leave off for the time being, with “we have the potential to be corrupted,” though this raises its own interesting question: What do we gain by insisting that we are corruptible? How does this work out in our day-to-day affairs?

The story does seem to make demands on musicians that it doesn’t tend to make on, for instance, telephone repairmen. You don’t want the repairman to be daring and different; you just want him to fix the damn phone.

I recently read a blog post by a man who saw a couple of what he praised as “white trash” bands that somehow had gotten booked into a yuppie bar in Cleveland, and in the blog he was praising the bands for being “a throwback to the days when rock ’n’ roll was actually bad for you, back when it actually had an ‘I’ll kick your ass’ attitude.” Of course the phrase “bad for you” is complicated. You can say, “Well, what he really means is ‘will kick someone else’s ass but not mine’ and ‘endangers someone else’s sensibilities but not my own.’” Yet that’s not quite right. It may be true that the bands threaten someone else’s sensibilities but not his (or more likely endanger nothing), and that he wouldn’t go near a band that actually challenged him. But still, that’s not what he means by “bad.” There’s nostalgia for his own lost wildness, perhaps, and for the threat of overdose and VD. “Bad for you” still contains the possibility of a band’s enticing and changing him, or undoing him, even if he’s lying to himself about the band’s actual ability to do so. The thing is, at the bottom of the post the blog identifies the writer as a photojournalist for the Ohio National Guard. And I’m certain he’d never want to describe his on-the-job conduct as being “bad for you,” not even ironically.

So the question is how much of a breed apart do we want our heroes to be? Are they models to be followed—in our daily lives? in special situations?—or are they to be merely applauded but not emulated? This is something the story also leaves open, the question to be answered differently in different circumstances, or only barely asked, half-consciously, and left to fester as vague admiration for and dissatisfaction with musical performers, and as a lingering but unexplored dissatisfaction with our lives.

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