Sun Pop Music Critic ock and roll has always presented itself as a mass market music. Despite occasional complaints about those who didn't get it -- parents, censors, squares -- there was never a sense that the music belonged to anyone in particular. If anything, rock culture owed most of its power to the sheer number of fans it incorporated. As RCA Records once put it, "50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong."
Or can they?
In recent months, Pearl Jam has been performing a new song called "Not for You" (it was the first number the band performed when it was on "Saturday Night Live" last Saturday). What it addresses is precisely the kind of popularity celebrated by slogans like "50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong." But the message singer Eddie Vedder conveys is hardly one Presley would understand:
My table seats just two (me and the band)
Got so crowded, I can't make room
Oh, where did they come from? Storm my room
And you dare say it belongs to you?
This is not for you . . . never was for you.
Keep in mind that Pearl Jam is not telling its audience to "stop listening" or "go away." It would be pretty silly, after all, for these guys to tour and make TV appearances if that's what they meant.
Instead, what the song tries to make plain is that the music Pearl Jam makes is personal, not something the fans can lay claim to simply by buying an album or attending a concert. If you like what they do, fine; if you don't like it, that's fine, too. They're not in this to please everyone -- they're in it to express themselves.
Coming as it does from one of the most popular bands in America, Pearl Jam's attitude may seem perplexing. But it's an increasingly common attitude among 20-ish rock and rap musicians. In truth, Pearl Jam is hardly the only band of its generation that would answer the Byrds' "So You Want To Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star" with a resounding "No!"
Fugazi -- whose independently released albums already sell well enough to crack the lower end of the Billboard charts -- has repeatedly rebuffed offers to increase its profile and fan base by signing with a major label, preferring instead to keep its albums and audience mostly underground.
De La Soul, whose low-key, idiosyncratic style turned rap on its head in 1990, followed its enormously successful debut album with a pointedly less-commercial effort entitled "De La Soul Is Dead." Since then, the group has openly derided the kind of crossover success originally predicted for them, boasting on their current album, "Buhloone Mindstate," that their music "might blow up [i.e., sell well] but it won't go pop."
Beck, whose quirky, catchy "I'm a Loser" is clearly the left-field hit of the year, was courted by almost every major label in the country when the single broke on college radio last summer. When he finally signed with Geffen, he explained that the deciding factor wasn't money -- other companies offered more -- but that the company wouldn't try to turn him into a hit machine. In fact, he plans on releasing his next two albums on tiny independent labels.
Most poignant example
Perhaps the most poignant example is Nirvana, whose second album, "Nevermind," was widely credited with making alternative rock a commercial force. But the band so hated having mainstream success that it tried for an expressly uncommercial sound when making "In Utero" -- an album which nonetheless debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts.
Nirvana's Kurt Cobain spoke of his discomfort at being a rock star in his suicide note, complaining that he never felt at home in front of the massively enthusiastic crowds his band attracted. "The worst crime I could think of would be to put people off by faking it," he wrote -- to which his widow, Courtney Love, responded, "No, Kurt, the worst crime I could think of was for you to continue to be a rock star when you just . . . hated it."
What's wrong with being a rock star? Surely these folks didn't complain when the money came in, did they?
Of course not. Nor should they have. But having rock-star-level success doesn't just mean fame, fortune and your picture on the cover of Rolling Stone.
For one thing, it means being sucked into the mainstream, and that's something many of these young stars want desperately to avoid. Part of the initial impetus behind the alternative rock movement, remember, was a wholesale rejection of mainstream pop values, from easily-accessible melodies to radio-friendly singles. Mainstream pop had no qualms about being "product," and these musicians wanted no part in that.
To have platinum-level success while avoiding the pitfalls of a product-oriented mainstream is a difficult dance, one that few bands can successfully manage. Maybe that's why R.E.M. has become a role model for many alternative rock acts.
The R.E.M example
R.E.M. started in the rock underground, and eventually worked its way to platinum sales. As far as the industry was concerned, R.E.M. was poised to be the next Police or Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. But rather than follow the usual course of extensive arena-level touring, R.E.M. opted out of the album-rock rat race. The band did no touring for either the accessible "Out of Time" or its less obviously commercial follow-up, "Automatic for the People." As a result, R.E.M. wound up with success on its own terms, without alienating either the new fans or the old.
Accessibility's no goal
Still, mainstream success means that the music no longer belongs to a specific audience, but is accessible to everybody -- and a lot of these acts don't want everybody listening.
For those in the hip-hop community, it's a question of cultural appropriation; for alternarockers, it's the difference between playing to listeners who understand how you think and feel, and playing to those who simply like your sound.
In a sense, this attitude has more in common with high-art aesthetics than the usual mass culture mechanisms. By stressing the importance of identity and understanding, they're insisting that the music's meaning take precedence over its sound or accessibility (the qualities mass-marketed music normally emphasizes). In other words, they're asking that we take their work seriously, or not at all.
Ironically, most alternarockers assume that their anti-stardom outlook is simply a continuation of punk's do-it-yourself aesthetic. This view argued that anyone could play rock 'n' roll, so at bottom there's no real difference between audience TTC member and performer. Moreover, once you start treating musicians as if they were stars, you end up with the sort of empty, pompous dinosaur-rock the original punks were rebelling against.
Johnny Rotten, for example, hated the very concept of rock royalty, and sneered at those who treated the Sex Pistols as if they were stars. But Rotten never had to deal with real mass market popularity. It took a decade, remember, for the Sex Pistols' "Never Mind the Bollocks" to go gold; Pearl Jam's "Vs." went platinum in its first week. As a result, it takes much more effort for Pearl Jam to avoid the trap of rock stardom, and remain true to its original audience and ideals.
But beneath that impulse lies a desire to keep apart from the mainstream, to stay separate from the masses. That's something fairly new to rock 'n' roll.
Back in the '60s, part of the thrill of Beatlemania was the sense of being part of something bigger than yourself -- something worldwide, perhaps universal. It was exciting to think that cultural or political differences could be washed away with a few choruses of "Hey Jude."
Today's teens and twentysomethings know better. They've seen Beatle songs used to sell cars and sneakers, and know all too well how easily the familiar gets co-opted into advertising and merchandising. They've rolled their eyes at designer grunge wear and rap-style bank jingles. And they don't trust any of it.
That's why acts like Pearl Jam are so adamant about insisting that their music is "Not for You." Because they know that as soon as they lose their grip, it will be gone for ever -- and no amount of fame or fortune will be compensation enough for that loss.