First, the Springsteen vs. Petty debate. When people talk about Bruce Springsteen’s importance, I don’t fight it, and probably couldn’t. He means a great deal to a great many people, and has probably shaped American singer/songwriter-dom as much as anyone post-Dylan. His particular brand of Jersey-tough-but-poet-at-heart became a successful artistic formula. He’s made liberalism sound pragmatic. Maybe more than anyone, he’s struck the right chord post-9/11. He’s done nothing but churn out hit, after hit, after meaningful record, after meaningful record, for the better part of thirty years. I get it.
My issue with Bruce is that I hardly ever listen to him. Maybe it’s the vocal histrionics, or the cringe-inducing grandpaerobics of his current shows, or maybe it’s the pomp, grandeur, and full-throated circumstance of his best-known records…maybe it’s just that I’m not from Jersey. It’s not that I question his sincerity. I know he’s sincere. It’s that I can’t relate to it. At all.
(Side note: I relate to sincerity. Just not whatever world he talks about and musical backdrop he uses to desribe it. Born to Run is the classic example, and one I’ve written about. I know, on paper, it’s a good record. But I can’t listen to it for purely subjective aesthetic hangups. It sounds cheesy to me. Incredibly cheesy. So cheesy I don’t know how people listen to it and don’t laugh. Again, maybe it’s just that I’m not from the same place; like someone not from SoCal might not get past the sonic goofiness of the Beach Boys.)
So, save the odd latenight car-ride or road-trip celebration or any other incidental occasion, I don’t seek out Bruce. “Blood Brothers” is the exception. I love that song whenever it finds me, and seek it out when it doesn’t.
Tom Petty, for me, occupies the exact opposite end of the spectrum. It’s an uphill battle to make the case that Petty’s the more important figure (though I would make the case that he’s a drastically underrated lyricist), he’s one of the most listenable artists I know. In his entire catalog, there are maybe 4 songs I actively dislike. Everything else occupies some position between “casually enjoy it” to “fervently love it.” His genius is not that everyone loves him; it’s that nobody hates him.
And why should they? His songs are dynamic, melodic, inclusive, generous. He’s grown and successfully experimented at every stage of his career. He knows his strengths, and trusts them enough not to pridefully chase his weaknesses. He says, simply, “I don’t care what coffeehouse poet you think you are, ain’t nothing on Picaresque that says more than ‘Free Falling.'” And, of course, he’s right.
So on my desert island, I need listenability. It’s just me, and I don’t need to find myself deep or important. I need someone who can bring any type of song to the table and take nothing off it. I want someone whose catalog is many and varied enough to keep me guessing and stave off boredom. I wouldn’t last three days with Bruce and the Saxhounds. But Wildflowers alone could buy me a few years.
For the same reason (though by a much, much slimmer margin) Motown’s catalog edges out Stax. This one was much more difficult for me to answer, because Stax’s catalog is incredibly listenable in its own right, and obviously more indicative of where I’m from. Stax sounds like Memphis. Folks from there will always recognize its music as something not just wonderful, but inherently familiar. It sounds great, but it also sounds like home.
The issue, essentially, is that I’m an unabashed tramp for a great pop song. If you want to join the Motown-was-artistically-dishonest-shucking-and-jiving-for-white-folks-everywhere bandwagon, I won’t stop you. I also don’t care. There’s no question that Stax, as a label representitive of an artistic movement (soul) and one committed to the representation of that art, sounds more vital, and in a way more authentic. But there’s nothing dishonest about Motown’s music. If you have a beef, take it up with the marketers. You can’t tell me that the Four Tops didn’t mean it when they sang. Motown produced some of the truest pop America’s ever heard. Also–arguably–they produced the most beautiful songs.
It is a catalog so beautiful, so true, and so dynamic, that I don’t think there’s anything I’d rather take to the desert island. So, you can have the academic debates and talk to yourself about cultural importance-with-a-capital-i. What good is cultural importance alone, for eternity, on a desert island? To me, the beauty of the question that it takes social pretension completely out of the equation. It’s you, and only you, on an island until you die. Nobody to lie to. Nobody to intellectualized art with. No conversations where you convince yourself of an opinion you don’t actually share. On the island, there is no room for bs. All that matters is what you want to hear.
Sometimes, that’s all that should matter.
This leads me to another question, to close out the week:
What is your favorite guilty pleasure?
This shouldn’t imply that Tom Petty or Motown are guilty pleasures for me, or that they should be for anyone. They’re great. I’m just taking the issue a step further. What would you enjoy most on a desert island, because you could listen, dance, and singalong without guilt? You’re the only person around, forever. You can’t be a dork.
So, to put it another way, what guilty pleasure would you most want to guiltlessly enjoy on the island?
Here’s my Winner:
Deal with THAT.
Highway in the night,