Vinyl (HBO): When Being "Rockist" Ain't Wrong

by Joshua B. Hoe

Emily Nussbaum accused Vinyl of being "Rockist." Is Vinyl guilty of "Rockism?"

One of my favorite movies ever is the Terry Gilliam movie Brazil.

There is a brilliant scene where the rich folks in his post-apocalyptic society get together at an expensive restaurant to eat dinner.

But, because of the apocalyptic event, food is no longer the same. In fact, people get blobs of colored protein product (could be post-modern Soylent Green, who knows).

But, since they are at an exclusive restaurant, the patrons have their protein blobs served under pictures of what they are supposed to represent.

In other words, if you ordered a steak, you would get a picture of a state placed over a blob of brown colored protein blob.

The dialog with the waiter might be the best part of the scene (see above).

Welcome to the music industry today.

A Brief Review Of "Rockism"

So, what we all have been confronting with music today is what I have been calling "consolidation."

Basically, the record industry takes on less and less "artists" and tries to provide people the illusion they actually have choice, the illusion they are being presented actual music, and the illusion that music is actually being played for them.

They are putting different signs on top of the same piles of slop.

Meanwhile hundreds (thousands) of bands toil virtually alone in Bandcamp and Soundcloud purgatories.

Even if they do make it out, they are shown how to discipline their sounds by algorithm so that it will appeal to the widest possible audiences.

The industry uses every tool at it's disposal from radio to television to streaming services to try to ensure only these artists are in the face and ears of the public.

Whenever Spotify serves me ads, instead of it being what I would enjoy, it is always Maroon 5 or Ariana Grande.

For saying this, Kelefeh Sanneh might call me a "Rockist."

A Rockist is someone who tries to preserve some perfect imaginary past glory of music that they use as an unfavorable comparison to all that terrible "new" music.

Think of it like the music equivalent of Fox News nostalgia for bringing back the 1950's in America (and erasing all memory of the 1960's).

In the now famous 2004 New York Times article where Sanneh popularized the use of the phrase it was used in the context of hipsters destroying Ashlee Simpson for getting caught Lip Syncing on Saturday Night Live.

Sanneh said:

"Rockism means idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; lionizing punk while barely tolerating disco; loving the live show and hating the music video; extolling the growling performer while hating the lip-syncher."

But the point of the "Rockism" exploration was pretty specific. The point was to ask critics and hipsters to have some perspective:

"Countless critics assail pop stars for not being rock 'n' roll enough, without stopping to wonder why that should be everybody's goal. Or they reward them disproportionately for making rock 'n' roll gestures."

And also to realize the larger problems "music" has been hiding:

"The pop star, the disco diva, the lip-syncher, the "awesomely bad" hit maker: could it really be a coincidence that rockist complaints often pit straight white men against the rest of the world? Like the anti-disco backlash of 25 years ago, the current rockist consensus seems to reflect not just an idea of how music should be made but also an idea about who should be making it."

The shocking thing, I agree with all of this. At the heart of nostalgia is quite regularly a dark troubling heart. It is true with Fox News and it is true with the push for musical purity.

But it is not true of Vinyl. In fact, Vinyl is about exposing that dark heart.

Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker, and Vinyl

cover of Funkatelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome by Parliament uploaded by Joshua B. Hoe
cover of Funkatelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome by Parliament uploaded by Joshua B. Hoe

As I have argued before on this blog, Vinyl is making a set of arguments about music today. One of those arguments is that "just like in the 1970's" music is hitting an industry driven dead-spot.

One of the main drivers of the rise of punk, hip-hop, funk, and disco (yes, disco) in the 1970's was the major labels embrace of what could only be called "masturbatory" Rockgodism.

You had groups like Yes, Led Zeppelin, and that group that sang Freebird releasing 30 minute songs. The revolution wasn't really about a "type" of music. The revolution was really about the industry, about the tendencies of some of the musicians in that industry, and about reconnecting to what makes music great.

And the revolution was also about freedom and diversity at the heart of good music - The Clash, Parliament, and Nile Rodgers were all were about embracing diversity. For goodness sake. The New York Dolls were basically cross-dressing.

Today, we are suffering from music losing quite a bit of its soul precisely because of industry consolidation (induced by having to adjust to the digital economy of music etc). In this way, today is similar to the 70's.

Anyway, Emily Nussbaum recently criticized Vinyl for making this argument in The New Yorker Magazine.

In particular she said:

"This is TV’s own version of rockism, the presumption that any drama about a genius-thug with a sad wife and a drug habit must be a deep statement about America. The pilot is full of hackneyed motifs, including an introductory voice-over that makes you more nostalgic for “Goodfellas” than for the seventies: “I had a golden ear, a silver tongue, and a pair of brass balls. But the problem became my nose and everything I put up it!” On cue, there’s an ugly murder scored to an ironic pop hit."

She also suggests that Vinyl is gulity of:

...the bias, in other words, that lets people sneer at Lady Gaga doing an homage to David Bowie, as if her alien act were self-evidently disposable while his was made to last. As Sanneh noted, the problem with rockism isn’t loving Bruce Springsteen. The problem is that it makes rock itself (and jazz and punk and indie rock) seem cranky and pompous, not to mention defensive.

But is this what Vinyl is up to?

Is Vinyl Guilty of Rockism

Emily Nussbaum is a much better writer than I will probably ever be, so I say this with respect, she could not be more wrong here.

Vinyl is explicitly not celebrating the band Chicago.

Vinyl is not a celebration or nostalgia for the protagonist Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale). She is wrong to say Vinyl's plotting reveals nothing deep about America (it is here I suspect she is referencing the race, gender, and identity issues raised in the original 2004 Rockism article).

The Pilot episode of Vinyl is literally 100% about the deep guilt at the core of music in the 70's. Richie runs a label that sucks because he sold out one of his best friends, a black blues player. The heart of the "rock" his label "American Century (aka white sexist normalization century)" promotes is soulless and terrible "acts" that were part of his sell out.

Richie is haunted by the ghosts of Black Music all through the first two-hours (Ruth Brown and Bo Diddley most memorably). The problem with white Rock and Roll in the 70's started in that it was built on the unappreciated and unrewarded work of African American musicians and writers.

And one of the areas the show clearly and specifically celebrates is the rise of Hip-Hop with a reference to Kool DJ Herc in the Pilot and his actual appearance as a character in episode three.

The whole point of Episode One IMHO is that Richie is the metaphoric stand-in for our collective unpaid white musical debt to Black music. We white folks all had a grand old time stealing and appropriating and using the profits to become privileged Rockists.

Yes, my friend, Vinyl is about EXORCISM not nostalgia (and if it is nostalgic it is not a blind or uncritical nostalgia).

The female characters, in different ways, are all victims of the sexism at the heart of music in the 70's. The two best characters on the show are (as Nussbaum notes) are Devon (Olivia Wilde) and Jamie (Juno Temple) who are both products of this sexism, but who both refuse to live constrained by it.

Devon is a product of disco (I suspect) or at least has been around a great deal of it.

And Vinyl doesn't embrace punk to lionize punk per se. It is not blind celebration, punk is the mechanism through which Richie thinks he can save himself. It is a music with "balls."

But punk and/or funk never saved any record company (not sure on Disco).

I think the true story of hip-hop has mostly been the story of hustlers selling tapes out of the back of cars and becoming moguls.

Punk is not about that. Funk is not about that. Hip-Hop is not about that.

Richie is not going to win redemption in the end on this show.

Richie is not the "flawed" good guy, he is the (typical) white american male who conveniently never questions his right to be where he is, the "talent" that got him where he is, or the people he left and leaves in his wake.

Heck, how many shows have ever given us a protagonist that murders someone in cold blood within the first two hours?

Richie is paying for his sins, and this show is an exorcism.

And this show certainly isn't recreating the punk good disco bad dynamic either.

This show is about celebrating the history of music that matters and about remembering what great music is about.

As Richie puts it inelegantly:

“Think back to the first time you heard a song that made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Made you want to dance. Or fuck. Or go out and kick somebody’s ass!”

Made you want to dance or fuck probably includes disco and Lady Gaga I am guessing (more on that in a second).

Anyway, this is anything but a show about nostalgia for nostalgia's sake.

Look at the song list so far, not exactly a celebration of "Rock and Roll Radio" to quote my guys the Ramones.

The whole point is to make everything more like the picture should be, not like globs mystery protein of questionable origin.

A Small Bit About Gaga and Bowie

So back to Ashlee Simpson, does it make me a "Rockist" to believe she has virtually no musical talent? Would it be wrong for me to be opposed to performances that are not actually musical (lip sync etc.). If that is wrong, if that makes me a Rockist, guilty as charged.

It isn't about the style of music, I authentically enjoy Lady Gaga. I also like pop melody at times (Shonen Knife is a long time favorite) and love electronic music (check out my long love letters to New Order on this site).

I think music is best when it comes from the heart, when the people playing can actually play (or sing), and when algorithms are not involved.

None of this excuses brutalizing Ashlee Simpson with the full weight of the disapproval of the entire internet and media. It is possible to hate the game without destroying the human players.

As For Gaga, I mean this with respect, that Gaga "Bowie performance" was AWFUL.

It was just terrible, she was terrible (seemed like a strange alien Elvis impersonation not Bowie), the arrangement was terrible (why 20 seconds on like 20 songs?).

I wanted her to kill it, I was excited about it, I wanted to see it.

The only other reason I even watched the show was hoping the Alabama Shakes won (and they did).

Sorry, not Rockism, that was just really bad.

Okay, you can check out my other articles about Vinyl here.

What do you think about the Rockism argument against Vinyl? What did you think of the Gaga Bowie performance? Let me know what you think, leave a comment!