The Friday Morning Listen: Cat Power – What Would The Community Think (1996)

I saw a comment yesterday…somebody wondering what was going on with all of the “new” love for John Denver. My response was that I never had any in the first place, but that didn’t lead me to indulging in Denver-bashing because, well, I’m just not like that. For the record, I could never stand Denver’s voice. It was like he managed to sing melodies using only one note. “Monotone” isn’t really the right word because I found his singing to be an order of magnitude more annoying than just plain monotone.

This got me to thinking about how different the music world is now compared to when Denver was in his prime. This is well-worn territory but it still fascinated me on some level. There have been several big changes in key areas, though they all seem to boil down to one thing: attention span. The record companies have no attention span. Radio has too much attention span. And listeners certainly have no attention span. That latter fact is nothing new, though it has been made worse by both of the former. But let’s not slide into a long complaint about modernity, because that’s not really the point. And what good would it do? Yes, there is more new and interesting music being made than at any time in history. There are also so many delivery systems that the public’s attention span has been split into many pieces. So what of it?

Not long after seeing that John Denver conversation, I happened onto a reprint of an article Lester Bangs wrote for The Village Voice on the death of Elvis Presley. Lester made the point that our shared and somewhat universal experience of the arts world was on the wane, which he illustrated by the piece’s opening question: Where were you when Elvis died? (It was in August of 1977, and I was visiting my friend Billy in Plainville, Connecticut). Our collective answer to that question isn’t all the relevant. It’s the fact that Elvis would be one of the last figures who held such a powerful draw. Bang’s ends the article in powerful fashion (and I am more than a little jealous of this one paragraph):

If love truly is going out of fashion forever, which I do not believe, then along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each others’ objects of reverence. I thought it was Iggy Stooge, you thought it was Joni Mitchell or whoever else seemed to speak for your own private, entirely circumscribed situation’s many pains and few ecstasies. We will continue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis’s. But I can guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won’t bother saying good-bye to his corpse. I will say good-bye to you.

Elvis was not just big, he was huge…in a way almost nobody is anymore. I can’t decide whether that alone is a good or bad thing, but the community that used to form around such icons no longer exists. While not nearly as big as an Elvis, John Denver had that kind of community. It still exists. I caught a glimpse of it in those Internet comments.

Coincidence aside, all of this feels somehow related to the death of film critic Roger Ebert. That man had a beautiful mind. And even though I have not seen a movie in an actual theatre in many years, I always enjoyed his writing. There was a community around him too, one that I suspect will continue.

I heard that terrible news and it felt like yet another piece of the great falling apart. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe things are just being re-arranged?

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Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he writes several weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.

One Comment

  1. JC Mosquito JC Mosquito says:

    Interesting thoughts there, Mark. Somewhere between the days of Elvis and Woodstock, the case can be made that for a while rock ‘n’ roll was the pop music (as in “popular”) of the day. This isn’t just a case of splitting hairs; pop music is whatever happens to be popular at any given time. It isn’t necessary to justify it on any level, and the public’s taste can change quickly – often for no reason at all. It’s also disposable – at best, nostalgia for more innocent times; at worst, simply a soundtrack of background music for one’s own egocentricity. Rock, however, has always demanded a response from its audience: what exactly do you think you are listening to, and why do you listen to it? What qualifies it as “good” or “bad?” If it becomes “pop”ular, has the artist sold out?

    I don’t think that Elvis (or even John Denver) was the last “star” of any magnitude to matter. Currently, I’d have to suggest U2, Prince and maybe Springsteen are the last of a dying breed – “rock” stars who are big enough to be “pop” stars as well. And after they’re gone, God only knows how this whole rock ‘n’ roll thing will read in the history books.

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