You’ve seen them. The concert films. The “rockumentaries.” These hagiographies of has-been musical acts that litter cable TV. They’re, always the same. There is some claim to the bands authenticity, though what they are supposed to authentically be is vaguely defined and quickly glossed over. There is a brief recitation of the band’s hardscrabble beginnings in back alley bars and tiny clubs that vaguely conveys a sense of chaos and a scent of urine. Then the story lingers on the bands success, which is always defined commercially and never artistically. There is usually a breakthrough hit that gains the band mainstream attention, at which point they start playing on network TV and in arenas. A year or so later the band releases a follow-up album which cashes in on that mainstream attention. Then soon afterwards the band falls apart. Usually these documentaries locate a scapegoat to blame for the breakup. Drugs, girlfriends, greedy managers, lawyers, labels, etc. These documentaries never explain a band’s demise by noting that the band grew increasingly embarrassed and self-conscious about running around on stage acting like idiot teenagers and the moment they were rich enough to do so, they quit.
So I’m watching this documentary about Joe Strummer. Joe Strummer was the guitarist in a band called the Clash. The Clash is the band that put out the song “Rock the Cashbah,” which is supposed to be an example of punk rock. Punk rock which is a sub-genre of rock-and-roll music in which the musicians spend more time coiffing their hair and choosing their wardrobe than practicing their instruments. In this documentary, Joe Strummer and his ever expanding circle of Hollywood actor-apologists explain to the fawning viewer Joe’s important contribution to the music, politics and culture of the 1970’s and 80’s.
Again, we are talking about the man responsible for the jaw-dropping guitar pyrotechnics you hear on “Rock the Casbah.”
This is Joe Strummer, as he represents himself:
I am watching this documentary, and it’s existence puzzles me. As I listen to this buffoon slap his way through another three-chord “song” in front of a drunken crowd of thousands, it occurs to me to wonder why it is that television, which has the unique and magnificent ability to make anyone seem important and interesting on an almost permanent basis, seems to go to great lengths to lavish that attention on people who’ve done nothing to deserve it.
I don’t mean that subjectively. I mean it comparatively. I may not like The Clash, but even people who do like them would have to admit that The Clash aren’t feeding the world’s hungry or curing cancer. They aren’t discovering extrasolar planets or new species of frog in South American rainforests. They aren’t teaching English to Mexican immigrants or arithmetic to white surburbanites. Their aren’t inventing alternative fuels or providing pro bono medical or legal services to the underprivileged.
But other people are doing these things. Some of those people are interesting and lead very complex, dynamic lives full of dramatic tension and comic relief. But the few rare exceptions aside, none of these people are on TV.
This is why: if you’ve done something important, noteworthy, difficult, or challenging, you are terrible for TV. It takes an entire career in quantum physics to get to the point where you are looking for the Higgs boson, and despite that long and dedicated career, all I can say about you on TV is that you are looking for the Higgs boson. You might even be the go-to guy for the Higgs boson, but let’s face it, TV can only talk about the Higgs boson so many times.
But what if you’ve done nothing? Or more precisely, what if all you’ve done in word and deed is strike a series of contradictory and irreconcilable poses one after the other, successively reinventing and retconning your image against a backdrop of de minimus lyrical and musical content.
In short, what if you are Joe Strummer and all you’ve done is wear your hair in a variety of unconventional styles and flop around on the guitar singing the praises of living life sarcastically? Well, my friend that’s different. In that case, you are an almost spectral figure, intanglible, ephemeral and non-specific. You are great for TV. Because TV can say all kinds of things about someone like you. It can say things like (and these are actual quotes) he “changed music,” or he “made me think of stuff like of nuclear war” or “he fought the system,” which system includes “corporate greed” and the “greedy labels.”
None of those statements mean anything in the English language. Neither do statements about “what the band stood for,” or that the Clash was “the only band that mattered.” And that’s what makes for great TV. All of these empty slogans get tossed around without context, comparison or grounding. The burden falls on the viewer to comprehend the incomprehensible. To assign meaning to the meaningless. Did Joe Strummer’s music fight back against racism? Uh, I guess he must have if you are asking the question. Did it shock Middle America? I’m not sure where that is exactly, but the album was called Sandinista, so yes? Did it stick it to those fat cats in Washington? I don’t see why not.
Because the truth is that everything and anything can map to noise, and for that reason producing content about noise is a lot easier than producing content about “signal.” I can make a documentary about Iggy Pop, Kurt Cobain or Elvis simply by editing Joe Strummer’s picture out of this documentary and splicing in images of any of those guys. I wouldn’t have to change a single line of dialogue. Nothing that was said about Strummer could not also be said about any of those people.
But if I want to make a documentary about the Higgs boson guy, I first need to learn what the hell a Higgs boson is, and I need to find an interesting and compelling way to communicate that to an audience, and that isn’t easy. Better to film the guy making loud noises and have Hollywood actors like Johnny Depp and John Cusack tell us how important those noises are. Because actors are musical experts, don’t you know.
It’s a truism that buried within white noise is every symphony ever written. But that doesn’t mean the noise itself is a symphony.