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A Flea in your ear

In guitar-related California news, the Guardian reports:

The news that Thom Yorke had come to Los Angeles and formed a temporary supergroup with Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers was surprise enough to most Radiohead fans. Most were intrigued, but for those concerned with rock credibility it was like hearing that the chaps from Peep Show were taking a break to write a show with Jim Davidson, or that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall was collaborating with Bernard Matthews on a turkey burger.

For those concerned with rock credibility? ((Thanks to Daniel F.)) One pictures with sympathy such persons, fiddling and sweating, desperate to know whether they are allowed to like a band, incapable of deciding for themselves, waiting for a newspaper to tell them: “It’s okay, you can listen to these guys, they’re credible.” The system as it stands, however, is lamentably ad hoc. How many people are, at this very moment, suffering in silence because the Guardian has not yet informed them of the credibility of a hypothetical supergroup made up of Bruce Springsteen, Eddie van Halen, Nik Kershaw and Carla Bruni? As a public service, perhaps someone should keep an online spreadsheet of credibility ratings for musicians — a bit like credit ratings for financial institutions — with an algorithm that spits out the credibility score of any possible combination of them.

Something that is “credible” is trustworthy or believable (credit-worthy). In this sense, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! is explicitly sold to us as a credible toast-lubricant. But in what sense is Thom Yorke more trustworthy or believable than Flea? I do not believe the Guardian has made a study of the truth-telling frequency of each musician, nor that it is trying to hint that Flea isn’t actually a human being but a bass-slapping robot.

Instead, this use of “credibility” recalls the Weltanschauung of morose indie fandom in the 1980s (and punk before that), where a “credible” band was one that was “authentic” and somehow stuck it to “The Man”. I take it that Flea is supposed not to be “credible” in this sense because the Red Hot Chili Peppers now sell quintillions of records. The rock moron’s use of “credible”, then, is predicated on a rejection of what is popular: what is trusted by many people is ipso facto not to be trusted. If the ordinary idea of trust depends on an implicit social contract of honesty and fair dealing, the rock sense of “credibility” inverts those values: cowering under a blanket of odoriferous ressentiment, it is self-congratulatorily anti-democratic and anti-social, while paradoxically being concerned above all not with actual music but with belonging in the right social sub-group.

If youths who gather on the street can be deemed “anti-social” even though they have sought out one another’s company, ((See Unspeak, p18.)) how much more urgent is it to take punitive authoritarian action against these music-hating fashion-slaves? I say to you that those concerned with rock credibility should all be immediately served with ASBOs to prevent their life-denying whining from installing a cancer at the heart of our proud democracy.

What kind of credibility concerns you, readers?

P.S. Oh, so Supreme Ultimate Fist is on a harder-edged electro-metal tip these days? Incredible.

  1. 1  Sarah  October 9, 2009, 11:46 am 

    Authenticity balls aside: RHCP are the most horrible band in the world, and no associate should go unpunished.

    Sorry, that’s not really an response to the post, is it? I just hate them so much.

  2. 2  Mark Clapham  October 9, 2009, 12:05 pm 

    I’m 33 years of age, and refuse to believe that anyone I’ve actually heard of still has ‘rock credibility’. Surely they’re both a couple of years away from an end of the pier revival show, where we can see them on the same bill (along with Right Said Fred and Republica) and have a nice sit down and a cup of tea while we’re at it?

    Arguing over the relative merits of two middle-aged, peaked-in-the1990s, multimillionaire rock bands reminds me of a recent Onion headline along the lines of ‘Fifty year old punk sneers at sixty year old hippie’.

  3. 3  Andrew Hickey  October 9, 2009, 1:22 pm 

    Mark, that reminds me of a festival I was at a couple of years ago, where a ‘supergroup’ consisting of Pauline Black and the guitarist from The Selecter, Roddie ‘Radiation’ Byers from The Specials and Rick Buckler from the Jam was billed. Unfortunately, Buckler pulled out, so his place was taken by Jet Black from The Stranglers.

    Who got stuck in traffic, so Eric from The Bay City Rollers took his place…

  4. 4  shadowfirebird  October 9, 2009, 2:08 pm 

    Interesting. This validates the whole reason for your site – at least, for me.

    Because on thinking about your question: “what sort of credibility are you concerned about?” it turns out that the the answer for me is the literal sort. I’m only interested in whether people are believable, not whether they are “credible”.

    It’s always good to catch people out using weasilly spin-words. But this goes beyond that. This is one word that really could do with returning to its roots.

  5. 5  Mark Clapham  October 9, 2009, 2:14 pm 

    The ‘credibility’ argument does seem to miss the entire point of music as being a performance.

    Or, to put it another way, I don’t really care whether your man done gone, just that I believe that he’s gone when you sing it.

  6. 6  bruce oberg  October 9, 2009, 6:26 pm 

    great post. this reminds me of a great rant by david eggers regarding “selling out”. it’s the addendum at the bottom of this page.

  7. 7  sw  October 9, 2009, 10:38 pm 

    All day long at work, I’ve been crafting long, turgidly long, rigidly long, ridiculously long, responses to this post, and then exiting, watching the responses disappear into the ether; I was trying to create a distinction between the credibility that entails belief and truth-telling and the credibility that invites someone to believe in someone or something. The way I don’t believe everything David Bowie or Lou Reed says – but I do believe in them. You might scoff and say, “Well, they’re not brightly-lit fairies effervescing through the wood, or leather-clad goblins scratching out a riff under bridges; they’re real people. Everybody believes in them.” But that would be missing the point. In being a fan, I think I believe in them in a special way, and that has a lot to do with their credibility as artists; because rock and roll isn’t ever just about the “actual music”, it’s about a lot more. It’s about fashion and politics and posture and drama and performance – and these things do demand various forms of credibility. Or a witty take on credibility.

    A lot of what I wrote was not that far off from what I think Eggers is saying in his piece, except I came to another conclusion, and in fact, in an earlier draft, I specifically evoked the person who cried out “Judas” at Bob Dylan as someone who should not be condemned, because he believed and he cared. Maybe he was wrong in his beliefs, maybe he was rude, and Dylan was so exquisitely right and wrong to tell him that he lies. But he believed in Bob Dylan as an artist. And though I’ve never had the courage or the originality to shout “Judas” at an artist, that thought has passed through my mind when I have seen or heard artists do things that damage their credibility – not because they struck a wrong chord or sang a wrong note, but because they did something that meant I couldn’t quite believe in them the same way.

    There are other ways of addressing this, too. Integrity, perhaps. You scoff at authenticity, but it’s there too.

    But, anyway, I’m done with work and I never really wrote what I wanted to write about credibility. However, I had been looking for a sentence for a long time, and have now found it:

    cowering under a blanket of odoriferous ressentiment, it is self-congratulatorily anti-democratic and anti-social, while paradoxically being concerned above all not with actual music but with belonging in the right social sub-group.

    This is as concise a description of the “teenager” as I have ever seen; it is, to be precise, as concise a negative description of “the teenager” as I have ever seen, and I think that it – the sentence, and the state you describe – is also something beautiful and fun and precious. So, thank you for the sentence.

  8. 8  john c. halasz  October 10, 2009, 1:14 am 

    “because rock and roll isn’t ever just about the “actual music”, it’s about a lot more.”

    Well, it might “actually” be about a lot less than “actual music”.

    Rather than speculating about “cred” in, er, mass-produced music, it might be a more interesting semantic speculation to consider the use of “incredible”, as a term of praise. Or is that “praise”?

  9. 9  Jeff Strabone  October 10, 2009, 8:43 am 

    I don’t agree with SW. The alleged fans who shout ‘Judas’ refuse to allow their supposedly favourite artists to grow. I have seen this in ‘fans’ of David Byrne who don’t know any of his output since Talking Heads broke up in the late 1980s and Elvis Costello ‘fans’ who have not bought a record since Armed Forces. SW’s ‘credibility’ is an artistic straitjacket. I would much rather elevate incredibility as a new artistic standard: when an artist does something unbelievable. I would rather be blown away in disbelief than have my prejudices be reinforced.

    I know I am being unsubtle, but so be it. That is my comment.

  10. 10  sw  October 10, 2009, 11:48 am 

    There is not a lot more tiresome in criticism than the sniffly, rheumy criticism that mocks how pathetic other fans are, whether it fans of, er, ‘mass-produced music’, or ‘morose indie fandom’ or the ersatz fandom of ‘alleged fans’, or those disgraces who dare take on the mantle ‘fan’ but who do not droolingly and obsessively follow every single path and avenue an artist has chosen to take; and it is ever so easy to sneer at the man who shouted Judas, because he refused to let Dylan ‘grow’ . . . My point, which is evidently too dull to merit actual consideration, is that credibility is about how we believe in an artist, not about the absolute veracity of an artist’s statements; that it is made up of more than just “actual music” (I don’t follow the critique @8 about it being “less”) in, er, “mass-produced” music; it’s a pretty banal point, but it’s based on the fact that it is hard not to hear echoes of credibility and authenticity in the attacks on ‘rock credibility’.

    As for “incredibility” in comments 8 and 9, yeah, sure, why not?

  11. 11  Steven  October 10, 2009, 1:33 pm 

    But surely the sniffly, rheumy criticism by one “fan” of another “fan” for insufficient authenticity of fanhood is exactly the same as the sniffly, rheumy criticism by a “fan” of an artist who does “things” to “damage” his or her “credibility”, the latter accusation being nothing more than a projection onto the artist of the “fan”‘s own incredulity, or incomprehension, or offended tribalism, or discomfitingly challenged faith. Such squabbles are like ideological spats among the Taliban: they spring from the defensive obsession with purity of the “fundamentalist”. (“Fan”, of course, is short for fanatic.)

    Interesting that you should mention David Bowie in this context. Bowie, of course, is a post-credible artist.

  12. 12  sw  October 10, 2009, 2:34 pm 

    No, it is not exactly the same thing. But fine, have it your way. Fans who don’t appreciate music and pop the same way you do are snivelling idiots who know nothing about “actual music”.

  13. 13  sw  October 10, 2009, 3:48 pm 

    Oh dear – my far more cheerful follow-up comment, involving Bruce Springsteen, Public Enemy, Talking Heads and Michael Moore, was deleted by one of my cats, slinking along the computer screen and casually stepping on the keyboard. I hear a collective purr of relief from the Unspeak community. Have a good weekend, rock fans, you cool cats everywhere!

  14. 14  Jeff Strabone  October 10, 2009, 4:21 pm 

    It is not necessary to ‘believe in’ artists. Being an artist is a job, sometimes done well and sometimes done badly.

  15. 15  KB Player  October 10, 2009, 6:22 pm 

    But we do “believe” in people doing jobs, don’t we? I “believe” in the bloke who fixes my washing machine, cooker & fridge. I believe he will turn up exactly when he says he will, will do a good job and not charge me a fortune. I recommend him to other people, with a slight air of proprietary pride that I’ve found such a gem. If I found that he had done a slovenly job and was ripping people off, I’d feel cast down, in a small way like someone who has lost their religion. I think “belief” in an artist is something like that. It can also work the other way – you can feel very annoyed that someone you had dismissed as rubbish does something you’re forced to admire.

  16. 16  Steven  October 11, 2009, 2:27 pm 

    I was just in the middle of composing a truly amazing 15,000-word comment, the likes of which the blogoicosahedron has never seen, and which would literally have blown the minds of everyone attached to the internets, touching as it did on Morrissey, Schopenhauer, Christopher Smart, The Darkness, Diogenes the Cynic, and taijiquan, when all of a sudden a Person from Plaistow rang my doorbell and attempted to engage me in conversation about the Jesus. Having dispatched him with no small amount of philosophical wit and actual violence, I returned hastily to my world-altering comment, only to find my pet yoga-obsessed iguana perched on one leg on the backspace key of my laptop, and my comment disappearing with alarming haste backwards off the screen. Cajoling and reasoning with the flexible reptile, I eventually persuaded her to continue elsewhere; but by then, all that remained of my comment was this haunting fragment:


  17. 17  dave  October 11, 2009, 8:30 pm 

    Not sure I can follow the twists and turns here. I saw Thom Yorke play a solo set at Latitude earlier this summer. The sun shone. This helped make me feel like dancing, and I danced quite a lot. A nice young woman lent me Alan Bennett’s The History Boys to read. For some reason no-one else in the field seemed to be dancing.

  18. 18  dsquared  October 11, 2009, 8:31 pm 

    hrrm. Although I frankly dislike both Radiohead and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, I think there’s a certain amount of sense that could be made of this, in that both bands had an image and advertised their music as being associated with a certain kind of lifestyle, encouraging teenage music fans to identify with them as characters, rather than just listening to this music. Radiohead actually did this about as explicitly as possible, to the extent of singing “I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo”. There’s a sort of implicit promise there to introverted, depressive cardigan-wearing intellectual Goth teenagers that they can delegate a large part of their personality and identity to Radiohead, and in return Radiohead will give them an outlook on life and themselves which fits in with certain parameters, quite important among which is not being friends with loutish Californian muso-punks. It’s the “credibility” of that implicit promise that’s being brought into question; it is true that there’s something rather silly and wankerish about trying to use a pop group as a substitute for having a personality, but Thom Yorke can hardly complain, as if it weren’t for that element of branding, he’d be working for Dresdner Kleinwort Benson today.

  19. 19  Sarah  October 11, 2009, 9:27 pm 

    It’s probably worth mentioning that at least half the time, “credible” is a sneer that implies “cultivated air of worthiness”. Which means that the bands I find credible, I would never describe as credible – because once I’ve invested myself in a band’s brand identity and music, I can’t acknowledge that my credulousness has been excited without breaking the magic.

  20. 20  Other Alex  October 12, 2009, 9:29 am 

    Maybe this pairing would seem a bit less disingenuous if Flea had ever been involved in anything obscure, weird or mildly avant-garde at any time in his career. Like if he’d played on a Prog-Latin concept album or cameoed in an indie film.

  21. 21  Daniel F  October 12, 2009, 11:26 am 

    What, like Less than Zero or My Own Private Idaho, that kind of thing?

  22. 22  Steven  October 12, 2009, 12:49 pm 

    Or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or The Big Lebowski? Or maybe if he’d played with more “credible” artists like, oh, I dunno, the Mars Volta or Patti Smith or Warren Zevon? Or maybe if he’d founded a conservatory of music?

  23. 23  Steven  October 22, 2009, 12:10 pm 

    A propos my #11 above, there is a piece in the NS on David Bowie, with the rather nice headline Hallowed Spaceboy:

    Above all, I love how Bowie has never succumbed to peddling “sincerity”, the dread, dishonest concept that creeps into the body of pop and calcifies its bones.

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