Sunday, July 10, 2011

When the underground reaches the surface

Earlier today I did an interview with Kevin Malone, aka Heaven, DJ from Chicago and he brought up the subject of when underground art moves into pop culture.  We were mainly discussing the Chicago music scene and how it has eroded into "more of the same thing" as some of the best pop-punk, power-pop and electronica groups of the city have faded into the rest of current Top 40.  Probably the most prevalent example of this would be Fall Out Boy and it was their "success" that seemed to pull the stopper from the drain that sucked out the organic music scene and left a bathtub ring of scenesters more worried about their clothes and hanging out at the "right" clubs than seeking out the latest, most innovative music in the city. 

From there, I was pulled into a deeper part of this thought when a friend posted a link to the original music video of "Church of the Poisoned Mind" by Culture Club.  This Brit dance-rock band was one of my favorites in the 80's/early 90's, not only due to their unique sound, but George's fearlessness when it came to fashion and being his own flamboyant self.  The hair, the make-up, the hats...Boy George had me wrapped around his little finger.  If I was not in the life situation I was at the time, I would have found a purple flat hat, corn-rowed my hair and wrapped each braid in ribbons and beads.  I would have searched through my old clothes and found all the bright skirts, flowery tops and danced in the streets to "Tumble For You", "Time" and "It's A Miracle" in a pair of beat-up Capezios ballet shoes. 

I didn't see it then but now it is crystal clear how that fashion and music progressed into the mainstream later in the 90's and has come back into pop culture popularity today.  I can go even farther back to my high school years when David Bowie was raising eyebrows and was the recipient of more than one "tch tch" from pearl clutchers.  Even the kids who were trying to be totally rebellious by listening to that "damned rock music" their parents hated, didn't take to kindly to Bowie, Yes, or Andy Warhol.  It would be later, after they were out of college, with their own kids and trying to be more "intellectual" about their art that these artists and designers became 'cool'. 

Today you can turn on Top 40 pop radio or any hip-hop station and hear all manner of electronic enhancements; vocal and instrumental.  Beats are a dime a dozen, sold by the truckload to producers who use them over and over with a myriad of artists.  Listeners turn on the TV, radio or internet broadcast  and are comfortable with this fact.  Most will never call out the amount of auto-tune, layering or re-use of a synth track that is going on. They also have no idea (nor do they seem to care) what the history of these effects are.  They certainly do not want to know where a lot of it made its public the seedier disco clubs and gay bars two decades ago. 

A few purests remain and have maintained their integrity, Nine Inch Nails and Smashing Pumpkins if we are speaking of Chicago.  Pop culture has tried to assimilate these artists but really have not been successful.  Both have had songs that turned up on the mainstream pop and/or rock stations but for the most part they are still on the fringes.  However, will someone gravitate to them twenty years from now and figure out a way to make them the latest thing at Urban Outfitters, Hot Topic or some other chain retailer trading in the rags and discs of the current "scene"?  If history continues to repeat itself, probably. 

Sadly, the 'lemming trait' of the human species seems to carry on generation after generation.  People don't like to live outside their personal comfort zone which, in reality, is more a case of not being the one swimming against the tide.  In some cases this is not all bad.  As underground cultures of different nationalities, ethnic groups and sexual orientations brush up against the mainstream to the point where numbers of the curious increase and gravitate to them.  What was previously scary becomes less and less allowing the human family to come closer together which is the ultimate goal.

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