Gordon Lightfoot is going on tour!

And as a perfect example of the joys and pain of having, shall we say, offbeat tastes, even though I waited four days to buy my tickets, I still got Row 9 on the floor. What upsets me, of course, is that Gordon Lightfoot (Gordon Lightfoot, people!) has only sold nine rows in four days. Even in this jaded, pop-obsessed world of today, I still expected to be relegated, if not to the nosebleeds, at least to the bleachers.

Honestly, I remembered a couple of times over the last few days that I hadn’t bought my tickets yet, and nonetheless didn’t run to the computer to buy em up. I have this damnable inertia that, even when I know that I have an opportunity to witness something historic, or to do something that I will remember until I die, a lot of the time I just go “meh” and go back to my crossword puzzle.

But occasionally, I overcome that lethargy and find myself heading out to a play or a show or a French movie, and I sit in the venue, surrounded by people of like mind, digging the art that I’m seeing, and really, profoundly, enjoying my life for a few hours – something that I honestly don’t do very often. And I have this sense that “out there” in the world, even in a backwater like Winnipeg, there’s this whole other awesome existence that’s mine for the taking, if I would just get off my lazy ass and go do stuff. It’s my “real” life, I think, the life that I truly want to live, as opposed to the insular, lazy and sedated life that I seem to choose by default.

I’m not talking about some kind of jet-set world travelling fantasy, though I do want to see more of the world – right now, for instance, I’m trying to figure out how I can get to New York City to catch one of Les Paul‘s monday night shows before he, like so many other musical heroes of mine that I never got to see in life, is gone. It’s not even expensive, really – I suspect that there’s at least three little places in town, even as I write this, featuring some music or play or movie that I would just be soaking up like a drug if I were there. Instead, I sit here and lament same, probably to little or no audience whatsoever. But at least I’m writing instead of rewatching South Park or something…

But anyways, here’s what I wanted to talk about: Six finalists from Canadian Idol, collaborating on a surprisingly fantastic version of Mr. Lightfoot’s Canadian Railroad Trilogy.

It’s puzzled me, since the first time I heard this song, that I never encountered it in a school room as a kid – it was the first history lesson I ever had (on a road trip, appropriately enough (in a car, inappropriately enough), from Vancouver to Winnipeg) that I repeated over and over and over again, looking through my windshield at the Canadian Rockies* and feeling profoundly connected to all the history, glorious and shameful and otherwise, of my home and native land.

Indeed, it was through Gordon Lightfoot that I really learned the meaning of the word Patriotism, because up until that day I had never really felt love, never even understood how someone could feel love, for a place, or the idea of that place. I didn’t suddenly forget what European colonization has always meant to indigenous people, mind you, but we’re all born into an imperfect world, and we should love that world no less than we love our friends and families, for all their imperfections. The alternative is madness.

But anyways, on to Canadian Idol. I don’t watch it. Much less do I watch American Idol, Britain’s Got Talent, or any other such show. To me it seems… ok, well, I’ve watched bits of American Idol on Youtube, and this is a personal favorite:

Too hardcore for you, indeed. The thing about these death metal idol guys (I think at least one of them is actually Black Metal, but the multitude of metal categories they’ve got nowadays is as unintelligible to me as death metal lyrics) is that they aren’t really seriously trying out – they’re basically there to say a big rocknroll Fuck You to the whole Idol concept, and for that, I at least applaud them.

When I first heard about American Idol, I decried it as illegitimate. And it is, really – a person getting into making music should really not be doing so in order to become an “idol,” and nobody can possibly deny that there is something just *wrong* about a musician skirting the traditional process of performing, touring, recording, shopping demos and basically sweating to make it, and being adored on national television for doing so.

But sure, stardom sounds great, and believe me, I’m not saying that ironically – after all, isn’t it a fairly universal desire of people everywhere to want to be doing something that matters? But at the same time, what actually matters should probably not be determined by the call-in votes of people watching a reality show – I like to think that we ought to rely on some kind of objective standards, both in terms of just how important a pop star is in the grand scheme of things, as well as what criteria we should use to determine who becomes a pop star. American Idol takes pop stardom, something that’s supposed to have a patina of magic to it, a romantic story of struggle and victory behind every great artist, and turns it into a job interview.

But when I gave it further thought, I realized that American Idol is not, as the narrow selection of music and arbitrary selection system would suggest, a corruption of pop music, but in fact is the American pop music star system given a more perfect form. After all, actual musical talent has, since the advent of MTV, taken a distant back seat to photogenicity in terms of importance for pop stars – witness the sad case of Christopher Cross, whose oh-so-smooth compositions (which included collaborations with the inimitable Burt Bacharach) were nonetheless not smooth enough to overcome his fundamental lack of stage charisma once MTV made visual presentation an essential component in a successful pop music career… and would, over the next 20 years, bring us to the point at which we now find ourselves, where musical talent is optional. The truth is that American pop music has been a reanimated corpse, shuffling around and growing more and more putrid in it stench since long before Vanilligate.

So now we get a tv show, remarkably similar in form to the Gong Show, where America gets to Have Its Say in who becomes the next big star. Of course, as with all American democratic mechanisms, the deck is stacked: contestants, as the death metal auditioners demonstrate, are limited to a narrow range of musical selections and styles – the same constricted musical range, interestingly enough, that you will find on modern, ClearChanneled (and what an unintentionally appropriate name that corporation bears…) FM radio. All the finalists are MTV-ready (Aesthetically pleasing. In other words, fly…), practically begging to be processed and shrinkwrapped, anticipating their artistic asphyxiation with great joy.

I’d like to say that if the American Idol people gave Americans a real choice, that they would choose something new and interesting over the same old recycled pretties they’ve been fed for these last couple of decades. But I wonder, at this point, whether the Clearchannelization of America has had enough time to take root, and in true Orwellian fashion, managed to make Americans forget that there once was a choice to be had. Could American Idol voters get over the exotic nature of, say, Manu Chao for long enough to appreciate his funky latin reggae grooves and dance in their seats like their parents once did to Perez Prado? Is Middle America still that open-minded?

And that’s the tragedy of it: For much of the last century, America had a thriving music scene, fecund with inspiration, innovation and creativity. What happened to the America that birthed jazz?

Chao himself, a true world citizen, has an interesting observation at 1:45 of this video: when he tours in Europe and looks at the television, he gets programs and news from all over – France, Italy, England, etc. Whereas in America, you turn on the TV, you get programming from America only. Derrida would probably point out that Chao only mentioned other European locales in his speech, but I think he’s got a point nonetheless – where other nations seem to see themselves as part of an international exchange of ideas, America seems to always view itself as the possessor and exporter of all relevant ideas, with no need of input from the old or developing worlds.

But we all know that it’s exchange that brings innovation and new ideas – cities which are big shipping centres, for example, have always traditionally been where you find such things. This is no accident – the traders and sailors who came and went brought more than goods with them. They brought music, books, news of the world, and enabled the people there to synthesize all this input into fresh output, which they sent back out.

America has long since ceased to engage in this kind of meaningful exchange. True, there’s a lot of import and export, more than ever before, but there is no trade – the goods are put in containers and loaded on and off the ships by cranes, with no conversation between transient sailors and stationary dockers, no strange and exotic fiddle music carried on the air from dockside taverns, no news of strange and wondrous events in distant lands pass from mouth to ear around town.

Even the goods themselves cannot be seen as objects of real exchange – Americans design what they want, send the plan to China, and receive back what they ordered a few months later. Even with the entire world available with a google search, America looks ever inward, and dies slowly.

*Here’s a link to a google image search, but really, as if a grouping of pixels on a computer screen could possibly convey what it’s like to stand at the bottom, or drive through a pass at the top – you need to go there, honestly.

1 Comment

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One response to “Gordon Lightfoot is going on tour!

  1. Can’t argue with any of that.

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