Everything I Do, pt. 10: Confessions of a Real Music Wanker [September 8, 1991]
Plus: Sabrina Johnston, The Stone Roses, Saint Etienne, and Blur
This week’s Number 1 :
‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’ — Bryan Adams
Real Music Wanker (n): Person, often a young white man, who vociferously promotes what he considers to be Real Music, while denigrating the choices of others.
Usage: “High Fidelity is a movie about Real Music Wankers.”
Over the past ten weeks, I’ve read almost every piece written about ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’.
One of the most bizarre opinions that pops up with regularity is the notion that (EID)IDIFY represents the moment that Adams lost his rock credibility.
Now, let’s hold on for a moment and unpack that statement. We’re looking at a few assumptions here, including:
You can earn rock credibility with songs like ‘Run To You’
Rock credibility is something that even exists
An anonymous jury will revoke this credibility if you breach certain rock protocols
Leaving aside any doubts about the validity of point number 1, there was a time in my life when I would have taken points 2 and 3 as unquestionable gospel. And so would most of the people I knew at that age.
Beavis and Butthead weren’t around in 1991 but they would later become torchbearers for the concept that all music exists on an objective scale of “Rocks” to “Sucks”, and that we had to apply these rules with rigour.
I spent most of the 90s being confident that these objective values existed, that certain songs had an intrinsic worth, that everything else was by definition worthless.
I wasn’t always like this. When you’re a kid, you either like a song or you ignore it. You couldn’t care less about where that song exists in the greater scheme of things.
But then you begin to develop what might be called “taste”, even if it’s not always conventionally tasteful. You build a schema for what’s good and bad, and you apply it to everything you encounter.
Musical taste is often a supporting pillar in a teenager’s sense of self. In the peak era of 20th century pop music, many teenagers built a whole personality around their CD collection.
Which sounds dismissive, but let’s try to remember what it was like to discover great music in your teens.
Back then, you didn’t just like a song. You didn’t even love a song. You became the song. Songs expressed a part of yourself that felt inexpressible. The border between you and the song became blurry.
It felt like this. It felt like the songwriter was walking down the street one day, and they looked at their feet, and there on the footpath they saw a tiny, glittering fragment of your soul. They knew it was something precious, and they knew you needed it back, so they wrapped it in a song and told it to fly home to you. When you hear the song, it is a reunion. It is a connection. You are briefly whole.
That’s what music is like for teenagers. Or it was for me, anyway.
A teenager’s emerging taste is part of their journey towards figuring out how to live correctly. The kid who likes rap and the kid who likes ska and the kid who likes Broadway are all taking different approaches to the job of being a human.
Naturally, these factions often fight. People can get violently angry at those who live differently.
And it’s not just teens.
One of the grimmest moments in musical history was the Disco Sucks movement of the late 70s, which tried to incite a civil war between fans of Real Music (guitar-driven rock) and those who had lousy taste (music predominantly enjoyed by people who were black and/or gay.)
The movement culminated in a pretty ridiculous show of hypermasculinity called Disco Demolition Night. During the last summer of the 70s, over 50,000 people gathered at Comisky Park in Chicago to watch a stack of disco records get blown up.
I guess we found the guys who can grant and revoke rock credentials.
These guys are the teenagers who took it too far. Their obsession with the rocks/sucks spectrum has spilled over into adult life and made them hateful.
Racism, sexism, and homophobia played a big part in this movement. These guys never ask the question that I started asking later in life, and that I wish I’d asked myself more often as a teenager.
Why is objectively good music always a white guy with a guitar?
But to focus on the hateful aspect of cultural gatekeeping is to miss out on something fundamental. It’s not hate that makes people passionate about culture. It’s love.
I remember very young, maybe 10 or so, and listening to ‘Sweet Child O Mine’ and getting the first shimmer of that feeling you get from art that moves you.
It was a feeling like there was some kind of Platonic truth at the heart of this song, like I was catching glimpse of a richer, better world that exists beyond the veil of this one.
What do you do when you see something divine? Don’t you want to share it with people?
And when they reject it, when they seek their own truth somewhere else, don’t you get angry at them? Like the way we get angry at family members who refuse the vaccine. We just want what’s best for you.
In hindsight, I would have made a great cult member. I’m glad I only ended up becoming an NME reader.
The music press in the 90s existed to make music seem more exciting, and they did a superb job of this.
For people of a certain temperament (hi there), reading about music was often more fun than actually listening to it. The magazines wrote this rapid-fire prose filled with in-jokes that managed to be both powerfully passionate and ironically detached.
Buying these magazines felt like sitting with the cool kids. It was hard not to agree with them on everything. You wanted to please them.
And the relationship was reciprocal. Music journalists like to think of themselves as fearless. Lester Bangs, the hero of the genre, cared so little about the outside world that he used to snort speed and stay up all night writing 10,000-word reviews of records that didn’t exist, records he wished existed. But once you dig past that self-mythologising, music journalism is something that always capitulates to the readers’ tastes. Its ultimate purpose is to confirm the reader’s biases.
You have taste. Everyone else is an idiot.
Music journalists these days are a bit more insular. The way our culture works now means that it’s more productive to focus on their readers’ preferred genres and completely ignore everything else.
Back in the 90s, at the peak of the monoculture, it was all a lot more confrontational. It was war.
In 1992, NME released a compilation of indie artists doing deconstructed covers of old Number Ones. A stand-out track is Irish band Fatima Mansions, who did a weird acid-jazz spoken word version of ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’.
Like most NME readers, I loved it. I loved it because it was the opposite of everything I hated about the Bryan Adams original. He was earnest; this was ironic. He was accessible; this was confrontational. He was competent and professional; this was messy and weird.
This was my mood for much of the 90s. I was frequently obnoxious to people, simply because they liked a song that I didn’t. When I discovered the internet in 1995, the first thing I did was start writing about how much I hated Celine Dion.
I felt like I was doing God’s work. I did it out of love.
Everything started falling apart around 2001.
The music press collapsed, with Melody Maker imploding in total disgrace. Napster sent the music industry into a tailspin, causing them to stop investing in mediocre rock bands. Rock itself started looking increasingly stale in comparison to more diverse genres that were emerging.
And for me personally, I suffered the same fate that befalls every pompous teenager with strong musical opinions.
I got old.
The emo era of the early/mid-2000s was the first time I became aware that there was a new generation of bands that weren’t speaking to me. I had aged out of their target demographic. Instead, these bands were talking to people who had been kids playing on the swings and slides during the time in which my cohort was debating Blur vs Oasis.
Everyone reaches this moment eventually. When it comes, you have two choices.
One choice is to dig your heels in. You can spend the rest of your mortal days claiming that the only decent music in the universe exists on the CDs and tapes you collected between your 12th and 23rd birthdays. You can get increasingly mad at stuff that doesn’t sound like your stuff.
The other choice is to let go.
The latter path is not easy. I didn’t really master it until my daughter reached a point where she began developing her own taste.
I will now listen to anything she plays, and I will try to find the beauty in it. Doing so makes me better at finding the joy in other things. Writing this newsletter and rummaging through old Top 40s has made me reappraise songs and think, “you know what? That’s not that bad.”
‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’ is a pretty good song. It’s no ‘Run To You’, and it’s definitely not ‘Summer of 69’, but it has got its moments.
And that’s only my opinion anyway. You’re free to disagree. There’s no objective truth to any of this. No one gets to officially decide who rocks and who sucks.
Elsewhere in the charts
Number 17 (↑ from 34): ‘Peace’ — Sabrina Johnston
Sabrina Johnston seems like someone who found exactly the right amount of fame. ‘Peace’ was ignored in her native US, but was a pretty big hit around Europe, and was just enough for her to keep touring whenever she feels like it. It’s a charming club anthem with a genuinely great vocal hook. Well done, her.
Number 20 (New Entry): ‘I Wanna Be Adored’ — The Stone Roses
Has any album been milked the way The Stone Roses was milked. ‘I Wanna Be Adored’ is obviously an untouchable classic, etc., etc., but come on. This is seventh single from the album, more than two full years after the album came out.
Number 25 (New Entry): ‘Can’t Stop This Thing We’ve Started’ — Bryan Adams
Think we’ve talked enough about Adams for a while, but it’s kind of funny that ‘Everything I Do’ ruined the release schedule for the rest of the album.
Number 33 (New Entry): ‘Saltwater’ — Julian Lennon
Here’s a personal music opinion for ya: the worst thing John Lennon ever wrote was ‘Imagine’. Just a terrible, terrible song on every level.
‘Saltwater’ is a slightly uncomfortable listen because it feels so much like Julian is trying on his dad’s old clothes. But it’s still better than ‘Imagine’.
Number 39 (New Entry): ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ — Saint Etienne
Music journalists sometimes go off and form bands themselves. Former Smash Hits hack Neil Tennant, for example, had a few pop hits in the 80s and 90s.
Bob Stanley is probably the most successful NME person in chart history, thanks to the long-running success of Saint Etienne. The Saint Etienne project was supposed to have a rotating roster of vocalists, much like Massive Attack, which is why Moira Lambert provides lead vocals on this excellent reimagining of a Neil Young classic.
But once you meet someone like Sarah Cracknell, you don’t rotate her out. Cracknell became the face of the band after ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’, and eventually went on to become one of the most iconic faces of the 90s indie scene, prompting the Swedish band Whale to write the deathless lyric, “I can’t help that I want to fumble/Sarah Cracknell up her Channel Tunnel”.
You could not write a line like that today, which is probably for the best.
Album of the Week
Leisure — Blur
One of the few lines I remember the 90s music press was a mention of Blur’s debut, Leisure, which described it as, “a record so inward-looking that it sounds like it was recorded under a duvet.”
In truth, Leisure sounds like a band who don’t really know who they are yet. The many faces of Blur are represented here, from Graham Coxon’s penchant for art rock, which is audible on tracks like ‘Sing’, to Damon’s instinct for a pop hit like ‘There’s No Other Way’.
There’s also ‘Bang’, which sounds like something the label demanded so they could put another single out (which is exactly what happened with ‘Bang’.)
Leisure is regarded as a failure by the band themselves, with Damon having publicly denounced it as one of the worst records he’s ever made. It’s probably not that bad, but we wouldn’t hear the “real” Blur until a few years later, when they released the very excellent Modern Life is Rubbish.
We are almost there. Nothing lasts forever, not even Bryan Adams.