PRINT February 1982

Bop Art

From Atlantis To The Jazz Loft

MUSIC WAS PROBABLY THE FIRST ART. You could run with it and take it up a tree. It was functional and something to bring the whole tribe together. They danced and sang to the same music and dressed up in strange costumes—then they worked stories in. Pretty soon they had something they called multimedia. It was a part of their religion and it made everybody happy. Then one day Atlantis sank. The few survivors split up and made it to Egypt where they built the pyramids, lifting the heavy stones with flutes, and to Greece where they established the theater. Some of the survivors made it to Africa where they found the same kind of scene happening as back home. They blended right in, teaching the locals to do the Fish, the Turkey Trot, and the Alligator.

One of the survivors’ legends relates that the gods sank Atlantis when certain members of the tribe started holding out music from the rest of the tribe, initiating secret societies and causing dissension. Another myth says that it was the younger musicians, who considered their tribal music to have grown decadent, who split off and began playing to special gatherings which they called Bebops.

Once there was only one music. But from the moment that there was high society there was un-pop music. Pop music remained the music of everyone; un-pop was the music of the initiates.

We have a distorted view of the music of the past because it is only since the invention of sound recording that most popular music has been preserved, although a great deal of high culture music has been immensely popular, such as opera and church music. But what about serf music? Remember what Jimi Hendrix said: “You’ll never hear serf music again.”

Today un-pop music is best defined as music that depends for its livelihood upon permanent institutional support—rather than popular commercial success, sooner or later. Un-pop music is often considered to be art, fine art. A lot of it is old enough that its writer no longer collects royalties or breathes. But some of it is contemporary, and this strange music is generally easy to spot by its usual seriousness.

You can be serious and still be commercially successful, but there is a certain arcane seriousness about fine-art music that makes it stand out in a crowd or on a rack. It’s the sort of seriousness Ad Reinhardt must have worn when posing with one of his black-on-black canvases, the seriousness of Gertrude Stein when she was trying to be funny. Modern un-pop music turns the tables on its audience, often demanding more work from it than from the work. This kind of un-pop implies, with inscrutable minimalism, “I’ve Got a Secret,” and it usually takes a lot of assumptions to catch on and dig it. Sometimes it’s worth it, but these are the cases that will probably go on to a legit record contract.

For a long time it was rough going for musicians in the art scene but it was important going.

Jazz is now recognized as high art, but only since the moment that it ceased to be popular, when the new jazz became an arcane, elitist, intellectual pursuit, rather than dance music for parties. The original jazz that was party music was recognized by Art only retroactively as art, yet its modern namesake was immediately considered art and its modern equivalent and true descendants (soul and funk) were considered vulgar. The old-time jazz was now understood as black classical music and was explained by theorists to have evolved into Free Jazz and other avant-garde bags which required institutionalization, grants, and foundations for continued existence. Surviving black classical musicians have continued to survive as working musicians, with minimal institutional support. James Brown never got a grant, even though there were times when he might have been able to use one.

The crucial transition in what’s called jazz occurred with the development of a jazz avant-garde. Bebop was not un-pop music. It was different from big-time commercial jazz, but it was not a funded, elitist bag. It aimed to please. After bebop, much of which was rearranged pop hits, jazz drifted away from pop aims, pop context, and pop roots. Ironically, this split occurred just at that moment when black pop music gained a universal pop audience. Jazz went extremist when Motown made the hit parade. While the Supremes and the Temptations were giving the world a new classical dance party music, jazzmen turned away from the inspiration of people’s music, searching for the sonic equivalent of Jackson Pollock. The avant-garde jazz scene became identified with the art scene through the kinship of extremism.

Denied—usually self-denied—a wide audience, visual artists go extremist all the time. It’s the romantic thing to do. As romantic extremists they were still the darlings of their world, but their world was not the world. Some artists grew restless: even if they were paid enough they missed the spotlight, the roar of the crowd at the mural unveiling, the thrill of being a household word. The richest artists were now recording artists, and they had all of the drugs and all of the girls and all of the boys and all of the fans, and the restless fine artists noticed.

Then Pop.

Glenn O’Brien: Who invented Pop art?

Andy Warhol: The other night when I was so tired after seven days of traveling to a different city every night Catherine began asking me what Pop art was.

Catherine Guinness: I didn’t ever! I talked about soup, not Pop art.

Andy: You asked me about Pop art.

Catherine: I didn’t. I asked you about soup. Why did you paint soup?

Andy: Well, what is Pop art and why do you paint soup is the same question.

Catherine: Really?

Andy: Yeah.

Catherine: Well, you see, I didn’t know that.

Andy: You didn’t know that? Well, what is soul food?

Catherine: Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!

Andy: What is soul food, Catherine?

Catherine: Um, food that you grow yourself.

Andy: It is?

Catherine: Yes.

Andy: That’s soul food?

Catherine: It’s the same stuff they pick for the natural food restaurants.

Andy: It’s not natural food, soul food. Because then it would be health food, not soul food.

Catherine: Health food? What do you mean? Quo Vadis serves health food.

Andy: Soul food is not Quo Vadis.

Catherine: All the best restaurants serve mostly health food. It’s the whole fad now.

Andy: What was the question?

Glenn: Who invented Pop art?

Andy: Oh, who invented Pop art? I think the English. They keep saying it was the English on Carnaby Street. Some of the artists over there. I forget their names.

—conversation, 1979

But is soul food sometimes Pop art? That is the question.

Pop art was everything all at once. It put the art eyeball on everything. Labels were art, as were cookbooks, billboards, and certain suits. Art could be anything, it was declared. Life became a happening as opposed to a stage. At cocktail parties people quoted Marshall McLuhan quoting a Javanese: “We have no art. We do everything as well as we can.”

This universalization of art was good for everything, everything except Art. In the end it was good for art, but try telling that to Art at the time.

Pop artists included painters, photographers, and sculptors, but also art directors, fashion designers, and hairdressers. The most amazing art apotheosis of Pop was the ascension of the musician. With popularity no longer a bad sign, pop musicians could be artists, too, and vice versa. Suddenly the young lions of the art world were musicians. The lion had become an endangered species in the increasingly rarefied art bohemia. Now a new breed was moving. “I might look like Robert Frost,” sang Bob Dylan, “but I feel jes’ like Jesse James.” And then came the generation that thought of themselves as both fine artists and musicians because they didn’t remember the world before rock was considered art.

It’s hard to pinpoint just when pop musicians began to think of themselves as fine artists. The Beatles’ “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was a major turning point because it was taken seriously as art by serious art commentators. At about the same time rock musicians such as Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton were receiving favorable notices from serious music critics as well as art-world-approved musicians such as Miles Davis and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. “Sergeant Pepper” inspired a flurry of concept albums, which won praise for their ambition if not their craft.

Pop music had never before been so ambitious. Emerson, Lake and Palmer assaulted Modest Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition—updating the work so much that it included a knife-throwing exhibition by organist Keith Emerson. Many other groups tried to work the rock-classical fusion vein—including the New York Rock and Roll Ensemble, which not only worked classical motifs into their sound but also affected the appearance of a string quartet, dressing in tails and mimicking the postures of highbrow musicians.

The Who was in on Pop art from its first stirrings on Carnaby Street, and made one very Pop art album called “The Who Sells Out,” featuring fake commercials and a fake advert cover, but that was just the beginning of their art-rock ambition which they carried to new heights with their rock opera Tommy.

Other groups like the Moody Blues, sensing their untapped classical potential, sought to prove their esthetic gravity by recording with esteemed philharmonic orchestras. Perhaps the all-time great attempt at “serious” by a pop group was made by the Electric Prunes, an acid rock combo that composed and recorded a mass. It is doubtful that this mass was ever given a liturgical tryout with priest and eucharist. The album flopped and little was heard from the Prunes thereafter—although here’s a case where it’s the thought that counts.

Rock bands were thinking more than ever, coming up with concepts, creating a total image, writing poetic lyrics. Many poets were even more enamored of the new rock than artists were. The poets’ long association with folk musicians grew even more romantic with the folkies who went electric. Dylan, the Fugs, and others had the Beat seal of approval. Rock became like poetry but with money, an audience, and musical accompaniment. Dylan and Jim Morrison made it as poets (except among bitter poets) more than any other poets besides Rod McKuen and Kahlil Gibran.

Bands began printing the lyrics to their songs on the inner sleeve, believing this, too, was literature.

Happenings were really the crossroads of art and rock. Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” was the most spectacular of Happenings and the one that gave rock its art vortex baptism. The event was a night club, the media were the Velvet Underground, Nico, lights, slides, films, and you. The Velvet Underground themselves were the most artful of bands. Andy Warhol was their producer. It is rumored that he actually did fiddle with the dials at the one-day recording session that produced their art historic first album. Andy was pictured on the back of the jacket, framed by a tambourine.

It is possible that the Velvet Underground was the first band to have a light show—but there were light shows on the West Coast by the time the V.U. arrived in San Francisco to play the Fillmore, opening for the Jefferson Airplane. Happenings were happening there, too, although of a different nature—what they lacked in fine art they made up for in LSD. Acid contributed even more to total environment by making you, the head, a part of it.

Happenings lasted about as long as white go-go boots, but they left their imprint forever on art or rock or both. The art Happening evolved into performance art—everyone went solo in the ’70s—and the music Happening became rock concert spectacles in stadiums.

The Artist’s Will to Pop

Friedrich Nietzsche said, “I should never believe in a god who did not know how to dance.” And James Brown said, “I got ants in my pants and I need to dance.” So here was a zeitgeist you could shake your booty to. People began to say Rock Culture without batting an eye. The most important art object was now back between the legs where it belonged.

The intersection of pop music and art was one of those magic moments of exchange in which each party had something the other wanted. As the rockers began to behave like artists so did the artists go rock and roll.

Andy Warhol: Claes and Patti Oldenburg and Lucas Samaras and Jasper Johns and I were starting a rock and roll group with people like La Monte Young and Walter De Maria.

Glenn O’Brien: You started a rock band?

Andy Warhol: Oh, yeah. We met ten times and there were fights between Lucas and Patti over the music or something.

Glenn O’Brien: What did you do?

Andy Warhol: I was singing badly. Then Barbara Rubin said something about this group [the Velvet Underground] and mixed media was getting to be the big thing at the Cinemateque so we had films and Gerard [Malanga] did some dancing and the Velvets played. And then Nico came around and Paul [Morrissey] started the Exploding Plastic Inevitable.

It’s not just the chance of getting to show off multimedia chops that brings out the rocker in the fine artist or fine arts student. If there’s any one determining lure to rock it is the old will to power. Artists have been, for some time, a rather power-starved lot. They’ve been rubbing elbows with power for generations, all the while muttering under their breath that they could rule the world or the corporation better. (As the world ruler muttered back that he could paint better.) Then when the big power shift happened, painters—who might have spent half their lives secretly revolutionizing city planning—saw the new power shares being handed out to rock musicians. Quite a few wigs must have flipped.

Not only did the new breed of pop musicians have access to a huge public, money to burn, and wall-to-wall groupies, they were also taken seriously as artists. Pop had sacked the citadel of art, turning some very antique tables.

Many artists put down the brush or the mallet and picked up the guitar like it was a gun. Some artists formed bands—some even changed careers. For others it remained a fantasy and they decided instead to meet some rock stars to sell large works to and maybe meet some of their young friends.

Access to music has expanded immensely. Soon almost everyone will have a Walkman. More and more people in the cities boogie while they walk to work. Pop musicians and fans in the ’60 s were very tuned in to what Marshall McLuhan was saying about the world becoming a Global Village and mankind returning to earlier ways, wearing tribal beads and miniskirts, listening to tribal ensembles such as the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. Hippies formed tribes left and right, craving ever more exotic atavisms. Henry Kissinger stated he feared a return to the “dark ages.”

But the Global Village was an imperfect analogy. Kissinger heir Zbigniew Brzezinski’s concept of the Global City and the funk-rock band War’s “the world is the ghetto” proved more apropos. And the new tribalism that came along proved to be far different from the old sort, for while new tribes surely had emerged, these tribes were dispersed throughout the world, rarely meeting but tuning in to one another through music and cultural symbolism. These tribal trademarks might be clothes, sexual preferences, hairstyles, political thought, or any number of common denominators, but what bonds these cultures (I don’t think there are any subcultures) together in practice is music. One attends a concert by the Village People, Peter Tosh, or Bow Wow Wow with a lot of expectations about the rest of the audience, and when these are confirmed it can be a source of great delight. Artists of all sorts have always had this life-of-the-party function, but never in “civilized” modern times has it been so central and so acknowledged and so well remunerated.

Chiefs and/or medicine men were a lot like pop stars—they performed similar cultural functions and brought to the job similar qualifications. You had to be able to cut a rug to cut the mustard as a chief, and it took great moves and a fantastic gift of gab to be a witch doctor. Today there are big neo-tribes and small neo-tribes but they all have their chiefs and witch doc performers. Heavy metal bands are perhaps the most blatantly tribal neo-tribe, with their biker-Visigoth fashions and their habits of going berserk and starting bonfires at concerts. But every sub-bag of the music scene is a neo-tribe with its own strange practices and identifying marks.

Few rock stars were more tribally oriented than Jim Morrison of the Doors, who played the role of the new-age shaman to the hilt. Morrison, more than any of the other “rock poets,” made a deliberate attempt to carry off the modern equivalent of a shamanistic ritual, to fully reinvest poetry with its ceremonial context. While other serious-minded ambitious rock stars were off conducting philharmonics or concocting operas, Morrison was attempting to practice magic, to incite audiences to a ceremonial pagan riot, his sights set on being considered a sort of god.

His vision, as bold as it was, was not entirely unique. Rock stardom struck many observers as a return to an old kind of ritual kingship, straight out of The Golden Bough: the king gets knocked off in the end.

Hundreds of years before the first rock star overdosed on drugs there were groups of young people on this continent who lived and died in much the same way as the rock musicians of today. They were selected by their tribe for their attractive appearance, their physical grace, their charm, and talent. They lived apart from the rest of the people. They ate the finest foods, they had their pick of sexual partners, they were given as many euphoriants as they could consume. They did no physical work, but devoted their time to music and poetry. After a period of treatment as gods it came time for them to do their thing. On the appointed day they were given an especially large dose of drugs. Dressed in the most beautiful clothes they were paraded through the streets to the adulation of the throngs, and finally they were taken to the top of the highest temples where, in full view of their many admirers, their hearts were removed.

Hearts are no longer cut out on top of the temples, but the tradition lives on. Exceptional young artists who live like gods for a time often die a premature death that is seen by their followers as tragic or sacrificial. Their deaths are seen as a consequence of their freedom. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” sang Janis Joplin. The deaths of these stars—the price they paid—serve to reinforce establishment mores.

Rock and roll hearts and Van Gogh ears are all grist for the myth mill. The artist must suffer. At first artists suffered because they bucked the system, then the system rewarded the artist in proportion to the suffering he or she accepted. The suffering-rock-star myth became an essential part of the 20th-century Aztec military industrial complex—if you don’t want the kids to be realists give them another dose of romance and if that doesn’t do it give them another: give them gods that can’t make it.

When asked what he did for a living, Morrison said, “erotic politician,” and that job description is very apt for a certain class of music culture hero. There aren’t many performers of major eroto-political standards making the rounds these days. Some, like Morrison and Hendrix, were perhaps too political or erotic to hold out in the king slot forever, and anthropologists have shown repeatedly that kingship can kill. An assassinologist has offered a sideline of speculation on a possible CIA pop death squad which knocked off or silenced the major erotic politicians of the ’60s.

The existence of this theory is just as significant as the question of the truth of such speculation, because even if rock musicians were never executed, they did wield enough political clout during the Vietnam war that would be surprising if such political measures were not entertained.

Since the end of the Vietnam war direct political concerns have not been evident in pop music. A few bands try to save the whales now and then, but there haven’t been many no-nukes tunes on the charts. At election time bands come out for their man—Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles helping out Governor Jerry Brown in his race for the White House, the Beach Boys helping George Bush win the Vice Presidency in their own way.

But the specter of rock-star dictator still looms over the scene. Remember Peter Watkins’ film Privilege, where a rock star establishes a religio-fascist state in England, or Barry Shear’s Wild In the Streets, where rock and roll captures the White House? One of the prime contenders for the presidency of Nigeria is Fela Ransome Kuti, that nation’s greatest musician and entertainer. He could be the world’s first funky president. And in the Caribbean (not to mention Brooklyn) the Rastafarian movement has caught on like Communism didn’t, as reggae music, which denies political orientation, has become a major force. At Bob Marley’s funeral, in Kingston, Jamaica’s Prime Minister Edward Seaga and the ex-Prime Minister/opposition leader Michael Manley were both conspicuously present, mourning a man who might have beaten them both at the ballot box if he had run.

Pop Go the Art Schools

Schools of fine arts have yet to grant degrees in pop music, but such a curriculum seems inevitable. Art schools probably produce more would-be pop stars than painters these days; certainly pop has proven to be a more lucrative career choice than painting or sculpture for recent graduates. Many of the top pop groups consist entirely or in part of art school veterans, including some professors, such as Hugh Cornwall of The Stranglers and Jeff and Jane Hudson of the Manhattan Project. Blondie’s hit songwriters Chris Stein and Jimmy Destri attended the School of Visual Arts, in New York. Talking Heads was organized at the Rhode Island School of Design by students David Byrne, Chris Frantz, and Tina Weymouth. In England, almost all of the musicians associated with “new wave” got their start in art school.

By the time pop music was considered art, the pop-music-as-art contingent was already divided into roughly two categories—those musicians who now thought of themselves as fine artists and those who now thought of themselves as messiahs, or in some way divine. In a lot of ways the first division had the tougher job cut out for them: a god has a lot more freedom of choice than a fine artist.

It’s a fine thing to try to make every aspect of one’s work artful, but it’s hard enough to find musicians who can play, not to mention dress exquisitely, art-direct their way out of a paper bag, and write meaningful poetry. The result has been a proliferation of jacks-of-all-arts bands, and a lot of bad music.

Approaching art rock from the art side, many practitioners bring to the band more artistic skill or verbal skill than musical skill. Often the music is little more than an excuse to get on a stage and pose. But the pose has become so important that even large audiences can be as fooled as the performers are.

One Friday night at the Mudd Club in New York, I was watching a band from L.A. called Surburban Lawns clear the dance floor, sending patrons to the upstairs bar. “Don’t you like them?” asked George. “No,” I said. “Why not?” asked George, to the point as ever. “I don’t like the music,” I said. “But they have good words,” said George. “Then why don’t they get rid of those instruments?” I concluded.

But I’m still wondering about that. I remember seeing something that called itself a band called Art—they recited their “songs” to a metronome. Lately I’ve been thinking I was a little too hard on Art. They could be a very good example for many of these bands who are ruining their words with music. But that works both ways. Pop musicians have been ruining otherwise splendid compositions with moronic lyrics for years. One perfectly fine institution left behind on Tin Pan Alley was the composer-lyricist team.

But there are a few maestro practitioners who have made the world safe for art music—John Lennon/Yoko Ono, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno, Patti Smith, Arto Lindsay, James Chance and Anya Phillips, Marvin Gaye, George Clinton and Bootsie, Captain Beefheart, Spoony Gee, etc.

Ferry and Eno sort of started the whole art-school-to-the-stars movement with Roxy Music. Bryan Ferry studied painting under Richard Hamilton in art school and for fun and profit he organized an R & B band to play art school hops. Upon graduation he decided to give music a try before settling back into the more sedate painter’s life, so he started another band with some other art grads, including Brian Eno, and called it Roxy Music. Roxy Music was one of the art-rock success stories, because the music was as competent as the art; their sound and their image were consistently sophisticated. They had obviously read Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” and were keen students of the major modeling agencies’ head-sheets. What was radical about Roxy Music was that their pose, as elaborate as it was, was entirely genuine and, as boldly exquisite as their image was, it was remarkably realistic. They did not change personality on stage, becoming whirling dervishes or affecting an Afro-American accent. They were a rock band—as hypnotic and Global Village tribal in their own way as Black Sabbath or Canned Heat, but they belonged to a different tribe—white upper-middle-class English artists. Representing this tribe, which has mastered posing for hundreds of years, they were able to out-pose almost everyone and still look natural.

Roxy Music made it natural for the best art students to become rock stars. Eno was a brilliant adjunct to Roxy Music, but his career as fine-art rocker really began when he left the band to pursue his own projects. Eno plays synthesizer and tapes—he was a pioneer in the use of prerecorded tapes in a live-performance rock context. Eno flaunts his limited skill as an instrumentalist, exaggerates his weaknesses as a player, and makes his reputation as a conceptual virtuoso. He more than makes up for his self-proclaimed inexpertness in guitar with his instrument “treatments,” i.e., special tunings and/or the addition of modifying devices to create new tones and textures. In his own recording sessions Eno uses a broad range of musicians; he is particularly fond of using players out of their normal contexts, or unusual combinations of players. Among his methods of composition is the use of a deck of cards called “Oblique Strategies,” which he created in collaboration with artist Peter Schmidt. This is a kind of conceptual tarot which randomly provides working techniques. The results Eno achieves with such multifarious methodologies are brilliant, ranging across a broad bag spectrum, from fairly conventional pop rock to more exotic modes made from scratch. At a time when process was all-important to the fine artist, Eno endowed the pop-making process with new vistas of sophistication. He brought to pop an approach as serious, intellectual and arcane as that of the most esteemed practitioners of the fine arts. His art did not stop with his concepts; the concepts became compositions of considerable wit and beauty, and acquired a very considerable following.

Perhaps Eno has succeeded more than any other pop musician as a multimedia fine artist, and vice versa. He has probably traveled more in both worlds than any of his contemporaries. His records sell well, he is in great demand as a sideman, and is one of the most sought-after record producers in the business. Eno shows his videotapes in galleries. In collaboration with another writer and artist, he produced a mixed-media package that contains an illustrated book and a record. After a thousand copies of the record had been pressed the masters were destroyed, ensuring the appreciation of the edition’s value. Musically this was one of Eno’s lesser efforts, but it is perhaps the closest that a pop musician has come to reproducing the trappings of fine art. This is only interesting in that it reveals something about Brian Eno’s intentions in making music, as do his collaborations with Bowie and Robert Fripp, his work with the Talking Heads, his solo albums, and his work in the field of “ambient” music (such as “Music for Airports”). Eno has attempted to broaden the role of the pop star, and to a great degree he has succeeded in making the world of rock and roll safe for the fine artist and the philosopher, and, to a certain extent, vice versa.


Everybody’s talking about bagism.
—Lennon/Ono, “Give Peace a Chance”

Nobody ever called Pablo Picasso an asshole.
—Jonathan Richman, “Pablo Picasso”

. . . not in New York.
—John Cale version, “Pablo Picasso”

Musical bags, like art movements, are not made by the artists who are in them. Bags, genres, bins, and isms are generally established by the marketing structures. Musicians and artists sometimes profit by the bag. Some people go into the record store looking for a polka, not Frankie Yankovic. But more often than not bags are much less useful to their instigators and principal talents than they are to their imitators, the bag followers and practitioners. Bags are always trying to catch up with the movers and shakers. Bag followers are dependent on their bag or bin for the references required to give their work meaning.

Record sales might be down considerably from what they were a few years ago, but there are more hits than ever before, and that’s because there are more charts to have hits on than ever. Pop music has become increasingly a matter of specialty markets, bag divisions, and trends. There are dozens of charts: pop, rock, country, jazz, R & B (black/soul/disco—they keep changing the name of this chart), easy listening, new wave, dance oriented rock (that’s a new one), heavy metal (an important chart in England), reggae, fusion jazz, and various ethnic charts.

Hitting number one on some charts is like going platinum in Monaco. Obviously this specialization of the music handling business has advantages. But often the definitions and assumptions of the bag create criteria for the artists which have little to do with their actual audience. Specialization helps some artists get more attention in a smaller market, but sometimes it prevents music with considerable pop potential from finding a wider audience.

This bag bondage tends to make stagnant and rigid what is by nature fluid and changeable. It’s no coincidence that when a record moves out of its planned market into other charts it is said to “break out.”

Supreme success in the music business means the “crossover hit,” crossing over from one bag to another. Cross over to a new chart and suddenly a new network of radio stations are playing a record.

But not only is a crossover hit more profitable, it is often the sign of great art, art with boffo esthetic universality. A big crossover doesn’t need a bag to get over—it is a bag unto itself. It stands without esthetic assumption conventions. A record that crosses over into rock, black, and pop charts almost has to be good. If it crossed over into country and jazz it might save the world.

American music is the result of four hundred years of constant crossover—blood, cultures, and beats crossed over, creating whole new races, cultures, and bags. Music is the most developed expression of this process. It has been the means of much of it.

Almost all of American music is black and white. Black music and white music arrived separately but have been intermingled since the first jam. For hundreds of years bands and musics were segregated, but backwoods jamming and simple earshot were enough to keep the exchange of musical information hot and heavy.

American pop music is basically African, in that African music was the base and the bass. But American music is just as rooted in ancient European bags, and even the American Indian sound is around—the beat is more around than the Indians themselves.

Throughout the 20th century the pop music played by and for whites has been music that imitated black music—from minstrel shows to Benny Goodman to the Rolling Stones. But this imitation, though problematic, has initiated crossover and massive intercultural jamming. Even if dance halls were segregated, people were getting closer together on a beat.

The man who first recorded Elvis had the idea that if he could find a white man who could sing like a black man he would make a million dollars. But Elvis was not an impersonator; he was a crossover incarnate—that was the music where he was coming from. Elvis’ music was black and white and that’s why when it first came out racists hated it.

The Rolling Stones started out playing music that was like what urban American blacks had been listening to several years before. But the great reaction to the Rolling Stones did not occur merely because suddenly white people could hear the music of Chuck Berry or see a white man do Sam and Dave. The Stones made that material into something sensational and new, because they were alien to its source, as far away from the Mississippi Delta as Charlie Parker was from “Tea For Two.”

Transcultural crossover is what makes things grow, but it only works with two active cultures. White middle-class Chicago blues bands, big in the ’60s, are a bit passé these days; they’re no longer in much of a position to give something back to the source. The great crossover artists have changed the direction of music, not by sheer originality, but by what they borrow and synthesize, combining the best of all worlds. Eno, one of the master amalgamators, takes English pop, cool jazz modes, conceptual artistry, aspects of funk, and whatever else seems to work together, and makes brand new bags from seemingly incompatible elements. David Bowie has also drawn on an unlikely profusion of sources—from pop music styles to art strategems, from James Brown rhythms to Albert Speer stage lighting—to create perfect pop/art music. His blending of borrowed elements usually results in works that are more powerful and original than their sources. Kraftwerk has melded classical European melodics with the most sophisticated disco software and Appollonian funk to create a most informed, beautiful, and universally functional dance music. James White (also known as James Chance) crossed bebop, hard-core funk, and voodoo musicology to bring expressionist jazz back to its dance music roots. Talking Heads married funk and the sort of estheticism associated with much New York poetry, giving brain and body equal attention for a change. Blondie and the Tom Tom Club have borrowed a lot from rap music and paid it back with interest.

Exotic hybrids have crossed over cultural chasms, arriving at syntheses so radical they sound as new as if they had started from musical scratch. DNA, New York’s art power trio, fuses Tibetan ritual music, heavy metal rock, structuralist free jazz, and Yucatan jungle rhythms to make the most awesome, alien sound around. Jon Hassell, another pop/art music explorer, has combined his unprecedented trumpet technique (based on classical Indian vocal modes) with rhythms and melodies from the best backwaters possible, from South America to Malaya, creating an exquisite trans-tribal music he calls “Fourth World.” And it is in the Fourth World, where Worlds One, Two, and Three are free to jam, that the great crossover discoveries will be made.

Crossover is happening more and more and the bags and bins are flowing into one another like crazy. Funk bands are rocking, jazz bands are funking, ex-art students are rapping, and more and more pop music is possessed of the proven universality of hot dance music. While the major recording and marketing powers continue to splinter pop into categories, from the artists’ end there’s a counter movement, a kind of across-the-board crossover, the essence of which is the idea of new wave. New wave is in some ways a bag to end all bags, because it is a bag with no formal qualities, none except its timing. It is the unbag.

What Is the New Wave?

Well, you know what New is. And you know what wave is. So . . . there are relatively few other characteristics which can be ascribed broadly to the New Wave. And it is these two important qualities, novelty and waviness, which are the essence. New Wave music means little more than music that is new—new enough that it is not readily assimilable by the music marketing mechanism. Of course, now that it’s its own bin, it’s getting assimilated pretty well, but the whole idea of New Wave has more to do with marketing than aesthetics. At the same time that record companies were becoming more and more categorical, departmentalized and formulized, a large number of musicians were making music completely unrelated to the marketing structure. Pretty soon, stretch, rip, boom. Hundreds of people were starting cottage record industries. A new category had formed spontaneously—in the void created by the blind spot directly above and behind every record company executive. The New Wave grew up inside the corporate time lag.

Of course, where there’s one corporate time lag, there’s bound to be a Fortune 500. The time lag of corporate response to popular tastes, desire, appetites, culture, etc. is everywhere. Thus, New Wave won’t be limited to music. It’s not just another record bin. It’s a time vortex, a fertile spot found near rotting corporate structures. You can tell you’re getting there when you are earlier and earlier.

—“Glenn O’Brien’s Beat,” Interview, April 1981

There are many reasons for the lag between creation and distribution, but perhaps the most compelling is the fact that the corporation always has a major investment in the past as inventory. The past has to sell out before the future can be stocked.

Not only does the corporate time lag involve a problem with recognizing what is new and dispensing with what is old, but the corporate marketing structure has become increasingly baffled by the demographics of their business—what sort of person buys what.

Meanwhile the process of novelty, the creation of the new, seems to have entered a time warp phase. Progress is our most important product, not just at General Electric but at General Motors, in Darwinism, the strategic arms race, and the latest isms in the art race. But with the vast mushrooming of communications systems and the multiplication of access to information, the velocity of progress has been accelerated exponentially. Here today—blown away. What’s new gets old faster and faster, and what’s older than the recently declared old can suddenly be new. In some cases the marketing mechanism might be able to recognize nothing about a product other than that it is new. Naturally this race against time has coincided with a cult of youth, but youth can’t last and neither can new so new wave is a bag which is constantly crossing over and fusing with itself and everything else it can grab on to.

Classical music means different things to different people, but beyond the stereotype, a functional definition now might be: music that is old but that holds up—oldies but goodies. You could make a classic song today but it won’t be a classic till tomorrow or later. But one thing for sure: there is music made now that will not sound bad later and this is, as Lawrence Welk puts it, “simply wunnerful.”

If new wave music is very, very good it will wind up being classical music. If it’s not really new but new new, then it will lead a normal life. If it’s bad and really new, then it may require some institutional support. Punk groups, frozen in an old idea of new, may well require foundation grants to keep the music alive in 1984.

In the future everyone will overthrow the world for 15 minutes. In the modern urban Global Village time machine there are numerous tribes that are aggressively devoted to the overthrow of the past, and to worshippers of the moment or the future that is a most noble pursuit. These futurist tribes, mostly young tribes but including youth cultists, attempt to destroy the past in the present—those things around them that seem to belong to the past more than the future. They are progress extremists, although their idea of progress may be opposed in many ways to the majority view.

Youth movements and so-called subcultures or alternative cultures are always overthrowing the past, as if it weren’t overthrowing itself. This task is a romantic task—in fact, it is the romantic task.

Wyndham Lewis wrote, in “The Diabolical Principle,” 1931:

The vein of rage and hatred against mankind is an essential ingredient in all “nihilism” and, therefore, in all “new romanticism.” That is what is meant by “the new”—that is “romanticism” that is peculiarly given over to an intolerant exclusive hatred of the rest of the world.

The tribalism of the electronic age is like all tribalism in that tribe members set themselves apart from the rest of the world by various shared beliefs and common symbolism and identifying marks (such as fashion). What distinguishes “new romantic” tribes is that what sets them apart has more to do with shared rage, hatred, doubt, disgust, and antipathies than with mutual tastes, preferences, attractions, or ideas of beauty.

A sure sign of this “new romanticism” is when the visible identifying trappings of the tribe are intended more to alienate the group from the mass than to attract one another. Punk is the perfect extremist romanticism of this sort, seeking to establish attraction through shared repulsion. Here is the most unpop manifestation of pop music and art. It is pop within the confines of the group, and un-pop to the outside. Like un-pop it tends to denigrate what is commercially successful as inherently corrupt. Punk was an instant and final phenomenon. It had no future, and no future is the best weapon against the past. But new wave seemed to be less instant and more present—some of it might be classic, because its attitude is something you can live with; it’s not about to up and change its mind.

An Original Work of Art

Because pop music is a sort of tribal music, it has a lot of virtues that look like problems to the modern world. Classic dance music can be very simple. Certain basic chord progressions are much better than others. Some rhythms work like magic. Before business this worked fine; now, the dancers might dig it, but the lawyers, accountants, and ad men don’t understand. Pop music artists are under tremendous pressure to be innovative. As a result riffs that are perfect, that work like magic, are constantly reworked just to make them different enough. Different enough?

Bright Tunes Music took George Harrison to court over the strong resemblance of “My Sweet Lord” to “He’s So Fine,” and won. Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic came up with an absolutely perfect dance riff when they wrote “Good Times.” It was such a universal sound that it became the standard track for inner city rap artists to rhapsodize to. So it was only natural for the Sugar Hill Gang to use the bass line of “Good Times” for their first record, “Rapper’s Delight,” and it was only natural when that became a number one hit. And when that hit number one it was only natural for Rodgers and Edwards to wonder where their credit and money were, and it was only right when they collected.

Sure, they might have borrowed, but can you blame them? The originals were perfect. The point is that in dance music imitation may not be the sincerest form of flattery, but it is essential. A riff like “Good Times” is like a scientific breakthrough. The natural order of things demands its reuse. Today you can hear the influence of Chic’s discoveries all over the disco part of the radio, but they aren’t getting royalties for it. Pop music is supposed to be repetitive. It’s like jungle telegraph—you pick up the message, add something, perhaps, and pass it on.

Jamaican music has a tremendous communal quality because the cult of originality is not a determining factor in Jamaican culture. Riffs, melodies, and lyrics are recycled constantly, with little or no fear of copyright infringement. If you like something you use it. Sometimes the result is a higher degree of originality. Riffs become communal property, so once they are perfected they aren’t tampered with for the sake of legalities. Records have a long history of reuse in Jamaica. Dance deejays don’t just spin in Jamaica, they entertain, improvising their own vocals to the current hits. With them in mind, singles are produced with the B side a dub version of the A side, “dub” meaning that it’s just the instrumental track leaving space for the deejay to dub in the vocal part. The dub school became a major force in music, creating its own musical style—pop song structures gave way to a more minimal, spacious mix heavy on bass and drums—a deep, echoed time-space continuum. Messages in word, melody, and beat permeated the island, with every artist picking up on them and doing a variation.

Rap music, from Jamaica to New York City, represents a new phase in the development of pop/art music. Here new music is synthesized from entirely “ready-made” music. Rappers, as artists from the audience, have begun to play the music back directly—but changing the playback, rewriting, and rearranging the message.

The most sophisticated use of replay is found in the work of New York’s rap spinners—the prince of whom is Grandmaster Flash. Musicians play and record in reference to “natural time.” Turntable artists make (remake) and record music in reference to “replay time,” a second generation of temporal reference which implicitly refers also to “natural time.”

Music made by instrumentalists responds to the timing and sounds of nature and technology—from breeze to jackhammers, and maybe the 60-cycle flicker, but their music does not usually respond to the mechanism that reproduces it, such as the turntable. Everyone continues to be hypnotized by the illusions of stereo. (Although it rarely fools dogs—that RCA symbol “His Master’s Voice” seems patently untrue by my observations.) But rap spinners have penetrated the veil of stereo supremacy. They crack up the illusion of replay and play with its pieces. They draw inspiration from such areas as the “skipping record,” “off speed,” etc. They break down the linear conventions of music—doing for this art what collage did for the plastic arts and what William Burroughs and Brion Gysin did for literature with their “cut-up” technique. But hey bro, this may be an even more important cutup act. Painting and to a lesser extent narrative are not bound to strict temporal structure. Music is entirely bound up with time: music is a model of time and vice-versa.

The cut-up of the record as performed by Grandmaster Flash frees all in earshot of the hypnotic control of certain conventions, formats, and grooves. Certain of the Flash’s moves, particularly in the replay of a riff (therefore the replay of a replay), create an incredible tension and therefore an incredible relief when he lets the groove go. Some recent tapes of the Flash and some of his wizardly peers, with their funk collages, are the most interesting musical creations of these days. Mix up a little funk, some sound effects records, and lately some spoken word records—from comedy to kiddie—and bang zoom Alice we have an amazing flying tapestry of sound that breaks out of all of the musical bags we’ve been in, like chainsaws through Parkay—butter—Parkay.

Pop art’s first generation came on like a revolution. It came in like a lion, it settled down like a lamb. It proclaimed a unity of fine art and commercial art, it challenged both the cult of the original and the supremacy of painting and sculpture. Then, in a subtle, offhand, but effective way it ended up practicing against what it had preached. Fine artists began to do commercial work at premium rates, though after the original wave few commercial artists were taken into the fine art fold. The original was replaced by the original edition, at even greater profits. And after Happenings most Pop artists went right back to the drawing board and the easel. It was the artists of pop music who managed to succeed in realizing the proclamations of Pop. These musicians made multimedia works with all of the intent, craft, and effect that had formerly characterized significant fine arts. However, these were works that were mass produced, popularly priced, and that reached mass audiences, bridging and finally denying the existence of two separate art worlds, the high and the low.

The increasing internationalism of music has also contributed to closing some gaps. Cultural give and take is broader, deeper and quicker than ever before, and there are more and more common points of identification. All in all it’s getting to be a lot like the music scene in Atlantis before it went bad.

Musicians are making better music and musicians are making better paintings and using more hep and dynamic diction. Painters are playing better piano, dancing more. One discipline refines the other. And finally artists are getting more power, a better piece of the pie than they’ve had in eons. The suffering artist syndrome is coming to be seen as a P.R.-politico-marketing conspiracy foisted on artists to keep them in place. Artists are finding more new places all the time.

It looks as if this experiment is a success—so far so good, anyway. But this success was hard-won; it happened only because it had to. Pop has to stay smart and smart has to stay pop and no more of this clever shit. Remember Atlantis. What goes down must come up.

Glenn O’Brien writes “Glenn O’Brien’s Beat” in Interview magazine and is the producer and host of “TV Party,” which appears on cable television in New York and Los Angeles.