Church of the Latter Day Denominators

By dean

     Squeezing through the window pane, bypassing the rope entirely, I managed to save the boy from drowning in the house filled with Pepsi. And a thought occurred to me which -- to put it lightly -- made babies cry, skewed orbits, caused rabbits to fall on nearby rooftops, and quietly suggested to women that they should clutch their bosoms with fear and adulation: does anybody really like Lenny Kravitz?

     Let me phrase that a different way: does anybody really like Lenny Kravitz (sorry, not very good at rephrasing)? Sure he's got the mainstream's eye. He sells Levi's. He shows up in unfunny Saturday Night Live skits. Odds are if you hung out in the middle of a college campus and offered free posters of his, they'd be gone in a relatively short period of time. But scientific studies should be taken to determine if anybody actually -- voluntarily -- puts a Lenny Kravitz album on and:

  1. rocks out
  2. doesn't rock out
  3. chooses a song that's not "Are You Gonna Go My Way?"
  4. get on the computer to check out the latest updates to while pondering the most expedient solution to stop the desk from wiggling

     It's a modern phenomenon, one which should be in those Time Life books or Robert Stack television programs, something to confound media scholars like Gordion's Cube, Rubix's Knot, or Scholarly Confounding Media Things. There are certain musicians in our world that seem to reach such a nebulous status that it's nearly impossible to explain how so many people can nod along with quick album buys or agreeable name-checks yet still not really care what that person does for a living. Try it. Go to a local Tower records or H.O.R.D.E. festival -- actually, don't -- and ask any white male between the ages of sperm and 70 if they like Lenny Kravitz. Invariably, didactic sermons consisting of phrases like "kick ass," "cool shades," or "the shit" (not to be confused with the localized varieties, "some" or "total") will be expressed forthwith. Next, ask them their favourite albums and odds are they'll say something along the lines of "the one with a picture of him on the cover." Therein lies paradox: widespread appreciation for someone who could very well grow a hive out of his dreds and become a Syd Barrettian hermit for the next 20 years without a single person stopping to notice.

     Obviously, this occurrence can be spotted in many different forms in the musical landscape, not just the mainstream favourites. Sure there are those Lenny Kravitzs or Sublimes or Jay-Zs, but it also happens within the borders of critical credibility. Approach the average indie fan and I'm sure they could spout off all sorts of Magnet reviews they stayed up late memorizing involving the Spector-esque ironies of Stephin Merritt, the raspy soul-crunches of Tom Waits, the lazy, nu-world psychedelia of The Beta Band, or the soaring singer-songwriter hymns of Starsailor. But does anybody -- latched onto sobriety -- actually drop the needle on one of these records on purpose? Be honest. Take away the journalistic intellectualism, the impress-your-friends factor, the deep-rooted personal insecurities, and in those private, intense moments, with no TV, no books, no computer, nobody within miles of earshot -- observe how much one really loves those records. It's some strange sort of, not so much lowest, but maybe middle common denominator, that creates this particular brand of Kravitz effect in so many interesting ways. Mediocrity is one thing. This is more of an inbred cousin of the beast. Yes, I said beast.

     It's as if musicians scrap and starve trying to do everything right in hopes to earn appreciation on such a wide scale -- financially or critically -- that they fail to realize that they fail to truly connect with the overwhelming majority of their audiences. And while this isn't exactly a revolutionary idea, it's still curious; even moreso with the seemingly increasing amount of middle-common-denominators and dubiously-inserted semi-colons. From this moment on, it's possible to look up towards the grand idol of Lenny Kravitz as a symbol for everything that is mild, respected, well-liked, and completely ineffectual. "Pulling a Kravitz" does not just have to imply groinal injury, it can now concisely describe when a Creative Person (Tm.) has reached their peak of contradiction: simultaneous popularity and indifference.


     Addendum: not only does this month's column mark a two year anniversary here -- I can sense the admiration -- but I'm writing this during Conan O'Brien's game attempt at making SNL humorous. The latest skit just featured a trail of badly-impersonated latter day "one-hit wonders," the oddest of the bunch being Jimmy Fallon's caricature of Neil Tennant from the Pet Shop Boys. Now, I'm far from a stand-on-the-parapet fan of the group but it does say something about the musical culture when a band with eight albums, half a dozen or so greatest hits compilations, a growing musical, and 50 some odd singles (a new one set to be released this very month) is seen by the glare of the mainstream as a disposable, and momentarily lucky, bunch of hacks.