The first thing I did this morning, as I started running around using the car to do banal errands (e.g., recycling, purchasing stamps, etc.), was to turn on the radio. First up after the commercial break was the Guess Who’s “American Woman,” a song that time has proved to be as dull as the errands I was performing: Nothing dates faster than lyrics intended to shock. The album American Woman was released in 1970, i.e., during the Vietnam War Era. I was in high school. There are some good songs on the album, but “American Woman” isn’t one of them. The song’s political “message,” with its references to “war machines” and “ghetto scenes,” was so painfully obvious that even a sophomore in high school could “get it,” thus proving the fact that when you take up politics and seek to be politically correct, you end up making forgettable music. Indeed, most politically correct music is bad: John Lennon & the Plastic Ono Band’s “Cold Turkey” is musically quite powerful; “Woman Is the Nigger of the World” is quite the opposite. So is “Give Peace a Chance,” now nothing more than a quaint museum piece, a historical artifact. The lesson? John Lennon assumed that his ideas were more important than his music.
By way of analogy, think of the movies Jean-Luc Godard made under the auspices of “The Dziga Vertov Group,” e.g., La gai savoir (1969), Wind from the East (1970), British Sounds (1970). These films were then, as they are now, tedious and boring, and the only ones interested in screening them at all are Godard scholars, obligated to watch everything. The irony is, when he paid attention to his art, to aesthetics, Godard was far more subversive—think of the “revolution” in cinema caused by Breathless (1960), historically important, still watchable, and a film that altered the course of world cinema. It’s far more memorable than anything he made during the Dziga Vertov period.
Well over thirty years ago, in 1975, Lester Bangs wrote an article lamenting the rather undistinguished careers of the individual Beatles in the 1970s, and he pinpointed what happened to them quite well. He wrote:
What made the Beatles initially so exciting and sustained them for so long was that they seemed to carry themselves with a good humored sense of style which was (or appeared to be) almost totally unselfconscious. They didn’t seem to realize that they were in the process of becoming institutionalized, and that was refreshing. By the time they realized it the ball game was over. In this sense, Rubber Soul (in packaging) and Revolver (in content as well) can be seen as the transitional albums. They doped it up and widened their scopes through the various other tools they had access to at the time just like everybody else down to the lowliest fringe-dripping cowlicked doughboy in the Oh Wow regiment, and the result was that they saw their clear responsibility as cultural avatars in what started out as a virtual vacuum (nice and clean, though), which of course ruined them. (Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader, p. 45)
In other words, acute self-consciousness is the enemy of any artist, but what’s worse is taking yourself too seriously and over-estimating your cultural significance. When the music is no longer as important as the message, it’s all over.