Sunday, January 17, 2010


According to John Tobler’s This Day In Rock (Carroll & Graf, 1993), Led Zeppelin’s first album (cover pictured) was released 41 years ago today, on 17 January 1969, during the band’s first American tour. Other sources, however, aver it was released a few days earlier, on 12 January. Perhaps the release dates for the album were different in Britain and America, but in any case the lack of positivistic certainty regarding the album's release date is as elusive as the music the band played—what is it? Led Zeppelin’s music has often been characterized as “heavy metal”—but what is that? Heavy metal as idea, heavy metal as product, heavy metal as mass phenomenon—which one is heavy metal? It has often been observed that Led Zeppelin was to the Seventies what the Beatles were to the Sixties, and there may be some truth to this claim, assuming one believes that the history of rock is the history of a few moments of genuine authentic expression that quickly deteriorates into what might be called “commercial” imitations employing a similar sound—e.g., Led Zeppelin devolves into Heart.

Perhaps there is another way to conceptualize the band’s music. As Ingeborg Hoesterey has observed (Pastiche: Cultural Memory in Art, Film, Literature, 2001), the term “pastiche” is often used in a negative sense, but the term can be understood more positively. While her study is predominantly interested in the visual arts, she does touch briefly on popular music, observing, “pastiche structuration has been a feature of innovative popular music for more than a decade, registered for the most part under different labels” (p. 112). Her use of the term “pastiche” in this context refers to the conflation or mixing of different kinds of music, the creation of “impure” blends including “funk-rap-rock,” “hiphop/techno/jungle,” “country and hiphop,” “Afro-Celtic,” “Afro-Pop,” “Ethno-Punk,” and so on (p. 113). Whatever one wishes to call it—“hard rock,” “heavy metal,” rock-infused blues and folk—Led Zeppelin’s music was pastiche—a flagrant, ostentatious borrowing from the musical archive of Western culture. A conceptually elusive term, the term pastiche rather obviously has fuzzy boundaries, overlapping with a number of other aesthetic categories. I have extracted of few of these categories from Hoesterey’s book and used them below. The term pastiche overlaps with a number of semantic categories, and I have listed only a few of them here, for purposes of illustration.

Appropriation – A term that gained widespread use in the eighties to stress the “intentionality of the act of borrowing and the historical attitude of the borrower” (p. 10). In the Sixties, the blues, along with folk, came to represent authenticity, what Simon Frith has labelled the widespread perception of “music-as-expression” (as opposed to “music-as-commodity”). White blues musicians considered African-American music as “authentic,” an outpouring of genuine feeling, and authenticity was defined by closeness to the blues. To play authentically, therefore, was to play the blues. Among other kinds of music, Led Zeppelin appropriated the blues, primarily electrified Chicago blues. While “Chicago blues” most certainly was the effect of industrialization (requiring an industry and circulation), Led Zeppelin appropriated the music of Chicago blues artists such as Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf, sometimes without the proper attribution of authorship (e.g., “How Many More Times”). Of course, the music industry had exploited the music of Afro-Americans for commercial profit since the jazz era—it literally banked on their music . . . as did the members of Led Zeppelin. For how appropriation is linked to imitation, see below.

Bricolage – The bricoleur describes a “creative persona who draws his/her work upon heterogeneous models and sources” (p. 10). A number of sources claim Led Zeppelin incorporated rockabilly, reggae, soul, funk, classical, Celtic, Indian, Arabic, pop, Latin, and country. Hence the band members can be considered legitimate bricoleurs.

Farrago – “One of the meanings of pasticcio [from which the French-language word pastiche comes] in common Italian is ‘mental confusion’” (p. 12). Hence the origin of Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused,” a farrago.

Imitation – “The basic structure of pastiche is a degree of imitation. What happens beyond this determines the artistic sense of both the traditional and postmodern pastiche” (p. 12). The band’s first album includes a cover of Otis Spann’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby" and the aforementioned “How Many More Times” first recorded by Howlin' Wolf. It also is worth mentioning that in their stage performance Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, to use Krin Gabbard's phrase (Black Magic: White Hollywood and African American Culture, 2004), were “borrowing black masculinity,” that is, imitating the performance styles of the black artists they admired. Gabbard cites John Gennari on the subject of the white male appropriation of black masculinity, suggesting that it “operates through gender displacement, i.e., sexual freedom and carefree abandon . . . [being] . . . expressed through feminized gestures (emotion, flamboyance, etc.) that, paradoxically, end up coded as masculine. I think here of Elvis's hair styling . . . Mick Jagger's striptease . . . the spandex, long-hair, girlish torsos of the cock rockers. To try to get this point across to my students, I show footage of . . . Robert Plant and Jimmy Page talking about how everything they did came out of Willie Dixon and other macho black bluesmen. Then you see them aggressively pelvic thrusting through “Whole Lotta Love,” looking like Cher and Twiggy on speed.” (Gabbard, Black Magic p. 33)

Refiguration – The art of refiguration “takes formal elements of past styles, and brings them forward into a contemporary context, resulting in a sometimes disquieting synthesis of past form and present context” (pp. 12-13) Led Zeppelin’s extraordinarily loud, spacey and druggy refiguration of the Chicago blues might in fact be what is meant by the term “heavy metal.”

No comments: