Saturday, August 21, 2010

Staying Power vs. Holding Up

In the mid-1990s a band called The Presidents of the United States America attained as much success as any band could hope for. Coming out of the hot Seattle music scene, albeit with a much different ethos than the original wave of Seattle bands, they managed to put out a platinum album with multiple hit singles, play the late night shows on several occasions, and achieve Grammy nominations two straight years. And by being deemed worthy of a Weird Al parody, they achieved a mark of cultural relevancy. They were an appropriate band for their time-- in some ways their output was just as nihilistic as other Gen X productions, but rather than revel in the dark and depressing implications of this worldview, they simply looked askance at everything and pounded out a series of songs with catchy melodies with ironic lyrics. The bleakest moment on their debut album involved cursing at a cat, and their most radio-friendly chorus declared: "Millions of peaches/peaches for free/millions of peaches/peaches for me" (Incredibly this song, which also contained the lyrics "Peaches come from a can/they were put there by a man/in a factory downtown," got a Grammy nomination for best pop performance, and if not for a new Beatles song that year, might have won the thing).

When we talk about whether an act has "staying power," it is usually done retrospectively, with the benefit of hindsight. Yet even at the height of their popularity, there was a general sense that The Presidents lacked staying power. They rushed out a second album shortly after the first (slapping the Roman numeral II onto their eponymous first record). I remember reading a Rolling Stone review at the time which declared that not only was this a bad record, but that it indicated that the band had nothing more to give. Although it is hard to find a contemporary review on-line, I did find this one from the venerable Yale Herald, which concludes that the best hope for the band is to disappear and come back with a new album that would seem like a debut, finishing with the statement that "otherwise, the charming musicians of PUSA might end up buried by the mountain of Seattle-grunge mimicry they so effectively exploited."

In fact, these prophecies couldn't have been more dead-on. Their next album was a collection of studio scraps called Pure Frosting. They broke up before the turn of the century, then managed to reform and make a couple more low-key records in the next decade, but never again entered the radar screen of Letterman, The Grammys, or Weird Al.

So clearly, this band didn't have staying power. But does that mean that their first album doesn't "hold up"? Technology allows us to live in an archival era, in which media that was originally intended to be ephemeral has been preserved and consumed by audiences that creators never envisioned. And so when you watch a DVD of a television show or movie from a previous generation, or listen to music that was recorded long ago, or even read a reprinted comic book, a question that is often asked is "does this hold up?" This is different than asking about staying power, as something with staying power may not necessarily "hold up"--I think of a band like Kiss, a group with incredible staying power, despite making records which many critics would argue fail to hold up. It should also be pointed out that a certain product may "hold up" even if its producers lacked staying power. To my ears, the first Presidents album still manages to "hold up," even as the band has slipped into obscurity.

But what do people actually mean when they ask if something "holds up"? My theory is that "does this hold up?" is code for "is this embarrassing?" An obvious example would be a movie with poor (by today's standards) special effects, such as when the Kirk Alyn Superman takes off to fly in the 1940s movie serials and suddenly becomes animated (in contrast to the 1978 Christopher Reeve Superman, which holds up pretty well). An ideologically embarrassing portrayal of women or minorities is another patently clear manner in which something could be said to no longer "hold up."

But more problematically, it seems that bygone media is seen as not holding up if it is perceived as lacking the sophistication that we have today. And how do we measure sophistication? Since this is such a fraught appraisal, we often settle for a rather facile evaluation. The more earnest, straightforward, or commercial the narrative and the thematic elements, the less sophisticated it is considered to be, while irony, complexity, and noncommercialism are regarded as marks of sophistication.

But here is where things get dicey: even while perceived sophistication allows a product or element to "hold up," at the very same time it is often prohibitive in the forming of "staying power." The Presidents of the United States of America might have sold a lot of records in their brief time, but even at their apex, they never sold as many T-shirts as Kiss.


Anonymous Tim said...

Not even joking, "Volcano" from II came on my iTunes on shuffle while reading this. It's a decent tune.

2:26 PM  

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