you give love a bad name

September 9, 2009

“We’re more popular than Jesus now,” John Lennon once famously said about the Beatles, talking in an interview about their popularity in relation to that long dead and long-haired holy figure who so many people worshipped and loved way back when, and, you know, it’s kind of weird that that quote he gave back then works just as well now, today, in much the same way, actually, except of course that now we’re not talking about life, like John was back then, now we’re talking about video games, about simulations of life, and when we talk about Jesus today, we’re not talking about the Christian guy who was killed by the Romans in 30 AD and was worshipped by many people long after his death, we’re talking about Kurt Cobain, the rock Jesus who died in 1994 for your collective cultural sins or maybe just because he was really depressed and sad but either way has been long worshipped by many people in his absence and has just now been digitally resurrected in Guitar Hero 5, this video game where you can choose to play as Cobain (as well as other dead gods like Johnny Cash and Jimi Hendrix), where you’re able to reanimate his body and make him do what thou wilt, make his fingers make miracles on the strings and cause his virtual voice to scream out in tortured melody once again and it’s like in that song about a personal Jesus where the chorus goes “reach out and touch faith” except now we touch our faith by pressing plastic buttons on a fake guitar to make your grungy savior move his digital flannel-clad arm in a certain pre-programmed pattern,

and yet Kurt Cobain’s recent second coming in Guitar Hero 5, however monumental and important an event in the history of music simulation that it may well be, has of course been completely overshadowed by the contemporaneous release of another video game, The Beatles: Rock Band, the carefully choreographed resurrection of the Fab Four, this new video game for all popular platforms in which you can inhabit the body of John, Paul, George, or Ringo and “be” them as they “play” their songs, and the thing is, John was right about Jesus, this Beatles game is definitely more popular than Guitar Hero with its Cobain and Cash, it’s a huge commercial and cultural event which Fimoculous recently joked has gotten “more press than Ted Kennedy’s funeral,” a statement which seems (sadly) true but which also seems pretty natural, since rebirth is a much more hopeful and fun “lighter side” story than death and this summer of death of ours has been so long and draining that maybe the programmers and editors of the mass media are deciding we need a change in the narrative, that maybe we can have a new theme, that ours can be a fall of resurrection,

but maybe that’s not true and maybe these new fall games aren’t about renewal and growth in anything other than the fiscal and economic senses of those words, maybe instead they represent the fall, the fall from grace of something vital and important in the culture, the fall and the possible loss of something, like, I’ve noticed a lot of people have expressed feeling creeped out or offended or disturbed by the sight of the digital Kurt Cobain in the new Guitar Hero game, personally hurt by the sight of their once and fallen king risen again in his new, strange artificial skin, this figure of Him painted from light in a box in the center of the living room, and of course the Bible has an awful lot to tell us about “false idols” and “graven images” and how bad they are and in many ways this seems to apply to the new Kurt, even if his Daniel Johnston t-shirt is very well and accurately rendered, there’s something just not quite right about him that goes beyond the uncanny valley, even, like there’s this joke video going around the internet of the digital Him on a virtual stage singing, among other things, “You Give Love a Bad Name” by Bon Jovi, like in the video a skeleton is playing the drums and Kurt is standing in front of him at the mic howling those cheesy lyrics about you giving love a bad name and even though I’ve never personally loved (or even really liked) Nirvana or idolized Kurt this video just feels wrong somehow, sacrilegious, like the stupidest fringe of “experimental” art where people think creating an object just to be “controversial” is in this day and age a worthwhile or innovative pursuit, I remember when I was a senior in high school I considered myself for a brief period of time to be a “conceptual artist” and I remember that I was at the time “offended” by the Catholic church’s stance on contraception, not that I was having sex with anyone Catholic or otherwise at the time or anything, but that anyway, because of my “beliefs,” I once did an art project in which I took a big grocery store balloon and punched a lot of tiny holes in it, all over its surface, and then I put one of those Virgin of Guadalupe candles inside and surrounded the thing with a package’s worth of wrinkled up Magnums which were supposed to be like flowers around a grave, I called my “piece” the “Holy Condom” and (obviously) it was really pretty stupid, it maybe might’ve been better if I could’ve lit the candle so that the light would shine out through the holes but that probably would’ve burned the balloon and started a fire and I couldn’t figure out how to not burn it and not start a fire, I had no craft ability and wasn’t really much of an artist, “conceptual” or otherwise,

but luckily back when I was a senior in high school I had other hobbies besides conceptual art, one of them being playing the electric guitar very badly, a hobby that I had started my junior year of high school when my family moved to a different state and I had to start at a different school and I wanted to be someone and something different, and I wasn’t different, of course, but playing guitar allowed me to feel like I was, at least, and the first riff I learned to play on my first guitar on the night that I got it was the Beatles’ “Day Tripper,” it was written in out in the little booklet that came with my crappy ten watt amp-and-Strat-copy combo package, I used the overly thick pick and plucked at the big bass strings and, after what felt like a lot of practice, I could do it, I could play the intro riff, it was amazing, and then a little later I realized all I could do was play the intro riff and that I couldn’t actually go anywhere in the actual song or sing along or add the other parts but honestly I didn’t care so much, it was enough for me just to be able to play this little thing on the guitar which didn’t really feel little at all at the time, I remember the second riff I learned was, of course, “Satisfaction,” and I remember after I got it down, I played it for my dad, unamplified, and he said, “That’s pretty good, when are you going to learn the rest of the song?” and I looked at him kind of crestfallen and horrified, since I had believed in my musical ignorance that this was the whole song, that the riff was all I needed, and as time passed and I played more and got better and could do whole songs, I tried to learn, of course, Beatles songs, and the Beatles songs I liked best were complex enough that they were always really hard for me to play and sing, honestly I still can’t play some of them in the “right” way to this day, but I tried to play them anyway, because, well, because the kind of teenager who really loves The Beatles is the kind of teenager who picks up a guitar and plays their songs in tribute, in worship, in communion,

or at least this was once true but I worry that things are becoming different, now, with the Beatles Rock Band and Guitar Hero 5 and all of the games like them, that some or a lot of “kids these days” will stop picking up real guitars because they’re too busy with their fake ones, that they’re being trained by the games to believe that simulated happiness and simulated expression are just as good as the real thing, or, if not just as good, then “good enough,” and easier and faster to enjoy, anyway, and that kind of worries me on a pretty deep level, this simplification, this translation, it’s like the way the King James version of Romans 12:9 begins “Let your love be without dissimulation” and then this statement is smoothed out and dumbed down in the New International Version, in which the verse is rendered, simply, “Love must be sincere,” and you know, it really loses something from the one translation to the next, it does, something important and true, like in the King James, there is the elegant and personal character of that phrase “Let your love _____” and then the chewy beauty of that big and strange word “dissimulation,” but then in the NIV version, all that is gone and it’s not really poetry anymore, I don’t think, it’s just a rule, it’s just a pop song platitude like “all you need is love” or some bullshit like that, Campbell’s chicken soup for the soul that has no meat in it, just picked over bones, and all in all I am left with the feeling that something significant has been lost and that people aren’t noticing it and they’re forgetting how things once were,

in John 1:14, the coming of Christ into the world is described as “the Word…made flesh” and in a way, this is how as a musician playing a cover of a song you love works, too, like there is the word (the text of the song) which is like a promise, this promise of beauty that you make real by playing it aloud with your hands and your voice, with the will of your body and mind, this promise you keep by caring enough about it and giving enough of yourself to make it sound and ring and sing, and with regard to this, I kind of think that games like Guitar Hero are false promises, bad faith experiences, because they let people feel something like they’re being creative without having to do any of the difficult and long and soulful work that it very often takes to truly create something, not that playing a cover song is always entirely “creative,” as anyone who has heard an acoustic rendition of the song “Wonderwall” can certainly attest, but when you’re a musician playing a cover song it very often leads you off in different and unknown directions, you see how two chords work together and you want to find a third, you start unconsciously humming a melody over those harmonies which before did not exist, you begin to make something of your own that you can be proud of, and you just can’t have that same creative experience with The Beatles:Rock Band, I don’t think, and it seems redolent of this kind of scary change in the culture as a whole, you know, like in the sixties people who tore their minds apart with drugs talked about getting to “the next level” but they were talking about something serious, about reaching inside themselves to find essential and important things about consciousness and knowledge and the soul, they weren’t talking about getting blazed and eating Doritos and unlocking another playable character in Guitar Hero 5, not that drugs are (always or ever) great teaching tools that actually let you get to these higher levels and not that there weren’t people in the sixties just as lazy and stupid as people today, but still, the one thing seems so shallow compared to the other,

and maybe I’m wrong about all this, maybe I’m just bitter because even though I play and record rock music on multiple instruments almost every single day and have done so for years and years, I’m absolutely horrible at all these “rock band” games and I don’t want them to be popular because I’m not good at them, like I remember the first time I played Guitar Hero, at a “party,” my college roommate, who had no musical talent at all (once, at the guitar store with me and our other roommate, he asked the teller, completely seriously, how you could tell what key a particular kazoo was in) completely and totally schooled me at the game in front of a decent sized crowd of people and I was embarrassed so maybe I am just kind of bitter about this, annoyed that my real talents don’t translate into the virtual world, and, you know, maybe I’m wrong about all of these music video games and am just being totally silly and fogeyish, not open enough and appropriately receptive to new wonders and innovation and changes to the world, there are examples of people with similar attitudes being completely wrong throughout the history of popular music, like the obvious one I can think of (besides the stupid demonization of the synthesizer) is when Bob Dylan picked up an electric guitar and started jamming with his band at the Newport Folk Festival and he suddenly wasn’t the hero of his time anymore, the crowd hated him, they called him “Judas” and threw things and spit and screamed, but he kept playing and went on to show them that he was right, he made the best music of his career with that electric guitar, much better than the earlier stuff, in my opinion at least, and so I can appreciate that maybe the concerns I have about the difference between Rock Band and a rock band are wrong and stupid but I have them anyway, I’m still concerned, and though I am not generally a conservative or a traditionalist in most matters cultural or otherwise, though I don’t consider myself a “rockist” or belong to any church of that sort, really, my feeling is that we are losing something vital with all this dissimulation that we’re doing, with all this “playing,” and that even if a genuine love of music is involved in all these musical simulations, as it really does seem to be, that the love we’re taking is not equal to the love we’re making and that, before it’s too late, we should try if we can to get back, get back, get back to where we once belonged, that this is the only way we’ll be saved.

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