8 July 2000
When is a guitar not a guitar? Why, when it’s a cock. Throughout this extraordinary book, Ruth Padel suffers from a kind of metaphoric mania: nothing is allowed simply to be what it is. We are told many times that “performing on guitar, the core act of rock, is whipping out your cock”. What Padel doesn’t try to explain is why so many musicians beat themselves up trying to learn guitar in the first place, if they could just be whipping out their cocks to the same effect.
Padel’s avowed project is to examine how the sexuality and theatricality of rock music owes its structural roots to Greek myth. Unfortunately the case of such a link is never argued, merely gestured at. Either we are to take on faith the assumption that Greek myth “underpins our own imagination”; or the claimed connection is so banal as to be meaningless: “Like myth, [rock music] is amazingly transformative”; “Like Greek myth, pop song is about relationships”. The whole book is written in a spatchcocked, febrile prose, a nauseous fusion of the overheated and the blankly demotic. Music “is brilliant at making things feel natural,” Padel chirrups meaninglessly; Greek tragedy is “like a Lloyd-Webber musical”.
Early on, Padel’s claim that she is raiding the myth-kitty for its “patterns of feeling” alerts the reader to the fact that her approach is blissfully anachronistic: a Greek would have had no idea what “patterns of feeling” could possibly be, and he certainly would have been baffled to be told that, for example, his society was “mercilessly racist”. Padel’s readings of the myths of Aphrodite, Narcissus, Eros, Hephaestus and so on (weirdly, she mostly prefers their Roman names) are filtered through a Vaseline-smeared lens of pseudo-Freudianism, the better to rope them in to serving her ready-made theories of sex’n'violence.
Such panting Graecocentrism causes two major problems. The first is that Padel cannot acknowledge the wide variety of non-Greek influences on rock music. From the ludic occultism of late-1960s heavy rock, to the Norse myth, medievalism and cod-Wagnerianism of prog-rock and heavy metal, as parodied in Spinal Tap’s wonderful “druids” spiel: popular music has enjoyed many more narrative forebears than those from ancient Athenian religion. Also absent is discussion of any popular-music tradition outside Anglo-American rock: the French tradition of chanson, for instance, typified by a rumpled, crooning Serge Gainsbourg. And if rock music really does grow out of Greek myth, it is perhaps surprising that the only pop star modern Greece has given to the world is Nana Mouskouri, a folky, bespectacled woman who, as far as I know, never once got her cock out on stage.
Secondly, the decision to try to force absolutely anything into one Greek template or another leads to gross simplifications. One of Padel’s favourite explanatory myths is that of Hephaestus the blacksmith and Prometheus, the renegade Titan. Just as Prometheus stole a spark of fire from the blind god’s forge, Padel trills, so the white man stole the creativity of black blues music in order to make rock’n'roll.
It’s a nice image, but it depends on a slew of lazy clichés about “black music” that Padel never attempts to unpack. When Padel cites “black music”, it is uncertain whether she means African-American popular song, one of the many distinctive musics of the African continent itself, or yet other different traditions of Polynesia and elsewhere. Yet she happily repeats the old musicological canards. One is that African Americans “challenged Western harmony” by inventing the “blue note”, yet such fractional intervals occur as far afield as in Scandinavian folk music and Renaissance British popular song. White rock musicians were apparently “plundering the alien sophistication of Afro-American rhythm”, yet the meat-and-potatoes rock backbeat is worlds away from, say, the polyrhythms of tribal music from western Sudan.
Padel supplies a couple of excellently researched chapters about racism in rock and its orientalist substructure, whereby the black man is patronised as the fount of sexual and musical creativity. When Muddy Waters sang “I’m a man”, she notes perceptively, it was a political statement, in a context of Southern racism, as well as a claim to sexual and musical prowess. But Padel’s own approach is itself fundamentally orientalist. “Soul music,” she writes, “could only have been black. Its voice *is* feeling, with the physicality as intense as possible: both coming from the sacredness endemic to black music and the community it expresses.”
This is a well-meaning yet nonetheless profoundly patronising sentence, implying as it does that black musicians are mere automata of “feeling” and “physicality”. They do it by instinct rather than design, don’t you know? -which is exactly the sort of response that Padel herself deplores when she writes about white audiences thrilling to Duke Ellington’s “jungle” jazz. And in what way might “sacredness” be more “endemic” to “black music” than it is, say, to Western polyphonic church music? We’ll never know.
The history of 20th-century popular music is a far more complex web of borrowings and creative thefts than Padel’s Prometheus envy allows her to admit. Of course, Jagger and Richard rewrote blues classics, and Paul Simon and David Byrne have shamelessly raided African musics, yet contemporary black hip-hop and garage, for example, would never have existed without the electronic template laid down by white German musicians Kraftwerk: a fact that Padel acknowledges, but doesn’t allow to spoil her argument.
Padel’s totemisation of “black music” also infects her discussion of “misogyny” in rock, in which she concentrates almost exclusively on smutty white heavy-metal bands. Yet if the adolescent yelps of dumb desire in the music of Led Zeppelin or Van Halen are to be decried as misogynistic, what does one say of the explicit narrations of sexual degradation and physical violence towards women that characterises gangsta rap, most of whose stars are black men? If you are Ruth Padel, you simply cling to the interesting but hardly extenuating circumstance that the audience for such music is mainly white. David Lee Roth, one-time frontman with Van Halen, is excoriated for consorting voraciously with female groupies, yet Jimi Hendrix, just as insatiable, is merely displaying “an innocently baroque gusto”. Innocently baroque? Best not go there.
I’m a Man is a book about rock music that, in common with many less spurtily bizarre examples of its genre, has almost nothing to say about music. When Padel riffs on “violence” in rock (Eros and Mars, natch), she fails to distinguish precisely between actual violence that happens around music (Altamont), violent lyrical content, and some vague way in which the music itself might be enacting violence.
But is heavy metal really more “violent” than, say, The Rite of Spring? Is rock music in general really more heavily laden with “fierce ideology” than the use of Wagner during the Third Reich, than Beethoven’s soaring paean to the French Revolution? Padel doesn’t address such questions, and she lacks the musical apparatus to notice that heavy metal, with its gleeful tinsel of arpeggios and grandiose diminished-chord progressions, is just as indebted to baroque and early classical music as it is to African-American blues.
Heavy metal, Padel thinks, sounds like “menacing metallic destruction, evoking machine-like killing”. Actually, I’d suggest quite the opposite. Heavy metal, a mainly working-class genre today, is often – as with the epically amplified protest group Rage Against the Machine, the true heirs of Dylan – a radical appropriation of machinic noise with which its musicians forge something lithe, rebellious and passionately humanist, something overtly political to which its alienated fans can cleave. Such artists really might be said to be the sons of Prometheus. Sadly, Padel’s book is so cock-obsessed that she cannot see beyond her favoured image of men playing only with themselves.