A brief history of idiots in popular music

A brief history of idiots in popular music

Makes No Sense At All captures the visions, ramblings, and memories of Chris Strouth, a Twin Cities-bred master of music, film, and everything else.

I taught college for about seven years, and yes, I also find this fact surprising. The main class I taught was, more often than not, the first class a student would take. It started as a production economics class, but really it was an introduction to the arts and entertainment industry. Every new quarter, I would start by coming in blaring the Velvet Underground's "We're Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together" and writing in large, nearly illegible lettering, "We are all idiots."

Arguably it's a bit of hard swallow to an 18-year-old on his first day of college, but then that's sort of the point. Seriously, had someone on my first day of college told me that I would screw up, and screw up often, I don't know that I would have worried about it so much. Then came a rather long explanation of what exactly my scrawling meant. Only by realizing that we know nothing can we begin to learn anything.

Granted, there are some severely negative connotations for the word "idiot," but it finds its origins in from the Greek ἰδιώτης, idiōtēs ("person lacking professional skill," "a private citizen," "individual"), and from ἴδιος, idios ("private," "one's own"). From the Latin word idiota ("ordinary person, layman"), the related word "idiocy" dates to 1487 and may have been based on the words "prophet" and "prophecy." None of which are all that bad. Really an idiotism is not such a bad deal; it worked out pretty well for Azathoth and it was blind too, of course being a god as well as fictional probably made that easier. 

What is sort of funny is that "idiots" and Christ figures go sort of hand in hand: from Chance the gardener in the sublime Being There to the father of all idiots, Prince Myshkin of Dostoevsky's The Idiot, which you most likely haven't read or thought about since sophomore year of college. The basic plot surrounds a young Russian prince who leaves a clinic in Switzerland where he was being treated for epilepsy and "idiocy." He comes to St. Petersburg, where he gets involved with a bunch of people, and it all ends rather badly. Seriously, you can't summarize that book into anything close to a couple of sentences. The big takeaway is Myshkin is naive in his approach to life -- frank and open -- and when a person with that approach gets confronted by society he essentially destroys himself.

Then there is the Iggy Pop take on The Idiot. I know, I think it's sort of weird that Iggy Pop named a record after a classic of Russian literature, but there you go. It's sort of the prequel to the Bowie/Berlin trilogy of Low, Heroes, and Lodger, but minus Brian Eno and with a lot more, you know, heroin. That said, it's a surprisingly coherent record, given that his previous record was with the Stooges, Raw Power, a crossfire hurricane of a record that hit America while "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree" and "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" topped the charts.

Iggy Pop's The Idiot is more of a short-story collection than a novel. It feels like Raw Power turning into refined power. This is one of those records that launched a thousand bands, including Joy Division -- to the point that when Ian Curtis hanged himself, this was the record that was still playing on the turntable. True to idiot fashion it was also a bit of a commercial failure, though "China Girl" and "Nightclubbing" would go on to be era-defining hits for David Bowie and Grace Jones respectively. Iggy is sort of the inverse of Prince Myshkin, though if he were epileptic it would explain the rolling around on broken glass.

It's also the other side of the idiot equation when society encounters an idiot and sees untold depths in shallow pools. Daniel Johnston and Jandek, I'm talking to you. Again, I don't mean this as an insult. Both artists can take you to some amazing places, but they don't necessarily do it because they meant to. It's more like when a kid does something amazing that you never thought of before, simply because they didn't know there were rules -- which of course there aren't. It's that naivety that shows us the real truths otherwise hidden by naked emperors.


Then there is American Idiot. I am talking about the Green Day album as opposed to the Green Day musical. I'll be honest, I tried to listen to the score from and quickly found myself wanting to stab my speakers. Not that it's awful, but it's taking a record I really love and making it into Rent. It's the same logic that says: "Hey, musicals are good, cop shows are good" and then makes Cop Rock.

The album, on the other hand, is pretty brilliant. It's the last gasp of a great from the college era. Green Day was the band we could all agree on -- like Neil Diamond, only angry and with spikier hair. They were going for Who-style concept, and got it with production that's so slick that it could be a Rod Stewart record, but instead of undercutting the message it gives it a sheen of irony that makes the punch all the harder.

Look at the second chorus: "Don't want to be an American idiot/ One nation controlled by the media/ Information age of hysteria/ It's calling out to idiot America." This isn't high poetry. When you read it, it looks like it should be followed by a chant of "Eat the Rich and Feed the Poor." Top that with a sound that launched a thousand Guitar Center employees; it just shouldn't work, but it does. It became a portrait of late-'90s fourth and fifth generation kids: bored, angry, and looking for a revolution that's not going to take away from video games.  In a lot of ways the record is an idiot itself. The truths it shows us aren't always the ones that it intended to tell. 

That's sort of the idiot's job description -- inadvertent teller of truths. I am OK being an idiot; I have no idea if what I create resonates with the audience. As it was intended, once it leaves me that's no longer my business. Ondine, a Warhol "star" from the '60s, said something like, "We just make this shit up, it's up to you to figure out what it means." Wise words, spoken by an idiot. Shakespeare ends Macbeth's final solioqouy with this line: "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." If that doesn't describe pop music, then what does?

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