Karibi Dagogo-Jack, MBA Class of 2014
A week after the CMJ music festival, Lou Reed died. Lou Reed was the creator of the stunningly influential proto punk band, the Velvet Underground. Brian Eno once quipped that everyone that bought VU’s first album started a band. Mr. Reed was also a convenient analogy for New York City. His age was clearly etched in his features, but so was his vitality. Like so many of The City’s institutions, he was a disorienting and reassuring blend of permanence and transience. His work often punctuated the simple and stark with moments of florid beauty – like catching Washington Square Park in your periphery. He was New York City, an oxymoron, a contradiction, an enigma.
I’m sure time will be good to his oeuvre (in fact, it already has been), but much of his solo work drunkenly weaves back and forth between holy shit and wholly shit. His 1975 record, Metal Machine Music, remains as the ultimate expression of this instinct for provocation. The album is one hour, four minutes and eleven seconds of manipulated guitar feedback and no words. Distinct patterns in the songs are only concocted by our human apophenia, every person’s tendency to create meaningful connections from random data. Yet, it’s not wrong to call Metal Machine Music excellent or beautiful, particularly when you consider its sly ability to occupy both the background and foreground of a mind. His masterpiece, 1972’s Transformer, contrasts totally with MMM. Transformer is as well-conceived and straightforward an album as any you’ll hear. Your mind has to make no leap to find persuasive melodies all over it. “Perfect Day,” “Walk on the Wild Side,” and “Satellite of Love” are the three songs most often singled out for praise, but don’t allow that to diminish the crunching guitar on “Vicious.”
In the mid-sixties, Mr. Reed’s work with the Velvet Underground helped wrest the center of rock n roll from the sunny West Coast (where bands like the Beach Boys and the Grateful Dead exerted their influence) to grittier confines of New York City. Since then, The City has persisted as the center of US rock. However, even before Mr. Reed’s death, it appeared that New York City had lost its clout. There is no clearer sign of this waning power than the very tepid showing at this year’s CMJ festival.
CMJ, a “music marathon” started in 1980, has long been a major testing ground for emerging rock bands. Bands as diverse as Arcade Fire, TV on the Radio, Justice and First Aid Kit are indebted to the festival for increasing their profile. However, in recent years, breakout acts have been more difficult to find at CMJ. Slowly, South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas has supplanted CMJ as the central festival for discovering the next big thing. Now, many bands no longer make the hajj to NYC to prove their mettle. Instead, they opt to rent a van and schlep it to central Texas. NYC’s decline was inevitable, just as it is inevitable that SXSW, too, will lose its primacy to the disaggregating force of the internet.
The internet is now the great democratizer for media, the major disaggregator of audience. As a result of consumer online behavior, albums have given way to singles and radio and distributors are no longer the sole gatekeepers for commercial success. In fact, commercial success itself has been redefined by the internet. One million Twitter followers and two hundred thousand in album sales is much more lucrative than two hundred thousand followers and one million records sold. It is easier now for an artist to carve out their own little corner of influence than it has ever been. The power centers are disappearing.
Lou Reed is dead.