January 31, 2013

(+++) POP GOES THE CULTURE


Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven and Hell with Black Sabbath. By Tony Iommi. Da Capo. $16.

One Direction: A Year with One Direction. Harper. $10.99.

      It goes without saying that pop stars garner an inordinate amount of attention in the United States, whether or not they actually contribute much of anything to public discourse or matters of significant import. Actually, they get plenty of attention worldwide, not necessarily because of the quality of anything they do but because of their distraction quotient: many are popular precisely because they, like sports teams, give people something on which to focus other than the rituals and ruts of daily life. There is an old saying that academic politics is so vicious precisely because it is so unimportant. Similarly, the constant focus on the ins and outs of pop culture attracts so much attention because, really, it does not mean anything. And this is true both for adults and for kids. Fans of Black Sabbath are the intended audience for Tony Iommi’s chronological memoir, Iron Man, which chronicles the ups and downs of the group in totally expected and absolutely unexceptional ways. Yes, there was drug abuse. Yes, there were marital and interpersonal traumas. Yes, there was alcohol aplenty. Yes, there were accusations that group members were Satanists (does that really surprise anybody?). Yes, there were issues of loyalty to the band, management and scheduling problems, the exit of Ozzy Osbourne. Yes, there were instances of the sort of bizarre behavior that keeps people’s attention riveted on pop figures who seem to feel the need to live up to the reputation they want to have: Osbourne catching a shark when fishing from a hotel window and dismembering it in the room’s bathtub, Iommi himself repeatedly setting fire to drummer Bill Ward’s beard.  There is little real-world connection here: “We met with lawyers and accountants. That got boring because we weren’t into that stuff at all.” Well, duh. And “I could go on endlessly and just play on and on, until I didn’t know what was good and what wasn’t anymore.” Well, duh, again. As for the history of the time when Black Sabbath was big, there are comments such as this about performing in Russia: “It was just at the time when they were pulling down all the statues of Lenin. The country hadn’t opened up yet; there wasn’t a McDonald’s or anything at that point.” The whole book is written at this level of superficiality, providing minimal insight into history, the band, or, lest we forget, music. It is a for-fans-only production laced with nostalgia for heavy metal and those who produced it. Nothing wrong with that at all; nothing particularly important about it, either.

      Nor is history likely to care much about One Direction and the other 21st-century boy-band groups of its ilk. But so what? The groups’ young fans care now, and now is all that matters in a “100% official” book such as A Year with One Direction.  The members of the fresh-faced, well-scrubbed fivesome (whose cover pictures make a very interesting contrast with Iommi’s) are seen and heard here in “exclusive new photos and interviews,” posing charmingly in group as well as individual pictures, with text such as: “You know One Direction love their fans because…they worry about their fans getting soaked in the rain when waiting for them…they would totally date a fan.”  There is a quiz here: “What kind of Directioner are you?”  There is a “Style File,” with the note, “No one does style like One Direction.”  There are profundities such as this from Niall, who is asked if fame is as he imagined it would be: “Yes and no. It’s much harder work than it’s made out to be.” (Iommi says something similar in his book: “Being in a band isn’t all fun, it’s bloody hard.”) And there is this revelation from Zayn: “I’m double-jointed in my thumb.”  And a big surprise from Louis: “Our diets are not great – we often go for the fast food option.”  Actually, though, the words are likely to be mostly irrelevant to the target audience for this book, since the fans will probably prefer to ogle the photos and ooh and aah over the poses than to read that “the boys are pretty much with each other 24/7, so it’s no wonder they’ve become such great friends.”  The gulf between One Direction and Black Sabbath is so deep as to be an abyss, but these respective books’ focus on personality and anecdote rather than, say, music, stands as a clear indicator of the importance of pop stardom in modern life, whether in the 1970s or today: what matters is giving people the chance to escape, however briefly, from dealing with anything in life that might be considered remotely meaningful.

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