Monkees Derangement Syndrome
Last week when I was writing out some “minor secrets” of the Partridge family song “Somebody Wants to Love You” I touched on the weird line of demarcation that is often drawn between “legitimate” and phony, authentic and genuine, when it comes to TV rock bands and their recorded output. My point was, and is, that it’s all show biz, whether it’s on TV or not (and even if it’s not, the “authentic” bands, if they were ever big enough, were on TV too.) So it’s a weird way to draw that line.
A ways back, I wrote a sort of essay about this phenomenon with regard to the Monkees, and since I’m trying to preserve the archives of my old, ailing blog, this seems like as good an occasion as any to re-edit, re-iterate, and repost, so that’s what I’m going to do now.
Sometimes it seems as though the Internet is always listening, and contrives to place documents before you to prove you wrong from time to time, just to show you that it can.
To wit: just last week I was telling tales of days of yore to a person who wasn’t around all the way back then. She was amazed and I believe a bit shocked to learn that there was a time when the Monkees would often be cited as the defining example of “lame” when it came to pop music. If you wanted to say something was devoid of value and beneath contempt, you would compare it to the Monkees. If you wanted to insult someone’s musical taste, you had only to say “he probably thinks the Monkees are real boss,” or something like that.
This was standard. It worked on people, too, though it didn’t work on me. I was weird. I loved the Monkees back when people still mentioned them primarily as an easy insult, and I love them even more now, if such a thing is possible. They may not have been Dylan or the Beatles, but their records hold up quite well compared to those of everyone else who wasn’t Dylan or the Beatles, and even compared to some of the ones recorded by people who actually were Dylan and the Beatles. Everyone can’t be D. and the Bs. Not being Dylan or the Beatles is a category that encompasses the entire population of the world, other than five people. If you’re going to judge pop music that way, you’re going to have to rule out a lot of great stuff. I mean, do it if you want, but it’s your loss. (In fact, though, in my time, the Great Big Important bands people were always comparing the Monkees unfavorably to were apt to be, like, Boston, Rush, and Jethro Tull rather than Dylan and the Beatles. So that’s funny.)
I believe this Monkees derangement syndrome has its roots in the 60s generation’s misguided pretensions about authenticity. How could something be good, I imagine them to have reasoned petulantly through a haze of cannabis smoke and unkempt bangs, if it didn’t spring from the ground of its own accord, like the Doors, man, or, you know, a flower? (I guess I’m kind of picturing a room full of stoned Lori Partridge-y TV hippie daughters complaining to their parents about how things aren’t “relevant.”) How could something contrived, fabricated, and hyped by the great brainwashing machine of commercial culture be worth listening to?
Well, genius songwriters, top-notch arrangers, engineers, producers, and musicians, as well as genuine talent (Mike Nesmith is the celebrated one, but let’s not forget Mickey Dolenz, one of the truly great pop vocalists of his or any era) — that all had something to do with it. It’s not much different from the elements that allowed the more authentic-seeming acts to spit out great records. If Boyce & Hart (not to mention all the other Brill Building greats who wrote so many of the Monkees’ songs) weren’t quite Lennon and McCartney, they were formidable songwriters nonetheless. And the enterprise in which they were engaged wasn’t too different from that of Lennon-McCartney as well. They wrote and recorded pop songs, and some of them turned up on TV, and everybody involved made a great big pile of money.
Ironically, once upon a time, this material was often unthinkingly derided with the same breath that heaped extravagant praise on people like Barri & Sloan or Curt Boettcher. But this substantial group of American pop songwriting’s best and brightest wrote, and the collective project known as the Monkees duly recorded, some of the shiniest pop gems of the time. Why should it matter so much that they were sung by television actors playing recording artists rather than by recording artists whose frequent television appearances didn’t happen to include membership in the cast of a weekly sitcom?
It shouldn’t, it needn’t, and it really doesn’t. Since those days, we’ve learned, I believe, that authenticity per se isn’t ever all it’s cracked up to be; that is, you have to work pretty hard to create the impression of authenticity. Nothing just springs out of the ground, not even the Doors. In other words, if there is a great brainwashing machine, everything’s part of it, man. Haven’t we learned that? And given that, the precise difference between playing the role of a pop star on a TV show, on the one hand, and playing the role of a pop star in “reality,” on the other, can be a little hard to spot. (But chances are that Glen Campbell, rather than the actual guy, would have played guitar on the record either way.)
Now my point in this conversation was that using the Monkees as a synonym for lame, or dumb, or vapid, or, God help us, “irrelevant” isn’t something that people do anymore, though they used to.
But the internet knows better, and lo and behold, the words were scarcely out of my mouth before I clicked on an essay (via Andrew Sullivan) that cited the Monkees in precisely the way I had claimed no longer happened. The author enlists them to help sling a backhanded compliment at rap-rock star Kid Rock, absolving him of his “cultural irrelevance” like this:
Slowly, he has turned himself into the turn-of-the-millennium answer to the Monkees or, maybe even the late Rolling Stones: quintessentially shallow, timeless pop music that does nothing new and enforces old clichés, forever recapitulating them until, at the end, we can finally come around to enjoying it.
I have nothing to say about the late (post-Tattoo You, I assume) Rolling Stones or about Kid Rock (though I checked out the clips and, let’s just say: Boyce & Hart he ain’t.) But this gets pretty much everything wrong about the Monkees except the timelessness, and it appears to misunderstand the timelessness as well. That is, it seems to miss the point of pop music itself, or at least, it misses a great deal of why people enjoy listening to it, and why it’s so important in their lives.
Great pop songwriting isn’t great because it knocks you out with “relevance,” or because it wears you down with clichés till you get used to it enough to embrace its shallowness against your better judgment. Pop songs work best, as a rule, when they manage to re-animate a familiar emotional state or experience; for two and half minutes, someone else’s words and music become your own personal anthem; the song, you feel, might as well have been written about you. In turn, such a song can, in a small way, restructure the way you view the genuine experience you associate it with. It melds with your soul, and remains a part of you forever. That’s a kind of magic, and it’s not that easy to pull off. There’s your timelessness, and there’s nothing shallow about it. Several songs from the Monkees catalog do it for me, as they have for many others, which shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, considering the quality of the operation’s songwriting and recording talent pool.
I fail to grasp how anyone could listen to “I’m a Believer” or to the carefully constructed compositions of the Boyce & Hart songbook and hear nothing more than a “recapitulation of old clichés.” But even granting that that’s all that’s going on in there, the recapitulation of such clichés (e.g. love, loss, pain, joy, anticipation, frustration, verses, bridges, choruses) in the hands of a great writer can be uniquely, even transcendently, thrilling when it is done right. There’s no accounting for taste, of course, but if the Monkees conglomerate didn’t do it right, I don’t know who could. Dismiss those records if you like, but in doing so you are dismissing, in a way, an entire era — some would say the best ever era — of American pop songwriting.
So I would put my Brill Building Wrecking Crew Monkees up against your Jethro Tull or your Hold Steady or whatever it is that is supposed to be all big and important and authentic these days, and they’d win. So do what you have to do, but I’m listening to “Valleri” now and it’s ruling my shallow little world, irrelevance, clichés, and all.