AP English Language
25 March 2012
The Legacy of the Velvet Underground
The first thing that attracted me to the Velvet Underground was their name. It sounded like the kind of place where there were unspoken rules of etiquette-the kind of place where it would take your eyes a minute to adjust to the dim surroundings. The second thing that attracted me to the Velvet Underground was how they sucked. It didn’t sound like the band members were unaware of their own suck, but more like they were sounding amateur on purpose. The third thing that attracted me to the Velvet Underground was Lou Reed’s singing voice. He wasn’t a good singer-in fact, most of the time it sounded like he was just speaking vaguely in rhythm. But the inflection in his tone was something I had never heard before. It was beyond sarcasm, beyond despair, on to something more like complete emotional resignation.
At the time when I first listened to them, all I knew is that they were from 1960’s New York City. My Dad had grown up there and he had mentioned them once or twice. Having an affinity for all things New York, I researched further into them and was surprised to find that they were ranked #19 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s 100 Greatest Artists of All Time (RollingStone.com). You would have had to live on an Amish farm your whole life to not have heard of the artists ranked above them-the Beatles, Elvis Presely, Bob Marley, etc. I considered myself pretty musically savvy, but I couldn’t name a single song by the Velvet Underground. Upon further research, I found that nowhere could you read about the band without seeing the terms “pop art” and “avant-garde.” Immediately I was very skeptical.
I am a music lover, along with pretty much everyone else who isn’t deaf. But words the terms “pop art” and “avant-garde” are subjects worthy enough to have a textbook written about them. In my opinion, if someone decided to write a textbook on the band Led Zeppelin, it would inevitably turn into a rant by some bloated fan about why Jimmy Paige was the coolest guitarist ever. There are legitimate books written about the Beatles because they had a broad cultural impact. There is multiple different aspects of the Beatles’ influence. The purpose of this research paper is to determine for myself the extent of the Velvet Underground’s influence.
I interviewed John Costa, professor of Rock ‘n’ Roll History at the University of Utah, on the subject. Towards the end of the interview he said, “In my course, it doesn’t matter what I like, what matters is what constitutes as a legitimate object of study, and the benchmark is the degree of influence and originality.” (Costa) He was able to break down the VU’s influence into three specific things that nobody but the Velvet Underground was doing at the time. The fact that Costa was able to break it down so objectively, I think, speaks of the legitimacy of this subject. The first was their employment of post-modernism, the second was challenging conventional success, and the third was extreme expression. (Costa)
Post-modernism is a type of art in which high art, the avant-garde, is synthesized with low art, pop art. (Costa) In this sense, art is classified by the social class of the artist, sort of like how the car company Lexus is defined by their producing of a luxury vehicle, while Toyota is defined by their producing of a utility vehicle. The Velvet Underground’s work qualifies as post-modernism because the two primary creative forces behind the band, Lou Reed and John Cale, were both employing techniques of the avant-garde in a pop art format. Lou Reed, the singer and lyricist, was heavily influenced by a writer named Raymond Chandler whose use of opposing, contradictory elements were part of a high art literary movement. (Costa) So Reed applied that literary method to his poetry about sexual sadomasochism in the song, “Venus In Furs,” in which he sings, “strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart.” (Costa) Literally, he’s singing about a woman whipping her submissive sexual partner, but the syntax of that lyric is that which could have been used in a Shakespeare play. That contradiction of the subject material being 20th century debauchery that is being expressed in old-fashioned romantic prose is an example of Reed’s post-modernism.
John Cale was a classically trained viola player from Whales with an affinity for American rock ‘n’ roll music. He had worked with artists named La Monte Young and Terry Riley, both of whom were pioneers in the avant-garde western classical movement called minimalism. (Costa) From them, John Cale learned the two-note drone, which he employed in the song, “Heroin.” (Costa) For this song, John Cale filed down the neck of a viola, then manipulate the instrument in a way that produced, as he put it, “a noise very similar to a B-52.” (Youtube.com, VELVET UNDERGROUND Documentary (Part 1 of 2)) I would describe it as sounding more like the engine of a giant rusty freight train exerting all its force on a little hamster wheel. That’s really what the song is about. If that giant engine is the destructive power of heroin and that squeaky hamster wheel is the human body, then I’d say that song aurally depicts the torture of drug addiction pretty accurately.
“Heroin,” is an assault on the human sensory system, and indeed it was meant to offend the listener, which brings me to John Costa’s second point: the Velvet Underground’s complete disregard for commercial success. (Costa) I conducted a survey about the band and found that 50% of the participants said they had never heard of the Velvet Underground, and 71% said they had never listened to the Velvet Underground. (SurveyMonkey.com, The Velvet Underground) Their best-selling album, Loaded, had only sold about 500,000 copies total in the 20 years after its release. (“The Velvet Underground”) Compare that to Adele’s album, 21, selling 17 million copies in its first year. (“21(Adele album)”) The VU’s record label requested that they change the lyrics on their debut, The Velvet Underground & Nico, which included, “Heroin,” and, “Venus In Furs.” (Costa) They also requested that the band change the album artwork because it was too offensive (the album artwork consisted of a paper-thin piece of plastic attached to the cover in the shape of a banana that, when peeled, revealed a pink inner-banana, thus having obvious sexual connotations). (Costa) But the band simply refused because, as their rhythm-guitarist Sterling Morrison said, “We didn’t care if it never got out of the four walls that we were in.” (Youtube.com, VELVET UNDERGROUND Documentary (Part 2 of 2))
The point of this story is not to prove how cool the Velvet Underground was. The point is that they had no illusions of commercial success, and consequently they were free to “live by the art”(Costa). The emergence of punk music later on would be dependent upon the Velvet Underground setting that precedent.
Another precedent set by the Velvet Underground that profoundly influenced punk music was extreme expression, the third point of my interviewee. “The idea was it didn’t matter if you could play. It didn’t matter what your skill level was. What mattered was not only what you were saying, but how extreme by which you were saying it.” (Costa) Mo Tucker had, “no training whatsoever,” in playing drums. (Youtube.com, VELVET UNDERGROUND Documentary (Part 1 of 2)) She didn’t own a full drum set, so when she played with the Velvet Underground, she played standing upright using only a bass drum turned on its side, a snare, and a few tom toms. (“Maureen Tucker”) But it was her lack of musicianship and her increased physical leverage, due to the fact that she was standing, that afforded her the aggressive, primitive drum style that she was known for. That was extreme expression. White Light/White Heat, the bands second album, was actively raucous, even more so than their first. During the recording, amplifiers were stacked facing each other in order to achieve the maximum amount of feedback. (Youtube.com, VELVET UNDERGROUND Documentary (Part 2 of 2)) Concurrently, Lou Reed was delving further into drug abuse, and consequently, writing lyrics about even more perverse subjects such as prostitution and even amateur lobotomies. (“The Velvet Underground”) For obvious reasons, the band could not sustain itself for very long in this state and it splintered shortly thereafter. (Costa)
Still, I was skeptical about their influence. Perhaps no other band was pushing the envelope like the Velvet Underground at the time, but certainly they were not the first artists from New York who incorporated elements of post-modernism in their work. George Gershwin composed “Rhapsody In Blue,” in New York in 1924-an orchestral piece that incorporated both elements of classical music, considered to be high art, and jazz music, which was considered to be music of the hoi polloi (“Rhapsody In Blue”). Bob Dylan, who was a contemporary of the VU but whom had gotten to New York just a few years earlier, wrote in his memoir, “I guess you could say [my songs] weren’t commercial. Not only that, my style was too erratic and hard to pigeonhole for the radio, and my songs, too me, were more important that just light entertainment.” (Dylan 34) Is this not the same ‘art-first-and-foremost’ mentality that defined John Costa’s second point about the Velvet Underground? Interestingly enough, John Cale had his own opinions on Bob Dylan. “I was really fed-up with folk music-Dylan stuff and Joan Baez stuff-I was quite disinterested in songs that had nothing but questions in them.” (Youtube.com, VELVET UNDERGROUND Documentary (Part 1 of 2))
It is important to note that by the time The Velvet Underground & Nico was being recorded, Bob Dylan’s music had already become anthems of the US Civil Rights movement (“Bob Dylan”), John F. Kennedy had already been assassinated (Brinkley 822), and Andy Warhol was the VU’s manager and sponsor (Costa). More than that, Andy Warhol was the man who discovered the band and who encouraged them to be as offensive as possible. (Costa) This is because Warhol was a dissenter of the 60’s optimism that was manifesting itself on the west coast of the United States. (Costa) According to Matthew Bannister’s essay, “I’m Set Free…”, which appeared in the academic journal, Popular Music & Society, the Velvet Underground represented everything the west coast culture wasn’t. (3) They sang about free love, the Velvet Underground sang about S&M. They sang about hallucinogens, the Velvet Underground sang about hard drugs. While Bob Dylan’s songs were being used to garner youth support for a social revolution, Lou Reed was singing, “I want to nullify my life.”
Andy Warhol’s and the Velvet Underground’s dissention of the west coast culture was largely because of the fact that they were from New York. Madison Avenue had been the advertising capital of the United States since the 1920’s (“Madison Avenue”) , and consequently, a headquarters of villainy in the eyes of the youth culture that was disenchanted with consumerism, much like how Wall Street has become identified as the target of civil unrest today. The businessmen on Madison Avenue were manufacturing the optimism spreading throughout the United States.
Lou Reed can be quoted saying, “The Lou Reed New York attitude is just the New York attitude. You can find lots of people with it…there’s no moral stance to these songs, it was just ‘this happened then that happened,’ presented kind of dry, unemotionally.” (Youtube.com, VELVET UNDERGROUND Documentary (Part 2 of 2)) Andy Warhol was heavily influenced by advertising and consumerism, which is why some of his most famous works included Campbell’s® tomato soup cans, or Coca-Cola® bottles. Rather than reject the ideals of consumerism, like the artists of the folk music revival such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground accepted them by using them as a format for serious art.
When David Bowie first heard the Velvet Underground’s music in acetate format, he viewed it as the first time rock ‘n’ roll music was being taken as serious art. (Costa) Brian Eno can be quoted as saying, “Everyone who heard The Velvet Underground & Nico either formed their own band or became a music critic.” (“The Velvet Underground”) These two notions effectively summarize degree of the band’s influence.
Popular music is shaped by those who take it seriously. In my time, artists like The White Stripes, Lady Gaga, Radiohead, The Strokes, and Kanye West have all attempted to make serious art out of pop music. When The Velvet Underground & Nico came out, the United States had only experienced roughly 21 years of the post-WWII affluence that has come to define American culture. Nobody could have known the extent to which popular music would shape American culture, but the Velvet Underground were one of the first indicators of just how seriously the forthcoming generation was taking simple pop music.
Popular music is shaped by those who push the envelope. The emergence of punk music was all about pushing the envelope, and it was extremely pivotal because it marked a point when youth culture became violently self-aware of the differences between itself and its parental culture. In a way, punk music is an extension of American individualist ideals because it rids youth of their final and most intimate collectivist obligation-the parents. The Velvet Underground undermined the idea that one had to meet any sort of standard in order to push the envelope.
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