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Spinal Tap: Absolution for Rock n' Roll? Or Just Another Media Gimmick?
by Hugh Asnen / California State University, Los Angeles

"It happens like anything else happens." Bob Dylan on his popularity, 1965

"Through clever and constant application of propaganda, people can be made to see paradise as hell, and also the other way around, to consider the most wretched sort of life as paradise." Adolph Hitler, Mein Kampf, 1935

"There's such a fine line between stupid and clever." David St. Hubbins, 1982

In social theorist Walter Benjamin's essay The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Benjamin claimed there would be new technical factors in the modern mass media age that would contort the characteristics of an art piece as well giving an art piece certain kinds of potential societal impact.
The "WAAMR" essay was produced, Benjamin wrote, in the effort to describe a theory of art that would be "useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art." He argued that art in the age of mechanical reproduction would inherently be based on the practice of politics. What Benjamin didn't quite imagine was the odd juxtapositions his theories would face when placed in the context of the modern day entertainment business.
It is my belief that Spinal Tap proved the bulk of Benjamin's theories to be true. Additionally, I propose that when the creators of the "Spinal Tap" art piece took on the task of a satirical commentary of a media genre while implementing various Mechanical Reproduction era media methods, this created a unique scenario. I'll call that scenario: "Art Commenting on Art in the Modern Age" a.k.a. "A Simulacrum of a Simulacrum".
What Spinal Tap's career looks like on its surface is a compounding or doubling of one particular notion. A social theorist and critic Jean Baudrillard has noted several ideas in his philosophical treatise "Simulacra and Simulation" of what contributes to "simulacrum" in a modern society. Baudrillard notes one of these contributing factors is "Contemporary media… blurring the line between products that are needed (in order to live a life) and products for which a need is created by commercial images." Frustrated rock n' roll artist Bob Dylan once remarked to fans "If you needed my autograph I'd give it to you." Hypothetically, I propose the Spinal Tap artists would say "If you needed our autographs, we'd give them to you, but realize we also tell you why we shouldn't give them to you in the subtext of our movie, albums, etc."
This brand of the unexpected communicated wisdom (that Spinal Tap imbued in mass media entertainment) has had a unique impact on society, media and the Spinal Tap artists themselves. And I believe that Spinal Tap as "art" and as a "rock band" are just as valuable to understanding and celebrating our culture as any other rock icons.
Spinal Tap commented on rock bands within the rock n' roll era "pop culture". There's a vicious cycle inherent in "pop culture art". Here, an artist's message isn't the artist's alone. Instead, the artist's message is a combination of financial gambles made by industry bosses. Baudrillard said of the simulacrum that it's "…never that which conceals the truth--it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true." What does this mean in the context of the music industry?
This idea manifests itself in the music industry by the simulacrum creation of a new artist concealed as "society's desire for a spokesman", when the truth is that a new artist is "mass media's desire to find a bankable product". In other words, "rock stars" aren't "artists"… they are "simulacrums of what the music industry guesses society wants them to be". The more money a "rock star" makes, the more a simulacrum becomes iconic and the rock star's level of fame can linger on longer.
The fate of the rock artist, from early on, has depended on the media defined commodity of the artist, not direct qualities of the art. This is why abstract mythological terms like "rock god" are used. In modern day art interpretation, rock musician art can't be perceived by society (as a whole) in a more succinct sense. And it's this mythological quality, or "mystique" of artists that (ironically) has built and destroyed the rock music industry. It's also a part of the industry that many rock stars paradoxically scorn and embrace. "Why do I have to sell out to sell my art?"
In 2004, blues legend Robert Johnson's grandson Steven related a story about his grandfather who, after 2 years away from home practicing guitar, returned to accolades. When one admirer commented to Johnson "The only way you could play like that, you'd have to sell yourself to the Devil." Johnson absorbed that idea. Whenever the question of his talent came up, Johnson used that "Devil" bit as his answer, and added that he'd done the devilishly amusing deed of selling his soul in exchange for fame. It was a folktale myth… and it was also rock n' roll's first successful gimmick used for artist promotion.
About 50 years later, in 1979, an ABC-TV sketch comedy pilot starring actor / director / writer Rob Reiner aired a parody of a "music video", a newer promotional art form that was being increasingly utilized by the rock industry. The comedy sketch included three actor/writers who portrayed the video's heavy metal rock band. These writers/band members were Michael McKean (as David St. Hubbins), Christopher Guest (as Nigel Tufnel) and Harry Shearer (as Derek Smalls). The fictional band was called "Spinal Tap". Reiner, McKean, Shearer and Guest are the "Spinal Tap artists" that I refer to in this essay.
In 1982 the artists of Spinal Tap decided to make a mockumentary movie which became This Is…Spinal Tap. TIST was released in theaters in 1984. On the surface, Spinal Tap was skewering the heavy metal genre. What society would later realize was that Spinal Tap addressed the entire rock genre as it had been portrayed by the mass media up to that point. In an era that had just seen the magic of "image-less" "mass-media-less" punk rock, the "heavy metal" band context was the perfect excess-laden wrapper for Spinal Tap's rock satire candy.
The process Reiner and friends used was clever. Rock journalism invented artists like Bob Dylan and the Beatles as definitive rock artist commodities whose defining quality was "importance in the genre of American popular music".
Spinal Tap, however, utilized rock journalism and other multimedia, intertwining them with cleverly constructed variations on performance satire and storytelling. This unintentionally created an art piece simulation of the definitive rock artist commodity whose defining quality was "unimportance in the genre of American popular music". These Spinal Tap characters were rock clods as opposed to rock gods.
Benjamin speaks of enhanced authoritative tools that modern technology can afford the artist, saying "The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses…" In other words, the difference of displaying rock n' roll via film media (as opposed to a "live" rock music display) is that the artist has greater ability to dig into the psyche of the audience. Reiner utilized this in TIST in a big way.
Benjamin also said "Reception in a state of distraction, which is increasing noticeably in all fields of art and is symptomatic of profound changes in apperception, finds in the film its true means of exercise." Deciding to make an authentic feeling film, TIST Director Rob Reiner embraced the documentary film methods and found (as Benjamin put it) "the true meaning" of the "exercise of audience reception" using a new synthesis of media interconnected with a quest for authenticity.
The dialogue in all the TIST footage was improvised which aided in its deceptively loose documentary feel that the audience observed at a conscious level. Yet the film's overall narrative was so intricately back-storied and so firmly plotted that TIST remained heavily authoritative in nature. This worked on a subconscious level to aid the artists in relaying deeper themes throughout the film.
Like Bob Dylan, "the artist" known for clever wordplay, the Spinal Tap artists "played with things"… words, music, media, while at the same time they were working hard for authenticity.
These brilliant components fell so neatly in place that bigger questions of context, comparison and contrast within TIST's subject matter could be addressed. Questions such as: "Was the band's hubris unwarranted?" "Were Tap members smart, or just saying smart sounding things?" "Were Tap members any dumber than a typical rock star?" "Were our culture's actual rock stars primarily pseudo-intellectuals?"
Frank Zappa once famously said "Rock journalism is people who can't write interviewing people who can't talk for people who can't read."
And This Is…Spinal Tap covertly asked the question "If not rock journalists, if not the media, then WHO is defining rock n' roll for you? If it's not YOU, you may want to reconsider how you ingest entertainment." This more practical angle that the film indirectly offers connects the authenticity of "Spinal Tap the artist" to "Bob Dylan the artist". And it's what made Spinal Tap a successful spokesperson for society's newest rock music culture.
The TIST film begins with the mockumentaries' filmmaker, Director Marty DiBergi (played by the film's actual director, Rob Reiner) addressing the audience. And when DiBergi introduces himself, he mentions (proudly) that he makes dog food commercials. This instantly sets a tone, igniting the theme of "subservience to the mass media and the almighty dollar." This is the practice that built and destroyed rock n' roll… and the practice that rock gods from Johnson to Dylan (along with their audiences) bought into.
TIST juxtaposes historical media to simultaneously evoke ridicule and sympathy for rock musicians from its audience.
Where once our rock films had young hip rock n' roll gods, TIST had middle-aged has-beens that had an "every man" quality. These were artists persistent enough to claw their way to the top of mainstream culture success at the expense of an artist's connection with reality. But instead of pushing pampered rock royalty superstars being egotistical on film, TIST shows delusional losers continually facing painful problems. This was a fresh viewpoint for society to observe its rock n' roll.
The film isn't celebrating the "rock n' roll dream" per say, rather it's relating a rock n' roll nightmare where we're observing the death of a rock n' roll band. There's a line of dialogue in TIST where Spinal Tap's manager Ian Faith (played by Tony Hendra) states that "Death sells…it's in every cinema…" Maybe that's TIST in a direct self-observational moment. It surely seems to be visible in the dark tone of the film.
Even with the film's happy ending of reconciliation and rewards for the heavy metal "liberal artists", the underlying truth is that TIST gives the audience the same conservative message they've been getting since the Bob Dylan days: "Don't break up the band and live away from the music industry machine" or "The mass media needs you, and you need the mass media."
When Reiner was asked the question, "Why film a documentary on such a bad, unsuccessful band…" Reiner quipped "Because the big, successful ones were taken." Seriously though, "Good bands" "bad bands"… as long as their drama is insightful about life, it'll make a good movie. TIST wasn't about "rock n' roll" as much as it was about a good story imbued with time tested motifs, presented in a fresh way.
Ricky Gervais, the hugely successful creator of the mockumentary juggernaut franchise The Office, calls TIST "The single biggest influence on The Office." Gervais says of TIST's universal themes "Whether you're in a band or work at ICI, you can relate to it."
Chip Rowe laments that when audiences relegate TIST to merely a "great comedy film," that that attitude is "…diminishing it to an Eddie Murphy comedy. It's not Beverly Hills Cop. It's a great movie."
Today's fads are tomorrow's history book fodder. Spinal Tap's authentic authoritative set-ups via simulated era (and genre changes) from their popular TIST film have carried into their continued media appearances in present day. This has made Spinal Tap a virtual history book, commenting on the entire era where "rock was King". They will continue to be rock stars as the number of such icons dwindles. Spinal Tap can remain a familiar commodity almost indefinitely. They are quite unscathed by "rock music industry chaos".
In post-TIST scenarios, Benjamin's theories are brought full circle because of the hard work of an "authoritative statement successfully made." TIST has already created a temporal world for Spinal Tap fans where one does not truly participate in the authority of the art. However, the "feeling" of participation is there because Spinal Tap has already studied society, gave its incisive feedback, and can now interact with us in a less risky way where the art is more potent than otherwise.
The new form of Spinal Tap's aura is a zombie of sorts, "half alive and half dead". With the film we were forced authoritatively to accept a band we didn't need in rock n' roll, when, as far as Baudrillard was concerned, we really didn't need the whole idea of rock n' roll to begin with: A simulacrum within a simulacrum.
Baudrillard says that "Simulation is to pretend to have what one doesn't have". Simulation is not just pretending though, it's actually "doing". And Spinal Tap "does it". Rowe agrees, saying "They became a real band… they released three albums… they toured… they were on TV shows in character …I guess every band's a character. I mean, the Rolling Stones, Steven Tyler, they all dress up to perform…. to say Spinal Tap is a 'fake' band, what does that mean? They wrote their own music, played their own instruments, and they toured: that's a band…"
Baudrillard would also propose Spinal Tap is defined as "real" (identified as a simulacrum) because society actually describes the band as being "imaginary" and the combination of that aspect with the fact that Spinal Tap is actually three human beings who play their own instruments, and release reproduced music media, and make public appearances is what helps define it. The Beatles, Bob Dylan, etc. in this context are "hyperreal".
In describing his own Spinal Tap text, Spinal Tap A to Zed: A Guide To One Of England's Loudest Bands, author Chip Rowe prefers to keep Spinal Tap as a pure simulacrum "That's the whole spirit of it… the dedication…. I'm not interested in the actors."
Baudrillard also spoke of a later stage of simulacrum as "…where the simulacrum precedes the original and the distinction between reality and representation vanishes. There is only the simulacrum, and originality becomes a totally meaningless concept." Regarding media, rock music artist Bob Dylan once said "You're not that person everyone says you are, Even though they call you that all the time." The Spinal Tap artists have no reason to worry about their simulacrum preceding them as Dylan worries. Everybody (including Spinal Tap themselves) knows they are an out-and-out "act".
This attitude gives a Spinal Tap fan a certain amount of freedom too. Local L.A. rock singer Stevie Peavey explains "People like to like Spinal Tap. It shows they're cool, that you can laugh at rock or something. You can love metal and like it. You can hate metal and like it."
I'll propose that Peavey's fan description scenario resembles an example of what Benjamin's idea of Spinal Tap fans might be regarding "the exploitation of the proletariat". And that this understanding of Spinal Tap ultimately makes it possible to deconstruct the characteristics of capitalism, in that Spinal Tap is definitively more about art than mass media. A fan shares the deeper "clever" value of the Spinal Tap simulacrum, not mass media's superficial equivalent of it: "Unhip losers playing dumb music".
This sentiment absolves rock n' roll, with Spinal Tap effectively being rock n' roll's saviors. It grants society freedom to enjoy "dumb" mass media entertainment in a guilt-free manner. That kind of encouragement may seem silly, but when you think of it as Spinal Tap helping to make society more aware of mass media's foibles, in order to better discern between "important issues of humanity" vs. "fluff entertainment", Spinal Tap's redemption of rock n' roll appears more serious.
In 1984 the modern media was not only changing how audiences perceived art, it was also changing how artists sent their message, and Spinal Tap (consciously or unconsciously) contributed to a big part of this by using their film to take a certain amount of authority back for all of rock n' roll, an authority that had been stripped away over the years by the impact of mass media.
Indeed, Spinal Tap has helped rock music to develop in such a way that an audience now has an opportunity to see rock music's absurdities through the looking glass without the initial mass media interference that frustrated the young idealistic artist Bob Dylan. This is testament to both Spinal Tap and their audience's success in negating an element of the very bastardization of art that Benjamin spoke of in his pioneering essay.
By refreshing society's view on the value of rock n' roll; Spinal Tap sacrificed themselves by being rock's village idiot. And rock artists themselves have responded. Rock legends from Bono to Jagger to Tyler have acknowledged Spinal Tap as having an impact on them at some point. Spinal Tap have been asked to perform alongside the largest names in the industry: heavy metal legends in the 1985 Hear N' Aid project, artists at Wembley Arena for the 1992 Freddie Mercury Benefit Concert, and the notable 2007 Live Earth concert as well. And it's true that "real" musicians started buying equipment whose knobs "went up to 11" in response to TIST's most iconic movie scene.
Additional recognition which I think is respectable includes:

  • In 2002, the phrase "Go to eleven" which originated from the movie, entered the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary with the definition "up to maximum volume".
  • 'Spinal Tap' consistently takes top spots in all-time movie lists including lists like Mojo Magazine's "Top Rock Movies" where Spinal Tap beat out one of the primary films it satirized (The Rolling Stones: Gimme Shelter).
  • In 2002, This Is Spinal Tap was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and was selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry.

    A point of interest is that a growing amount of recognition has been bestowed on Spinal Tap in more recent years. In 2012, society understands the genius of Spinal Tap better than it did 28 years ago.
    In the 21st century, the rock music genre is degenerating. It's not making the same kind of money it once did. Rock artists are offering less new ideas to market. The public is becoming more disinterested, so the mass media is following suit and turning its back on the bulk of the better rock artists they could promote. Indeed, the end is near. The 1960s era rock audience grew up, slowly merging with the dark realities of rock n' roll, and they have come to peace with them.
    In 1967, the first widely celebrated rock documentary Don't Look Back was released featuring the sarcastic, sometimes scathing tongue of a young Bob Dylan. In 2005 there was a Dylan documentary release called No Direction Home that was cobbled together from footage gathered during the Don't Look Back era.
    Famous film critic Roger Ebert had been put off by Dylan's snarky attitude on repeated viewings of DLB. On his thoughts of NDH, Ebert noted "What I feel for Dylan now and did not feel before is empathy." Either Ebert had changed or documentary rendering style had changed. But the 1960's Bob Dylan in NDH was the same guy filmed in DLB. Interesting.
    Whatever the case for Ebert's new attitudes, what strikes me is that Ebert noted that the proper amount of "mystique" had been maintained in the 2005 film. Ebert's observation makes me feel that society has come a long way from the early days of rock n' roll. That was an era not even realizing the impact of "mystique" as it applied to artists, media and society. I believe today's society understands rock n' roll much better, and that Spinal Tap had a lot to do with that process.
    Chip Rowe believes today's society understands the context of a dryer, wittier satirical humor in a better way through the pioneering efforts of TIST, saying "If they didn't invent mockumentary, they certainly popularized it…Now we've got actual reality shows that could be mockumentaries, they're so ridiculous… the influence in the mockumentary style of the movie is imitated in so many ways… we've gone full circle where we have reality shows that are scripted."
    Benjamin may have agreed with Rowe regarding "tragic sociology" as the current fate of pop entertainment trends. In his essay, Benjamin states "Mankind, which in Homer's time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, is now one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as aesthetic pleasure..."
    And I'll suggest that Benjamin may have seen the Spinal Tap phenomenon as an aura-retaining uniquely powerful simulacrum that has theoretically transcended and conquered society-destroying pitfalls of mass media better than most other rock bands. And Spinal Tap has done this by (ironically) defining those pitfalls in an artistic form.
    Baudrillard, I believe, would see Spinal Tap as a "warning" of sorts. In modern times, the danger to society is not "mass media entertainment as art" the danger lies in society not recognizing their relationship with mass media. Society should be aware of the deeper way that mass media affects them, and how they (the individual) can remain subjective about art and society overall.
    When discussing the subject of art in the This Is… Spinal Tap film, Spinal Tap guitarist David St. Hubbins remarks that there's a fine line between stupid and clever. Benjamin reveals this fine line to be an ever-changing squiggly-type line that both the artist and audience must detect and navigate with authority.
    Spinal Tap has danced deftly onto the "clever" side of that line, using modern media's strengths to create pure art expressed as wholesome myth within the rock n' roll genre, a place that mass media has been bastardizing from the first moment a rock journalist approached a rock artist. Spinal Tap made rock magical. And they did this by being the morons of rock n' roll.
    That, to me, is the quite "real" martyrdom of Spinal Tap within our gimmick-laden mass media.

  • Copyright © 2012 Hugh Asnen. Posted with permission.

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