Chris Isaak is a successful musician.
Chris Isaak has a single top ten album. (Wicked Game was the first "Best of Chris Isaak" album, released by Warner Bros, like, right after Heart-Shaped World.) He has a number of songs that made it into top ten charts, like "Wicked Game" and "Somebody's Crying," which crawled into my head at some point between reading Kara's blog and seeing my old roommate yesterday.
People love Chris Isaak. Of all the people that were palling around on the radio in the eighties>nineties jump, Chris Isaak was (obviously) different. Sure, he did this "rockabilly" thing, which guaranteed him a niche market and I hate the people who do that when I assess "the Artist as a Product-Producer" and subsequently "Chris Isaak the Product." That said:
Assuming "Chris Isaak chose rockabilly because 'shit, there'll always be some people that love suits and shirts with huge, unbuttoned collars, pompadours, and brown guitars with white fretboards" is a reflective assumption.
Yes. That approach would dehumanize Chris Isaak, or any other musician, into a product. It also tacitly assumes that Chris Isaak thought,1 and that I think, all people who buy things are consumers without any sort of critical capacity.
What about Chris Isaak makes him different from all the other Rockabilliers?(probably not even remotely a word) I'm going to assume there are minuscule differences that only matter to people who really care about rockabilly. (A subset of "people" which I do not belong to) I am, instead, going to tell you a story.
A woman I'll call Sonja and I lived together for two years. Over the course of our cohabitation, we bought a rug and got a pair of dogs together. I have come to the conclusion, through ownership of this rug, that dogs are like children in that they destroy things without really understanding what words like "value" and "destroy" mean. Getting angry at a dog, or a child, is about as pointless as getting angry at God. God, the infinite Architect of Events or the mere Prime Mover, has no idea that you suffer because It has no idea what your suffering feels like. Why should I be angry at the Dog for eating my jacket? Dog has no concept of "expensive leather." If anything, Dog thinks "chewwwy."
Ultimately, it was easier to be angry at Sonja, as the architect of the dog-ownership idea, rather than to be angry at the dogs, or to resolve my own powerlessness regarding dog-intellect. In the meantime, Sonja developed a symmetrical complex focused at me, which I can only assume reduced me to "mean, obsessive in [my] petty battles, and over-privileged." I'm only certain about the "mean" criticism. Sonja told me that I was 'mean, so mean" in the same conversation that she told me that I was arrogant and that I never loved her. ("You don't even know what love is.")
Everything else is just projected anxiety.
But what the fuck does Sonja know? Love's one of those intangibles, like art, American exceptionalism, and gravity. Is the measure of love the quotient of the weight of the heart divided by the weight of the brain? Is it something, like art and (tangentially) pornography, that you'll only recognize when you see it? Or is it like gravity, American exceptionalism, and the rest of the set of scientific theories? We know whether or not love is real because we experience its effects and we can make reference to its root causes in history? Art/Porn theory and Theory theory both sound good to me. It's possible that we're able to recognize love because we're good at looking for causal connections. It's possible that love is merely a theory designed to combat casual connections. I like knowing that there are people like Chris Isaak, getting money while they work their suspicions about the metaphysical nature of love into their art.2
David Lynch loves Chris Isaak. If you needed some other proof of success, then there you have it. David Lynch has some strange fetish for the 1950's/1990's fame disconnect and Chris Isaak fits into that somehow. I realize that the 1950's are a little bygone era when people made plans instead of using cell phones and power dynamics were clearly delineated both in public and private spheres. Everything that society hated could be covered up rather than addressed. Make-up sales were huge and undeclared income was a given. I still have no idea what David Lynch thinks (a) about Chris Isaak (b) about the nineteen-fifties and (c) in general.
But aside from record sales, length of career, metaphysical ponderings, and acceptance in the larger artistic community, I still maintain, and will continue to maintain in the face of anyone who might counter-maintain, that Chris Isaak is succesful, and assert that he is successful because he has accomplished what he set out to do: Redefine Imitations of Elvis.
For the majority of the time I had "Somebody's Crying" stuck in my head, I really only had the chorus rattling around. In replaying those lyrics, I apparently knocked loose the first verse of "Suspicious Minds" and set about melding these songs into a now-inseparable ballad. I began to write a detective story about this Suspicious Minds/Somebody's Crying hybrid, and only stopped when I googled "return the love you took from me" and found myself reading Chris Isaak's name a lot. I was certain at least one of these sites would tell me that Chris Isaak loved amphetamines and was born along with a dead twin and that the twin didn't really die until he took Chris' place on a toilet in Graceland.
I'm not going to build a shrine to Chris Isaak. (Or Elvis.) I may imagine, or even pray, that someday there will be an Elvis-like figure who can pull my heart's strings like Chris Isaak can. I may hope for a Chris-Isaak-like figure who appears completely unphased by his aging and widening body and inspires my own sense of culinary exploration with snacks like "corned beef hash tots" or "fried ham and baloney poppers."
What do I want in my music then? When I look through the musicians on my computer I can't really see a pattern.3 There may be a disproportionate number of suit-wearing performers. There's a 1:3.5 ratio of female:male lead singers, which is noteworthy because I usually tell people "male vocalists" when they ask what kind of music I listen to. Maybe I simply want my music to cause some sort of emotional or intellectual shift. Aside from Radiohead, there's not much I listen to because I think it sounds cool. (And yet! "I keep falling over, I keep passing out, when I see a face like you" is a brick truck hit.) I wouldn't be so bold as to suggest that music made without the intent of creating this response is pornography because there's artistic merit in any use of a tool. I would instead suggest that I am not listening to music as an artist but as a sentimentalist.
Fictional Scientists tell me that time travel to the past is impossible, or at least time travel to the past of "before the mechanism used to travel through time existed." Music, then, seems to be a time ark for me. I will always have a couple of Sublime CDs solely for use in August, because that music carries with it a lot of associations related to the mystique of knowing Spanish, high school anxiety, and thinking about what being drunk must feel like. I will always have a copy of "Forever Blue" because I don't want to forget that love is an idea and there's no cost in exchanging it.
I don't care what you have to say about the scope of the record industry. I will always have access to my memories because of its pervasiveness.
2It occurs to me that this blog could just as likely have been inspired by Haddaway's "What is Love?" (Or at least these paragraphs of this blog.) Also, how awesome was Beyonce on SNL last night? I'm not so into the music of Beyonce, but it's recently occurred to me that I may just not like overly produced music. The first song was nice. Simple. The other one ("Single Ladies") I'm going to put forward succinctly as "over-the-top."
3 Amy Winehouse, Black Sabbath, Bob Marley, Cat Power, (just "the covers record") Chris Isaak, The Clash, Cowboy Junkies, (just "trinity sessions") Elvis Costello, Hole, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Lauryn Hill, (just "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill") Led Zepplin, Leonard Cohen, Liz Phair, (just "Whip-Smart") The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Ministry, (just "Cover Up") Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Pixies, Pavement, PJ Harvey, Prince, Radiohead, The Smiths, Tom Waits, Toots & the Maytals, the Weepies, (just "Say I am You") and Weezer. (just "Pinkerton")