Sting and Bono are Sensible. The Butthole Surfers and Bootsy Collins are Stupid. John Adams and Glenn Branca are Stoopid. Biba Kopf explains the difference. This article originally appeared in The Wire 135 (May 1995).
Some people are born stupid. Others have stupidity thrust upon them. The rest of us have to work at it. We spend a lifetime chipping away at the learning which turns us into solid citizens. Although it's one of the rare zones where stupidity is privileged, popular music has found itself trapped on the same learning curve. Indeed, it has travelled so far up the curve that it has crossed over from something that makes us feel good into something that tries to be good for us. The danger zone opens up at the point where the curve intersects with the career ladder of rising or risen stars - sitting ducks like Elvis Costello or David Byrne or Bono or Peter Gabriel - whose status flatters them into believing that they should do something really useful with their lives. Stupidity is the prophylactic that protects pop from the good work of others. Faced with the ecological pieties of Sting or - worse - born again humanitarians like Lou Reed, glorying in stupidity is the more inviting option.
Stupidity means being too stupid to read the rules. Stupid is pop uninhibited by others' disapproving glances. Stupid never knows when to stop, like a Neil Young guitar solo pursuing that one note to the very end of the world. Stupid is Jungle dancing in a corner, unconcerned by the disdain of others, left alone to do exactly as it pleases. Stupid recognises no hierarchies in art or pop. Stupid blithely steals from high and low; it'll try on cheap trinkets and jewels, fit anything to its great, gaudy colour schemes. Stupid is early Sonic Youth, trashing aesthetics, making it all too clear that conventions of beauty have no place here. Faux naif, Stupid is characterised by hyperbole, intuition, insolent cunning. Crude, rude and in you face, it speaks when it is impolitic to do so. Stupid is The Butthole Surfers pointing out the emperor's new clothes while thinking it might be fun to try them on.
Ah, The Butthole Surfers... No other group has ever been so terrifyingly, exhilaratingly and unrelentingly stupid. The release of their new official bootleg, The Hole Truth... And Nothing Butt, brings it all back: the queered theatrical pitch of early Buttholes appearances, when vocalist Gibby Haynes, in a grubby mini-dress, used to smash blood capsules into his groin and menstruate over the front rows, who of course lapped it up, while guitarist Paul Leary let rip the blasts of feedback that transformed their ghastly spectacle into a skull-scraping psychedelic experience. Then and now, this is the crux of the group's stupid appeal: they're rock insensate; rock restored to its raw, churning, gurning, molten state: hot, stinking, sulphurous and overwhelming.
The Buttholes' representation of stupidity is the ugliness and
pain of a bloody new-born babe arrived at through an excess of
drugs that peeled away the layers of learning one by one, from
Haynes's unaccountable decision to train as an accountant all the
way back to their potty training. Their dialectical twins are those
holy fools of contemporary classicism, John Tavener and Arvo Part,
who prostrate themselves before God seemingly in the fixed belief
that anything more than the most simple confluence of melody and
hushed harmony would constitute a direct affront to His autonomy as
the sole Creator of the Universe. If it's meant to quietly exalt,
the music is often just pretty and banal. A truer form of holiness
is the rigorous training the great improvisors put themselves
through to bring themselves to that transcendent state where
thought and feeling dissolve in the moment of creation.
Back to the discourse
Stupid makes a nonsense of the artificial distinctions between rock and pop, indie or dance. Despite a lineage that links The Kinks, Iggy Pop, The Birthday Party and a million other garage groups we'd rather forget, not all that is stupidly great was born out of "Louie Louie". (Here's to Bootsy and the Parliamentfunkadelicment crew.) Stupid is the most beautiful thing on the planet when it means Iggy Pop staring down at you all over town from his American Caesar posters. Stupid pretty much describes the entire independent sector. What can be more stupidly exhilarating than being fried out of your brains in a club full of like-minded zombies listening to Trance Techno, brute 'Ardkore, Jungle or Ambient soma? Can there be a more attractive sight in rock than a bunch of indie cuties, be it Hole or PJ Harvey, struggling to overcome their own instrumental inadequacies to slam their guitars into overdrive and rocket to heaven in a feedback frenzy?
Stupid is the place where pop, exhausted, always returns to
regenerate itself. After Hippy: Iggy and The Velvets. After
Progressive rock: Roxy, Eno, punk. After punk: Chic disco; and so
it goes, on through the long dark night, through the twilight of
pop youth and onwards, as ever regressing into the future.
The flaw in the argument
But there is one danger. Stupid can turn into Stoopid. Stoopid is what happens when Stupid sells and others want to cut in on the deal. Stoopid is when people who should know better suppress their intelligence and unconvincingly play stupid. The orchestral minimalism of John Adams and Philip Glass is mostly an incredible waste of resources. And can there be a more stoopid sight in contemporary music than Glenn Branca conducting a dozen-plus guitarists all playing one note? When Stupid becomes an orthodoxy and encourages Stalinist tendencies in its followers, what once usefully trashed aesthetics becomes an aesthetic itself - and a very restricting one at that. The Butthole Surfers were eventually choked by their own piles, yet incredibly stoopid groups like Trumans Water sought to emulate them.
Does a little learning help? Definitely not. Progressive rock came about when pop took classical lessons, and nobody wants to repeat that mistake. Must it be Iggy Pop or Evan Parker, all or nothing, nothing in between? The trouble is, the light, once glimpsed through the fug of ignorance, cannot be denied. I repeat: Stupidity is pain, and foolishness and madness are far from blissful retreats from the real. The greatest stupid music casts long shadows of doubt across the face of pop. Doubt seeds yearning for enlightenment, and the beginning of a song in praise of learning.