Tara Brabazon: In tune, but out of time

April 6, 2011

Teaching popular culture is a gift and challenge. When done well, students’ experiences are defamiliarised, disassembled and disrupted, and then reconstituted with freshness and inspiration.

Popular culture is special. Most songs, films, blogs and websites are “unpopular”, enjoyed by a few and discarded or ignored by many. To move from unpopular to popular culture, an object, sound or image must be relevant and useful to an audience.

Popular culture is a temporary label. A song or film may engage listeners or viewers with passion and enthusiasm. But this excitement wanes, with a fragment of enjoyment returning through nostalgia. In these cycles of popular and unpopular culture – pop and post-pop – audiences discover and deploy songs, fashions and films in unpredictable ways.

For example – and poaching from Monty Python – no one expected Rebecca Black’s Friday. This auto-tuned, addictive song became popular through Tweet-feeding and YouTube exposure. Its popularity does not signify quality, but relevance. During the horror of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, and the brutality and violence scarring Libya, Friday peddles a comforting lie that the most complex decision of a day is choosing between the front and back seats of a bus.

Relevance and quality are different, and understanding this distinction explains the careers of performers who surf between popular and unpopular culture. Ron Sexsmith should have been the bedrock of popular music for the past 15 years. His lack of chart success confirms that no matter how remarkable the song, melody, harmony or lyric, it is the audience that determines whether a slice of sound enters popular culture.

Sexsmith has two problems. First, he is out of time. And second, he is out of place. At the height of grunge and techno in 1995, he released a self-titled album. He wrote evocative songs that found a limited (but committed) following. Secret Heart and Speaking with the Angel are at the apex of song writing, and they were included in his first album. Even Dylan needed a warm up before releasing Freewheelin’.

Sexsmith’s songs did not fit the grungy or danceable genres of his time, but he was also out of place. As a Canadian, and continuing the tradition of The Band, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, his view was askew. Part of North America but not the United States, a displaced and delicate Canadian national music industry was formed. As with Australian and New Zealand music industries, success at a national level is required before stepping up to the larger audiences in the UK and the US. Like the Canadian musicians who preceded him, Sexsmith disconnected from the trends of charting music.

Before the de-territorialisation of the web, geography and history mattered to popular music. There were lags in release dates and it was difficult for non-US performers to synchronise international popularity. Justin Bieber, also from Canada, has demonstrated how using YouTube and Twitter can compress spatial and temporal differences and build an audience through the popular cultural equivalent of Greenwich Mean Time.

Just like The Band translated American roots music through a Canadian gauze and then imported it back to the US, Sexsmith absorbed the 1960s British songbook and sonically migrated it to the 1990s and 2000s. He combined the lyrical complexity of John Lennon’s A Day in the Life, the melodic innovation of Paul McCartney’s Let it Be, the dystopic detachment of The Hollies’ Look Through Any Window and the startling voyeurism of Ray Davies’ Waterloo Sunset. The result is lyrical intricacy, imaginative melodies and a glimpse into the roughened realities of life’s disappointments.

Sexsmith never had the success of Lennon, McCartney, The Hollies’ Graham Nash or The Kinks’ Davies. Even on iTunes, his 12 albums have featured a variety of descriptions from “singer/songwriter” to “alternative” and “rock”. In a 1999 interview, Sexsmith responded to a question about his un/post-popularity. He stated that: “It does get frustrating. Every record you make you think there’s another chance to bat and you’re always striking out...All my heroes had big hits and success...It’s out of my hands. I’m a 35-year-old guy from Canada and I don’t write groove oriented-music. So, I can’t expect too much.”

Sexsmith was right. Success was out of his hands. Occasionally though, something happens in popular culture that creates an unpredicted response. For example in November 2005, ITV broadcast the documentary Take That: For the Record to commemorate 10 years since the boy band dissolved. It showed an arrogant Robbie Williams, revelling in his solo success and mocking his fellow band mates. It also revealed the consequences of a post-pop career on the other band members. With a retrospective singles’ collection re-entering the charts, the remaining four members reformed for the Ultimate Tour and then recorded the new albums Beautiful World and Circus. During the same period, Williams’ solo career declined and in 2010 he rejoined his former band. While the documentary was not responsible for the creation of Take That 2.0, it (re)connected an audience with songs they had previously enjoyed.

Sexsmith has been assisted by a similarly unusual source. Love Shines is a documentary, released in October 2010, that reviewed Sexsmith’s career. Directed by Douglas Arrowsmith and commissioned by the Movie Network and Movie Central, the narrative trawled the consequences of popular cultural failure. It tracked the production arc of his album Long Player Late Bloomer.

The documentary won the audience award at the South by South West (SXSW) film festival and prompted intense feedback when screened on BBC Four during March 2011. The documentary conveyed how it feels to write outstanding music for a small group of fans. The programme displays his great voice and dextrous guitar technique, but also shows the emotional, familial and financial consequences of writing music that cannot find a wide audience. Now in his late forties, he despairs the ravages of age on his appearance, regrets a failed marriage and questions the relationship with his children.

Colleen Hixenbaugh, his second wife, conveyed the cost of (un)popular music on their lives. Sexsmith encountered fans at the laundromat. They asked for an autograph and wondered what he was doing there. He replied that he cannot afford a washer and dryer at home. Hixenbaugh revealed that for Sexsmith’s 40th birthday, a friend bought him a piano. Her voice cracked as she expressed appreciation for this present: “We couldn’t afford a piano and he writes on piano. It was the most wonderful gift anyone could have sent.” A moment of silence follows this revelation, as viewers realise that Sexsmith has been writing songs in moments pinched from other people’s pianos.

Elvis Costello expressed the problem best: “It has almost become an embarrassment…that he is underappreciated.” The years of struggle and loss have had an impact. In a melancholic moment, Sexsmith ponders that if Long Player Late Bloomer is not successful, then “maybe this was time to step aside for a while”. The notion that such an extraordinary songwriter, singer and man would stop, beaten by popular culture, demonstrates the fickleness of the audience. It is fitting that another medium and genre – the music documentary – came to his rescue.

The album Long Player Late Bloomer was released on 1 March 2011. Every song is well crafted, moving and powerful. Three tracks – Love Shines, Late Bloomer and Believe It When I See It – have the characteristics to enable chart success. But being outside of pop time has again had a consequence. He has produced an outstanding album in an era where that platform is redundant. In a moment where Lady Gaga is the archetype of success, releasing – with full Facebook and Twitter support – a series of big singles and a suite of remixes for Born This Way, Sexsmith has produced the perfect album. Every song could be a single.

The quality and distinctiveness of this album has created its own problems. When his manager attempted to sell it to a record company, the majors rejected it as too alternative. The independents rejected it as too mainstream. Long Player Late Bloomer was distributed, after a delay, by Warner Music Canada: a mainstream label, but via a national subsidiary.

This man who was out of time and place may have found a distribution model that suits him. Digital downloading of music has a positive impact on “long tail” performers like Sexsmith. If the tracks can feed into e-commerce portals like iTunes, then being Canadian or a New Zealander trying to operate in a British- or US-dominated music industry has never meant less than it does now. All music is equally downloadable. If an infusion from television, film, Twitter or YouTube can create momentum, then a future fan does not have to stumble on Sexsmith’s albums in a local record store. An entire back catalogue can be downloaded in less than 30 minutes. The uneven distribution that has harmed his career evaporates through the availability of the download.

Sexsmith is no longer out of time or place. He is centred. Sexsmith provides an unsurpassed soundtrack to manage the contemporary realities of disappointment, disbelief and despair. There are no happy endings. The best marriages end when one partner dies before the other. Banality is woven into the workplace. Days are filled with tasks that did not exist 10 years ago. Weeks pass without significance, transformation or enlightenment. In such an age, the only success remains survival. Sexsmith is a survivor.

In a world of wars without end, work without purpose and love without the feeder fairy tale, Sexsmith helps us to see life as it is, rather than how it is advertised. In the song Lebanon Tennessee, he realised our present location is “as good a place as any”. That is Sexsmith’s gift, to squeeze extraordinary emotions out of a very ordinary daily life. In the Love Shines documentary, he stated that “my favourite things in the world are to play piano, drink coffee and go for walks”. He remains a late bloomer and long player, and may have just walked from being an unappreciated Canadian songwriter and into popular cultural success. Black may have Friday. Sexsmith has a future.

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