Has anyone out there in corporate America ran into the marketing-speak term “seachange” yet? It might be hyphenated or two words, and I just found it’s also the name of a TV show in Australia, but it’s also a legitimate term that is used by people who frequently verb their nouns and vice-versa, and essentially means a paradigm shift (a term that has been heavily burned out by the same group.) This serves as a warning for the first time you see it in a mission statement or something and wonder what the fuck a seachange is, but it also has to do with two other things I was going to mention, and since I’m still on this Lester Bangs kick, I’m going to take a few thousand words to explain them. So here goes.
About ten years ago, I worked at the Support Center at IU. My boss, to put it lightly, did not like me. She never wanted to hire me in the first place, despite my good record consulting in the public facility labs, because I worked for Sean Sowder on the Sowder Utils. I was never doing anything illegal or illicit when I knew Sean, and I’d since drifted from Sowder and kept my nose clean for years, but she had a grudge against me since day one.
One day, aforementioned boss pulled me from the phones and dragged me in her office, and I knew from the general tone of things that she had somehow found out about something that I’d done that I didn’t even think of as bad but was to her a firing offense. She said “someone was sent an obscene email that you’re responsible for”, and then showed me a forwarded sex story called “Suzy Q’s Party Game”. She said the person who got this story was so offended that they wanted everyone involved with it either fired or expelled from school. And, of course, I was “involved”.
I remembered the story well. Back in maybe 1989, when I first got a VAX account, a guy across the hall from me in the dorms had sent the story to me. It was basically a tale of a woman at a party playing some sex-related games that slowly turned into an orgy, with a group of people sucking and fucking her while she was blindfolded. It was not a rape story; it was consensual, and not in any way degrading to the woman in any sense. (If you’re truly curious, search google for “Suzy Q’s Party Story” and you’ll find a copy.) I had long since forgotten about the episode, as I’d been sent a million things erotic or not in the mail that I either forwarded to friends or quickly deleted.
But I was “involved”, as if I had written the story, or maybe personally took part in anally violating the author during said party game. It was almost humorous, in that the list of forwarded headers on the message were at least five years long, and read like an archaeological expedition through the history of the VAX. What wasn’t funny is that I had to quickly explain to this stupid bitch that this was something I’d done a half-decade ago, and since I’d left one school, went to another, come back, and then worked for UCS for years. This wasn’t a political office or government security position; it was a good job at the time, but I was basically making $6.50 for answering phones. But I had to describe to her that this was eons ago, and if the word “seachange” was in my vocabulary, maybe I could have used it to explain that I’d experienced a major seachange since my days of being a freshman dweeb in the dorms.
I guess I was thinking about the concept of seachange as I think about music and try to think about what I should listen to, and what old groups I should embrace and what ones I should vilify. And in thinking about this, there really aren’t any groups that can survive a paradigm shift, especially in modern times. I mean, if you’re a group like Korn, and it’s no longer 1999 and Kurt Loder no longer wants to kiss your ass, you pretty much can’t turn around and make a pop country album and completely change your group’s mission. Sure, a lot of groups try, and a lot pretend. I mean, Puff Daddy changes his name every other year in order to make people think he’s doing something great or new, but that’s just marketing. And Madonna is always pulling some new stunt in order to make people think she’s more club-oriented or English or Jewish or lesbian or whatever is the hot button at the moment, but if you put MP3s of all of her albums in one playlist and put it on shuffle, it would be hard for the untrained ear to tell what ones went with what year.
I think a lot of bands that have hit it in, say, the last twenty years have such a narrow focus that it’s impossible to change course; it’s like recalling a nuclear missile that has already been launched and crossed over the north pole. A band like, say, The Prodigy, which enjoyed great popularity five years ago when MTV suddenly decided that “Electronica” was the next big cool thing probably isn’t getting many calls from Carson Daly these days. And they’d probably have a hard time retooling to compete with Godsmack or OutKast. Who knows, they could – and I’m not blaming this on the band entirely, as there were certainly dorks in suits involved in shaping their career in such a way that would ultimately make them obsolete. That’s why we have this whole cycle, where right now, Britney Spears is limping through this obviously bullshit “club” tour, in which she does blatantly stupid posturing to prove she’s “not a girl anymore”, and it’s like Elvis in his last days on the toilet. In five years, she will be back with her “next big album” after a detox session and a marriage or two, with maybe some solid sitcom guest-acting to boot, and it will essentially be the same shit with different plugins for the ProTools computer.
The only band that has weathered a seachange successfully actually did it at least twice, and that’s The Beatles. I know, you can say that Dylan did it, but all he did was plug in his guitar. Led Zeppelin had their ups and downs, but basically went from a powerhouse that did I through IV and then dicked around with Houses of the Holy and did a bunch of half-ass stuff until John Bonham woke up dead one day. I think fans of any band that’s around for at least a decade can probably sketch out a timeline on a bar napkin that consists of multiple phases, but it’s not like Zeppelin recording “No Quarter” started a huge “pre-grunge” blues movement that would consist of a legitimate change in careers. It was just another sound on another song of another Zeppelin album (albeit one of theirs that’s a big departure from their earlier work.)
Anyway, the Beatles. I should add, by the way, that all of this is my opinion, and I’m no scholar, and I wasn’t there. So please feel free to tell me I’m full of shit at any time, but I’m entitled to my opinions here. And if I had out the cocktail napkin and I was drawing up, you of course have to start with the Beatles that were the fab four, the skiffle band from Liverpool, who spent time in Hamburg and then moved back to the Merseyside area, blah blah. The whole sterile, bubblegum sound turned a big seachange at some point around Help!, when the band, despite the continuing Beatlemania press for giant world tours and teenybopper movies, they started working in riffs they copped from The Byrds, using a bit of feedback, and working in guitar solos that were actually guitar solos. Maybe Help! just plated the seeds, but by the time Rubber Soul their hair was growing, the lyrics were starting to take on a self-exploring folk rock quality, and hey – there’s even some sitar in there. This is what I would consider a well-worked change, especially since all of the core fans would continue to love this album, but it was like switching the entire backbone network on a system without informing any users that the new trunks would allow for much greater upgrade in the future.
The next seachange, and the one people remember, was the shift to Sgt. Pepper, in which everyone had really scraggly hair and beards and totally sixties clothes, and looked like they just got back from hanging out in India or something with their spiritual advisers. There’s a funny American Bandstand where they show a video from the album right before it breaks in the US, and all of the teenyboppers are like “why are they so ugly?” Some shrewd suit out on the left coast jumped on that, and realized that not everyone else was ready to open up their minds, and The Monkees were formed.
Ah shit, I’m bored of writing about seachange. I’m bored of the Beatles, too. I never really knew their music until college, and it’s infectious enough to get you buying the albums and humming “Yellow Submarine” when it’s on the Muzak in an elevator, but I’m fearful of trying to complete my collection, because I know those fuckers are going to re-release everything with all of the singles on each CD and a ton of other extra shit, and I’ve got enough to contend with in all of the other “upgrades” I need to make to my CD collection. I think it would cost me thousands of dollars to re-buy all of my Peter Gabriel and all of my Queensryche and all of my Rush CDs, and I know in another year or five, I will have to get it all on SACD or DVD-A or whatever. Another seachange. Fuck.
I managed to eat a whole small pizza while typing this and not get any in my keyboard. That is a first!