The esteemed Rolling Stone magazine launched in South Africa recently, at the behest of a few wealthy hipsters with nothing better to do. Whether or not the South African music scene will benefit from Rolling Stone’s brand of music journalism is beside the point (although the fact that the hipsters chose Rolling Stone over Mojo or Uncut is telling). The fact is, until the money runs out, South Africans have yet another American brand making taste amongst its youth culture.
With the print version, featuring Van Coke Kartel doing the only thing they do well (a fashion shoot), came the obligatory online version, and a teacup-sized storm was unleashed when RSSA published an op ed piece by one of the supposed gate-keepers of the South African music industry, a muso-turned-radio-DJ named Jon Savage. Savage’s piece, despite being appallingly badly written and full of grandiose self-glorification, attempted to stir up some kind of debate about the state of modern South African music, and thankfully failed on all accounts.
I say ‘thankfully’ because God forbid someone as rabidly untalented and far too over-connected as Savage should have any claim to the state of the modern South African music industry (except perhaps as one of the many perpetrators of personality-less muzak that define modern SA rock music).
That being said, his unsupervised (and obviously unedited; great start, RSSA) time in front of his laptop has ‘everyone’ (read: concerned white rock fans) talking, and some of the comments, including Savage’s own, are revealing. Most respondents happily rubbish his piece, which at least says something positive about the state of critical reasoning south of the Equator. The odd few responded positively to his piece with what amounts to “fuck yeah!!!” After all, his diatribe against local music ended with some kind of call-to-arms:
“So let's act like we've grown up! Let's break down the walls! Let's revolt! Lets hoist our fists mightily in the air and announce together ‘LOCAL IS NOT LEKKER!’ “
Pressed for a response, he whined:
It feels like a) people haven’t read my article, or b) don’t understand what I wrote. The whole point of my article was to say that 10 years ago, you could HEAR that a band was South African when they were on the radio. Partly due to production, and partly due to not being exposed to enough of the international scene, and partly because there weren’t enough really top bands so the bar was set low! And therefore, loving music BECAUSE it was South African was necessary to help grow the industry. But now days, our bands are finally standing up on an international level in every way! We’ve got bands like Shadowclub, Zebra and Giraffe, Aking, Jack Parow etc etc – and many others who are categorically world class in every way and you can no longer distinguish between “local” and “international” bands because our bands are great! And therefore, the bar has been RAISED!!! We need to stop thinking of SA bands as “local” and we need to start thinking of them as bands!!! And local bands need to realize that the bar is no longer at Prime Circle level (a band considered to be hugely successful in SA), but we need to be aiming at Kings of Leon level (a band considered to be hugely successful on planet earth!!!!).
So, apart from an over-reliance on exclamation marks, no clarity there either.
The point of all this, and this blog, is this: for over 40 years, white South Africans of a particular musical persuasion have wondered why South African rock ‘n roll has never been able to make an impact on international music markets. We’ve blamed apartheid, population demographics, lack of access to inspirational music through the apartheid cultural blockade (which is patently bullshit), lack of studio techniques, lack of equipment, idiot record companies (true), lack of talented producers and engineers (true, until fairly recently)… in short, everyone.
White South African English-speaking rockers have never made it overseas in a big way, in the way that Australia produced INXS, Midnight Oil, or even pop legends like Kylie and Olivia Newton-John (not to mention AC/DC and the BeeGees). Or New Zealand produced Split Enz/ Crowded House. Or our other old Commonwealth cousin Canada produced Bryan Adams, Neil Young or Shania Twain.
It is kind of odd, you have to admit.
We’re not talking about white Afrikaans rock and pop. In their limited market, they sell outstandingly. And black South African music is, of course, hugely innovative and internationally successful.
But the sout-piele just can’t cut it. White South African English-speaking rock is of a dismally low-standard in the one crucial area that all music revolves around (although the way things are going internationally, not for long): songwriting.
Most SA bands have gotten technically more proficient. There are more rock bands per captia than at any other time in SA’s short music history, and most of these bands have access to cheap consumer versions of recording technology that enable them to record singles and albums with minimal expense. The whole landscape has changed, and in one area some SA bands at least are world-class: videos. There are a lot of talented visual people here, and some innovative, groundbreaking music videos have been produced.
But hardly any actual songs.
Lots of gurning and aping and shape-throwing and hipster-fashion and Cobain/Nickleback-esque white-angst, but nothing to really sing along to.
That’s been the bane of white South African rock music since time began, although along the way people like Robin Auld, Johnny Clegg, Bernard Binns (The Helicopters? Anyone?), Tully McCulley and Patric van Blerk have done us proud.
Is that what you’re kinda-sorta trying to get at, Mr Savage? Do you think mediocre nothingness like Zebra & Giraffe or aKing is world-class?
How exactly do people like you end up dictating to the heaving masses what’s cool and what isn’t? And how do you expect SA rock music to have any future if people like you are the tastemakers?
We obviously can’t rely on Rolling Stone.
They let you write.
And then they published it.