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Spinal Tap: Absolution for Rock n' Roll?
Or Just Another Media Gimmick?
by Hugh Asnen / California State University, Los Angeles
"It happens like anything else happens."
Bob Dylan on his popularity, 1965
"Through clever and constant application of propaganda,
people can be made to see paradise as hell, and also the other
way around, to consider the most wretched sort of life as paradise."
Adolph Hitler, Mein Kampf, 1935
"There's such a fine line between stupid and clever."
David St. Hubbins, 1982
In social theorist Walter
Benjamin's essay The
Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Benjamin
claimed there would be new technical factors in the modern mass
media age that would contort the characteristics of an art piece
as well giving an art piece certain kinds of potential societal
In 2002, the phrase "Go to eleven" which originated
from the movie, entered the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary
with the definition "up to maximum volume".
The "WAAMR" essay
was produced, Benjamin wrote, in the effort to describe a theory
of art that would be "useful for the formulation of revolutionary
demands in the politics of art." He argued that art in the
age of mechanical reproduction would inherently be based on the
practice of politics. What Benjamin didn't quite imagine was
the odd juxtapositions his theories would face when placed in
the context of the modern day entertainment business.
It is my belief that Spinal
Tap proved the bulk of Benjamin's theories to be true. Additionally,
I propose that when the creators of the "Spinal Tap"
art piece took on the task of a satirical commentary of a media
genre while implementing various Mechanical Reproduction era
media methods, this created a unique scenario. I'll call that
scenario: "Art Commenting on Art in the Modern Age"
a.k.a. "A Simulacrum of a Simulacrum".
What Spinal Tap's career looks
like on its surface is a compounding or doubling of one particular
notion. A social theorist and critic Jean Baudrillard has noted
several ideas in his philosophical treatise "Simulacra and
Simulation" of what contributes to "simulacrum"
in a modern society. Baudrillard notes one of these contributing
factors is "Contemporary media
blurring the line between
products that are needed (in order to live a life) and products
for which a need is created by commercial images." Frustrated
rock n' roll artist Bob Dylan once remarked to fans "If
you needed my autograph I'd give it to you." Hypothetically,
I propose the Spinal Tap artists would say "If you needed
our autographs, we'd give them to you, but realize we also tell
you why we shouldn't give them to you in the subtext of our movie,
This brand of the unexpected
communicated wisdom (that Spinal Tap imbued in mass media entertainment)
has had a unique impact on society, media and the Spinal Tap
artists themselves. And I believe that Spinal Tap as "art"
and as a "rock band" are just as valuable to understanding
and celebrating our culture as any other rock icons.
Spinal Tap commented on rock
bands within the rock n' roll era "pop culture". There's
a vicious cycle inherent in "pop culture art". Here,
an artist's message isn't the artist's alone. Instead, the artist's
message is a combination of financial gambles made by industry
bosses. Baudrillard said of the simulacrum that it's "
that which conceals the truth--it is the truth which conceals
that there is none. The simulacrum is true." What does this
mean in the context of the music industry?
This idea manifests itself
in the music industry by the simulacrum creation of a new artist
concealed as "society's desire for a spokesman", when
the truth is that a new artist is "mass media's desire to
find a bankable product". In other words, "rock stars"
they are "simulacrums of
what the music industry guesses society wants them to be".
The more money a "rock star" makes, the more a simulacrum
becomes iconic and the rock star's level of fame can linger on
The fate of the rock artist,
from early on, has depended on the media defined commodity of
the artist, not direct qualities of the art. This is why abstract
mythological terms like "rock god" are used. In modern
day art interpretation, rock musician art can't be perceived
by society (as a whole) in a more succinct sense. And it's this
mythological quality, or "mystique" of artists that
(ironically) has built and destroyed the rock music industry.
It's also a part of the industry that many rock stars paradoxically
scorn and embrace. "Why do I have to sell out to sell my
In 2004, blues legend Robert
Johnson's grandson Steven related a story about his grandfather
who, after 2 years away from home practicing guitar, returned
to accolades. When one admirer commented to Johnson "The
only way you could play like that, you'd have to sell yourself
to the Devil." Johnson absorbed that idea. Whenever the
question of his talent came up, Johnson used that "Devil"
bit as his answer, and added that he'd done the devilishly amusing
deed of selling his soul in exchange for fame. It was a folktale
and it was also rock n' roll's first successful gimmick
used for artist promotion.
About 50 years later, in 1979,
an ABC-TV sketch comedy pilot starring actor / director / writer
Rob Reiner aired a parody of a "music video", a newer
promotional art form that was being increasingly utilized by
the rock industry. The comedy sketch included three actor/writers
who portrayed the video's heavy metal rock band. These writers/band
members were Michael McKean (as David St. Hubbins), Christopher
Guest (as Nigel Tufnel) and Harry Shearer (as Derek Smalls).
The fictional band was called "Spinal Tap". Reiner,
McKean, Shearer and Guest are the "Spinal Tap artists"
that I refer to in this essay.
In 1982 the artists of Spinal
Tap decided to make a mockumentary movie which became This
Spinal Tap. TIST was released in theaters in 1984.
On the surface, Spinal Tap was skewering the heavy metal genre.
What society would later realize was that Spinal Tap addressed
the entire rock genre as it had been portrayed by the mass media
up to that point. In an era that had just seen the magic of "image-less"
"mass-media-less" punk rock, the "heavy metal"
band context was the perfect excess-laden wrapper for Spinal
Tap's rock satire candy.
The process Reiner and friends
used was clever. Rock journalism invented artists like Bob Dylan
and the Beatles as definitive rock artist commodities whose defining
quality was "importance in the genre of American popular
Spinal Tap, however, utilized
rock journalism and other multimedia, intertwining them with
cleverly constructed variations on performance satire and storytelling.
This unintentionally created an art piece simulation of the definitive
rock artist commodity whose defining quality was "unimportance
in the genre of American popular music". These Spinal Tap
characters were rock clods as opposed to rock gods.
Benjamin speaks of enhanced
authoritative tools that modern technology can afford the artist,
saying "The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as
does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses
" In other
words, the difference of displaying rock n' roll via film media
(as opposed to a "live" rock music display) is that
the artist has greater ability to dig into the psyche of the
audience. Reiner utilized this in TIST in a big way.
Benjamin also said "Reception
in a state of distraction, which is increasing noticeably in
all fields of art and is symptomatic of profound changes in apperception,
finds in the film its true means of exercise." Deciding
to make an authentic feeling film, TIST Director Rob Reiner embraced
the documentary film methods and found (as Benjamin put it) "the
true meaning" of the "exercise of audience reception"
using a new synthesis of media interconnected with a quest for
The dialogue in all the TIST
footage was improvised which aided in its deceptively loose documentary
feel that the audience observed at a conscious level. Yet the
film's overall narrative was so intricately back-storied and
so firmly plotted that TIST remained heavily authoritative in
nature. This worked on a subconscious level to aid the artists
in relaying deeper themes throughout the film.
Like Bob Dylan, "the
artist" known for clever wordplay, the Spinal Tap artists
"played with things"
words, music, media, while
at the same time they were working hard for authenticity.
These brilliant components
fell so neatly in place that bigger questions of context, comparison
and contrast within TIST's subject matter could be addressed.
Questions such as: "Was the band's hubris unwarranted?"
"Were Tap members smart, or just saying smart sounding things?"
"Were Tap members any dumber than a typical rock star?"
"Were our culture's actual rock stars primarily pseudo-intellectuals?"
Frank Zappa once famously
said "Rock journalism is people who can't write interviewing
people who can't talk for people who can't read."
And This Is
Tap covertly asked the question "If not rock journalists,
if not the media, then WHO is defining rock n' roll for you?
If it's not YOU, you may want to reconsider how you ingest entertainment."
This more practical angle that the film indirectly offers connects
the authenticity of "Spinal Tap the artist" to "Bob
Dylan the artist". And it's what made Spinal Tap a successful
spokesperson for society's newest rock music culture.
The TIST film begins with
the mockumentaries' filmmaker, Director Marty DiBergi (played
by the film's actual director, Rob Reiner) addressing the audience.
And when DiBergi introduces himself, he mentions (proudly) that
he makes dog food commercials. This instantly sets a tone, igniting
the theme of "subservience to the mass media and the almighty
dollar." This is the practice that built and destroyed rock
and the practice that rock gods from Johnson to
Dylan (along with their audiences) bought into.
TIST juxtaposes historical
media to simultaneously evoke ridicule and sympathy for rock
musicians from its audience.
Where once our rock films
had young hip rock n' roll gods, TIST had middle-aged has-beens
that had an "every man" quality. These were artists
persistent enough to claw their way to the top of mainstream
culture success at the expense of an artist's connection with
reality. But instead of pushing pampered rock royalty superstars
being egotistical on film, TIST shows delusional losers continually
facing painful problems. This was a fresh viewpoint for society
to observe its rock n' roll.
The film isn't celebrating
the "rock n' roll dream" per say, rather it's relating
a rock n' roll nightmare where we're observing the death of a
rock n' roll band. There's a line of dialogue in TIST where Spinal
Tap's manager Ian Faith (played by Tony Hendra) states that "Death
it's in every cinema
" Maybe that's TIST
in a direct self-observational moment. It surely seems to be
visible in the dark tone of the film.
Even with the film's happy
ending of reconciliation and rewards for the heavy metal "liberal
artists", the underlying truth is that TIST gives the audience
the same conservative message they've been getting since the
Bob Dylan days: "Don't break up the band and live away from
the music industry machine" or "The mass media needs
you, and you need the mass media."
When Reiner was asked the
question, "Why film a documentary on such a bad, unsuccessful
" Reiner quipped "Because the big, successful
ones were taken." Seriously though, "Good bands"
as long as their drama is insightful
about life, it'll make a good movie. TIST wasn't about "rock
n' roll" as much as it was about a good story imbued with
time tested motifs, presented in a fresh way.
Ricky Gervais, the hugely
successful creator of the mockumentary juggernaut franchise The
Office, calls TIST "The single biggest influence on
The Office." Gervais says of TIST's universal themes
"Whether you're in a band or work at ICI, you can relate
Chip Rowe laments that when
audiences relegate TIST to merely a "great comedy film,"
that that attitude is "
diminishing it to an Eddie
Murphy comedy. It's not Beverly Hills Cop. It's a great
Today's fads are tomorrow's
history book fodder. Spinal Tap's authentic authoritative set-ups
via simulated era (and genre changes) from their popular TIST
film have carried into their continued media appearances in present
day. This has made Spinal Tap a virtual history book, commenting
on the entire era where "rock was King". They will
continue to be rock stars as the number of such icons dwindles.
Spinal Tap can remain a familiar commodity almost indefinitely.
They are quite unscathed by "rock music industry chaos".
In post-TIST scenarios, Benjamin's
theories are brought full circle because of the hard work of
an "authoritative statement successfully made." TIST
has already created a temporal world for Spinal Tap fans where
one does not truly participate in the authority of the art. However,
the "feeling" of participation is there because Spinal
Tap has already studied society, gave its incisive feedback,
and can now interact with us in a less risky way where the art
is more potent than otherwise.
The new form of Spinal Tap's
aura is a zombie of sorts, "half alive and half dead".
With the film we were forced authoritatively to accept a band
we didn't need in rock n' roll, when, as far as Baudrillard was
concerned, we really didn't need the whole idea of rock n' roll
to begin with: A simulacrum within a simulacrum.
Baudrillard says that "Simulation
is to pretend to have what one doesn't have". Simulation
is not just pretending though, it's actually "doing".
And Spinal Tap "does it". Rowe agrees, saying "They
became a real band
they released three albums
they were on TV shows in character
every band's a character. I mean, the Rolling Stones, Steven
Tyler, they all dress up to perform
. to say Spinal Tap
is a 'fake' band, what does that mean? They wrote their own music,
played their own instruments, and they toured: that's a band
Baudrillard would also propose
Spinal Tap is defined as "real" (identified as a simulacrum)
because society actually describes the band as being "imaginary"
and the combination of that aspect with the fact that Spinal
Tap is actually three human beings who play their own instruments,
and release reproduced music media, and make public appearances
is what helps define it. The Beatles, Bob Dylan, etc. in this
context are "hyperreal".
In describing his own Spinal
Tap text, Spinal Tap A to Zed: A Guide To One Of England's
Loudest Bands, author Chip Rowe prefers to keep Spinal Tap
as a pure simulacrum "That's the whole spirit of it
. I'm not interested in the actors."
Baudrillard also spoke of
a later stage of simulacrum as "
where the simulacrum
precedes the original and the distinction between reality and
representation vanishes. There is only the simulacrum, and originality
becomes a totally meaningless concept." Regarding media,
rock music artist Bob Dylan once said "You're not that person
everyone says you are, Even though they call you that all the
time." The Spinal Tap artists have no reason to worry about
their simulacrum preceding them as Dylan worries. Everybody (including
Spinal Tap themselves) knows they are an out-and-out "act".
This attitude gives a Spinal
Tap fan a certain amount of freedom too. Local L.A. rock singer
Stevie Peavey explains "People like to like Spinal Tap.
It shows they're cool, that you can laugh at rock or something.
You can love metal and like it. You can hate metal and like it."
I'll propose that Peavey's
fan description scenario resembles an example of what Benjamin's
idea of Spinal Tap fans might be regarding "the exploitation
of the proletariat". And that this understanding of Spinal
Tap ultimately makes it possible to deconstruct the characteristics
of capitalism, in that Spinal Tap is definitively more about
art than mass media. A fan shares the deeper "clever"
value of the Spinal Tap simulacrum, not mass media's superficial
equivalent of it: "Unhip losers playing dumb music".
This sentiment absolves rock
n' roll, with Spinal Tap effectively being rock n' roll's saviors.
It grants society freedom to enjoy "dumb" mass media
entertainment in a guilt-free manner. That kind of encouragement
may seem silly, but when you think of it as Spinal Tap helping
to make society more aware of mass media's foibles, in order
to better discern between "important issues of humanity"
vs. "fluff entertainment", Spinal Tap's redemption
of rock n' roll appears more serious.
In 1984 the modern media was
not only changing how audiences perceived art, it was also changing
how artists sent their message, and Spinal Tap (consciously or
unconsciously) contributed to a big part of this by using their
film to take a certain amount of authority back for all of rock
n' roll, an authority that had been stripped away over the years
by the impact of mass media.
Indeed, Spinal Tap has helped
rock music to develop in such a way that an audience now has
an opportunity to see rock music's absurdities through the looking
glass without the initial mass media interference that frustrated
the young idealistic artist Bob Dylan. This is testament to both
Spinal Tap and their audience's success in negating an element
of the very bastardization of art that Benjamin spoke of in his
By refreshing society's view
on the value of rock n' roll; Spinal Tap sacrificed themselves
by being rock's village idiot. And rock artists themselves have
responded. Rock legends from Bono to Jagger to Tyler have acknowledged
Spinal Tap as having an impact on them at some point. Spinal
Tap have been asked to perform alongside the largest names in
the industry: heavy metal legends in the 1985 Hear N' Aid project,
artists at Wembley Arena for the 1992 Freddie Mercury Benefit
Concert, and the notable 2007 Live Earth concert as well. And
it's true that "real" musicians started buying equipment
whose knobs "went up to 11" in response to TIST's most
iconic movie scene.
Additional recognition which
I think is respectable includes:
'Spinal Tap' consistently takes top spots in all-time movie
lists including lists like Mojo Magazine's "Top Rock
Movies" where Spinal Tap beat out one of the primary films
it satirized (The Rolling Stones: Gimme Shelter).
In 2002, This Is Spinal Tap was deemed "culturally,
historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library
of Congress and was selected for preservation by the United States
National Film Registry.
A point of interest is that
a growing amount of recognition has been bestowed on Spinal Tap
in more recent years. In 2012, society understands the genius
of Spinal Tap better than it did 28 years ago.
In the 21st century, the rock
music genre is degenerating. It's not making the same kind of
money it once did. Rock artists are offering less new ideas to
market. The public is becoming more disinterested, so the mass
media is following suit and turning its back on the bulk of the
better rock artists they could promote. Indeed, the end is near.
The 1960s era rock audience grew up, slowly merging with the
dark realities of rock n' roll, and they have come to peace with
In 1967, the first widely
celebrated rock documentary Don't Look Back was released
featuring the sarcastic, sometimes scathing tongue of a young
Bob Dylan. In 2005 there was a Dylan documentary release called
No Direction Home that was cobbled together from footage
gathered during the Don't Look Back era.
Famous film critic Roger Ebert
had been put off by Dylan's snarky attitude on repeated viewings
of DLB. On his thoughts of NDH, Ebert noted "What I feel
for Dylan now and did not feel before is empathy." Either
Ebert had changed or documentary rendering style had changed.
But the 1960's Bob Dylan in NDH was the same guy filmed in DLB.
Whatever the case for Ebert's
new attitudes, what strikes me is that Ebert noted that the proper
amount of "mystique" had been maintained in the 2005
film. Ebert's observation makes me feel that society has come
a long way from the early days of rock n' roll. That was an era
not even realizing the impact of "mystique" as it applied
to artists, media and society. I believe today's society understands
rock n' roll much better, and that Spinal Tap had a lot to do
with that process.
Chip Rowe believes today's
society understands the context of a dryer, wittier satirical
humor in a better way through the pioneering efforts of TIST,
saying "If they didn't invent mockumentary, they certainly
Now we've got actual reality shows that could
be mockumentaries, they're so ridiculous
in the mockumentary style of the movie is imitated in so many
we've gone full circle where we have reality shows
that are scripted."
Benjamin may have agreed with
Rowe regarding "tragic sociology" as the current fate
of pop entertainment trends. In his essay, Benjamin states "Mankind,
which in Homer's time was an object of contemplation for the
Olympian gods, is now one for itself. Its self-alienation has
reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction
as aesthetic pleasure..."
And I'll suggest that Benjamin
may have seen the Spinal Tap phenomenon as an aura-retaining
uniquely powerful simulacrum that has theoretically transcended
and conquered society-destroying pitfalls of mass media better
than most other rock bands. And Spinal Tap has done this by (ironically)
defining those pitfalls in an artistic form.
Baudrillard, I believe, would
see Spinal Tap as a "warning" of sorts. In modern times,
the danger to society is not "mass media entertainment as
art" the danger lies in society not recognizing their relationship
with mass media. Society should be aware of the deeper way that
mass media affects them, and how they (the individual) can remain
subjective about art and society overall.
When discussing the subject
of art in the This Is
Spinal Tap film, Spinal Tap
guitarist David St. Hubbins remarks that there's a fine line
between stupid and clever. Benjamin reveals this fine line to
be an ever-changing squiggly-type line that both the artist and
audience must detect and navigate with authority.
Spinal Tap has danced deftly
onto the "clever" side of that line, using modern media's
strengths to create pure art expressed as wholesome myth within
the rock n' roll genre, a place that mass media has been bastardizing
from the first moment a rock journalist approached a rock artist.
Spinal Tap made rock magical. And they did this by being the
morons of rock n' roll.
That, to me, is the quite
"real" martyrdom of Spinal Tap within our gimmick-laden