If Van Morrison and Neil Young share anything, it's nothing much deeper than time, talent, and peculiarity. They've been around for the same stretch of years. Both began in other people's bands, and had their first hits in the same era. Both went solo early, while maintaining long-term affiliations with other artists. Both stood out at The Band's Last Waltz concert. Both have traveled the genre map, ranging widely and sometimes alarmingly over styles. Both are older now, and seldom perform hatless. Both remain creative and interesting to watch. Aside from all that, their fortunes are their own.
Some cultural manifestations are like glossy paper: You pick them up, examine them, and put them down again. They're smooth, self-contained, and leave no residue on those who touch them. An academic essay on Abu Ghraib, for instance, or an opinion column. Others are like flypaper: You can't touch them without getting stuck to something -- in the case of “American Idol,” to symbols of Americanness. The show is controlled by and comprised of flesh-and-blood mortals who don't seek to be symbols or to act them out. And yet the show represents, emblematizes, signifies like crazy. It's democracy itself.
December 8th was a warm, dampish day in the media: John Lennon had been dead for a quarter-century, and everywhere tears came down. But in Minneapolis it was dry and well below freezing, with heat provided by anger, dancing bodies, and some very loud music. People did their crying in private; in public they raved it up.
“Hung Up,” track one of Madonna's new album, Confessions on a Dance Floor, knocks you over the head instantly. Her voice is that familiar mechanical cry, half-woman, half-machine, all sex. The beat is focused and forceful, the melody hooked on one slightly delayed chord change in the chorus -- a calculated swerve that gives the illusion of throwing off the rhythm before veering right back to lock it in, tighter than before. It's classic Madonna, an eccentric, propulsive, atmospheric dance epic up there with “Lucky Star,” "Into the Groove," and "Open Your Heart.”
Madison Avenue, that locus of all known evil, is at it again. Right now there's a Tommy Hilfiger commercial that uses the Jefferson Airplane song "Volunteers" as the sound-bed for a montage of hunky, wholesome boys and girls in a summer-home setting, frolicking in stonewashed denims and rugged cottons. The song has been deployed by admen once before (in a spot for the on-line brokerage e-Trade), and again the true text of its lyrics -- not some abstracted meaning but its literal thrust, what it always was about -- has been neatly expurgated.