I was just becoming aware of music in the late 1970s. My grade school soundtrack consisted of a Disco Duck compilation and every KISS record I could get my hands on. They were my first favorite band, the first records I bought with my own money, and my first concert experience. As I now know, there was a lot more interesting stuff going on in the music world, but at eight-years old, KISS’s comic-book, glam rock was just all right with me. I’ve been an avid music fan ever since.
In Rob Reid’s Year Zero (Del Rey/Ballantine, 2012), aliens have discovered cheesy Earth-music like I liked, but they found it via the theme song from Welcome Back, Kotter. The year in question is 1977, and since then, alien listeners have copied and shared so much Earth-music as to bankrupt the entire Universe. Now they’ve traveled light years to Earth to try and make good. You see, of all the ways that alien technology and culture are advanced beyond our own, the making of music is not one of them. Aliens suck at music, while we rock like no other.
Lighthearted and fun in the way that John Scalzi’s Red Shirts (Tor, 2012) is, Year Zero is an intergalactic send-up that lands close to home, and where the Red Shirts premise runs thin by its end, Year Zero feels franchise-ready. While Scalzi only tackles Star Trek (or science-fiction television shows, if we’re being liberal), Reid is able to skewer many more foes in 350 pages. Music snobs and gadget geeks get theirs, but the main targets are copyright enforcers and the whole damn music industry.
In the late 1990s, Reid founded Listen.com, which launched the Rhapsody music service in 2001, so he knows a bit about licensing fees and convoluted copyright laws. His knowledge of the subject matter shines throughout Year Zero. I don’t want to give it all away, so I’ll just say that if you’re interested in any of the above, you should read this book.
Around Year Zero, Mark Dery was coming of age in the era of glam. In All the Young Dudes: Why Glam Matters (2013), bOING-bOING‘s first ebook, Dery outs the closet heterosexuals of that decade. Just a few months before I attended that first KISS show, Dery witnessed Mott the Hoople live. It was July 9th or 10th, and an 18-year-old Dery joined Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson on stage for the chorus of “All the Young Dudes.” Like so many P2P-networked music fans, Mott the Hoople and David Bowie shared “All the Young Dudes.” Who owns the song (in every way that the word “owns” can be thought of) is a topic of deep debate, and Dery posits his own argument herein, as well as exploring the nuances of both versions.
Either way, the song is about alienation, not that of actual aliens or necessarily that of sexual castaways, but of suburban youth. Bowie proclaims in the BBC documentary, Hang On to Yourself (1996):
You’re given the impression that nothing, culturally, belongs to you, that you are sort of in this wasteland, and I think there’s a passion, for most people that have an iota of curiosity about them, to escape and get out and try and find out who one is and find some kind of roots […] All I knew [was that] it was… this otherness, this other world, and alternative reality, one that I really wanted to embrace; I wanted anything but the place that I came from (quoted in Dery, 2013).
Having come up in the outer colonies of Southern Californian suburbia, Dery was one of those Young Dudes, and this piece exemplifies the kind of writing he excels at. He’s always had a keen eye for the culturally curious, but lately his writing has taken on a more personal tone that lends it a humanity and a humility it once lacked. All the Young Dudes is a small victory for both Dery and bOING-bOING.
After seeing KISS in 1979, I won tickets to see them again in a look-alike contest. I was dressed as Paul Stanley. I had the wig, the make-up, the boots, the fake chest hair: the whole glam to-do. My dad, who’d dutifully gone with me to see them months before, offered me a choice between going again or the money his ticket would cost. To his visible relief, I took the money. When you’re eight-years-old in the suburbs of the late 1970s, ten bucks is another record, another long trip out of that world.
I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.