Young rockers and rappers might say it's not for you or for them SO YOU WANT TO BE A ROCK N' ROLL STAR

April 24, 1994|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Sun Pop Music Critic ock and roll has always presented itself as a mass market music. Despite occasional complaints about those who didn't get it -- parents, censors, squares -- there was never a sense that the music belonged to anyone in particular. If anything, rock culture owed most of its power to the sheer number of fans it incorporated. As RCA Records once put it, "50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong."

Or can they?

In recent months, Pearl Jam has been performing a new song called "Not for You" (it was the first number the band performed when it was on "Saturday Night Live" last Saturday). What it addresses is precisely the kind of popularity celebrated by slogans like "50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong." But the message singer Eddie Vedder conveys is hardly one Presley would understand:

My table seats just two (me and the band)

Got so crowded, I can't make room

Oh, where did they come from? Storm my room

And you dare say it belongs to you?

To you?

This is not for you . . . never was for you.

Keep in mind that Pearl Jam is not telling its audience to "stop listening" or "go away." It would be pretty silly, after all, for these guys to tour and make TV appearances if that's what they meant.

Instead, what the song tries to make plain is that the music Pearl Jam makes is personal, not something the fans can lay claim to simply by buying an album or attending a concert. If you like what they do, fine; if you don't like it, that's fine, too. They're not in this to please everyone -- they're in it to express themselves.

Coming as it does from one of the most popular bands in America, Pearl Jam's attitude may seem perplexing. But it's an increasingly common attitude among 20-ish rock and rap musicians. In truth, Pearl Jam is hardly the only band of its generation that would answer the Byrds' "So You Want To Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star" with a resounding "No!"

Fugazi -- whose independently released albums already sell well enough to crack the lower end of the Billboard charts -- has repeatedly rebuffed offers to increase its profile and fan base by signing with a major label, preferring instead to keep its albums and audience mostly underground.

De La Soul, whose low-key, idiosyncratic style turned rap on its head in 1990, followed its enormously successful debut album with a pointedly less-commercial effort entitled "De La Soul Is Dead." Since then, the group has openly derided the kind of crossover success originally predicted for them, boasting on their current album, "Buhloone Mindstate," that their music "might blow up [i.e., sell well] but it won't go pop."

Beck, whose quirky, catchy "I'm a Loser" is clearly the left-field hit of the year, was courted by almost every major label in the country when the single broke on college radio last summer. When he finally signed with Geffen, he explained that the deciding factor wasn't money -- other companies offered more -- but that the company wouldn't try to turn him into a hit machine. In fact, he plans on releasing his next two albums on tiny independent labels.

Most poignant example

Perhaps the most poignant example is Nirvana, whose second album, "Nevermind," was widely credited with making alternative rock a commercial force. But the band so hated having mainstream success that it tried for an expressly uncommercial sound when making "In Utero" -- an album which nonetheless debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts.

Nirvana's Kurt Cobain spoke of his discomfort at being a rock star in his suicide note, complaining that he never felt at home in front of the massively enthusiastic crowds his band attracted. "The worst crime I could think of would be to put people off by faking it," he wrote -- to which his widow, Courtney Love, responded, "No, Kurt, the worst crime I could think of was for you to continue to be a rock star when you just . . . hated it."

What's wrong with being a rock star? Surely these folks didn't complain when the money came in, did they?

Of course not. Nor should they have. But having rock-star-level success doesn't just mean fame, fortune and your picture on the cover of Rolling Stone.

For one thing, it means being sucked into the mainstream, and that's something many of these young stars want desperately to avoid. Part of the initial impetus behind the alternative rock movement, remember, was a wholesale rejection of mainstream pop values, from easily-accessible melodies to radio-friendly singles. Mainstream pop had no qualms about being "product," and these musicians wanted no part in that.

To have platinum-level success while avoiding the pitfalls of a product-oriented mainstream is a difficult dance, one that few bands can successfully manage. Maybe that's why R.E.M. has become a role model for many alternative rock acts.

The R.E.M example

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