Face the Music

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Imogen Poots as Kelly Ann on Roadies.

the emotional economy of cameron crowe’s roadies.

The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool. — Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs, Almost Famous

I stumbled onto Showtime’s Roadies while flipping through cable channels this summer. After watching a few minutes, I thought “hey, someone really ripped off Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous here.” Of course, anyone more attuned to the latest news in premium cable television already knew: Cameron Crowe had ripped off himself.

Here was a romantic comedy that took Crowe’s sweet, finely wrought love letter to his own early days as a precocious teenage rock critic in the 1970s and updated it for the present. Following the crew of the fictional Staton-House Band on a tour across the United States, Roadies offers Crowe’s typical hyper-sincerity and sentimentalism. The program is far clunkier and less satisfying than Almost Famous, but Roadies shares that film’s interest in how popular music has always been a cynical, commodified culture industry yet, even to this day, also retains submerged yearnings for breakthrough to self-discovery and utopian community.

Nowhere on the show does this lurking dream appear more boldly than on the face of actress Imogen Poots, who plays skateboarding rigger and aspiring film student Kelly Ann. Poots stays in a space partway between ingénue and tough girl and the best moments on Roadies find Crowe letting the camera linger on her as her mouth and eyes dance through a thousand emotions and feelings. It is vintage Crowe, taking the fleeting dreams of communion, salvation, and liberation found in the romanticization of the touring rock show and concentrating them in one character, on the brow and cheekbones of a young actress.

Much of the rest of Roadies falls rather flat. Even various guest star appearances by rock legends (Jackson Browne, Lindsay Buckingham, John Mellencamp, Robyn Hitchcock) and great music from younger acts (Jim James, Lucius) cannot quite get it off the ground. Nonetheless, it contains more in its case than just some vintage amps and cool new gear.

Roadies reminds us that the roadie remains, even to this day, a tantalizingly intriguing figure. Neither star on stage nor audience before it, the roadie is outside either role, and so both in the show and yet not of it. This makes the roadie story a path to the shadowy appeal of pop music performance as both routinized system and somehow also magic act, as something fundamentally created by, yet never quite fully incorporated into the rational extremism of corporate capitalism. In short, the roadie is part of a larger machinery of the culture industry, yet also an anachronistically artisanal worker who belongs to a guild and carries her or his own history, meaning, and lore of what it means to labor backstage for the pop spectacle.

“Music, you know, true music—not just rock ‘n’ roll—it chooses you,” declared actor Philip Seymour Hoffman in his role in Almost Famous as the rock critic Lester Bangs, who was Crowe’s actual Virgil in his own adolescent descent into 70s rock. “It lives in your car, or alone listening to your headphones, you know, with the cast scenic bridges and angelic choirs in your brain. It’s a place apart from the vast, benign lap of America.” Pop music, in other words, saturates the technologies of consumer capitalism, the cars and headphones and, yes, performance spaces (they don’t call it the concert industry for nothing). From there it moves people affectively, imaginatively, socially, and even sometimes politically. It offers passage to a different place, another country. That “place apart” can seem illusory, fantastical, and escapist. And yet, the seemingly fleeting possibilities to which music brings participants might be the more permanent domain. Pop music, in the right moment and context, opens up a vista on a hidden realm that was in fact there all along, a place in which social cooperation and individual integrity complement each other, in which the profit motive gives way to other human relationships.

Bangs was the patron saint of this sort of perception of pop music’s power. He was among the first to identify in lyrical language its emotional economy, the transactions of the heart lurking below the ones of finance, impossible without the larger framework of American corporate capitalism, but always beckoning to a different kind of arrangement of what it meant to operate in, with, under, even sometimes against its tyrannies. Roadies certainly tries to hit the Bangsian note, and its promise in doing so is Crowe’s turn from the critic to the roadie as his way into exploring the “place apart” that music summons forth.

While Almost Famous was preoccupied with the question of critical distance and how one achieves it, asking if there were any differences between a musician, a fan, and a critic, rendering the pursuit and attainment of an appreciative, loving, but more defined critical distance as its bildungsroman for Crowe’s fictional alter ego William Miller, Roadies shifts away from questions of critical distance. It turns, instead, to issues of labor, in particular the quality of the roadie’s craft, which takes place in a liminal space between work and play. What kinds of agency do these workers have? Do they offer a different way of relating to history in American popular culture since the 1960s? Do they give us a handle on how to handle the ruptures of those transformations or a means of appreciating what’s better or improved, if anything?

This makes it sound like Roadies is some kind of Birmingham School cultural studies treatise. It’s not. On the surface, Roadies is merely a rom-com romp full of Crowe’s signature appreciation of music’s emotional power. It keeps things safe, by  and large, and uses absurdity to access darker tones and issues. Most of all, the show is a classic expression of Crowe’s interest in generating an emotional state of cheerfulness for his characters that masks, and hence intensifies, deeper sadnesses below, producing on screen a kind of pleasurable wistfulness. The program is also merely the latest installment of the great backstage musical genre: 42nd Street or A Chorus Line gone arena rock.

And it just does not quite pull it off overall. I had no interest in actually attending a concert by the Staton-House Band. However, at deeper levels, the series uses the roadie and the concert industry to touch larger questions. Here’s a job—the roadie—that muddies the waters between older visions of independent craftspeople, trade-union industrialism, and modern-day hedonistic celebrity spectacle. Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll finds solidarity with the workers of the world. Is this not, at some level, what many hunger for in their careers, in their day-to-day jobs, even if they are conditioned not to admit it? It’s hard labor, but it doesn’t have to be cold beans.

At a time when the relationship between economic livelihoods and actual happiness in working lives continues to fray, with moments of joyous, upper-class creative labor possible but also a troubling decline of a robust middle ground for most Americans to find satisfaction in their jobs, Roadies offers its own kind of meditation on a working-class life that taps into elite modes of laboring pleasure and pleasurable labor. Crowe’s vision is overly sentimental, and the reality of his show rings quite false at times. But he also packs in a lot of emotional and critical edge just below (maybe even through) the heartstring tugging. On his show, in the music and interactions, and especially on the face of Imogen Poots playing rigger Kelly Ann, rock music, so rightfully critiqued on many other grounds (racist, sexist, bad aesthetically), still preserves a certain mode of ambiguous class politics, reminding us of how rigged things are, and how unrigged they might become if we could just get the equipment set right.

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