When pop stars turn their back on "pop"

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As I might have mentioned earlier this week (when my jetlag was much, much worse than it is today), I just got back from Australia, where I was hosting a bunch of events at the Adelaide International Guitar Festival. For the second year in a row, I had a chance to meet a member of one of the top Aussie rock bands of the 1980s, Midnight Oil. Their anthemic “Beds Are Burning” was a hit here in the States in 1987 (where almost no one, myself included, recognized it as a plea for land rights for Australia’s indigenous people). Last year, guitarist Jim Moginie helped out in the Festival’s big Jimi Hendrix tribute; this year, I was quite taken with a bluesy guitar/drum duo called the Backsliders, and it turned out the drummer was Midnight Oil’s Rob Hirst.

What impressed me is that these guys had had a taste of international fame, and instead of trying to keep doing more of the same, they tried to follow their own respective muses. (Singer Peter Garrett has gone into politics, getting elected 2 years ago on a strikingly Obama-like platform but apparently running into some harsh realities that have blunted his impact.) I mention them because Scott Walker, the subject of the documentary film "Scott Walker: 30 Century Man," did the same thing back in the 60s. As part of the Walker Brothers, he experienced global, near-Beatles-esque success in the 60s, but you’d never know it from his dark, disturbing 1995 album Tilt. There is obviously an ambition to do something more than make sweet 3-minute pop songs here, and in last year’s followup, the even scarier album The Drift. (The latter album features a thumping sound that sounds like someone pounding raw meat. Turns out it is.)

All this has puzzled both critics and the listening public: how does someone throw away fame and fortune, opting instead for abstract, nightmarish soundscapes with lyrics that are almost willfully obsure? Because as you might expect, Walker’s efforts have not sold well, though the critics have generally liked them. But I do get the impression that some critics feel obliged to like Scott Walker’s albums, fearing that what they don’t fully understand might turn out to be Important In Some Way. Anyone who’s listened to the 20th century classical avant-garde, especially to composers like Edgard Varese (a Frank Zappa favorite and therefore not unknown to adventurous rock fans) and Krzysztof Penderecki, will see that despite what well-meaning critics have written, Walker is not exactly doing anything new. But what he is doing is pretty daring for the world of rock, and a complete rebuttal of everything that is wrong with pop music.

What does it say about “pop music” when artists who make it there turn their backs on it? (Perhaps more intriguing, what does it say when artists who make it there work so hard to stay there?)