Throwing Muses
Kristin Hersh
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"Can't Stop Doing Monkee Math" by Kristin Hersh, April 6 2009 (originally published on

Can’t stop doing Monkee math. It seems important right now.

See, my kids are being raised as anachronisms; mostly ‘cause I always wanted to be one myself. Little seventies Zoom kids, their impression of popular culture is limited to the popular culture of other decades. They watch Frank Capra movies and goofy crap like The Cat from Outer Space; their favorite tv shows aresurreal spoofs of television itself: Green AcresThe Addams Family, and now, The Monkees.

We Netflixed this series on a whim, having missed it the first few times around, and now we’re wondering why, culturally, we devolved from the Monkees, rather than rising to its occasion. They were the Marx Brothers plus music and, as I understand it, mutinied against the forces that tried to sell them and their music as bimbos (“bimbo” being what, now? That’s right: any thing or body dumbed-down, duded-up and de-natured enough to fool the easily fooled).

As the story goes, these guys were hired to play a fictional band for a tv show based loosely on A Hard Day’s Night, or at least hoping to draw viewers because of that movie’s popularity. The producers owned the name, and they hired songwriters to write the songs and session players to play the music. The actors were supposed to be musicians, but weren’t allowed to play their own instruments or their own songs. So, bored on the set between takes, they plugged in their prop amps and instruments – and turned themselves into areal band. This real band monster they created eventually revolted and got Don Kirshner fired. Cool!

This might not be true; I don’t know, I wasn’t there, but as mythology, it works. What better reason to start a band than boredom? That and having a heart and a mind. And the opportunity to be a petri dish of humanity in the laboratory of the entertainment industry. As an experiment, it’s an education. This is tv, for god sake! The box in everyone’s living room, opium o’ the masses, as unpretentious as donuts. But when the Monkees play a real song, the electricity in the room changes. You can feel the difference, ‘cause just a minute ago, they played kind of a dumb song and made fun of it the whole time. It’s fascinating.

And unlike A Hard Day’s Night, the show doesn’t try to make the band look cool. In fact, the group persona is loser+ Gilligan: deeply unpretentious. This isn’t just donuts, it’s pink frosted donuts with sprinkles and yet…can you imagine a pop star not trying to look cool? Or trying not to look cool? Letting goofiness and failure enter the equation? The Monkees were told to be silly, and decided to be funny instead, in what comes off as an unrehearsed free-for-all, spoofing itself and everything else. It’s elegant: subtext and irony are beautiful, and make a hell of a statement. The mistake the producers made was hiring real humans instead of willing bimbos. They must’ve been so bummed! Bimbos are silly; they aren’t funny. To sell the Monkees as bimbos was a fabrication.

I’m wondering if, because of their bizarre situation, the Monkees weren’t the only band ever allowed into the music business who didn’t have to consider playing the “suck to succeed” game. They were handed success, so they didn’t have to dumb-down, dude-up or de-nature their voice; in fact, their goal was the opposite: to prove that they were real, that they had a voice.

•  •  •

I know that rock star types’ll sometimes just suck naturally, that they will be as much about ego and greed as we have come to expect from the rich and famous, even when they aren’t rich or famous, even as the music business crumbles. Without anybody else to dress them up and market them as cartoon characters they’ll dress themselves up and act like cartoon characters. Because they haven’t found their voice, they create their own fabrication.

In fact, “the blind ambitious” are as noisy as they are because they have nothing to offer. They aren’t driven to play the next song, they’re driven to Sell. And with nothing to sell, they sell themselves. Loudly.  They’re all about the party; they fool the easily fooled. Some people confuse that with success. It’s not success, no matter how many people are watching.

Success in music can only be measured in impact, by the electricity shifting in a room. Whether you’re on tv, on a stage or alone in a garage, the goal is the same: passion. There is no passion in a fabrication. And passion matters. It might be hilarious, but it isn’t silly; it matters too much.

In the the days of the Carter Family, musicians drove around the country collecting traditional songs, trying to be the first to copyright them, which could get them paid bigger bucks than passing a hat. Big bucks formusic, something that had always just been around. Owning it. Weird. Like trying to own a kind of apple.

Then apples weren’t enough; maybe they’d sell better with a sugar coating, etc. Eventually, chemicals entered the picture and there we were, all made of Pop Tarts and Top 40 goo, wondering what happened. Because music had become a business. The same thing happens to sex when it becomes a business: a healthy human gift is literally perverted. Dumbed-down, duded-up and de-natured.

When us humans are passionate about each other, we’re disarmingly honest. This is exciting. We become the goofy losers we are. We fling open the garage door to share the apples we picked only because we all love apples so much.  It’s simple and, oddly,  there’s no real reason for it. As Micky Dolenz says in the pirate episode(!), “Just consider it a Monkee treat!”