A Prescription For 'SNL': Fewer Blog Bands, More Cowbell : The Record Saturday Night Live still plays a vital role in American pop music, but that role has little to do with the bands that take the show's stage.
NPR logo A Prescription For 'SNL': Fewer Blog Bands, More Cowbell

A Prescription For 'SNL': Fewer Blog Bands, More Cowbell

Another band on Saturday Night Live, another cascade of derision: "We have a great show for you: Sleigh Bells is here!"

"I'm petitioning @JacksonGuitars to take those guitars back," Anthrax's Scott Ian tweeted.

"Teenage cousins utterly baffled by Sleigh Bells, mime unintelligible cooing," reported music critic Zach Baron.

Pittsburgh Post Gazette's Scott Mervis punned: "Sleigh Bells failing to slay."

To me, they were an intriguing blur of sound — though I did wonder whether the lead singer's Bettie Page look, so evocative of previous musical guest Karmin's lead singer's Bettie Page look, might indicate that we had been duped and were watching a cast member in a recurrent role. Still, if Lana Del Rey was controversial going in, Sleigh Bells are not: from Pitchfork to Entertainment Weekly, they are earning solid plaudits. So why the now-predictable scorn?

From where I couch surf, we are asking Saturday Night Live to be something it rarely can be anymore — and ignoring what now makes it so unique. The show can't still offer the satisfaction of finally seeing the band you have been hearing on radio. There is no longer a large-scale rock audience with adventurous taste for radio to win over — tUnE-yArDs wins the leading critics' poll, making hookishly oppositional clamor, yet only sells in the tens of thousands. And thanks to cable and the Internet, watching live music has become a far more privatized and eclectic experience: Tinariwen, those bluesy Saharans, are a revelation in an appearance with TV on the Radio on The Colbert Report — or better still its web-only extension. A YouTube posting rewards us with video we never knew existed of Minneapolis club appearance by Prince in 1983 that was edited down and essentially released as the great recording "Purple Rain" — and our helpful YouTube bootleg host points out when the deleted third verse arrives, or how Prince is getting so jazzed by the riff that emerges in his end guitar solo that he just keeps going. How can a live SNL appearance in a stale stage space match the ability of Internet-era screenage to conquer time and demographics?

Yet, Saturday Night Live still has a vital role to play, one easily revealed if we think about what else took place musically this past weekend. In the opening skit, eternal Lorne Michael pal Paul Simon winked at us from backstage. 15 years into his career, Justin Timberlake had two appearances, like the cast member he becomes any time he wants to be: in a skit about celebrities coming over to see Jay-Z and Beyonce, he mocked Grammy Best New Artist Bon Iver — who had performed (to negative reviews, of course) only weeks before. In that stream of visitors to Baby Blue, SNL had its own little Prince moment — he was played by Fred Armisen, all smirk, purple, whisper and head weave. A Lindsey Buckingham character featured too, in a recurrent role they have for him.

That would be Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac: do most Jay-Z and Beyonce fans know that? Perhaps not, but Saturday Night Live fans are expected to. Thirty-seven years into its run, the show has become a studio of musical memory, connecting VH1 rock to Total Request Live boybands to hip-hop and two generations of indie underground hopefuls. SNL may not be the place where we go to see music break wide open. Too many cool things and hype machines for that. But it is the place where we use the classic American method of entertainment criticism — comedy — to put music in context. To link past with present rather than dwell only in past or only in present.

And this, I would argue, is what keeps American popular music going. Time and again, we find ways to do something better than toss out history for some modernist coronation of the new — that very British music press (or these days Pitchfork web) notion of pretending that someone great emerges with an album and a new subcultural stance every other Tuesday. The American way recognizes that popular music has more value, more status in the unexamined hierarchies of highbrow and lowbrow, if we elevate it to an ongoing national conversation. It takes a while to enter that conversation. A Lana Del Rey or Bon Iver might have to put up with being a caricature. But if they get lucky and stick around they get to be part of something enduring. Not revolutionary. Not even serious, necessarily. Just lasting and interconnected. Which matters to me a lot more than how good Sleigh Bells were on SNL. I can always go see them some Saturday and find out for myself.