The big 4-0 passed us by with hardly a whimper. It was just a couple weeks ago, but no one made a fuss, not even the band, who seldom pass up a chance at a cash grab. Perhaps it’s not all that surprising; on the list of Pop Culture Disasters, this one ranks pretty low–somewhere between GNR’s Spaghetti Incident and Spice Girls’ Forever. I’m referring to September 18, 1978, when all four members of KISS released solo records on the same day. That year marked the height of their popularity in the States, and the group responded by flooding the market with subpar product and effectively killing their momentum. It didn’t help that the band was combusting internally, and the individual releases amplified rivalries within the group. Or so the story goes.

It’s the sort of stunt that’s ripe for reevaluation. How much did the anticipation poison the listening experience? Are the records really as bad as people say? The answer is quite a bit and not really. With the exception of Ace Frehley’s undeniably awesome contribution, the material is so-so. Yet there are enough moments among the four albums to compile one awesome KISS record–which is saying something, cause KISS is generally a band that’s more fun to think about than listen to.

I’ve been immersed in “KISStory” recently as part of an extracurricular project and have been struck by how anachronistic their phenomenon feels. After reading the books (and comics) and listening to all the records, the charm as I see it boils down to two factors: 1. their Marvel-Comics-meets-Alice-Cooper image and 2. their unapologetic and thoroughgoing raunchiness. Music from The Elder notwithstanding, these guys only ever sang about sex–and in the most, er, non-poetic ways imaginable. If that combo sounds like a silver bullet for ninth grade boys, well, that was their chief demographic.

In other words, KISS was deeply uncomplicated: they knew what they were and didn’t try to be anything else (again, Music from The Elder notwithstanding). They wanted to party every day, rock n roll every night, and maybe spew a little blood in the process. They gloried in their stoopidity, defying any/all attempts to dignify their existence. KISS was not parent-friendly or critic-friendly–and that was a big part of their appeal. They are basically impossible to defend on any grounds other than the time-honored claim that “they rule!” But the un-justifiability wasn’t an accident; it was the whole point. When the Southern Baptists spread a rumor that their name stood for “Knights In Satan’s Service,” they milked it for every penny of juvenile rebellion they could. Good guys sell a lot less records than bad ones. At least, they used to.

Cut to last week, when The NY Times Magazine published a tour-de-force of an article by Wesley Morris, centered around the observation that “in 2018, culture is being evaluated for its moral correctness more than for its quality.” The article opens with Morris relating a tiff he got into with a fellow black critic about Insecure, HBO’s well-regarded sitcom about the awkward experiences of single, upwardly mobile black women in Los Angeles, spearheaded by writer-director-actor Issa Rae. Morris expressed some aesthetic reservations about the show, in response to which his friend jumped down his throat on the basis of the show’s sociopolitical importance (in short: “Insecure may be too rare to dislike”). Morris writes:

The real-world and social-media combat we’ve been in for the past two years over what kind of country this is have now shown up in our beefs over culture, not so much over the actual works themselves but over the laws governing that culture and the discussion around it, which artists can make what art, who can speak. We’re talking less about whether a work is good art but simply whether it’s good — good for us, good for the culture, good for the world. The “hot or not” lists of yore have, more direly, become “O.K./Not O.K.”

At awards shows, the nominated works have become referendums on the moral state of the business; their quality has become secondary. Maybe the ratings are down because no one’s seen the movies and the broadcasts are too political. But maybe it’s because no one wants to watch an industry prosecute itself.

It can be hard to tell when we’re consuming art and when we’re conducting H.R..

I suppose people have always justified themselves according to taste and/or what kind of culture they consume. Lord knows I have. Then again, whether something passes my personal morality test has always been way down on my list of priorities when considering what to listen to, read, or watch. Righteousness is usually the last thing I look for in a musician. Down that road lies, well, Contemporary Christian Music and After School Specials, i.e., art where aesthetics take a back seat to the moral lesson or intentions of the creator, where the primary criterion for acceptability is adherence to (and effective promotion of) a set of already held convictions. Sometimes those works succeed on their own terms, sure, but the track record isn’t great. Morris notes a similar irony:

The past two years are a disorienting inversion of the previous 30. The culture wars, as they came to be known in the 1980s and 1990s, were less existential and more ideological. The moralizers tended to be white people from politics and the church… The culture wars back then always seemed to be about keeping culture from kids. Now the moral panic appears to flow in the opposite direction. The moralizers are young people, not their parents.

So we wind up with safer art and discourse that provokes and disturbs and shocks less. It gives us culture whose artistic value has been replaced by moral judgment and leaves us with monocriticism. This might indeed be a kind of social justice. But it also robs us of what is messy and tense and chaotic and extrajudicial about art. It validates life while making work and conversations about that work kind of dull.

That last part certainly jives with personal experience. I used to read pop culture criticism to get a sense of the work being reviewed–the emotional content, the technique, how it fits in with the creator’s other work, etc. More and more, what I come away with is a sense of how the film/music/show resonates with the reviewer’s own politics and/or its immediate relevance to today’s headlines. Which, while not off limits, tends to be a disappointingly thin slice of what’s going on.

So I take Morris’s point that culture gets super boring when it becomes overly (or purely) didactic. When something has to make a statement–or the right kind of statement–in order to be taken seriously, you lose the mystery and much of the excitement. More than that, when ideological Shoulds begin to dictate our fandom, they produce the same outcomes as when those Should’s are aesthetic: disdain, exhaustion, and critics who take themselves way too seriously (not to mention waves of new product crassly catering to the image of ourselves we’re trying to project). In short, the degree that art becomes an arbiter of capital-R Righteousness will be the degree to which it functions religiously. Which is where Morris’ article gets spicy:

This shift in priorities comes with moral side effects, and the side effects are scaring people — smart, opinionated people; not just white men — from saying the wrong the thing about “Atlanta” or “Crazy Rich Asians” or “Wonder Woman,” from not liking them, or not liking them correctly. If Beyoncé comes up at a cookout, do you offer more than a dutiful “yasss, queen”?

Beyoncé is, of course, the most traffic-stopping artist we have. She is also the patron saint of these “sshhh” times. If “Insecure” feels too important to doubt, Beyoncé is almost too iconic to discuss. Dare do something as simple as rank her last three albums in the “wrong” preferential order — “Lemonade,” “Beyoncé,” then “4” — or wonder about the wisdom of the choreography during a tiny part of her Coachella performance last spring, and check for the Beyhive to sting up your Twitter account in her name.

This version of the culture wars casts Beyoncé as the goddess of empowerment who shan’t be blasphemed. She offers herself as both deity and politician, someone here to embody and correct. That was the thrust of this summer’s “Apeshit” video, in which she, Jay-Z and some dancers took over the Louvre to practice a politics of upstaging… Her recent Vogue cover story wasn’t a profile. It was the Gospel according to her transcriber, a testament.

Them’s fighting words, eh? Indeed, it feels increasingly heretical to suggest that the aesthetic trumps the ideological when it comes to art, or that the political dimension is seldom the most interesting (or lasting) aspect of what a cultural artifact is trying to do. After the Super Bowl, I remember telling someone that while I dug Beyonce’s dancing and admired her overall artsiness and, yes, boldness, I missed the hooks of Destiny’s Child. They looked at me with a mix of incredulity and disgust, as if to say, if you’re focusing on the music itself, you’ve lost the plot. More than that, you are not one of us. Blasphemy!

I knew this look well. It’s the same one I gave someone last week when they questioned why I had KISS on repeat again, even though their music kind of sucks, and the guys in the band are such obvious nutcases. You just don’t get it, man. (Lord have mercy.)

I can’t help but wonder if we’ve begun looking to artists to serve as beacons of righteousness in part because our clergy and politicians have failed us so thoroughly in this regard. Yet artists will buckle under the weight of moral justification just as surely as we ourselves would and do. I only pray the breakdowns yield some decent output; Lord knows that songs and stories about failure and weakness resonate across ideological lines.

Perhaps it’s simply that the further we retreat from a shared capital-R Religion, the more contenders emerge to harness our yearning for enoughness. And the more that righteousness runs amok, the more mercilessness it breeds in its wake (#seculosity).

Oy vey. It’s enough to make a person want to pump up Destroyer and crack some Ted Peters:

What the gospel reveals is surprising. It’s counterintuitive. When we draw the line between good and evil and then place ourselves on the good side of the line, the gospel reports that God is on the evil side of the line. Really?! Yes, truly. When we pursue what we deem to be good, God sides with those who become victimized by our pursuit. When we pursue justice, God sides with those who suffer from our pursuit of justice. When we stomp on the accelerator of our own virtuous achievements, a poisonous gas comes out of our exhaust pipe that suffocates those we are leaving behind.

To be sure, the gospel reveals our inclination to self-justify and even lie to ourselves, but there is more to it than that. The gospel also reveals that God is gracious. God justifies us by placing the crucified and risen Christ into our soul. The result is justifying faith. Once we realize that we can get out of the business of justifying ourselves, the world suddenly looks different. No longer do we need to defend ourselves from a hostile world by identifying ourselves with what is good or just or true. We can live in the world–we can love the world–as if it is our world, with or without the lines we draw between good and evil. When appropriate, we can even sin boldly.

And if that’s not a license to revisit the only time KISS came anywhere close to CCM, I don’t know what is. Shout it out loud, my friends: