Sunday, May 31, 2009

On the death—and immortality—of rock ‘n roll

Some pointed comments by E-Streeter Steven Van Zandt at the SXSW musicfest have brought something to the front of my mind that has been back there among all the back issues of Spin for a while.

He’s said what many people have had on their minds for a while—contemporary pop music sucks.

You can hear it for yourself on any commercial FM station that isn’t country (don’t worry, I’ll get to country some other time)—the endless parade of rappers tossing out facile chants about partying, and dance divas bleating through synthesizers about, well, partying.

Top 40 radio never was as great as its reputation suggests (the list of great artists who have never had a Number One hit is too long to reproduce here), but it’s never been as shallow as it is now.

OK, so the Top 40 singles charts haven’t been relevant to anyone over 14 since the mid-80s. (And do they still make singles, anyhow?) You can’t use the old line that “albums are where it’s really at” anymore, either. Don’t believe me? Read this. Of the top 20 best-selling album artists, the only ones who are worth a damn are a band that broke up when I was four and a dead country singer. OK, The Dixie Chicks get points for chutzpah, and sometimes I’ll throw Metallica in there, too, but still…

So, after reading Miami Steve, I’ve been all over the web, reading articles from pundit after pundit prattling about the sorry state of pop music and/or the death of rock ‘n roll.

I have come to two conclusions.

1) Rock is dead.

2) Rock is not dead.

Let me explain.

Almost from its inception, rock has been about more than music. It was a state of mind, an attitude. In the public eye, it was more about youth and rebellion than the music itself.

If you doubt this, watch any documentary about the history of rock ‘n roll. Which are you more likely to see—a music theory professor talking about the blues scale and power chords, or naked girls dancing in the mud at Woodstock?

Rock, the attitude, has been dead for a long time, for a simple reason—old age.

Rock’s audience is older, and its fans are, more often than not, those in power in our society. Kids can’t rebel by listening to their parents’ music, so it’s no accident that many of them now prefer rap and hip-hop. But corporations have discovered that teenagers now have much more disposable income than they had in the early days of rock ‘n roll and are more than happy to give them a place to dispose of it. That’s why so much music aimed at youth today comes across (at least from my more adult perspective) as slick, false, and as menacing as a Muppet.

But then there’s the music itself. Shorn of its controversies and politics, a lot of good music has been released under the general banner of “rock,” and there will be more to come. You just won’t see it on a list in Billboard.

Rock has started to assume a place in American culture similar to jazz. Both come from a rich musical tradition and, while they have both been popular in the past, are now less accessible to the masses. But while they are not as popular, they’re both far from dead.

Rock is still around, in small clubs, on independent labels, and in the hearts and minds of all those who love it. As someone posted on Yahoo! Answers when posed with the “Is rock dead?” question: “If you’re listening to it, no.”

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