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Notes Toward a Unified Theory of Rock



Age matters in rock music because rock is so intensely dedicated to ridding itself of its predecessors. Music, production techniques, and technology evolve, of course, creating more and more opportunities for loudness and dissonance; to some extent the music gets nastier naturally. But from the time there came to be a thing called rock (as distinct from pop, which there'd always been), the music's main engine has been the desire to kill its parents: Bob Dylan went electric, John Lennon smirked; the hippies in their turn were gored by disco, and then punk; and punk, deliberately constructed to be the most trying music imaginable and condemned as antihuman and antimusical, is now trumped by rap, harder in every sense still, and latter-day punkers look silly when they sneer at it. And I don't care what you dig today--metal, hip-hop, whatever--there's a kid somewhere right now, sitting in his or her room, dreaming up something that will piss you off. ETA: 1995.

Why does rock music do this? While the concept of the young turk is not unknown in other mediums, it's not as if the world of movies is thrown into paroxysms every few years by a new filmic technique that cheeses the old guard and inspires a wholesale revolution within the industry. But rock manages to conjure up outrage after outrage. It's been going on so long that it may be an intrinsic part of its makeup. Indeed, I'm arguing here that it's the essential part. I don't mean merely that rock 'n' roll perennially rattles the chains of parents, stupid church people, certain governmental bodies, and so forth. What interests me is how rock 'n' roll outrages itself, so to speak. Pop always sells; niceness always sells; sweetness always sells. But in the face of this empirical evidence and the accompanying financial rewards, rock always produces people who assault the zeitgeist that begot them and end up changing the direction of the music. This points up the key flaw (to my mind) in revisionist histories of rap, for example. Some say that rap's commercial success is based on a manipulation of black stereotypes that's calculated to appeal to whites. Actually, the creators of rap blew off 30 years of extremely remunerative soul and R&B, confronted the prejudices among (older) blacks and (almost all) whites, and managed to create the first commercially viable, truly revolutionary black rock music.

This sort of analysis bugs the rock-will-change-the-world crowd, because its intrinsically anti-Marxist slant posits youth as a class with ties stronger than economics. Rock 'n' roll certainly can divide along money lines (compare your Van Halen crowd to Depeche Mode's), but I like the generational analysis because it circumvents two theoretical problems that crop up anytime you actually try to define what rock 'n' roll is. First, there's a tendency in such discussions to fall back upon an untenable position you might call the no-schmuck rule. Let's say you've got four schmucks playing Beatles songs in a lounge, or maybe a Christian heavy-metal group. You want to argue that they're not playing rock 'n' roll because they don't have the right politics or attitude or something. I'd agree with the first part--that definitely is not rock 'n' roll--but to draw the line according to attitudes or convictions seems unnecessarily self-righteous and exclusionary to me. It should be theoretically possible, for example, to write a great prolife rock song--Graham Parker already has, now that I think about it. Besides, a no-schmuck rule would quickly decimate rock's ranks.

Still, the sensibility of the people who create the music does matter somehow. The Osmonds (or the Monkees, whoever) created some nice disposable pop music; I wouldn't go so far as to banish them from the rock canon, but it's certainly true that both bands lack a certain authority. I would contend that they're slight because they really didn't have anything essential to say to their audience. They're fine in terms of pop's pleasure principle--their music made (makes, even) some people happy--but they don't meet rock's communication corollary.

The second theoretical problem addressed by the generational analysis pertains to the been-around-too-long set--Sting, Clapton, Phil Collins, whoever. Simply put, it gives us legitimate theoretical grounds to banish these guys from serious consideration as rock artists, as intuition demands we must. Sure they still sell records. But the people they're speaking to--the people they have always spoken to--don't need them anymore. (What made Bruce Springsteen interesting for a while there was his heroic attempt to create essential music for his original audience.) The younger folks have their ears cocked for Eddie Vedder, or Dr. Dre, or Liz Phair, listening for messages in a language they're only beginning to understand. Maybe that's what rock 'n' roll is: a means of transmission that hides the message. If you don't hear, don't understand it, you're not supposed to: it's not for you. Among a tribe defined most poignantly by its lack of power, means, and articulation, the music is a set of crudely coded messages whose main value is the fact that they're being sent at all. At any given time, the most potent rock 'n' roll is the sound of a new generation talking to itself.

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