Scene4 Magazine - Patrick Walsh
Patrick Walsh

Rock is Dead; Long Live Rock      


June 2014

I often listen to WXPN, University of Pennsylvania's radio station. They do their best to play an eclectic mix of Rock, Folk, and "Indie" music–about 40% so-called classic groups/artists and the rest current or upcoming artists. It's an admirable effort, but they're the hospice nurse who monitors Rock's life-support system. I hear the young artists and "cutting edge" bands–The Lumineers, The White Stripes, The Killers, Mumford & Sons, Dr. Dog, The Decemberists, Wilco–and lots of "name" artists who want to be the next Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell.

And that's part of the problem. Whether bands or individual singer/songwriters, they all sound like their far-better predecessors. I can't help but enjoy Jack White and The White Stripes, for example, but all his songs are obvious homage to Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, T. Rex, and sundry 1960s and 70s entities. Lenny Kravitz and the Black Crowes worked the identical vein in the 1990s. Wilco is a pallid tribute to The Byrds, Gram Parsons, Waylon Jennings, Dylan (of course), and, more recently, even Steely Dan. The singer-songwriters are unbearable. They warble and whine à la Dylan or Joni, marshalling threadbare tropes and tepid lyrics.

There's a daily program called "The World Cafe" hosted by David Dye. A while back he had a guest, Steve Knopper, who wrote a book about the record industry's failure to adapt to digital media (the book is called Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age.) No revelations per se, but at one point Dye commented that while the music industry is in bad shape, music is "better than ever." With that he proceeded to play the usual XPN fare of new, "cutting edge" artists. Thankfully, I wasn't eating at the time or I might've choked.  

The "new" music is uniformly either A) total homage to earlier groups/artists, i.e. a well-intentioned singer/Blues guitarist who wants to be the next Eric Clapton but refuses to acknowledge that Clapton covered the ground, blew the bridges, and salted the earth 40 years ago or B) what I call the Snark/Hipster/Grad Student mode, i.e. an all-girl group whose lead singer's voice is identical to the lead singer in The Waitresses (that's not good) backed up by Casio computer-generated "music." Or Wilco.

Contemporary Rock and Pop, especially the so-called "Indie" bands, are so bloodless, so tepid as to be almost comical. As a devout connoisseur of Country and Country/Rock, I've been exposed to Golden Smog, Wilco, and the utterly unheartfelt warblings of Jeff Tweedy. While his so-called Country creds are in order, i.e. Jeff Tweedy knows his Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan, etc., the music comes off as a demonstration of knowledge–a term-paper instead of a song that moves the listener. 

Call it "the anxiety of influence" or just call it being born 30-50 years too late, but Rock music is dead as a doornail.

Let me assure you that my mind is open, my ears eager for pleasure. But my memory is also involved in the process of music appreciation. Songs do not exist in a vacuum; no one in this age of instantaneous information access can claim ignorance to one's predecessors. Besides, young musicians who write fugues or chamber music are not advancing the game, they're idling in antiquarianism. To make so-called Rock music of any stripe in 2014 is, to put it politely, to recycle a genre more recently extinct. 

A more succinct term would be necrophila.

And that's the real problem: Rock as a genre is spent. The animus that drove it no longer obtains. There's nothing to rebel against. There's no tension, no pressure, nothing for it to push against. Rock was a music of youth, and, hence, rebellion. Today's youth are so device-addled as to be practically anesthetized, strung out on liters of Starbuck's and isolated in their bubble-worlds of iPods, X-Boxes, and SmartPhones. Or else they're card-carrying Young Republicans with 7-digit balances in their e-Trade accounts. They have no reason to rock the boat; they own shares in the holding company that owns the boat.

The Rock revolution, such as it was, has been brought to the negotiating table. The irony suffused in Don Henley's observation in "Boys of Summer"–"out on the road today I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac"–has long been trumped; you needn't go out on the road, you can turn on your TV and hear Led Zeppelin's "Rock n' Roll" actually used in a Cadillac commercial!

To put it another way: we're coming up on the 45th anniversary of Woodstock–do you really think years from now people will celebrate the 45th anniversary of Lollapalooza?

Rock is dead. If the corpse on life-support hasn't rotted altogether, it's well worth remembering that the atrophied body is roughly 65 years old. And there's nothing wrong with Rock being dead. It had one hell of a run.

Technology plays a large part in musical transformations, the great sea changes of aesthetics, style, and approach. Before recorded music, genres lasted centuries. Baroque slowly gave way to Classical, Classical to Romanticism. Similarly, American music moved at the pace of horse-drawn wagons and sail boats. In its infancy, Jazz was a curious marriage of Blues and Ragtime. Then transportation sped up and was democratized: Chicago was no longer a world away from New Orleans; New York was just a train ride from Kansas City. And along with fast trains and cheap tickets came the phonograph. And then the radio.

Dramatic changes occurred in mere decades: Ragtime, Swing, Be-Bop. As in any art, any genre, innovation is the alpha and omega of the form. The rapid mingling of styles and influences that quick travel and recording/broadcast technology enabled led to rapid changes in Jazz. By their very nature, every innovative genius exhausts his or her artistic vein. Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, John Coltrane, Miles Davis–each one blazed a trail . . . and then blew the bridges behind them. If you play or sing like Armstrong or Holiday or Coltrane today, you're very talented–very talented at imitation.

The end of Rock can be seen in the case of Jazz, Rock's elder cousin. Today, Jazz accounts for 3% of all "record" sales. Jazz is dead too.

Rock is still great music to listen to, like Jazz, like Beethoven. Only not live. And all the geezers from Rock's prime need to change gigs (like Neil Young and Robert Plant did) or retire. As for these grad student/Nouveau Amish hipsters, they need to be honest with themselves and admit that titans once roamed the earth (and wrecked hotel rooms and choked on their vomit from time to time) but they'll never be them.

Rock's last gasp coincided with Kurt Cobain's. A throwback and an amalgamation of Jim Morrison, Neil Young, and the raw energy of Punk's best acts, Cobain and Nirvana put the paddles to Rock's dying heart, coaxing one last worthy spasm, a paroxysm that recalled the fearless explorations of The Doors and Jimi Hendrix.

Like they said of English kings gone to their regal graves . . . and much like one of the four canonical Rock bands sang in a now-overplayed anthem of ossified Classic Rock radio stations: Rock is dead; long live Rock.

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Patrick Walsh's poetry and freelance articles have appeared in
numerous journals and newspapers both in the U.S. and abroad.
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Scene4 - International Magazine of Arts and Culture

June 2014

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