Friday, January 23, 2009

Whatever Happened To My Rock And Roll?

For years, I've espoused (to anyone who will listen) that rock music , and even 20th Century Popular music before that, is a cyclical beast. You see, whenever the tenor of popular music becomes too "pop" (for the purposes of this piece, "pop" is defined as a watered down product, essentially rock music with all the sexuality and below-the-waist drive taken out. Something that you could listen to with your grandmother and she wouldn't be too offended).

For instance...

Jump-band boogie begat easy listening versions of the big bands. Once things got too tame, some young buck like Sinatra or Deano comes in and gives things a kick in the ass. Sure enough, from their crystal towers in the Palace, they lose touch with what makes the young girls scream, and sure enough (again), Elvis comes along with his wild yowl and swivelling hips to make people freak out once more. But after the army and the Colonel and the price of fame get their hands on Elvis, he's neutered - a pale imitation of what once was. Before long, you have Pat Boone trying to keep up with whitebread versions of "Long Tall Sally", Patti Page asking about pet supplies, and by the early '60s, rock and roll needs the British to come bail it out. Things get wild, haircuts are once again dangerous, all is right with the world.

But, despite the Beatles' creative exploration of the rock and roll form, by their fourth album, there ain't a whole lot that reminds us of the "black leather 'n' speed" Silver Beetles that got their start in Hamburg and the Cavern Club. But things were riding high by that point, and the newly progressive mentality of the nation's youth remained dangerous to authority, even if the music was more of a conceptual threat than a visceral one. The great records of '66-'67 (Aftermath, Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper's, et al.) were frightening enough to the squares that they didn't necessarily need to blast anyone's eardrums out, they could still blow minds. Plus, if you really wanted to find some racket, you could dig through the cutout singles bin and find any of the bands that Lenny Kaye put on Nuggets a few years later. Your Count Five, Electric Prunes, Seeds, Standells, Sonics, and their ilk were certainly more than raucous enough to keep some ears bleeding.

By '70, things were getting progressively lame again (in every way you care to decipher that pun). Sure, there were isolated pockets of spit-in-your-eye activity (Detroit, the Lower East Side of Manhattan), and fluke successes (the Dolls, MC5, even Alice Cooper's first few records) that were just raw enough to let people know that there was still some energy floating around, but not too much, since the "big guitar" sound had been co-opted by bands that kept the signifiers of the rebellion, but not much of the spirit. Sure, Led Zeppelin had loud guitars and lyrics about sex and yelling vocals (yeah, that's what Plant did - he yelled. Please come to grips with that), but Led Zep wasn't really what the whole teenagge rebellion thing was about. Zep was music made by adults for an adult audience. People that could drive to the burbs to see their shows, and hey, maybe afford a few 'luudes too! It wasn't until about '75 or '76 that the whole punk thing happened and kinda reset things. It lasted for a burst, then influenced the whole New Wave thing, which was like a first generation cassette dub, but that begat synth-pop, and we're getting thin again. Once New Wave kicked into the headlines, the real stuff went underground, and while it begat a whole buncha cool stuff during the '80s, none of it scraped the charts. Grunge in the States and the first wave of Britpop in the UK brought back snotty youngsters with loud guitars, and while it could be argued that both sides were just trading in the bloated AOR excesses of the mid-'70s, there was some genuine rock'n'roll rebellion coming from the likes of Nirvana, Mudhoney, Blur, Suede, etc. Sure, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden were my generation's Grand Funk Railroad and Black Sabbath, and Oasis were just the Faces Redux (with Blur aping the Kinks), but the Gallagher brothers seemed genuinely reckless, and it all had some energy, even if it was self-destructive a lot of the time, at least people were DOING something.

By '95, the status quo was bands, once-removed from grunge, swimming in the newly opened marketplace, after the record companies realized that they didn't know what people wanted. Remember the Presidents Of The United States Of America? Weirdos from Seattle with 5 guitar strings between two guitars singing short punky songs about dune buggies? But it was poppier, and No Doubt with their New Wave revivalism, Garbage with their hyper-slick take on synth-punk, and the oddball deadpan of Cake were like the New Wave Of New Wave, unlike whatever movement it was that the Brit weeklies once christened the New Wave Of New Wave. Ugh. After that, we hit the teen-pop boom, this cycle's version of Debbie Gibson and Tiffany and New Kids On The Block, which was just the last cycle's version of prefab pap pop like Fabian and Annette Funicello or even Shaun Cassidy or something.

So here we are, stuck waiting for the next big rock and roll revival, being held over by scraps (albeit delicious ones) like the early '00s garage revival of the White Stripes (the weirdest success story I can think of right now) and the Strokes (overrated but enjoyable). But these still feel like flukes, like more successful versions of the Dolls and early Cheap Trick and (if you're British) Roxy Music and Mott The Hoople. I love the White Stripes, but they're so distinctive sonically that they couldn't possibly be the figureheads of a movement. We need a full-on, united front, back-to-sweat rock 'n' roll revolution revival!

But what if this revival never comes?

The big concept that this whole cycle theory is built around is the complete inablity of the major label record industry to realize what people are wanting, then jumping on a prexisting trend and exploiting it to drain all possible profit, then finding another trend. And I don't mean that as a judgement. It's a fact that's been proven time and time again. Really. The Beatles pointed it out in A HARD DAY'S NIGHT, and the idea of Big (Media) Business having to completely readjust when something comes out of left field and then focusing on NOTHING BUT and trying to cram that down the holdouts' throats is not an idea that I think anyone can still argue with in this day and age. I remember a car commercial in about '94 that had a character that they redressed, giving him the whole "grunge" thing. But when a new generation of consumers, today's 13-16 year olds, barely remember a day and age before downloading and instant access to any given song (forget whole ALBUMS!), the rock and roll instinct has very little in the way of a given place to go when it's time for a reset. We can hardly have a Rock And Roll Revival (TM) when I can't think of a decent place to stage the revolution. For the forseeable future, American Idol will still sell ringtones, Idol graduates and the runners up can rule the charts, and people are going to stick with the same road-tested icons that have been around for almost ten years now. Who could possibly have predicted that Britney Spears could be milking fame for seven albums now? The biggest controversy in recent weeks has been her new song "If You Seek Amy" ("F.U.C.K. Me" - get it?), which was cute when the Poster Children put "If You See Kay" on 1990's Daisychain Reaction. The only dangerous presence in the mainstream marketplace is Kanye West, and he's got "lone gunman" written all over him. These days, people can start releasing the most badass, hot-rod-rock'n'roll records on major labels, but it will hardly matter, since The Youth, which buys all the music, hardly even buys a whole album anymore. And why should they, when they can get just the song they want (any of them, not just the one that they're told is "the hit" and is sold to them in a 3-part extended CD single) for less than a dollar?

I've recently had to resign myself to the fact that I'm not a young guy anymore. I'm certainly no dinosaur, but I'm in a new demographic. I'm not a targeted consumer. And I'm OK with that. I like what I like, and frankly, I was getting sick of being expected to like the "new thing" anyway.

"I used to be with it. But then they changed what "it" was. Now what I'm with isn't "it", and what's "it" seems weird and scary to me.' - Abraham Simpson

How is rock and roll going to come back now? Could the revolution be in the medium itself? Radiohead releases an album letting people pay what they want and it's all people can talk about all year. I thought it was a cool way to deliver a decent record. It wasn't necessarily meant as a statement (if you believe what the band claims), but maybe it was a statement nonetheless. Marshall McLuhan's concept of the "the medium is the message" perfectly exemplified. Frankly, I'm not a terribly big fan of Radiohead anymore. They make good records, but I liked them when they were more song and guitar based (see previous paragraph). However, there's no way I can't deny that doing what they did, especially if it was "just because", not "let's make a sweeping statement", was the most rock and roll thing about them in years. And it was pretty damn "punk rock". "Forget the record company, let's let them lose money, let's just get our fans our music."

If you want loud guitars and snarling vocals, in this wonderful information age, there's no shortage of places to get it. I can think of any number of great labels putting out everything from garage rock to punk blues to rockabilly to modern (non-shitty) just-plain-hard-rock. Punch "garage rock" or "punk" into MySpace of Facebook and watch the results roll in. Fuzz boxes and thinly veiled sexual metaphors are not in short supply. However, in the main artery of popular culture, maybe rock and roll isn't about music anymore. Subversion is sexy, revolution is dangerous. Maybe my cyclical chart missed a mark, and the emergence of the post-hardcopy digital age is the next punk rock.

Of course, I still hope I'm wrong, and that next year, popular music blows my mind.

No comments:

Post a Comment