28 April 2005

Yeah, so what if it's dead? (BR)

Fade-Out: New Rock Is Passé on Radio (NYTimes)

It's all part of a healthy, natural cycle. We're born, we thrive, we get old and weak and die. Then our bodies become the grass. And the animals eat the grass, digest it and evacuate it. And sometimes the animals feel bad or weird or guilty that something so smelly and brown could have come out of them. Sometimes this discomfort drives them to re-eat it or rub it all over themselves.

Americans have this odd relationship with cultural phenomenae that gain institutional status. They feel compelled to protect it, to proclaim it like a clarion call from the rooftops, to build awareness and understanding so that the younger folks can incorporate it into their own, contemporary context. Sometimes we have to learn to let things go. One of those things is rock n' roll music.

It makes ABSOLUTELY NO SENSE to bemoan the closing up shop of modern rock stations. What's called rock today bears no resemblance to the music that incensed frigid housewives in 1956. It's something else. Wasn't that what the intolerable sub-genrefication of rock was all about in the '90s? "Yeah, we're sort of a grind-blues-chamber-pop band with a no-wave twist." You could argue that rock music's epitaph was written with the bullet that killed Kurt Cobain. After all, since we lost Nirvana, every dominant rock band of the moment seemed like a subtle update of something (or an unapologetic mash-up of several things) that had worked before; Green Day, the Smashing Pumpkins, Korn, the White Stripes, none of these groups did anything daring, blazed any new trails.

There's some great music coming out that still waves the rock flag, but is really just exemplary or clever pop music. The new offerings from Beck, Queens of the Stone Age, System of a Down, the Mars Volta, Nine Inch Nails, even the latest from the White Stripes is pretty bitching, but it's all pop. That's fine, "pop" isn't the plague, just a nice catch-all for radio-friendly hit tunes. And this new, excellent music that just happens to be performed on guitar, bass and drums (augmented heavily by synths and Pro Tools, which are instruments in and of themselves) should remain labelless for as long as possible, before it gets co-opted and copied and turned into trash just like all the other great music produced since World War II. Please, you're going to tell me that a single genre is wide enough to encompass Elvis Presley and Iron Maiden?

Let's allow rock music to die out with any grace and dignity it has left. Don't let it choke on its own tongue. Don't let it become a cause celebre either. All these stations are biting the dust because of an adherence to a rigid musical orthodoxy that's been irrelevant for awhile. For the first time in years and years, a decent-sized array of engaging music is coming from several different communities. We're living in the age of the shuffle button. If I can hear the new dope singles from Fat Joe and Audioslave back-to-back, it means radio is still alive as a medium and I'm happy.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's a larger problem here, seen from the perspective of history. That problem may be stated like this: just how wide is the scope of the range of sounds that we consider music? Is it possible that we have reached the end of the universe, genre-wise, and that, per Einstein's theory, we cannot go beyond the edge but merely travel along it because space is curved?

Rock n roll was a discovery, which occurred in part because white people discovered what black people had known for a long time: that a backbeat gets your loins moving.

Early rock and roll was simple, just as the early days of any new discovery are simple. With experimention came more and more layers of complexity, aided and abetted in large part by the increasing sophistication of electronics. Feedback, distortion, wah wah, the Moog synthesizer, and the miracle of multitracking enabled artists to create worlds of music hitherto unknown.

What we need to ask now, is whether we have reached the limit of the variety of sounds that can be produced, or whether it will simply take another technological breakthrough to produce a new type of sound that will usher in a new type of music.

But producing a new type of music is not enough in itself. In order to become a force in society it will also have to have popular appeal. Edgar Varese created a new form of music, but since you can't dance to it, its impact was very limited. Avant-garde is sort of self-limiting.

I don't know if we have reached the edge of the rock n roll universe. History teaches us that every time somebody announced that the limit of something had been reached, they were proven wrong -- and soon. An official at the U.S. Patent Office announced to the press in 1899 that "Everything that can be invented has already been invented."

Which is not to say that rock n roll, like Hollywood, hasn't apparently run out of ideas -- for the moment. I think it has. And like Hollywood, rock n rollers turn to the past to re-invent and recycle something that worked before.

It is characteristic of each generation to invent and adopt a style of music that shocks their elders. This was true in the 1920s, with that crazy jitterbugging, to the bobbysoxers who swooned over Frank Sinatra, to the girls who fainted over Elvis, to the screaming Beatles fans, to the drug-crazed Woodstock generation, to the pogo-dancing punk-New Wavers of 1979, to the stage-diving mosh-pitters. Each of these generations shocked and frightened their parents.

Therefore I have no doubt that the trend will continue ad infinitum, until perhaps finally a generation of parents is so jaded that their children have to self-immolate like a protesting Bhuddist monk to raise a parent's eyebrow.

Rock n roll is not dead, I think. It's just growing moldy like old cheese, and it stinks.

Uncle Meat

5/02/2005 1:30 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home