Thursday, June 2, 2011

Rock 'n' Roll is Dead! Long Live Rock 'n' Roll!

                So here we are in the heart of the year 2011.  Our future seems to be fraying around the edges, the economy is still not well, and our freedoms seem at risk more than ever before.  But instead of concentrating on those moribund topics, I’m going to discuss something closer to my heart – music.

                Though I’m ripening, er aging, at a steady but uncomfortable pace, my love for music still goes unabated.  I’m always searching for a group, genre or musical movement to satisfy my need for a new musical experience.  I’ve listened and collected “Classic Rock”, New Wave, Cold Wave, Synth, Country-rock, New Romantic, Punk Rock, Street Rock and even a smattering of Honky-Tonk.  However, after 25 years of collecting, I feel like I’m starting to hit the end of the road.  Is it my middle-age?  Is it boredom?  Or is it something else?

                The answer is – Rock is Dead and has been for a long time.  Now before I get a flood (ha!) of messages decrying me with mentions of group X and Y, let me clarify my statement.

                Rock ‘n’ Roll is historically thought have to been born in the 1950s – with the rise of Elvis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and many others.  I tend to disagree with this statement – early "rock" was actually closer to pop and vocal music – like the early Beatles – then true Rock ‘n’ Roll.  “Real” Rock music has expression via vocals and instrumentation that the early stuff lacks.  For example. think of the guitar prowess of Jimi Hendrix or the lyrics of Bob Dylan.

                The real heart of Rock ‘n’ Roll started in the mid-1960s.  Musicians were becoming more experimental with words and music, entering waters that have never been entered before.  There was an explosion of new sounds that lasted for a few years until the magic started to fade.  For example – think of the completely new ground broken by Bob Dylan - “Blonde on Blonde”, The Who - “Tommy”, The Kinks – “Arthur”, David Bowie – “Ziggy Stardust”, or a host of other artists from that era.

                This flash of creativity eventually created Psychedelia, Roots, and Prog Rock.  But like all things, it had to come to an end.  Rock music began to gentrify and become conservative.  Nothing new seemed to be created until the mid-70s when a new burst of creativity hit the music scene.  Punk Rock and New Wave music started with even more experimentation and aggression.  Rock got fused with reggae and even more synth- think of the Police and Elvis Costello.  A flood of groups hit and the number of genres eventually became mind-numbing - New Romantic, Cold Wave, No Wave, etc etc.

                Again, this burst of creativity began to falter.  By the mid to late 1980s, the number of new directions started to peter out.  A few interesting genres came to pass – like Shoegazer, but it was all pushed aside by the rise of Grunge music in the early 90s.  Nirvana and their like ilk actually seemed to head music in a more conservative direction since the sound of grunge was closer to “Classic Rock” and lacked the experimentation of the decades before.

                The new musical era – Radiohead, The Shins, Arcade Fire, etc etc – has been defined by the rise of the Internet.  Gone are the days where the big labels controlled the levers of the music machine.  Now there are literally thousands of groups out there – split among hundreds of different genres.  This freedom of music has been good – the Shout Out Louds, The Felice Brothers and Deerhunter immediately come to mind – since such groups would never have found commercial success back in the old days.  However, experimentation and creativity seems to come to a standstill.  Everything new is something old, just regurgitated and reused.  Every group is now “influenced by” _fill in the blank_ instead of making something truly unique.

Now of course I’m painting with some broad brushes here, but there is a point to all this mental masturbation.  For Rock music to continue, it needs new blood.  It needs new experimentation and new ideas.  Otherwise it will become like Jazz or Classical music – something old, shriveled and slowly dying on the vine.

                What is this new direction?  I think a revisit of Coldwave and New Wave might give some guidance, but that could be a dead end too.  Maybe there really is nothing new left to do.  Perhaps that is a sign that our civilization has also reached an end.

What do you think?

Note: for further background, please check out Only Solitaire’s classic essay on the direction of rock music.


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