Lately I’ve been wondering why rock music has stopped doing it for me. I vividly remember having the very common experience of listening to the first side (yes, it was a cassette) of Led Zeppelin IV and having my mind shattered by the solo on “Stairway to Heaven.” I was so innocent at the time that “Rock and Roll” had yet to be ruined for me by its use in countless car commercials (by the way, “Bargain” by The Who has never been so lucky). I also recall the one time in my life that I actually enjoyed listening to The Doors. I was 12 years old and had their self-titled album in my Discman. It was late at night, I was under the covers, and “The End” scared the living hell out of me. Now, I find that song funny.
I’m not exactly sure why I’m so bored by rock music these days, but I think the biggest reason has to be the fact that the values that rock stood for in my mind no longer apply to my life. Obviously, the music itself hasn’t changed, and I don’t think the issue is that I’ve just listened to it too much. The problem is that I just no longer buy into the mythology of rock, and the quality of the music can’t help but suffer because of this. Let me explain.
When I think of rock and roll values, authenticity strikes me as key. There’s a visceral dislike of the commercial and “manufactured.” I remember actually believing that the teen pop acts of the late ’90s: *NSYNC, Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys were garbage because they did not write their own music and because they were, somehow, fake. Unlike The Smiths, apparently.
This viewpoint, I eventually realized was absurd. For one thing, it shouldn’t matter that Britney Spears didn’t write “Baby One More Time.” Nobody is particularly upset about the fact that Marvin Gaye didn’t write “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” or that The Temptations didn’t write “My Girl,” but for some reason the fact that these teen pop acts did not write their own music drove me, and countless other rock fans at the time, crazy. The idea that most bands are somehow less manufactured and fake than mainstream pop acts is also silly. Think of The Sex Pistols, whose official history is quite open about the fact that the band’s image, wardrobe, and ethos were the result of label executives looking to make money. Rock stars from Jim Morrison to Morrissey all have a very particular image that they need to convey to fans; to me, these images (Jim Morrison as poet intellectual, Morrissey as...Morrissey) seem just as fake and inauthentic as one of Madonna’s reinventions.
Self-destruction is another paramount rock and roll virtue. Fans, critics, and biographers love to celebrate rock star excess. Fans and writers reverentially repeat horrifying stories involving massive drug and alcohol consumption—not to mention other, more graphic examples of self-destruction (think of Iggy Pop rolling around in glass on stage, for example). Half the pleasure of an album like Exile on Main Street lies in contemplating the ridiculous quantities of drugs that The Rolling Stones must have consumed while recording it.
I don’t think the decadence, debauchery, and self-destructiveness that we associate with rock music are ancillary to the experience of listening to it: they inform that experience; they are a significant part of the reason why people enjoy the music. People don’t usually encounter Led Zeppelin or The Doors outside of a particular context; even before the first note on the album plays, some idea already exists, thanks to external sources, of what rock is about, of what it means, and of what it stands for. Blame Lester Bangs if you want to, but that’s just how it is.
I’ve been dancing around this point for a while, but I just see no way around it: I’ve become too mature for rock music. I’ve become too jaded to think that there’s anything more sincere or real in Pavement and the Pixies than in Rihanna and Justin Timberlake. I’ve become, I don’t know, too lame to find anything glorious in consuming massive amounts of cocaine and heroin or in wishing to do harm to myself. Let me put it this way: I hope I get old before I die [note to reader: This is a reference to “My Generation” by The Who, which contains the famous lyric, “I hope I die before I get old.”].
This is the kind of argument that those of us frustrated with the current state of the popular music canon need to be making. No canon is ever going to be neutral; its foundation will always be in some collection of values that certain critics, writers, musicians, and listeners agree on. And if fans of pop, techno, R&B, hip-hop, country, etc. want to challenge the current make-up of the canon, I don’t think the argument can proceed on sonic grounds. I’m not going to convince any real rock fan that ABBA is better than The Doors. However, I do think that we canon malcontents have a real shot at challenging the status quo if we can continue to show just how problematic and inconsistent the values and philosophy behind rock really are.
The best way to do this, I think, will be to suggest our own set of values and beliefs—values and beliefs that make room for the best of what the rock music universe can offer, but in a way that reconceptualizes the music and its virtues.