Bring Out Your Dead : The Uneasy Future of Rock
by Clint Small
Clint Small (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a musician/writer
Is Rock Dead?
Is rock dead? Is anything dead? Nietzsche declared God to be dead but is s/he? Francis Fukuyama has declared history to be ended, but does it feel that way to you?
The confusion over the oft-pronounced, but never-quite-confirmed, death of rock has emerged because of the emergence of techno as the musical source for mainstream popular music. Techno, or electronically generated dance music, is the "raw material" from which most pop music is now crafted. Mainstream acts now draw on rave culture for everything from image to timbre (piercing, fabulous colours, sampling, beats) in the way their forebears once drew on rock culture (leather jackets, cars, guitars).
But, even as techno continues to consolidate its place as the major style of popular music at the turn of the century, all over the world there still seems to be millions of boys and girls strapping on guitars, cranking up their amps and defiantly counting off four as they crash out their own version of rock music.
Australia is full of rock bands at the moment. There's Powderfinger, The Living End, Jebediah, Grinspoon, silverchair, Spiderbait, The Superjesus, Frenzal Rhomb and a host of others and they all seem to be doing very nicely, thank you. On the surface, Australian rock music seems to be alive and well and going through one of it's periodic booms.
But is it really?
A Big Day Out Reflection
It could be argued that all of the above bands are playing music invented well over a decade ago (in many cases more than two decades ago). Not that that matters. If you take 70s band Kraftwerk as rave culture's equivalent of rock culture's Chuck Berry - that is, a central, fixable point in the music's evolution whereby it could be said to have "started" (now there's a fluid concept) - then rave culture itself is more than 25 years old.
The difference is that rave culture has only enjoyed just over 10 years worth of sizeable "alternative" attention, whereas the music played by the Australian guitar bands above has been played and available to the rock audience by other artists for much, much longer. Am I saying that these guys aren't doing anything new? Well, apart from some minor individualistic elements, that might be exactly what I'm saying. But that shouldn't be mistaken for not being "good" or "enjoyable." That's not what I'm talking about here.
A visit to this year's Big Day Out was instructive. As Australia's top travelling festival of popular music, this year's headliners were the rock acts, Hole and Marilyn Manson, and the techno acts, Underworld and Fatboy Slim. For the first time that I can remember, there were as many people going for the techno acts as for the rock acts. In previous years the difference in audience size between the two subcultures was quite marked, with the rock bands winning hands down.
But this year, even though Fatboy Slim's and Underworld's sets ran simultaneously with Marilyn Manson's and Hole's, the crowds were about equal. This would be a significant development itself, just in terms of numbers, but also of interest is the mood of both audiences. The rock acts were viewed with limited enthusiasm by most, seemingly as much for their tabloid or celebrity value - so you could say that you'd seen them. Sure, there was moshing down the front, but there always is - some people just live to mosh. But in the techno tent (which was enormous) it was standing room only and the mood was of rapturous enthusiasm. People went to this place to enjoy themselves. Dancing, spontaneous roars of approval at the performers - it was easy to see which was more relevant to which audience.
Whatever Happened To......? she/he/they/that was/were great
If there is one thing that is true about popular music in the twentieth century, it is this - every style of music that has contributed to its evolution has eventually been cast out of the mass "popular" domain to be superseded by another. A brief examination of this idea would reveal the comings and goings of ragtime, dixieland, big band swing, crooning, musicals, R&B, merseybeat, soul, psychedelia, progressive rock (now referred to as prog rock), disco, punk, new wave, new romantic, electropop, rap, house, acid jazz, grunge and techno. And this list is not in anyway complete. Nor does it include styles of music that have enjoyed sizeable audiences without ever crossing-over into the kind of mainstream success that the styles listed above have all, at times, enjoyed. Among these styles would be be-bop, jazz-rock fusion, ambient and the innocuous, possibly orientalist category of world music.
By taking the question, "Is rock dead?" and looking at the list above, I think we can see what a stupid question it is. Let's try a few re-phrasings here.
Is dixieland dead? No. You can find dixieland bands in every major western city - on film soundtracks, in radio playlists, on TV, on CDs in people's homes. Is big band swing dead? No. And for the same reasons. Might as well say, "Is baroque dead?" or, "Is opera dead?" See how ridiculous this is? As long as a form of music is being played, heard and enjoyed, it cannot be said to have "died."
The fact is, we're asking the wrong question. The question we should be asking is, "Is rock relevant?" The answer, in true postmodern fashion is, of course, "Yes" and "No."
Having now been among us as a distinctive form of music and enjoyed a period of popularity for more than forty years, rock's popularity is both a measure and a victim of its own success. It could be argued (but perhaps some proper research should be done) that no other form of music in history has enjoyed the breadth of popularity on a global scale that rock music has. The flip-side (now there's a rock era concept) of this is that as attention-spans have shortened with the development of the Information Age and its sound-bite culture, this has resulted in the need for an increasing speed of stylistic turnover in order to satisfy the public appetite for new things and, in this context, rock now sounds like old music indeed.
Compounding the situation is the fact that since the late 80s, the stylistic evolution of rock music has slowed to the point where it's become almost imperceptible. The music of almost every major international rock artist can be directly linked to an earlier artist or style, and this has never been true in rock music until this decade. I'm not saying that stylistic development has stopped completely, but it may have slowed down to the point where it can no longer generate new, or maintain previous, public interest. If the music can no longer hold public interest, then, in a larger sense, it must be said that the music is becoming irrelevant to a large section of the population.
I would argue that this is, in fact, exactly what happened to jazz music - that a conjunction of evolutionary sluggishness had arrived within its more popular styles, thereby causing an increasing level of boredom or complacency within its established audience, and that a whole new generation of people simply found that it did not reflect their perceptions of the times in which they were living and before you could say, "Minton's," jazz was relegated to a secondary strata of popularity while rock boomed into the new music vacuum.
One more barrier is looming to threaten rock's place in popular music. Earlier, I touched on the idea that for a music to be popular, it must reflect the audience's perceptions of the times they live in. Combine that thought with the idea that until recently, the culture of rock took pride in the notion that rock was the happening thing, the cutting edge, the agenda-setter for things both musical and beyond - political, cultural, environmental, personal. As it's reign has lengthened in years and its stylistic evolution slowed, rock's sense of being at the forefront has become less commonly articulated in it's non-musical modes of communication - the rock press, radio etc. Very rarely do we hear the word, "groundbreaking," anymore in relation to rock. The very idea has become unsustainable even to those within that culture.
So rock is now, for the most part, a backward or internal-looking culture. This does not mean that the music is no longer "enjoyable" or "good" or "over." What it means is that rock's period as the most popular music on the planet is coming to an end. Rock will continue to be played, heard and enjoyed by audiences all over the world, but it will be within the contexts that now govern musics like jazz or folk. The music will evolve stylistically but these developments will only be known to those within that subculture. It may break through from time to time to enjoy a kind of mainstream success but my guess is that such success will be derived as much from its "novelty" or "nostalgia" value as from anything else.
And that looming barrier? Imagine that you're a young musician, just starting out. Or that you're about twelve years old and you've started taking an interest in pop. Today's pop. Not what they play on the classic rock stations or the "alternative" radio stations. That's so old that stuff. And all of it is going to age even more rapidly, not only because of your newcomer's perspective and lack of knowledge of it, but because within five months all of it will be the music of a previous century and, if you think of yourself as someone in tune with your times, you're going to identify much more readily with 21st century culture as you grow up, than 20th century culture. All those things with "19" at the start of their dates are going to be perceived as ancient history sooner than you can say, "third millenium."
Of course, various things will hang around for a while - there's no such thing as a clean stylistic break - but I guarrantee you, those things will age much more quickly because of this cultural Y2K perception. One of the more interesting things to watch will be what happens to techno. Will the music that has positioned itself culturally as the music of the future be able to survive in that future? The answer, once again, will probably be, "Yes," and "No."
- All Copyright Reserved Clint Small 1999 -
Permission is granted by Clint Small as the sole copyright holder of this article to copy this article provided that - i) such copying or publication is not for commercial use ii) that he is clearly named as the author and that his name and email address appear prominently in the copy made iii) that he is informed of any such copy being made iv) that the Linux Music Site and its URL be cited as the original publisher and place of publication in any copy made. Failure to comply with any of these provisos will be deemed a breach of copyright and will be pursued vigorously.
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A mini-guide? Where've you been?! Read The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll and after that Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs. Listen to the Blues, Chuck Berry, The Beatles, early Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, Doors, Velvets, Sonic Youth, Garbage. After that you should go to a music shop and ask to hold an electric guitar (if you're real small don't ask for a Les Paul...makings of a song there). That should do it for Rock 101.
And just remember...
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