Ty Burr says Rock & Roll is dead

Rock & Roll

Yes, yes, I know it’s old news. We’ve been hearing about it since the Monkees, or the Sex Pistols, or the Spice Girls. But it struck me with renewed force the other day when I glanced at the Billboard 200 and saw Madonna jostling with Clapton next to Andrea Bocelli up against Matchbox 20 staring down Usher and K-Ci & Jojo and C-Murder who were backing up to Loreena McKennit who was under Van Halen but above Aretha Franklin, and on top of ’em all, for the 16th week in a row, was a grand, old-fashioned movie score.

And this, understand, was all in the Top 30.

It used to be that you looked at Billboard and saw, if not one music, certainly a unified cultural force. I’m not just talking the prehistoric ’60s and ’70s but as recently as the mid-90’s, when Nirvana led the last great belch of disaffected, over-hyped rebellion. Call it the youth market, call it rock ‘n’ roll nation, call it teenage wasteland, but it had a definite center and defined edges, and it was definitely moving forward.

What we’re seeing now is what happens when there is no center: all the aspects of popular music are exploding outward into miniscule fragments of taste and demography. There’s no other way to explain the Squirrel Nut Zippers, really.

I am thinking, however, that this is not such a bad thing. The fragmentation, not the Zippers.

Personally, card-carrying late-period member of the Baby Boomer generation though I am, I’ve always been suspicious of the more utopian tendencies of the Rock dream. The notion that, if we all stand together and hold our Bic lighters up high, we can save the world. Or the notion that, as Pete Townshend once wrote, “The kids are all right.” (For the record, children, he was the leader of a group called The Who, and he also wrote some lyrics that ran “Hope I die before I get old,” and he also didn’t).

Well, the kids are all right, but not when they start thinking in large, elk-like formations. No one is, as a cursory glance at the political history of the 20th Century will tell you. If you have any doubt that there were heaps of chowderheaded, self-serving BS underlying all the generational optimism that glued Rock ‘n’ Roll together even back in the late-’60s — and that still gets a Pavlovian nod from MTV and the rest of the music-biz superstructure — please go rent a videotape that came out last year called “A Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival”.

A documentary of the last great rock festival of the original wave — on the Isle of Wight, off the coast of southern England — the film doesn’t present the “Woodstock” Ideal of a generation reinventing the world as one shiny, happy community. Nor does it posit the Satanic flipside, a la Altamont. Instead, it paints a picture of reality, circa 1967. Imagine being at a mass love-in: Everyone’s blissfully high, the house band is amazing, the vibes are loving and transcendent and free. Now imagine that you’re the only one there who’s not stoned off your nut. That’s sort of what watching this film is like.

Three scenes tell the story best. In one, a scruffy “People’s Concert” mob assaults the festival fences, enraged that promoters and musicians dare make a profit; what’s depressing is not their fury but the bogus revolutionary cant in which they disguise it. In another scene, Joni Mitchell nervously tries to sing “Woodstock,” that wary hippie anthem, while a jabbering psycho repeatedly clambers on stage to talk to her. And then there’s the moment when one of the promoters grabs the mike to berate the crowd for its general violent anarchy: “We put this festival together — YOU F—ERS — with a lot of love!”

Ahh, the sixties. Like Robin Williams once said, if you can remember them, you weren’t there. But that’s why the good Lord made documentaries.

My point (hold on, it’s in here somewhere) is that Rock ‘n’ Roll as the vehicle for a perfect community, as the soundtrack for not youth, but Youth — this was always a hashpipe dream. Eric Clapton’s a telling example: In 1968, urban grafitti proclaimed him God but, as his later career proves — especially that horrid Tiki-bar version of “Layla” he cut in 1992 — he’s not even Jesus. What he is is a perfectly good carpenter; instead of making tables he makes blues. Buy ’em if you want; stay away if you want. No one’s forcing you either way.

That’s a new kind of freedom, and it’s a little scary to the old guard. Half the critics I know sweated blood last year to turn Radiohead’s “OK Computer” into a monster hit, the “Dark Side of the Moon” of our era. Didn’t work; the thing peaked at, what, #21? It didn’t matter that the album’s flippin’ brilliant. What matters is that the audience for pop music is too vast and infinitesimal for consensus anymore. The social imperative just ain’t there, either: You don’t have to have it to be with it. And as new generations come of age thinking of rock music as their parent’s music, there’s precious little that’s new to rebel with. Marilyn Manson? Sorry, Alice Cooper got there 20 years ago (and let’s not talk about Screamin’ Jay Hawkins). Rap? Good for scaring Mom and Dad until you’re 13; after that, you have to either move on or take it seriously. Ambient techno? I’ll lend you my old Kraftwerk and Eno albums.

There literally is nothing left to do but listen to what you like. Not because your folks hate it. Not because it’ll change the world. Not because MTV tells you to. Not even because it’ll help you find love or get laid or dream something bigger. Well, okay, maybe that. But because you like it and you’ve chosen it and it’s yours. Because you can think for yourself.

Rock is dead. Have a nice day.

Rock & Roll
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