R’n’r Confessional: Rock is Dead

Philosophy undergraduate and future critic Richard Meltzer wrote a book in 1967 called The Aesthetics of Rock that looked at the genre inquisitively, critiquing the various social and philosophical concerns of everyone from Martha and the Vandellas to the Beatles.  This was the year that Sgt. Pepper’s forced people to take rock seriously as an art form rather than some form of tribal entertainment.  In a certain sense, you could say that the Beatles’ LP gave birth to the hyperliterate review style of Pitchfork and, well, guys like me who devote incredible amounts of brain power to figuring out what Panda Bear is really singing about.  Rock music is now studied as literature: you can take History of Rock ‘n’ Roll courses in universities, and the University of Liverpool apparently offers a Ph.D. in the study of popular music (which means, of course, that its graduates are legally allowed to call themselves Dr. Rock; hello, future).
Blame it on the sophistication of the music, if you think you can.  Hell, blame it on critics’ insecure desires to be taken more seriously as thinkers.  But something changed the way that we appreciate music.  I can no longer simply put on and enjoy a record.  It has to be intellectually stimulating.  It has to challenge my thoughts or, to take it in the opposite direction, provide my aching mind with some momentary transcendence, something that I can disappear into for three and a half minutes.  And if something can do both of those things (Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home comes to mind), slap five stars on that thing and start glowing.  I’ve got five hundred records that I’m not content with.
Rock ‘n’ roll fails me.  Bringing It All Back Home is my favorite rock record, but it never really does what I want it to do.  It’s never good enough.  My ears give me no rest and are rapacious in their desire to find something better.  Despite what Black Sabbath may have told you, rock ‘n’ roll was never meant to save our souls.  Nor was jazz, funk, country – none of it.  It’s great stuff (well, except for funk; I could do without funk and be a pretty happy guy), but in the end, they’re all idols worth killing.  Godfather of soul, please forgive me.
Rock is dead.  It’s not dead in the sense that its boundaries aren’t being explored, its conventions examined.  There are bands making progressive, edgy, soulful rock ‘n’ roll right now, and there probably always will be.  But it’s dead in the sense that it’s a tapeworm, a black hole that spirals to infinite depths.  We need to be content with that; we need to give up our search for the Next Brilliant Record and enjoy what we’ve got.  We’ve put too much weight on the music; it can’t stand up much longer.  In the same way that water is bland when you’ve had a gallon of it but tastes like sweet heaven on a hot day, rock ‘n’ roll is never going to be truly fulfilling until we stop gorging ourselves on it.
I know people who have figured this out.  They’re the type of people who look at me like I’m a sick person when I tell them how many gigs of music sit on my computer (for the record, it’s twenty-seven, which I actually think isn’t too terribly much).  They’re the people who have had their emotional connection with their records and made the commitment to have and to hold in sickness and in health.  They get that far-off look in their eyes when they talk about the effect that John Darnelle’s lyrics have had on them.
There are people out there – maybe you’re one of them – who own five records and are perfectly content, and I’m jealous of those people, because they’ve learned that it’s not terribly important to know the name and Wiki file of every new band to score above an eight or below a three.  They’re content to wear out the grooves of what they know and love, to see the goodness and sufficiency of what they already have, to let that record needle carve in stone whatever it is that music does to those of us who love it.  They’ve learned how to listen to music with their heart and mind and without the critical ear of whatever’s fashionable and the expectation that this next record will be the one that will finally deliver them.  They keep their record collection in the right place, and they love their music that much more as a result.  These are good people.
So, yeah, rock ‘n’ roll is dead.  Long live rock ‘n’ roll.


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