Sunday, April 25, 2010

Against Rock

The Case Against Rock Part One

“To be against means to be opposed: resistant or defiant. It also means next to: beside or near.” Laura Kipnis

“Elvis started to strum on the guitar, and I caught a glimpse of James and Buddy Rich looking at each other. Rich made a square sign with his fingers and pointed at Elvis”. (Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James, Levinson, Oxford University Press 1999)

Buddy Rich and Harry James knew things: they had special and specialized knowledge of a musical nature. This is knowledge that continues to elude audiences or indeed anyone who listens to music but who is nevertheless not in possession of at least a partial understanding and comprehension of, say, jazz. But of what does this knowledge consist?

To be against rock in any serious sense is as absurd as being against death and taxes. Rock we will always have with us as long as we are a civilization. Rock literally writes the songs that make the whole world sing. This however does not mean we have to like it and be obsequious and genuflect before it. Though gravity may be an eternal law we might continue to dream of falling upwards. In any case art itself is a grand experiment in the supposition of alternate realities, of counterfactuals, whether these go by Coleridge’s phrase of “suspension of disbelief” or not. Lastly there was a world of popular music BEFORE rock and we can ask legitimate historical questions about whether we are worse or better off after rock's takeover and continued rule.

Before we proceed allow me to distance myself most widely and severely from those opponents of rock until the present. They have been the worst philistines. They are against sexuality and have attacked one of the few elements to have had potential in rock which is its sexual power: fashionable accounts of the evils of rock doubtless traffic in neologisms from feminism and other theories like “sexualization”. Those opposed to rock have been Born Again Christians and rigid Catholics who, when they should have been criticizing rock and roll, were more concerned to criticize youth and their sexual freedoms and feelings. What is wrong with rock is not it’s sex; what is wrong with rock is how little else it has to offer. The old tired cliched joke about the three chord progressions has more than an element of truth in it. Surely rock needs better enemies than these. We need an aesthetic criticism again; let us leave the moralism to the preachers and politicians.

Even worse are those critics, many of whom continue to perform on our concert stages and instruct in our music schools, who feel as if nothing that comes after Bach or Schoenberg could ever measure up to those two superstars of the classical world. Here we do have something of an ethnocentric approach to music as if everything good in the world comes to us from dead white males.

The truth in the example above of Buddy Rich and Harry James and their immediate reaction to the specter and spectacle of Elvis lies not in notions of squareness or hipness, still less does it lie in coolness. Rather, it lies above all in what used to go by the name of craft. It lies in something that has much to do with music and less to do with the music scene. By craft here I mean a kind of excellence or quality in creation, sometimes involving the relations of master and apprentice but always involving the achievement of a skill. These are preconditions for issues of artistic style and political relevance.

“What and which rock do you have in mind in your attack? Like feminisms there are many rocks. There is glam rock and indie rock and riot girl rock and pop rock and punk rock etc. Rock is many traditions.” This is how I would imagine my interlocutor to retort.

But my answer would be: I am interested in that part of art that is not contextual, which is not part of any particular community, tradition or a scene. When we forget about the scene, what is is left over and behind such specificity? What is transcendent in art’s purpose?

Rock and roll is always already only about scenes and traditions. That is the one thing very wrong with it. “I remember when we hung out and listened to Zeppelin and Rush and that really influenced us.” “Boy that song brings back memories of those times.”

Of course all the arts have their traditions and scenes. Popular art thrives upon them. Modern bebop would be nothing without the legendary jam sessions. Isn't rock a matter of the same thing?

But centuries and epochs later we have only the art work and little trace and no living memory of any of those scenes. (Anyone care to say how Elizabethan England felt and for which class?) But with most popular musics, with which rock can be safely compared, there was something in the music of more significance than merely cultural associations, matters not reducible to youth and adolescence. There was melodic phrasing not bound by the limitations of folk melody, and the melody did not have the irritating habit of circling back upon itself, something which rock melody almost always does. There was the tonal and coloristic virtue of the Blues from which rock stole and borrowed but with which rock did very little except for the excellent guitar solo by this or that decent guitarist and a soulful singer here and there. In popular music before Rock there was the knowledge and awareness of European classical music too. And much else. Tin Pan Alley and Broadway composers had more musical education than most of the rock composers who followed. They had backgrounds in music schools and had relatives who were prized cantors in synagogue. (Harold Arlen for example).

Rock is most often reducible to and sufficiently explained by the scene alone, however defined. In that sense rock's older detractors were correct, (in spite of their moralism and religiosity), to sense in rock an excess of youthfulness and an anxious defense against the virtues of maturity.

My interlocutor will of course bring up the issue of soul and feeling when I mention education and craft, as if these were an either/or proposition. The rock and roller wants to know what's going on in the streets and scorns what is perceived as the elitism of music education.

But the rock musician feels as if raw feeling were a kind of virtue in itself, as if the act of being human conferred upon one a kind of greatness merely for being on the scene and telling a moving story. One wants to know too, though, what form the story will take, of how feeling can be shaped through form. Works of art are not their stories, if they indeed have them. One wants to know more.

American Idol and the like represent a case of too much democracy. Let me not be misunderstood. Let the Left stand as correct in their complaint that economically we are little better than a Feudal regime in our inequalities. In that sense of course we still have too little democracy.

However, culturally, matters look quite otherwise. If the past was woefully exclusive, the present is indiscriminately inclusive, so much so that we think the singing of a song is a behavior that we should be forced to hear, no matter the circumstance of the song or the tenor and tone of the singer. It is as if, so attached we are to the scene, we hear not the song but only the fine and sincere sentiment behind the song and that makes the song ipso facto always already good. Thus, the end result in daily urban living today is that one cannot pass from one block to the next in our city streets without being bombarded by yet another poor soul expressing themselves with their guitar in tow.

The villainous female principal played by Mary Woronuv was actually correct when she commented on the demeanor of The Ramones in the 1970s movie Rock and Roll High School. They DID look emaciated and weird. Something has gone very wrong with a society indeed when that society's representation of a male popular singer slides from Frank Sinatra to Joey Ramone. This comparison alone could stand as a condemnation of rock itself. Now, to be fair, I can listen to The Ramones with a minor amount of minimal enjoyment. Their use of the triad is original the speed of their rhythm is fun, and their unique contribution to rock's "square", "straight up and down" mode of drumming is to be noted. But look at how we must suffer under their legions of followers. And hear how little else there is there when we bother to really listen.

Imagine what Buddy Rich and Harry James had experienced in their musical lives. They had been acquainted with the Broadway scores, they had some familiarity with classical or, as they would have called it, "long haired" music. They had lived around shows and vaudeville and theaters. They had played among instruments other than the now ubiquitous electric guitar: all sorts of wind and brass instruments. Above all, they had known the contributions of Count Basie and Duke Ellington, to say nothing of Art Tatum and Charlie Parker. When Rich and James heard and saw Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show how could they not be more than a little disappointed? Given their skills as musicians and their experience of life, Elvis must have appeared to them a very square man indeed.

Duke Ellington and others in his time came into music to express something of greatest elegance and beauty. They wanted the audience to experience something of elevation so that the listener could come away inspired. Their swinging music was about movement and momentum whereas rock keeps repeating the same thing over and over like an autistic child. Rock doesn’t swing because its sense of rhythm is most rigid. Rhythmically rock is an unfortunate cheapening of earlier rhythm and blues rhythms. It was fortunate when Steve Reich came on the scene in the classical world because Reich actually succeeds at what so many rockers attempt but fail to do.

If we think about the nature of rock rhythm we are faced with the squarest of rhythmic functions in music. More often that not rock is what I call, straight up and down. There are no curves in rock; rock is all straight and hard edges. Looked at in this way the designation "cock rock" is a tautology. I am not so convinced that the presence of Joan Jett or any other woman changes very much.

All you need to do to understand the problem with rock is to compare the the original Beatles recording of “Got to Get You Into My Life” with the much better cover by Earth Wind and Fire. The Beatles version is fine enough but there is something stiff in its execution. The Earth Wind and Fire version is overproduced but it grooves like nothing else in popular music. It is on fire indeed! It is as if the dogma of authenticity makes us unable to read the latter version because rock has taught us to be suspicious of that which is popular as in “pop” and be too ready to embrace whatever FEELS most immediately rebellious and hand crafted. The Earth Wind and Fire version even has a big band arrangement as part of it.

Arrangements were a marvelous part of popular music that rock abandoned in rock's insistence upon mining folk music for its modes and in its fetishism of a kind of austerity and emotional immediacy. I understand Glam and art and prog rock to be the answer to those problems. But let us listen to these latter forms indeed. I can't help but come away feeling how much more could have been done with the material MUSICALLY.

But rock is chiefly not very much about the music, as I have said, but the scene.


  1. Very interesting, Mitch. I'm reminded of this quote from The Kang: "I don't know anything about music. In my line you don't have to."


  2. You're very brave to question this most dominant and hotly defended form in terms of its INTRINSIC VALUE as music. As a jazz lover myself, I am often so dismayed at the general notion that jazz is square compared to rock, that somehow it's for old folks, when in fact it's so HIP. It's so true that when people defend rock as more hip, they are really defending its relation to the youth generation. And yet what of the fact that now young people have to share rock with their fathers and indeed their grandfathers?

    In terms of true musical HIPNESS, sometimes I will listen to Bach or Schnittke or even Wagner and think it almost makes JAZZ sound unhip, so wild and varied are the forms and imaginary center. Jazz was, after all, the pop music of an earlier generation. But what Wagner does with the Lohengrin Prelude is the kind of thing jazz cats are ALL OVER, as in Jobim taking Chopin and doing his thing with it in INSENSATEZ. Maybe it's just me, but musically speaking, a piece like this is a lot more innovative than a piece like CLASSICAL GAS.

  3. I like Elvis!

  4. Jen: I am "against" rock, not because Elvis or this or that individual musician is not great, moving, enjoyable and so on, but, rather, I am against the way, HISTORICALLY, rock as a mode has dominated all other musical styles, the way it essentially replaced jazz as THE form of popular music. and, above all, the way much or most of rock (Punk rock is a good example in this instance) is aesthetically one-sided, dominated by a single tone (in the case of Punk, rawness or anger instead of a host of other emotions) rather than the balance of tonal variation that has always been a hallmark of the better arts, popular or otherwise.