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What is (was?) rock music?

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This TNR piece presents itself as a tentative obituary for . . .  what exactly I’m not sure.

The genre hasn’t been this irrelevant in ages,” writes Alex Shepard.  (My emphasis). His piece concludes:

And then there was Desert Trip, derisively and accurately labeled “Oldchella,” the mega-concert featuring Dylan, The Rolling Stones (who incidentally released their first good album in three decades in 2016), Paul McCartney, Roger Waters, The Who, and Neil Young. In one respect, Oldchella was a fitting jewel in the crown of 2016: a testament to rock’s decaying influence.

Rock music has not been this irrelevant since the late 1950s and early 1960s, when its momentum was stalled by Elvis joining the Army, Buddy Holly crashing into an Iowa cornfield, and Chuck Berry being sent to prison for violating the Mann Act. Very little can be said for Don MacLean’s saccharine and embarrassing “American Pie,” a song which persists entirely because baby boomers are especially prone to a particularly smug version of nostalgia. Rock came back from the dead once before, when it was brought back to life by four young men from Liverpool. But this time it looks like it may be gone for good.

(On a side note, the sentence about “American Pie” reads like something that got inadvertently left in after a bunch of other text was cut in the edit.  At least I hope that’s what happened, because otherwise it’s just weird).

The trouble with this kind of argument is that it’s been a long, long time since the phrase “rock music” described anything that could be even loosely described as a coherent musical genre, if indeed it ever did.

If “rock music” means “music written and performed by people who are recognized by general cultural consensus to be rock musicians,” it covers everything from “Sweet Little Sixteen” to “California Dreamin’,” to “I Wanna Be Your Dog” to “If You Leave Me Now” to “The Revealing Science of God (Dance of the Dawn)”, to “Punk Rock Girl,” to a whole lot more. Hell  let’s just do this with one band —  a band many would consider the archetypal representative of the purported genre:

Get off of My Cloud

When Tears Go By

2000 Light Years from Home

Prodigal Son

Moonlight Mile

Fool to Cry

Faraway Eyes

Etc. etc.

All of which is to say that “rock music” (formerly rock and roll; a semi-interesting question is when it got shortened), to the extent it exists as a cultural category at all, does so more or less along the lines of Potter Stewart’s famous definition of obscenity:  You know it when you (or somebody) hears it as such.  In that sense I doubt it’s dying, or even can.

 

 

 

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