Rockism: Karl Popper Said It Was Reet Petite
or the rest of 2005, Stylus will be presenting a series of two to three essays each month in the Pop Playground section centered around an idea or theme related to music. These questions will be open-ended, allowing each writer to make of the subject what they will and to explore it more fully than they might do in a normal review or feature. This month: Rockism.>
Okay, you know what it is? It's like this:
Some people around here don't like Around the World in a Day, Prince's brilliant and underrated 1985 treatise on rockism. (I'm looking at you, Alfred Soto…and you look marvelous.) But I do, because I always knew that it wasn't just some puddle-jumping exercise in nostalgia for nostalgia's sake. Every single song on this record is about the music business, or the double-bind position of pop music itself. He builds a sanctuary in Paisley Park but he's not safe from the Pop Life; he knew a girl in Paris who made funny faces just like Clara Bow, but he can't stop thinking about America and keeping the children free; how can he go around the world in a day when he is supposed to be climbing up the ladder, etc.
But the best part comes at the end, with the grindy grind of "Temptation," where Prince lets his freaky sex flag fly for real, balls out, rock and roll hootchie coo, let's get it on – only to be smacked down BY GOD HIMSELF. (The deity is played, in an inspired bit of casting, by Prince himself. Natch.) God (the anti-Camille) gets pissed Prince for lusting after some woman, and it goes a little something like this: "U have 2 want her 4 the right reasons." "I do!" "U don't. Now die." "Noooooooooo…" (Don't worry, kids, Prince doesn't die!)
So even God is a rockist. Shoulda known. Technically, that's all this rockism shit is all about: like or hate or love or be all just "eh" about any music in the whole world, but U have 2 love it 4 the right reasons: authenticity, sweat, tradition and history, certain respected musical leitmotifs. The signifiers HAVE to be the signified.
This happens in every school. There has to be a narrative, so the story can be told by historians. They put things in chronopsychological order, so it looks like a story is being told simultaneously by everyone in the world: the leaders and artists, the fans and students, the technical wizards and scientists and lucky stiffs, the hoi polloi. It turns into received wisdom that one must cling to in order to understand the big picture, the causes and effects, the chain chain chain that links us all.
It mostly goes like this: Popular movement leads to revolution leads to constitutional congress leads to attacks from without leads to counterrevolution leads to cleansing bloodbath leads to expanded view of original movement leads to popular movement. Will it go round in circles? Indeed, it will, if U love it 4 the right reasons.
Liking music because it cleaves to the prevailing narrative about how music is supposed to be made is rockism, at least in the U.S. (Maybe the U.K. too, don't know about all that.) DIS-liking music because it does NOT cleave to the prevailing narrative about how music is supposed to be made is also rockism.
Rockism tells you what to do, how to feel. It's a rolling stone, and the moss is re-grown every ten years or so. It chalks the field and hunkers down behind the catcher to call balls and strikes. Sometimes, often, it blows a call—but if you argue, you're gonna get tossed. U just don't C things clearly yet. U need 2 remember the narrative: Elvis crossed the streams and created a new baby, black people and show tunes were taking over until the Beatles came along, rock tore down Vietnam, songs could be ten minutes long if there were long guitar solos because the central main emotional part of a rock song is the guitar solo because it most clearly lies at the climax of the sex act-mimicking Freitag's Pyramid, disco sucked, punk was mostly bad at the time but now we know it was awesome, synthesizers went from cool to uncool, r&b; died when Al Green got hit with hot grits, rap got cool when it got guitars and then it got sucky again when it lost its edge, Kurt Cobain died for our sins, bing bang boom bob's yer uncle.
Oh, yeah, throw in reggae somewhere, forgot that. Also, something about how it's okay to dance to songs but the songs have to be ABOUT something other than dancing for some reason. And that after 20 years all is forgiven; the statute of limitations on the Bee Gees and the Village People have expired. And you better toss in some language about how everything has to be in English so we know what it means, because it matters what it means. Doesn't matter if most of this narrative isn't true, just the same way that it's not really true that the Civil War was about slavery—if that's what the people think, that's what the people think, end of story.
So hell, yeah, rockism exists, on every level. It's not necessarily a bad thing. It's comforting and safe like a bed with nice fluffy pillows. But some of us don't like the fluffy pillows! We reject the fluffyosity! We say down with guitars and solos! We say we want to dance without fear of being made fun of by bad mean rockist jocks! We say techno, we say punk, we say pop! Yea, verily, we defy Old Testament Rockist God Him- or Herself, in favor of gentle beard-wearing Jesus, who we could totally see boogieing to "Toxic" or "Little Fluffy Clouds" or "#1 Spot" or "Hollaback Girl."
But even this new breed of poppists or rappists or chicken-necks or groovulous poor righteous teachers contains a measure of sympathy for some old songs they like. Hate all you want, you still remember stuff that made you fall in love with music in the first place. When you hear that stuff, you make exceptions for it, and then justify the exceptions with logic that don’t make no sense. And then you'll listen to it again in this new light ("sure it sounds like a lot of other music back then but Here Is Why It Is Different from that other crap"). And then we're off to the races.
Rockism is philosophical, not musical. It is from the gut and the head and the heart, but not the ears. It can be neither proven nor disproven, and therefore doesn't exist. I was going to end with a killer line here but I can't think of any, and killer lines are rockist anyway. I was also going to make a list of songs/albums/artists that were and were not rockist, but lists are rockist and so are distinctions. Everything is rockist, if U know where 2 look. But it's my birthday and I'm tired as hell, so I'm just going to bed. I don't know if that's rockist or not. Doesn't really matter, ultimately, though, does it?
By: Matt Cibula
Published on: 2005-06-22
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