om Petty is pissed. He wants to hear his music—proper music—on the radio, and he knows where the fault lies: the industry. To his credit, he admits the industry has always been “corrupt,” but he’s made his career operating through the major labels, and now that they are focused on sounds other than his own, one gets the feeling that he’s bitter. This bitterness, however, doesn’t stop Petty from whispering "the Sixties" with reverence and patting himself on the back for charging $60 for his concerts. Petty, of course, saves his greatest ire for the sounds eclipsing his own, claiming that he’s "way too bright for a lot of hip-hop lyrics," but tells us that if we’re "dumb enough that it entertains [us], have a great time."
The bottom line is that the kids are rejecting Petty’s beloved music en masse because they’re thrilled by other sounds. Too many of the old guard assume the kids are wrong—some even feel they’re being duped or brainwashed. Or they believe the indie trope that if most of America was exposed to Trail of Dead or Wilco, they’d realize their “errors,” and if they didn’t it would because they’re too ignorant to choose the “better” product. What Petty can’t see is that rock has backed itself into a corner, stressing what it feels are its core values: authenticity, technique, and message. In the process, it has conceded too much of the thrill and adventure of music to emerging genres.
Where and why did things start to go wrong? These aren’t answers, just ideas— a wish list from a listener struggling to find any neck-snapping rock sounds:
1. Rock is sonically conservative
After years of being fueled by sonic innovation, rock has done a poor job adjusting to or adopting technology, and it has almost willfully abandoned dynamic/progressive/creative musical structures. Sonically, it’s getting lapped by hip-hop and electronic music and isn’t making attempts to narrow the gap. Instead, it’s not embracing technology—it’s rejecting synthetic music and its elastic, playful structure. What’s worse, many white musicians are cordoning themselves off from contemporary sounds made by black musicians. James Murphy's DFA Records is successfully combining disco rhythms and rock music, but too much of the recent post-punk movement is revivalism rather than progression.
It wasn’t always like this. In the early days ofpost-punk—when the DIY spirit meant as much "dowhatever you please" as it did "do it yourself"—scoresof emerging and established artists weremixing-and-matching genres and styles with thrillingresults. The Talking Heads created anAfrobeat-inspired polyrhythmic masterpiece, and PiLand This Heat and others adopted dub and Krautrocktechniques. The Clash and the Specials, among others,covered Jamaican artists. Blondie brought rocksteadyand hip-hop to the top of the Billboard charts. OrangeJuice "created" indie rock on the strengths of theVelvet Underground and Chic. In NewYork City, everyone from punks to B-Boys gathered atthe Roxy to hear Afrika Bambaata and the SoulsonicForce; in England, Sheffield begot funk-synthavant-pop and Northern Soul inspired No. 1 singlessuch as "Geno" and "Tainted Love." Most of the aboveeven created or allowed others to make 12´´ remixes oftheir singles for club play. The anything-goes of the post-disco, early hip-hop years in NYC/Detroit/Chicago/England and the ideas and music that emerged from those formed the foundation of modern dance.
Ten years later, non-guitar aesthetes such as Saint Etienne, plus Disco Inferno and the other English artists that Simon Reynolds first labeled “post-rock” attempted to broaden the rock palette. “Perhaps the really provocative area for future development lies...not [in] the wholehearted embrace of Techno’s methodology, but some kind of interface between real time, hands-on playing and the use of digital effects and enhancement” Reynolds wrote in The Wire. His words could have been the manifesto of a movement. Instead, Britpop took over, Noel Gallagher crinkled his nose at the over-intellectualizing of rock, and the rest—including bands such as DI, Seefeel, and Bark Psychosis- was history.
Today, hip-hop is no longer operating on the fringes—and in most of the Western world, neither is dance music. Since rock has become threatened as the dominant youth culture by hip-hop, the two primary youth—top 40 and modern rock—are almost strictly divided by race. As music and listeners have become compartmentalized, they seem to have become exclusionary—and many of them expect and get the same from musicians. Top 40 is dominated by R&B, pop, and hip-hop, and although it is inclusive of white artists, the opposite is not true of modern rock. The modern rock bands that have adopted elements of hip-hop have too often taken the most base or basic element, adding a DJ to their ham-fisted sludge, and either expected kudos for being groundbreaking or soured the experience for others.
Even the constantly derided pop is now more sonically inventive. Shania, Whitney, Mariah, Britney, Justin, and Christina have all made synthetic pop sounds with varying success, while balladeers such as Celine Dion, Faith Hill, and Vanessa Williams have largely become absent from the singles charts. This is due to the aggressive annexation of hip-hop and dance elements by the pop stars listed above. Even more interesting and exciting, though, this has led the way for top 40 radio and the charts to swing their door open to a broad range of international sounds—Kylie’s hi-NRG Europop, Crag David and Daniel Bedingfield’s UKG-fused R&B, Basement Jaxx and Daft Punk’s house, Sean Paul’s dancehall, and DJ Sammy’s trance—as long as they are dressed as a new twist on American pop.
This is a far cry from rock, where what is being hailed as nu-rock is actually stylized revivalism. The threat of irrelevance has left the rock camp scrambling back to what it used to do—and thinks it can brings to music that which hip-hop/electronic cannot—but the problem is that much of it has been done before and better. Rock’s backpedaling Us v. Them attitude feeds its delusions of grandeur and keeps it conservative for all the wrong reasons. It took 21 years for rock to go from Elvis to the bloated state that necessitated punk. In all that time, it kept advancing. Punk's Year Zero inspired a brief flourish of inspiration, but in the past 20 years precious little has changed. In the meantime, there have been numerous sonic-based genres that have, if not always succeeded, at least tried to push things forward.
Hamstrung by bothering with authenticity issues, rock has also had a difficult time dealing with technology. Slowly people’s listening habits seem to be changing. More people are listening to one song at a time or downloading music. The rise of file-sharing and mp3s has increased our listening to music- one song at a time- and created an emphasis on the single, which is good for most artists but not for rock. Rather than monolithic statements, people now view albums as malleable, collections of songs that can be skipped or deleted from burned copies of a disc. (“I waited 20 minutes to download this new Radiohead song, ‘Hunting Bears’ and I get this?!”)
Depending on live music and technique runs counter to experimenting in the studio, but that’s the way to do it if you want respect in the rock world. The finished recorded product—whether heard at discos or on the radio—drove rock music until the late 1960s. Even then, the most creative artists of the time—perhaps of all-time—the Beatles, were able to expand their sound because they gave up making music that could be reproduced live. More important to them, by the midpoint of their career, was making music that was progressive.
Frustratingly, new technology—from the phonograph to microphone to the DJ—has usually left the status quo grumbling rather than attempting to fuse it in any sort of meaningful way, and rock appears to be no different. Instead, we’re back to the idea that there is some sort of mythology surrounding the guitar-bass-drum setup that makes electric music somehow more worthy than the ‘synthetic’ (read: artificial) sounds of electronic music. The idea that electronic music is any less relevant and soulful as electric music will end up as trite and ridiculed as the former ideas about electric vs. acoustic music. Those resistant to the legitimization of electronic music should simply let go and accept this inevitability.
2. The American underground has used the same blueprint for the past 10 years
If 1991 was the year that punk broke, it was also the year that U.S. indie, as it once was, died. Try telling that to an American indie kid.
“The alternative to what?” was the question on many people’s lips when bands such as Green Day, Hole, the Smashing Pumpkins, and Soundgarden were hanging platinum plaques on their walls by 1994. That new nebulous “alternative” tag—not quite indie but acceptable to indie folk—has left those who actively pride themselves on being non-mainstream listeners to wonder as much, if not more, about indie cred than music. Are Modest Mouse indie? Mercury Rev? The Roots? Am I allowed to like Andrew WK or the Strokes, or is it major-label hype?
Indie went from creating alternatives to practicing hegemony. Rather than blissfully ignoring each other, the blurring of the underground and mainstream created a one-sided obsession. As a result, indie has had an inferiority complex- defining itself as what it isn’t, rather than what it is. That created, in the U.S. at least, a culture without much cheer or glamour, as fun was, and still is, associated with the blissfully ignorant listening to top 40 radio and “manufactured product”. It also created an underground that too often offers respect to anything that isn’t mainstream and is suspicious of anything corporate—regardless of quality.
Oddly then, for the could-be underground the bar was lowered artistically even as it was raised commercially. Ever since Nirvana, the rules and goals of indie success changed, raising sales expectations and necessitating the creation of indie PR. In reality, the indie publicity machines aren’t really all that different from the majors. They run in the same back-scratching manner as the ones supporting the majors, just on a smaller scale—working college radio and Magnet and other zines the same way corporate labels do with their media outlets. Plus, the demands of promo time strangle a band at its creative peak. Radiohead had to drop out of that game and record two albums at once just to get records on the shelves in consecutive years. (Ironically, in genres in which production, songwriting, and performing/promoting are compartmentalized, this isn’t a worry.) Between nationalized indie PR and the Internet, the local scenes that used to be the lifeblood and support systems of indie have largely disappeared.
The death of the local scene has also had a much larger effect, as access to the internet has allowed for much easier contact with rock history. Consequently, we have rock now chasing its own tail rather than looking toward the future. Being “indier than thou” in the past few years has meant unearthing old sounds—from Tropicalia to Kraturock to Lee Hazlewood—rather than looking ahead. Worse, you can study rock as much as listen to it. When ideas can be gleaned from the past it’s easier than having to actually pay attention to the Now and carve the future, and bands can spout influences or ape the sounds of others in lieu of creating their own ideas. What nobody seems to admit is that resurrecting elements of the past may be homage, but it doesn’t create some sort of linear history. There is no spiritual link between neo-garage and Nuggets or between rap that samples 70s soul and its source material. If the ethos of what is past is respected it certainly doesn’t mean that those who use it as a musical touchstone today are transferred the same.
Despite the reverence for all sorts of “new” old sounds, the indie world has coveted the same version of the past. In the UK, when Britpop broke—that country’s version of Nirvana’s commercial impact—it was the conservatism of the sounds, rather than the evils of the industry, that were subsequently reacted against. After a year or so of defining the former indie culture, Britpop was a centrifugal force that inspired a collection of progressive or singular bands to resent and repel the conservative necrophilia and parochialism of the Cool Britannia. Not coincidentally, some of the better sounds in the immediate post-Britpop world came from Scottish, Welsh, or Northern English bands who resented the laddish or ligging Londoncentrism of Britpop or from dance and garage artists who resented the popularization of the most whitebred, backward aspects of their city.
After the fallout of Nirvana’s break, the U.S. underground didn’t pioneer new sounds either. Attempting to wipe clean their heroes running shoulders on the radio with Candlebox, Live, and other corporate alternative bands, U.S. indie attempted to reclaim its glory days—the 1980s—without realizing that this was largely impossible.
As a result, if the sounds of Our Band Could Be Your Life or the status quo of Pitchfork Media’s top albums of the 80s reflects today’s music it’s because those bands and the Slint and Pavement models seem to be the only templates indie rock is working from. After all, those were the good old days. The PFM list illustrates this perfectly: showing that very little has happened in indie rock since those days. Almost no new ideas in the past 10 years meant that there has no reason for a reassessment. A current poll of the “Best Albums of the 1980s” could have been taken at any time since the end of that decade and the results probably would have been much the same.
3. It’s too hung up on authenticity
Putting ethos before music is the tenet and weaknessof indie, and, in the hands of Petty and otherwatchdogs, is a sneering claim for rock’s superiorityover other modern music. That also forces a set ofnon-musical questions to determine or supercede theemotional reaction of a listener. Why do we need a setof quantitative values that deny someone theopportunity to enjoy music?
The assumption and attitude that live performance,ability, and talent equals authenticity and thereforegood music is troubling. Playing restricting oneselfto playing notes rather than manipulating andorganizing sounds is limiting. Perhaps muso tendenciescan be traced to rise of album rock—the days of"Clapton Is God," soloing, and jamming. About 10 yearsafter the Beatles stopped playing, punk and thenpost-punk and new wave eschewed the notion thatmusicianship was more important than danger, tension, immediacy, elegance, beauty, drama, theater, or wit.
Proto-punks and punk innovators such as the Stooges, New York Dolls, the Ramones, and the Sex Pistols were all so opposed to notions of trad authenticity, stool blues, show solos, and anti-fashion that they each understood the importance of image and cultivated ones of their own. Remember: punk was started by a girl-group obsessed collection of guys with stage names and uniforms whom starred in a high-school movie. And hell, the Pistols even had a guru. In the mid-1970s, a bloated rock backed itself into a set of false core values and a careerist, professional approach, which punk attempted to destroy. Music should be for the people and by the people—it can be anything so long as it grabs you, shakes you, and resonates with you: punk said. Now, punk is fashion- an empty word used to attempt to rub against the past. Those playing punk music today don’t exactly play the ethos as much as they play the music. Many attempt, however, to keep the ethos of punk alive- to keep it authentic, playing directly into the trap that independent music has set up. Musicshouldn’t be hung up on authenticity. It should beabout resonating with the audience, regardless of theprocess used to create the final product.
And this may be one of the reasons that very few emotional templates are still allowed into rock music. Mainstream American rock is still built mostly on angst and indie has spent much of the past 10 years wading in cynicism, irony, or sloth. Each can be fine. Being afraid to do any except the above, though, makes a dull band even worse. Not only are there no beat connections being made—- nobody is having any fun. That changed a bit this year thanks to bands such as the Hives, the White Stripes, and Clinic, but unfortunately most of them look better than they sound. Plus, their eccentricities are again partly tolerated by the indie massive because they are taking cues from a specific, already beloved past sound. In contrast, there are very few—if any—musicians taking stages and doing something fresh and new and willing to potentially look foolish and risk failure or, worse, ridicule. The artists are doing the standing still as much as the crowds, impressing with technique (see: Ameri post-rock, Math Rock, undie rap, etc.) or aggressively winking posturing (the Moldy Peaches and their ilk).
4. The Baby Boomers, journalism, and canonization
For a youth movement, rock quicklybecame a voice for the middle-aged. That’s not surprising—only one group, the Baby Boomers, has determined rock's history. Unfortunately, too many people now believe they’re right. Rock used to warn not to “trust anyone over 30.” It used to be so consumed by the Now that the mods sneered at dusty, five-year-old Gene Vincent records. Today, it has a Hall of Fame.
Despite listener’s obsessions with buying music that will “stand the test of time,” rock’s history is brief and has been controlled by a single generation. Nothing is standing the test of time! Rock is literally creating its history as it goes along. Oh, I know, b-b-b-but those are the classics! Whose classics? Forget that—make your own personal canon.
Too many writers, too, are hungry for nostalgia, and resistant (maybe rightfully so) to music that isn’t speaking to them (nor does it care to). The Chicago Sun-Times‘ Jim DeRogaitas still delights in pointing out that, “boy/girl pop is manufactured.” I suppose it was the combination of Behind the Music, MTV Diary, Making the Band, Making the Video, MTV Cribs, and American Idol that tipped him off. Between all of that, people are so comfortable with music being a collaborative process led by a strong personality that they’re bored with seeing its inner-workings.
The problem is not pop (when did rock become threatened by pop??), the problem is journalists so sick of pop music—so starved for something they want to hear—that they hype anything remotely resembling the great rock music of yore. This effort by mainstream/Rolling Stone critics to paint the past with one particular brush is conservative and, at worst, an attempt to keep the linear history of their music more relevant than all else, despite mounting ‘evidence’ to the contrary. That’s not as much their fault—it’s what they like and what they’ve always liked—this is why it is essential for new voices to emerge to challenge the established canon. Because, for whatever reason, the kids believe them, dutifully purchasing their parents’ or older brother’s classics like the AFI rental checklists.
Of course the most hilarious sentiment is from, where else? The NME. “Once in a generation something so revolutionary happens in music that afterwards nothing is ever the same again. Right now, that’s exactly what’s happening,” the NME said, introducing its cover-mounted nü-rock compilation. "The last 12 months have been one of the most amazing periods for music in living memory. After five years where pop culture has amounted to little more than a seemingly endless conveyor belt of bland and contrived non-entities, kids across the planet are suddenly, and spontaneously, rediscovering the thrill of rock music.”
I guess a couple of gold records after nearly two year of hype means “spontaneously, rediscovering the thrill of rock music” then. Who can blame them? If their editorial staff can’t convince their reader that’s the truth, they—along with most daily newspaper and magazine writers—can start dusting off their résumés.
What it all adds up to is that rock is hopelessly necrophiliac. Rock bands are willfully backward at the moment. They are ‘doing the way they did in the old days’ rather than doing anything progressive as a reaction to hip-hop/electronic music and are shooting themselves in the foot in the process. There seems to be a very strange belief that nothing is amiss with the product because, after all, it’s rock and roll and it’s worthier of our attention and adulation than other forms of music. (And when these kids grow out of this other nonsense they’re listening to, they’ll understand.) But these kids understand that their culture lies elsewhere—they’re embarrassed their parents still listen to Elvis. The ones with their heads stuck in the fake books who don’t embrace the potential organization, and form bands around technique and not songwriting are the ones who choose to play guitar-drums-bass without blinking at the past 20 years of musical history. The ultimate irony is that, for rock’s obsession with the past, their heroes were all sonic innovators who at the time had far more in common with Luomo or the Neptunes than the current crop of guitar-in-hand types. Not everyone believes that 60s/70s rock = real rock = the way music is supposed to be, and if rock doesn’t get over its delusions of grandeur and stop its rigid, recycled ways, it really will be a permanent retro show.
By: Scott Plagenhoef
Published on: 2002-12-23