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July 14, 2009

Rock is ... Forever?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I'll readily admit that popular music had generally become pretty slow, sugary and, well, awful by 1954 when Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" hit the charts. Rock 'n' Roll was a breath of fresh musical air to me and many other teenagers.

That was 55 years ago. The pop genre of the early 1950s didn't entirely disappear, but new songs of that type stand little chance of big sales. Meanwhile Rock and its descendants (Disco, Heavy Metal, Grunge, etc.) continue to roll. True, the Bill Haley variety is performed as nostalgia and the same might be said for Chuck Berry's and other music from the days of Rock's comparative innocence and happiness.

While Rock evolved it continued to dominate the commercial pop scene. Country music has regained some popularity and there is the species of chant called Rap/Hip Hop that's been going strong for decades longer than I at first figured it would last. (I confess that when I first heard it, thought it was a fad that wouldn't be good for more than a year, if that long. I failed to take into account that Rap requires little musical talent, allowing lots of folks to get into the act.)

Keeping in mind that popular music styles take a long time to fade away (can I assume that Stephen Foster songs are now rarely heard?), I wonder how much longer Rock, broadly defined, will dominate the pop scene.

They way things have been going, it might be another half-century. But then, remember how badly I misjudged Rap.



posted by Donald at July 14, 2009



Posted by: JV on July 14, 2009 5:31 PM

I remember how tedious the pop music of the 50s was. I also remember thinking how feeble rock and roll was too. Thank God for Jazz, Classical and the Beatles.

Posted by: dearieme on July 14, 2009 6:09 PM

Rock is for fat blokes on Harleys. Long live Progressive Trance.

Posted by: slumlord on July 14, 2009 7:11 PM

Zeppelin is forever.

Posted by: Zep Rulz on July 14, 2009 9:11 PM

Take a look at Mark Steyn's "Song of the Week" essays. Steyn is incredibly knowledgeable about pop songs - how particular songs came to be written, how they are constructed (rhyme structures, key changes), how they are interpreted and marketed.

One thing that appears many times is that hit songs often first appeared long before they became hits - and sometime returned to the charts many years later.

He also tracks the current practice of contemporary artists covering the "standards" from many decades earlier. I don't know if any current artists have been covering Stephen Foster songs, but I wouldn't be that surprised.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on July 15, 2009 1:36 AM

Among the old fogies, Bill Haley and the Comets still rule! People always want to hear "Rock Around the Clock" at my gigs.

Don't put down Stephen Foster. Oh! Susanna is still played by country, folk and bluegrass bands. The Boomers know the song because James Taylor covered it.

Fat blokes on Harleys... well, we're a dying breed. Ours was a better world. Boys and girls dreamed of finding their true love (of the opposite sex), getting married and having a family.

People changed. Rock was romantic. The world has become bitterly crude, spread-eagled and devoted to solo masturbation. This is not an improvement.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on July 15, 2009 5:25 AM

Techno. It became really popular in the late '90s. Not in an airwaves sense, but lots of young people download it, expect to hear it at parties or nightclubs, etc. It sucks, but it is big and new.

Posted by: agnostic on July 15, 2009 5:56 AM

The deterioration of popular culture continues unabated. Read all about it here...

Posted by: Bob Grier on July 15, 2009 8:18 AM

Drilling down into the details a bit, there are, in most arts, including music, moments of intense ferment and creativity. At the risk of qualifying for fogeydom, the 60s seem to be such a period. Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited and Blond on Blond, the Beatles' Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt Pepper's, not to mention the Who, the Stones, Cream, Jimi Hendrix and even the Incredible String Band, represent a real upwelling of creativity. Note that half of those artists could not really be called 'rock and roll'. Now since then popular music has become more and more industrialized (one of the signposts was Michael Jackson's Thriller) and less and less creative. I eagerly await the next moment of musical adventure, but I may not live to see it.

Posted by: Bryan on July 15, 2009 8:53 AM

--Don't put down Stephen Foster. Oh! Susanna is still played by country, folk and bluegrass bands.--

You'd like Del McCoury. And the most incredible version of Dixie I ever heard was played on steel drums. Just amazing. A fantastic song to begin with too. Every time I hear it I want to go and join the CSA (and I'm from NJ).

PS Get me some discount tickets to Levon Helm's studio, dammit!

Posted by: NE Corridor on July 15, 2009 10:18 AM

A lot of parents still sing Oh Susannah! to their small children, and maybe Camptown Races. Schools also teach some to junior choirs, at least around here.

Posted by: Chris B. on July 15, 2009 10:55 AM

As far as "popular" radio that plays new material, rock is more or less dead already. The occasional rock song makes it on the radio the way the more pop-like country songs used to make it onto rock station rotation back in 70s - for example Green Day's "American Idiot."

Then again, I'm in the Denver CO market, which is notorious for bad radio stations.

Posted by: yahmdallah on July 15, 2009 11:18 AM

Wasn't Jazz the music that existed before rock?

Swing jazz was popular in the 30's and early 40's, Bennie Goodman, Duke Ellington, and the like. Later, it was Bebop with Charlie "Yardbird" Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. I think both Bebop and Cool Jazz was early 50's. Miles Davis "Birth of the Cool" and, of course, Dave Brubeck (West Coast Jazz style).

Why weren't most people into Jazz in the early 50's? It seems to me that there was lots of perfectly good jazz to listen to during the 50's and early 60's.

I believe Dave Brubeck toured college campuses before rock and roll took over.

Posted by: kurt9 on July 15, 2009 11:24 AM

Disco is only weakly a descendant of Rock, really more a co-descendant with Rock of earlier music. And a rival too. Disco is a member of that genre of music that has been the focus of as much or more hatred from Rock devotees than any other: dance music.

Contemporary dance music, by which I mean the kind of electronic music you hear in dance clubs, is really a kind of anti-rock: it eschews guitars (mostly, except as effects), uses drum machines and sequencers in lieu of drum kits and bass guitars, and of course makes "live" performance into something so different from that of rock bands that it deserves to be called a different art form, not just a different genre. In club music performance, the stars aren't the guys spinning in the booth, it's the dancers. Completely different from Rock concerts. Completely!

The real issue today is that Rock has survived, but only as a fragment among fragments. It has nothing like the dominance it had in my youth in the early seventies. And, IMO of course, it hasn't done anything new in years...because it can't. It's just too limited a form of music.

Mark Steyn wrote that he had a conversation with Paul Simon about rock music, in which Simon argued fiercely that rock music was capable of development outside the 4/4 rhythm 3-chord structure that seems almost to define the music.

Well, Simon changed his mind. The problem isn't that Rock music isn't good--of course it is!--it's that it can't be changed from a fairly simple template or it simply ceases to be Rock music. It just stops sounding (and feeling) like Rock.

P.S. Rock is NOT the same thing as Rock 'n' Roll. Sure, it's a descendant of it, but it is just not the same thing. It dropped the Roll after all. And that's important. Dance music grabbed the Roll, and has been running with it ever since.

P.P.S. There's a hilarious Kids in the Hall sketch where the brilliant Mark McKinney as a rather, ah, foppish Satan, messes with the head of a mulleted guitarist played by Bruce McCulloch by sewing doubts about the sacred dogma of Rock fanatics: its immortality.

You had to see and hear the sense of loss when McCulloch the mullet-head, now convinced, says plaintively, "You mean...Rock WILL die?"

Posted by: PatrickH on July 15, 2009 12:03 PM


My guess as to why fewer people were listening to jazz in the 50s was its transformation from big band swing to something much more demanding of the listener. That's the key. Jazz ceased being mostly dance music and become something headier.

I mean, try dancing to some bebop, or even cool jazz. (I do NOT mean that jazz completely ceased to be danceable, only that its centre of focus changed. Nor do I mean to imply that swing was somehow unsophisticated or unworthy of being listened to or only good for dancing. Question of emphasis, people, em-PHA-sis!)

Posted by: PatrickH on July 15, 2009 12:13 PM

You had to see and hear the sense of loss when McCulloch the mullet-head, now convinced, says plaintively, "You mean...Rock WILL die?"

And Pop Will Eat Itself...

Posted by: NE Corridor on July 15, 2009 12:24 PM

Plenty of fantastic music out there, but counter-intuitively, it's harder to find even as access to all kinds of music gets easier and easier. Without one or two dominant genres that people can reliably return to to find the music they like, they're forced to wade through the massive quantity of music without the traditional guides pointing them in the right direction.

Mainstream radio is so freaked out about all of these developments that it's hedging bets and shooting for the very lowest common denominator, including getting rid of DJs. And as rock gets older, radio has been fragmentinging into stations devoted to a specific decade. Just last month, the Sacramento area got our first 90s station. Before that, it was a more broad "alternative rock" format, which encompassed music from the late 70s to the present.

Basically, we no longer have a shared pop culture. And as exposure to other kinds of music and cultures gets easier, we're seeing an incredible cross-breeding of musical styles and genres. I think it's really exciting and some amazing music has come from it.

Posted by: JV on July 15, 2009 2:38 PM


The real issue today is that Rock has survived, but only as a fragment among fragments. It has nothing like the dominance it had in my youth in the early seventies. And, IMO of course, it hasn't done anything new in years...because it can't. It's just too limited a form of music.

I wouldn't say that's the reason. Take the example of heavy metal, which is only a subset of rock music. It was an extremely popular part of the musical mainstream until early-to-mid '90s, and then rapidly disappeared from the mainstream radar altogether. As someone knowledgeable about the genre, I can tell you that a lot of extremely good metal music has been produced since then, although its popularity has been restricted to small, marginal groups of fans. Whatever it was that made metal disappear from the mainstream, it wasn't a lack of novel quality material. (In fact, in Europe, the situation has been different, and the genre attracts much wider audiences and more media attention there.)

Ultimately, I'd say that the music genres that are given mainstream attention are determined solely by the demand of the large record and media companies, which in turn seek performers that will come off as supremely cool and elicit lots of interest among young audiences, while at the same time creating as few problems as possible. These choices have very little to do with any measures of musical quality. Even the most pitiful musical recycling devoid of any originality can be made into a chart hit, if it's only packaged into a presentation that a lot of kids will perceive as cool, and if it's safe enough not to trigger any censorship alarms. It's the half-science, half-art of designing effective pre-packaged coolness and "rebellion" under the given constraints, among which concerns about musical quality don't have a very high priority.

This, in my opinion, also explains the modern dominance of hip hop music in North America. In the codes of political correctness that determine what is acceptable in the North American mainstream media nowadays, the black culture is held to significantly more lenient standards, because the sorts of people who are the most effective in raising moral outrage and pressuring the media are also the ones most worried about coming off as racist. (Even angry feminists who would bite your head off for failing to use gender-neutral language are reluctant to condemn Snoop Dog when he drags women on a leash in a video and sings about slapping them for disobedience.)

Twenty years ago, when these PC constraints were still much weaker, hip-hop and (say) heavy metal could successfully exist in parallel, both providing their own pattern of teenager-aimed coolness based on aggressive masculinity, recklessness, lewdness, all sorts of parent-baiting offensiveness, etc. However, the PC codes have become much stricter since then, but they're nowhere as strict for hip-hop (imagine if some white rock band went even half as far as the typical gangster rappers these days!). Accordingly, hip-hop has become the only viable vehicle for selling this sort of stuff much demanded by the kids, while the contemporary rock music has been completely emasculated and drowned in the sludge of the SWPL culture. It's not a reflection of the actual musical potential of both genres -- hip-hop is, if anything, a far more limited genre than rock -- but of the other constraints faced by the music industry.

Posted by: Vladimir on July 15, 2009 3:31 PM

Rock can't die because it managed to define itself by what it is not than what it is, and in so doing it can encompass pretty much any type of music that isn't orchestral. Already by the 1970s this was clear - Joni Mitchell, King Crimson and the Sex Pistols were all "rock music." Would someone from 1951 think those three acts have anything in common? Rock is apparently not country, but there are plenty of country rock acts and rocking country acts where the line ain't clear. To someone from 1951 Willie Nelson or Kenney Chesney would probably seem pretty rock and roll. Was Jaco Pastorius jazz or rock? Or was Jimi Hendrix really a jazz musician pretending to be a rock musician? A lot of it just marketing and labeling, not a defined art form. "Rock" can seemingly assimilate anything - rap, funk, chansons, klezmer, show tunes. As long as you don't have to wear a tie to attend the concert it might be rock.

Posted by: vanya on July 15, 2009 3:51 PM

Rock didn't die. It was intentionally put into the background while rap and that nauseating pseudo R&B was marketed to white suburban kids. Can't have the white kids having a music of their own, now. No white men for the young girls to fantasize over.

We must put the black artificially at the forefront in movies, music, television, sports, etc, etc, etc. We must destroy white western Christian civilization completely. And this is how we do it.

Just another facet of a much larger agenda.

Posted by: L on July 15, 2009 6:30 PM

L, you obviously have never met a record exec. They don't give two shits about anything other than making money. If a couple of Amish banging two rocks together suddenly caught on, they'd be all over that.

Posted by: JV on July 15, 2009 8:26 PM

From a very early age I've questioned the obsession with affixing genre labels to everything. It happens in the visual arts and music to a degree I find perverse. Should Joni Mitchell be put in the Folk, Jazz, Singer-songwriter, or Pop bin? When Miles Davis covered Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" did it change from a Pop song to Jazz? Who can keep track of the subtle differences among tracks being called Trance, Chill, and Electronica?

What lives musically is whatever people keep wanting to hear and wanting to play; if it is good, it is good. Only marketers and critics really care what it gets called. As noted somewhere in the comment stream, there are plenty of acts being marketed as Country (especially Alt-Country) that would have been labeled Rock if they'd been released twenty years ago.

And a short trip to Wiki reveals Eighteen of Foster's compositions were recorded and released on the "Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster" collection. Among the artists that are featured on the album are John Prine, Alison Krauss, Yo Yo Ma, Roger McGuinn, Mavis Staples and Suzy Bogguss. The album won the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album in 2005.

Posted by: Chris White on July 15, 2009 8:31 PM


I know the post swing Jazz was a listening music rather than a dance music. However, most Rock is undancable as well, although much of the 50's rock (when it was called rock and roll) was.

Other than big band swing, the only other dance music I know of that predates rock and roll is either ball-room dancing or Johanna Strauss waltzes (like Blue Danube).

Posted by: kurt9 on July 15, 2009 10:54 PM

Speaking of swing jazz, its never been clear to me why it went away in the 40's (other than WWII prevented the musicians from travelling around, those that were not drafted to fight the war). The people who liked swing jazz in the late 30's were still young enough to enjoy it.

Some of those swing jazz dance parties used to get quite wild at times. I heard that they used to have these big dance halls, some of them bigger than modern dance clubs today.

My impression is that people just were not into dancing during the late 40's to mid 50's. Can anyone comment on this?

Posted by: kurt9 on July 15, 2009 10:58 PM

L, you obviously have never met a record exec. They don't give two shits about anything other than making money. If a couple of Amish banging two rocks together suddenly caught on, they'd be all over that.

Bullshit. When everything on the air has absolutely no diversity at all, something's up. Five corporations control all the media out there. And they all decide to compete by putting out the exacet same thing? For going on 15-20 years now? Sure. Tell me any other pop music style that has lasted 30 years? This garbage is obviously being kept on life support, its so old and stale. Its far easier to push a culture than to try to jump on a successful trend. There's your money angle.

Must be why all the news is exactly the same from network to network, station to station. Intense competition for money. That always leads to a completely uniform product.

Posted by: L on July 16, 2009 1:15 AM

It was an extremely popular part of the musical mainstream until early-to-mid '90s, and then rapidly disappeared from the mainstream radar altogether. As someone knowledgeable about the genre, I can tell you that a lot of extremely good metal music has been produced since then, although its popularity has been restricted to small, marginal groups of fans. [my emphasis]

I'm not sure this refutes my point about the limitations of rock. Metal is indeed rock music, of course, but it is notorious for moving beyond the traditional limits of rock music as I described them (in an admittedly restrictive way): three chords and 4/4 time, and a fairly narrow range of verse/chorus structures, too.

Metal has long since blasted well beyond all three of those strictures. Crazy-ass time signatures (you never see such far-out time shifting as in metal, and the shifts are from the most bizarre time sig you've ever heard to something even more bizarre), chords and chord progressions to make your forebrain implode (I thought jazz guitarists did weird chord stuff, you know, diminished sevenths and all; metal goes waaaaay beyond that), and songs that range in length and complexity from, well, songs, to massive epic hugely complex quasi-symphonies with lyrics and subject matter about as compressed, accessible and mundane as, say, the Illuminatus Trilogy.

Examples abound. I watched a video online of Dream Theater going at in the studio for about 15 minutes of balls-to-wall virtuoso playing, at the end of which their great bassist actually collapsed to the floor in unfeigned exhaustion. That performance wasn't of a song, or really even a track. It was a display of musical prowess and endurance that three-chord rock bands could only dream (in their mind's theater) of being able even to mimic outside of Guitar Player or Rock Band or an air guitar festival.

But...metal has become much less mainstream, as you pointed out. It's almost gone the way of jazz, become a music form for aficionados. My point can be refined then to state that rock music cannot change...and retain its mainstream audience. If it moves away from its basic simple structure, it ceases to be rock music, it ceases to sound like rock, to feel like rock, to its former audience. It becomes something specialized, something esoteric. And therefore, something not popular.

So my fragmentation point stands, I think.

Posted by: PatrickH on July 16, 2009 9:10 AM

JV and L, reads the Diaries of Mixerman for the real-life story behind putting out an album today.

Posted by: Brutus on July 17, 2009 12:42 PM

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