Post mortems of cultural movements are not like real autopsies, which are preferably done while the body is fresh. With culture sometimes it is easier the more time has passed.
Well, enough time has passed. I know now not only that rock is dead but why it died.
Rock and roll has two essential properties: (1) catchy melodies rooted in folk forms (blues, dance hall routines, popular piano sheet music people played at home) that predominated before the advent of mass reproduction of recorded music, (2) the promise of some kind of liberation as part of a broader cultural milieu, whether this is explicitly political or something more inward; this kind of thing is best captured in anthemic music, which was always a part of the beating heart of rock.
Listen to non-oldies radio today and you just don't hear any decent rock. Instead, 99% of it is just aural wall paper for people who have no taste but still have pretensions to style that are themselves hangovers from the age of rock. The melodies are atrocious to non-existent and to the extent that any kind of liberation is promised, it's an absolute parody of what great rock bands (including "grunge" artists) routinely delivered.
Yes there are still a few great rockers, just like there are still people programming text adventure games really well. But bands like the White Stripes truly are the exception that proves the rule, because they would not have been nearly so exceptional in the 1970s (though no less great for that), and other recent great bands such as second through fourth album era Marylin Manson are to some extent minstrelsy (though no less great for that), and other exceptions (to the universal inabilitiy of current bands to write songs that (a) have good melodies, and (b) are meaningfully liberatory) like Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Brothers of the Head, are literally minstrelsy. Note that by the end of the Bush administration, none of these bands were even still together.
What brought this about? How did rock die? Who killed it?
First, The victory of recorded over live music. This killed rock in two ways. (a) You used to have to play music to hear it. This created an incredible overabundance of musicians from which a John Lennon could emerge. This created audiences with good ears for melody that would recognize the genius of a Lennon/McCartney, or even, near the end of the era, a David Bowie (before, album after album, producer Tony Visconti allowed him to show up to the studio with bags of cocaine and no written material). Every decade since the advent of the radio, the percentage of people who play competently has decreased. This has been a disaster both in terms of creating a pool of artists, and in terms of creating competent listeners. (b) The copyright regime of the recorded music industry. Even the very best of the originally recorded folkies (Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie) shamelessly plagariazed *and refined* everything they could get their ears on, but as more and more stuff got recorded under the new copyright regime there has been more and more melodies out there that you cannot use and adapt.
Second, the Rousseauan ideal of the 60's rightfully died at Alamount, and communism rightfully so thirty years later. But then what replaced them was just as dishonest and at least far more destructive than the dimbulb liberation of Peace Bear and his little sidekick Hippy Pants, and it is possible that history will end up being less kind to neo-liberalism than to communism.
- "American is the freeest country on earth?" (slavery? apartheid? the war on drugs? the war on terror? levels of incarceration so outrageously high that they amount to the reinstatement of de facto apartheid?)
- "American is the most socially mobile country on earth."(again, not only is this as far from the truth as one could get, but neither party has any plan to effectively cope with it, nor the social detritus its falsity causes),
- "A rising tide lifts all boats." (Cf. Hurrican Katrina, disaster capitalism, and look at statistics on real median income since 1980).
- "We are blessed with our bounty" (yes, in terms of natural resources, but compare our roads, airports, trains, electrical grid, and telephone infrastructure to all of the other industrialized countries, and note that in 1980 we really did have the best stuff).
- "America is the greatest force of good the world has ever known" (yes, with the Soviet Union and Britain we defeated naziism, and also by failure to forgive debt the British Empire too, and Bosnia and Libya worked well, but geez consider what that has to be stacked against: Guatemala and Iran in '53 and '54, Chile, two million dead in Vietnam, funding the Egyptian and Pakistani armies, apartheid in Palestine, etc. etc. etc.)
The bible says that pride goes before a destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall. And people get this.
So neither condition for rock is any longer satisfied. Not enough people can write decent melodies and almost nobody could discern them if they could. Moreover, the very idea of the true anthem has been turned into a cruel joke of a piece with the above propaganda that anyone sensible now sees through.
As I noted in THE PREVIOUS POST, punk is not dead. But it will not be youtubed. To the extent that it is not dead, it is not a revolution.
Against all evidence, I still hold out the hope that we few survivors from the age of rock can avoid despair, and its offspring fanatacism/fundamentalism, continue to fight a war on the side of truth and beauty, a war we are bound to lose, but no matter. We shall make art (and philosophy is an artform) out of this very despair, and to some very small degree through the manner of expression, negate the very thing being expressed. The absolute paradox of punk rock (which I articulated in the previous post) is that it is only possible when rock is truly dead, but yet (impossibly!) great punk is somehow still great rock.
The pretension that punk is part of some liberatory movement will be forever lost, but it won't matter. We will help the universe be more beautiful, more melodic, just for the sake of doing so, because it is a good thing to do, not to be part of some futile movement. We will try to understand the universe just for the sake of doing so, not to win some argument with somebody else or to serve in the trenches of someone else's research paradigm. Even if that is one's day job (e.g. "Professor Gerbenfeister argues that Fodor's strong modularity thesis can be maintained in light of recent empirical findings that might suggest the contrary") at night Professore Gerbenfeister will engage in guerilla metaphysics, guerilla art.
I am reminded of Ray Bradbury's tribe of outcasts who memorize pages of lost books in a society that has banned them. It is a consequence of the currrent age that those of us who count ourselves as partisans only of truth and beauty must now to some extent do the exact opposite.
[Hat tip to Graham Harman for the link to the weird street art video at right, it was a bit of powerful synchronicity to discover it right after finishing this weird post. Note that the artist's lunchbox says "Object Oriented Ontology." This is no accident, and I am in fact rocking out to his weirdness as I type this. The artist's mobile is clearly homage to scenes from Ladislas Starevich's classic film, one that I window moviemade with the help of a microphone (but not two turntables) HERE. More synchronicity.]