PRINT December 1995


the Graying of Rock ’n' Roll

IN SEPTEMBER, Forbes published its hit list of “Top 40 Big Money Entertainers”—one guide to what’s really important in the music industry. Of the top five, three were group partnerships that, arguably, have done no work of value since the mid ’70s: at number five, the Eagles (1995 earnings of $43 million); at number four, the Rolling Stones ($71 million); at number three, yes, with the tag line “Guess Who’s Back” and a fetching pic from 1964, the Beatles ($100 million). Building on 1994’s internationally successful Live at the BBC compilation, all parties involved in item three have since gone for the grand archive slam. The ensuing TV series and outtake albums have triggered an unprecedented media frenzy: 1995’s major music story comes from a partnership that hasn’t worked together in 25 years.

The past is everywhere in popular music, so much so that the issue is not so much an esthetic of quotation but more a matter of climate. Pop is no longer a post-Modernist medium (let alone a Modernist one), but an arena in which millennial anxieties are rehearsed, stirred up, and soothed within a vertiginous, century-long loop-de-loop. You want Perez Prado in the top three? It’s yours. You’d like the Charleston set to a techno beat? You got it. You want to stay in 1969? Whatever you think you need. What do you mean you feel nauseous? You’re meant to, because you’ve got the travel sickness first isolated by H. G. Wells a century ago in The Time Machine: “There is a feeling exactly like that one has on a switchback—of a helpless, headlong motion! I felt the same horrible anticipation, too, of an imminent smash.”

The U.K. and the U.S. are by now quite separate markets, each with its own dominant esthetic, but they share this simulpast. There are many reasons for this, and the easy one is demographic: the age range of people consuming teenage products—music, magazines, clothing, cosmetics, etc.—has increased way beyond the original 15-to-24 cohort to include anyone under 65. Another is the onset of digital technology over the last ten years, which has enabled the music industry to resell 30-year-old albums in a new format—a farce that has gotten the market through the worst of the recession. Indeed, there are now more records available from more countries and more time periods than ever before. Great, you might think, but information overload often results in confusion and powerlessness.

The perceptions of the baby boomers still dominate the theory and practice of pop music. You could see this nakedly at September’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert in Cleveland. Despite impassioned cameos from AI Green, Aretha Franklin, Lou Reed, and local hero Chrissie Hynde, what the event was really about was demonstrated by the Gin Blossoms, last-minute add-ons after no-shows by Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg. In place of gangsta rap’s complex, contemporary brutalities, you got syrupy covers of the Beatles and the Byrds, all cloaking music-industry realpolitik: within a month of the show, Time Warner had announced that it was selling its stake in Ore’s Interscope label, as a direct result of lobbying by right-wing politicians and women’s groups.

As a card-carrying baby boomer—16 in 1969—I tapped my toe to “Feel a Whole Lot Better,” then became uneasy. Already awakened by Sheryl Crow’s cover of “Let it Bleed,” unease flowered into resentment as archive clips of the Beatles and the Stones came interspersed with Radio Shack IDs on the video monitors: that’s right, just another ad. As Greil Marcus writes in the introduction to his new collection of essays, The Dustbin of History, “The worry is that our sense of history, as it takes shape in everyday culture, is cramped, impoverished, and debilitating; that the commonplace assumption that history exists only in the past is a mystification powerfully resistant to any critical investigations that might reveal this assumption to be a fraud, or a jail.” In Cleveland, watching Ray Davies put on his shameless, shameful cabaret, I began to hate my generation. I know that reneging on youthful promises is a sure sign of middle age, but, having benefited so conspicuously from the idea of youth, thirty- and fortysomethings ought to know better.

The experience taught me a couple of things, however, one of them being that white American pop is stuck either in the reaction against or the celebration of 1969. Noticing that Cleveland’s Plain Dealer framed the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame event in terms of Woodstock redux, I remembered 1969 as a year of ur-rock. The pop virtues of brevity, synthesis, and artifice had already been displaced by psychedelic excess; now excess was replaced in its turn by ideals of community and a kind of downbeat authenticity. People dressed down; they grew beards; they retreated into the eternal verities of blues, Bible, and country. Most damaging of all was the idea that you can still see in the success of a group like Hootie and the Blowfish: that you must be who you are onstage; that a star must also be an everyman; that person and persona must be the same.

This notion of authenticity was a shaping factor in an event that still haunts U.S. rock: Kurt Cobain’s suicide. The name of his group—at once mocking, critical, and envious of ’60s pleasures and possibilities—mapped the site of the grungistes’ struggle: how to wrest the values of American guitar music away from their parents (away from 1969) to a possible future . The tool: punk, which had never fully broken in the U.S. It’s now easy to see Cobain as a pop star, an androgynous changeling, and Nirvana as a classic teen group, but they were crucified on the altar of authenticity. They had to embody what they performed: anger, disaffection, near-suicidal feelings of alienation. This vision of rock does not allow for irony or role strain, and so the playful-but-desperate sarcasm of Cobain’s greatest song, “I Hate Myself and I Want to Die,” becomes a statement of intent.

Like Johnny Rotten 15 years before him, Cobain inscribed his psychic rebus upon a generation. Lesser talents like Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, and Spin Doctors have Xeroxed his tendency to bad drugs, postpunk distaste for fame , and post-therapy candor. This is the new bullshit, tricked up in ’70s retro trappings, all the less palatable because it is informed by an arrogance couched in humility. Despite its apparent assimilation, Cobain’s death remains paralyzing. It’s as though Nirvana took a run at the wall of baby-boomer culture and were broken on it; now the group’s peers hang back fearfully, un/happy to reproduce the rock values they wanted to replace. This is the wound that Courtney Love is stuck reenacting, if only to make one thing clear, time and time again: it has not healed.

If white U.S. pop is stuck in the amber of authenticity, then its U.K. equivalent is trapped in a hall of mirrors. As Oasis sing, in an authentic cri de coeur, “I took a walk with my fame/Down memory lane/I never did find my way back.” The past is fetishized again, but this time it’s the defining U.K. pop myth of mod, with more than a trace of punk—the moments we Brits are fated never to get over. The groups at the epicenter of the Britpop battle, Oasis and Blur, have been framed in terms of classic rivalries: the Beatles vs. the Stones, the Sex Pistols vs . the Clash. Oasis refer to the Beatles constantly, either in direct covers (“I Am the Walrus”) or in lyrical references (“Wonderwall, ” “Morning Glory” ). Blur opt for the mock cockneyisms of Madness or the obvious satire of “A Well Respected Man ”–era Kinks. (For what it’s worth, Oasis make infinitely better records.) Meanwhile, if there’s a single house god of Britpop, it’s Paul Weller: a man, who, despite his myriad style changes, remains a Little Englander incarnate. This insularity is Britpop’s downfall.

It’s true that many of today’s teens can listen to an Oasis or a Soundgarden record—or even to the Beatles, who flourished a decade before they were born—and lose themselves; they aren’t bothered by baby-boomer ideas about time (that it is linear, progressive), preferring to swim in the loop of serial pasts. That means any record from the last 50 years can seem as contemporary as one made in 1995. This situation is abetted by the information capabilities of digital technology and the wave of CD reissues it has fostered. With this range of material to piece together, the formal possibilities are endless.

But pop isn’t working through those possibilities. For all the satisfying qualities of the classic, Beatles-derived guitar-bass-and-drums setup (traditionalists have a point: there is a magic about a group of living people playing together), it now seems inadequate: almost everyone working in that vein is in some small but crucial way paralyzed by the past. It may be that the DNA code marked “Beat Group” is pretty much used up. I’d prefer to regard it as a temporary failure of nerve, but I’m not encouraged by the concentration of filtered ’60s rock ideas that still shapes the U.S./U.K. discourse around pop.

There is, of course, a more innovative formal response to our simulpast available to us, and it lies in black music, in particular the contemporary legacy of the sound collages—black American, white pop, European classical—that you could hear a full decade ago in Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” and Grandmaster Flash’s “Wheels of Steel.” What these records did was jam the serial present, where everything rubs up against everything else, into a form . Their synthesizers, rhythm machines, and loops in effect presaged the digital sampling technology of the mid ’80s and all that ensued. In doing so, they flung down a gauntlet that has rarely been taken up by white rockers but that inspired some of the most successful music of the past year. It is now standard practice for dance producers, working in a home studio, to time-stretch 20- or 30-year-old material into a new record. To take a recent transatlantic club favorite, produced by Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez in Brooklyn, the Bucketheads’ “The Bomb! (These Sounds Fall into My Mind)” melds Chicago’s “Street Player” (1980) and original material into a 15-minute epic of endless perceptual recombinations, always within the grid of the beat. Here is the loop-de-loop of our time made audible.

Tricky’s self-produced trip-hop masterpiece Maxinquaye features a cover of Public Enemy’s “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” recast as a grunge rock track with a teenage female vocal. It was a pop hit. Tricky’s iconography suggests he revels in a black appropriation of the angry, artificial, androgynous disturbance usually associated with white rock privilege. On Shy FX’s album Just an Example, blaxploitation and horror soundtracks are cut up with cheesy TV/radio actuality and vintage Hollywood soundbites into an examination and celebration of the gangster as black stereotype. This is the U.K. version of the “life on the streets” fantasy that is a constant of gangsta rap, yet in place of the gangstas’ own problems with authenticity—the court cases involving Tupac Shakur and Snoop Doggy Dogg—jungle (like “nigga,” a racist term beamed back against the oppressor) is a perceptual and formal mind-fuck, setting reggae’s slow bass against video-game percussion (hyperspeed ’70s breakbeats). Time-stretching everything, jungle is time travel made audible and in your face.

Music like this shows that, despite the many doomsayers, this is a great time for pop, which still has an unrivaled power to reflect and shape everyday experience. If broken down, folded, and manipulated rather than painstakingly re-created, the past can be a source of inspiration rather than a millstone. Indeed, its function in music may show us how to deal with its pressure in other media, in other areas of life. The problem with much of the living-in-the-past we’re getting is that it diverts attention and energy from pop’s perennial function: to summon up the present. Pop’s signal strength, which reclaims it from the dead time of history, is that because it is so involved with the Now, it maintains a constant capacity to regenerate, changing faster than any other medium. Speed is power, and right now someone somewhere is working on a new juxtaposition of sound that will change the way we see the world.

Jon Savage is a writer living in London. He is coeditor, with Hanif Kureishi, of The Faber Book of Pop.