I do not like rock music and here are four reasons why

I do not like rock music. Friends have already suggested this is the tip of some iceberg of insecurity and self-hatred or un-American brain activity I’m not dealing with, so I thought I’d write about it, get my predilections and hypocrisies out in the open.

What do I mean by rock, first of all? Does rock include pop? Is Grunge a rock subcategory? The Killers are probably rock, but is Radiohead? 1

What about Amy Winehouse? Is rock “dead”, as so many have said at various times since its inception? Where’s the line between heavy metal and rock? Let’s say that by rock I just mean the thing that rock musicians make—the people who see themselves as rock musicians and actually want to rock. For brevity’s sake I will try to define and criticize rock at the same time by looking at what I see as its main characteristics, which for me are what’s wrong with it. Or with me! It’s not you, Rock, it’s me.

1. “Solo”: Rock is too individualistic

First of all, rock just seems too individualistic. I’m sure there are lots of exceptions, but the musicians often don’t seem to be playing with each other, or even hearing each other. Lead guitarists noodle the same pentatonic box regardless of the changes, regardless of something interesting the bassist suddenly wants to try, regardless of the underlying harmony. The drum just bangs away. All these rock stars!

I don’t profess to be great at listening as a performer myself, but the musical ensemble, the collaboration, the way that different musicians and different musical parts work together to summon this new thing, that’s like the most musical thing I can think of. Music’s deepest source of beauty. I guess I want the musicians to be submerged into the work in some way that rock does not often afford. Good music: Less self, more something else.

2. Rock is homogenized

Rock is white! I am suspicious of American musical forms that don’t have any black people. Or brown people. Or Asians. Or people from other countries. Now, classical music? Euro-chill? Ambient?: Those genres are fine. They’re Euro! 2 They have French people in there or something. French Algerians, maybe.

I want diversity in music. The most rockin’ rock is the most homogenized. When I hear the tagline “real rock and roll”, I move further up the radio dial. And I don’t just mean some reflexive, liberal bromide about a rainbow of musical players here. There’s a deeper point about musical diversity.

Rock is proudly about sameness, whereas I think music is inherently about difference, about mixing and change and the relationship of sounds and forms against one another. Actually, I feel a kind of safety in difference and openness. Just as some feel that there is safely in numbers, some lower risk that your own difference will be spotted and ridiculed or deleted. And some better hope for connection. This, for me, is what evolution is about, this seeking and then internalizing difference as growth.

The musical form that makes a virtue of sameness doesn’t work well here. But again, it’s probably just me, some way I’m blocked from my own pleasure centers.

3. Rockin’ dudes: Rock is male

Better rock is thought to have more energy. More force, I should say. Male energy scares me—I’ll just say that. But I also don’t like force as a criterion for the quality of a music. Music doesn’t get better if you add more volume or force to its output. Of course I get excited and punch the air listening to loud music, to rock, rap, other genres. Not one week ago I broke into tears while jogging and listening to Bon Iver’s amazing song “Holocene”. (Is that rock?) Every time I hear Brandy’s “Sitting Up In My Room” or Daft Punk’s “Instant Crush”, I jump up and down in my own room. All the time! But you can add force to any musical form, John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” Parliament Funkadelic. Or Schumann. There’s something wearing and false about force as constitutive of rock and roll, however.

And men don’t dance, so force, in rock, manifests as dudes playing pent-up air guitar or beating their fists in frustrated accompaniment (see pic). I like what girls like. The Smiths. Jazz. Classical. Janet Jackson. Billie Holiday. New Wave. New Order. New Edition.

Now, heavy metal is an interesting case of force and maleness. My take on metal is that its focus on sexual energy and force got so theatrical, circa Whitesnake and Cinderella (and maybe under the influence of Europeans) that the pendulum punched all the way through manly maleness and homo-sociality into androgyny and Lycra tights and guitar-licking and fakeness. And I love it! I put heavy metal in the category of art for this reason, so I’ll talk about it next.  

4. Schlock rock: Rock is bad art

The last reason I don’t like rock—and where all of this kind of comes together—is that rock and roll is, in my view, not good art. Or not good art anymore; it’s revanchist. It doesn’t seem to evolve and in fact makes a virtue out of remaining closed to innovation and experiment. “Real rock.”   

Art is, obviously, a huge subject, and I’ll lose the thread and ruin things if I go too much into it here. But in the presence of real art, “authenticity” is moot, an irrelevancy. Style matters!, and it matters a lot more than some defiant insistence on truth of the real that dictates you should only play three chords. I look to Nietzsche for my metaphysics about art and living:

““…Giving style” to one’s character – a great and rare art! It is exercised by those who see all the strengths and weaknesses of their own natures and then comprehend them in an artistic plan until everything appears as art and reason and even weakness delights the eye.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

For me, theater is the paragon of artistic mediums. And that’s because theater shows us, more than most art, the separation of the artist from the work—thereby preserving the fallibility and humanity of the artist, on the one hand, and the contingency and “createdness” of the work on the other.

Heavy metal and New Wave seem creative and open in a way that rock does not, and it’s because they are a kind of theater; they know themselves to be about performance. They have irony where rock can be self-serious. In this way they are conversational. Twisted Sister was winking at us while they filed their teeth into sharp points and wore giant blond ringlet wigs and red lipstick. I want to sense that an artist is engaged in the process itself, in experiment, like how the The Tubes had an earlier career as weird art punks, just like Genesis.

Heavy metal bands made a project of self and gender, and that made me feel…more involved. And like things were open, like I was in the presence of art and not rock’s mere individualized, power-wielding catharsis.

Rock out: Summary

Beware of earnestness! Beware of “authenticity” and “three chords and the truth”. Over-earnestness sucks away all the energy. Give me the heterodox weirdos and their musical forms! When a music is experimenting, or conversing, like Twisted Sister did, when it deals with things on multiple levels, like the Beatles did, I feel more comfortable. Like there’s understanding. A shared project. Like we’re more open-ended, all of us.

These things I’m afraid of—monotony, homogeneity, dissolution, a lack of irony, a lack of play and collaboration, a lack of awareness—they come together in rock.

Notes:

  1. Pitchfork: @radiohead’s OK Computer was the last gasp of the rock monoculture: an incontestable, unrepeatable, and critically consecrated masterpiece of a genre that was too big to fail, yet too limp to preside over a new century. Picking up grunge’s challenge to macho rock orthodoxy, the bookish Oxford five-piece parlayed corporate resistance and righteous angst into an infernal assessment of mainstream conformism, petit bourgeois inertia, and cartoonish celebrity culture. See where it landed in our list of the 150 best albums of the 1990s at the link in bio.
  2. Seems like Europeans got into metal—Michael Schenker, Iron Maiden, et cetera—but kind of stayed away from rock, saw something undiluted there. The Europeans that seem to like rock music the most are the Russians, which seems weird, and also like an indictment of some kind at this point.

The Sweetwater Model: How to Actually Win On Expertise and Friendliness

An interesting marketing insight backed by a real investment in customer service

No one, incredibly, seems to have written the Harvard Business Review (HBR) case study on Sweetwater and their business model. I’ll just have to do a poor man’s version here, because I think something notable is going on at Sweetwater, one of the Internet’s largest online music retailers. Something that seems to be working very well.

The Challenge

Every online retailer tries to focus on customer service. They have to. In an online shopping world, especially one dominated by Amazon, you need to differentiate your service from the myriad others that carry the same products. You may try to differentiate on price, but retailers like Amazon and walmart.com have such massive economies of scale that you will be racing to the bottom with an expert free diver.

So you differentiate on “heart” or on personality or especially-good customer service. And these are already tough enough to win in the click economy, where shoppers are simply putting the objects of their desire into the giant search bar and combing results for the best prices, the fastest most frictionless transactions (a giant search bar where Google can privilege its own offerings and those of its affiliates!). But they get even tougher when they’re the only differentiations left to the thousands of retailers who aren’t giant, who aren’t striking deals with the postal service or launching space programs: Everyone is doing customer service! Everyone is doing long, risk-free trials and free fast returns! There are tons of now-familiar service-first plays in online. So how do you differentiate in customer service if everyone is doing it?

The Insight

This is where Sweetwater is winning. For one thing, you need to actually have excellent customer service, and Sweetwater does. In my limited actual direct experience, the Sweetwater sales technicians really know what they’re doing, are musicians, have real advice. And their sales process also makes it easy and natural to chat with or in some other way get advice from these technicians. This is already quite a lot.

Still, in the new normal of giant e-tailers and buy-now buttons, you simply can’t show enough prospective customers that you mean it unless you market this successfully And this is where Sweetwater seems to have thought of something unique that gets their service noticed:

Product reviews that come from the Sweetwater almost invariably praise not only the product but also the Sweetwater technician, usually by name, who made the process so easy and the product so perfect. Product reviews! The following is completely typical:

review of a pedal

This is genius. Someone, maybe the founder Chuck Serack, must have decided that the virtuous circle in all this is:

  • Customers like me are searching as often as not for product reviews before we actually go to buy. This is a marketing area! A first touch for many potential customers.
  • Search engines are syndicating more product content into the search results, including reviews, where other characteristics of the buying experience–price, one-click carts, galleries, shipping, terms–are fungible.
  • Customers come to identify Sweetwater as a site where technicians are particularly helpful, actual, praised. This is a differentiation that matters a lot.

I’m not sure how they actually encouraged this behavior among product reviewers. Maybe it was primed; maybe it’s self-reinforcing; maybe they’re paid or given discounts. I suspect not. The content and tone of reviews at Sweetwater–about the products–are markedly different, like the sales technician is your new best friend, or a guy you’ll jam with next week. Take a look.

The Walk

You couldn’t fake the friendliness and expertise for long and have this work, of course; reviewers are ruthless. But as part of a larger, authentic dedication to customer service (“The Sweetwater Difference“) this is a great move into a novel pre-sales area, online customers reviews, that has given them a marketing edge over other music retailers online, one that musicians like our band Stationwagon rely on!

Summon: A Short Essay on Making Music

Making music is, in one sense at least, really hard. I mean that it’s elusive. You can play an instrument by yourself for thousands of hours, as I have, often in a not very productive way, and you can play with others for hundreds of hours, and get hardly any music out of it. Even if you know the chords and you know the lyrics and you know the song form and the audience is clapping and you have the technique, usually something hasn’t quite happened. What isn’t happening all that time? What is music that is so elusive? 

There’s a trend now in discussions of “practice”, both in the strictly musical sense, like how to make your half-hour piano practice more efficient, what techniques to practice. But also in the more general and maybe more Eastern sense of “your practice”, the set of activities you do routinely and with intention to improve your skills and your self. (And by the way I think the conflation of these two different senses of “practice” for people who selling books about these topics.) In both these senses I myself am deficient, and am most often noodling mindlessly on my guitar or not being intentional enough about my actions in any sphere, let alone the musical one. 

On those rare moments when music happens, however, you really feel it. You can be playing something solo or, even better, suddenly find that you and the rest of the band are making something, holy shit!, making music! It’s there!

The way I think of it is like a seance. Playing summons music, though not often. The deepest feeling I have about music is that it’s its own thing, a rare presence in the room, a creation that sits apart from its participants. And isn’t this what art is, after all, what creation is: You made it and now it’s there.

As at a seance (I imagine), you can be “doing” the seance and not quite feeling it. Maybe the table shakes a little bit, maybe someone thinks the air has gotten colder in the corner. But then: the seance works and there is a real manifestation. And everybody knows it. A being has been summoned into this room with us. This is music. We are a string quartet—two violins, a viola, and a cello—but there are five…entities in this room.

Time is one for the main mediums (ha) of this summoning, too: The music has its tempo, and when it’s there you don’t feel like you’re having to keep time for the music. You just feel the music’s time, just as you feel the harmonies. They are there. Present. When the bridge of the jazz standard comes you all drop into it, relaxed in spacious time divisions and fooling with them because the music is with you, non-contingent, not fragile, it’s keeping things going, at the tempo, in that key.

And to summon music, you must of course listen. Even as you are playing. To listen and perform at the same time, even just by yourself, is rare! As rare as music is.