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.
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩