Monday, January 21, 2008

Rock Isn't Dead, Stop Saying It Is

"Rock and roll is dead,” he says, voluble again. “Rock and roll is a museum piece. It has no viability anymore. There are great rock bands today—I love the White Stripes, I love the Raconteurs. But it’s a museum piece. You’re watching the History Channel when you go to these clubs. They’re just reenacting an old sentiment. They’re channeling the ghosts of that era—the Who, punk rock, the Sex Pistols, whatever. It’s been done. The rebellion’s over.
-Sufjan Stevens, quoted in New York Magazine.

When I first heard that Sufjan Stevens, of all people, had taken it upon himself to declare that "rock is dead," my response was pretty simple: "Fuck off."

But even I admit that's a little harsh. So after re-reading the quote, listening to a little more Sufjan Stevens, and just... you know, thinking, my response changed to: "I can see what you mean, but still, fuck off."

Hey, everybody! Everybody who has ever been involved in rock music! A little advice: stop fucking saying that rock music is dead. It's such a dumb, annoying thing to say, and the only reason any rock musicians say it anymore is to get little blurbs on the internet saying, "Indie-Rock Darling Says ROCK IS DEAD!!" Billy Corgan pulled the same stunt about a decade ago, because he is an asshole. I think it was around the time he released "Adore" and was quoted saying that "electronic music is the future" or something pretentious like that. (Why do people hate figures like Bono so damn much and never go after Billy Corgan? He's a lot worse.) Corgan said "rock is dead" on Howard Stern or something because he wanted attention and because he wanted to set himself up as a Luminary of Rock and Roll. Basically, in my eyes, musicians who claim "rock is dead" think that they are better than it, or, even worse, that they are the best damn rock 'n rollers in the world and they have that fucking right.

I'm hoping that Sujfan Stevens doesn't think that, because he neither rocks nor rolls. That's not what he does, and that's fine; lots of musicians labeled under "rock" aren't the Stooges. Stevens likes nicely-orchestrated, pleasant-sounding, and kinda-boring quirky indie-folk that Pitchfork Media creams their jeans listening to. He dresses up in angel wings and wears a baseball cap to keep up his carefully calculated kinda-unusual indie image. Overall, he is not "rock 'n roll." So when I hear him boldly declare "ROCK IS DEAD" like some kind of modern-age rock prophet, I get a little pissy.

"Rock has no viability anymore." Ok, Sufjan, what the hell does "viability" mean? Commercial appeal? Unit sales? Well, shit, by that logic, rock isn't the only genre of music that is dead. Ladies and gentlemen, let's say tearful goodbye to jazz, blues, bluegrass, funk, soul, cabaret, string-band, fucking Mariachi... hell, I guess the only genre of music that's actually ALIVE is rap and hip hop! (Err, scratch that.)

"There are great rock bands today—I love the White Stripes, I love the Raconteurs." Been hanging out with Jack White a lot this week, Sufjan? He playing kazoo on your 38-musician orchestral suite?

"You’re watching the History Channel when you go to these clubs. They’re just reenacting an old sentiment. They’re channeling the ghosts of that era—the Who, punk rock, the Sex Pistols, whatever." Wow, lots of rock bands follow that blueprint, eh? Observation of the century, Sufjan. People have been saying this shit for years. They were saying it in when the 60's died (lovingly re-created in Almost Famous). Decca told the Beatles that "guitar groups are on the way out "when they auditioned for them. Shit, they were saying this in 1955. Saying this is like saying "The Ramones are just channeling the Standells, who gives a shit?"

"It’s been done. The rebellion’s over." Okay, listen. If you are playing rock and roll music to be a hip, cool rebel, then you're kinda lame. Rock didn't start with some kid saying to himself, "Society is so SQUARE. I'm gonna make it ROCKIN'!" No, it started with kids playing music that made sense to them (primarily, more white-accessible versions of so-called "negro music" at the time). Rebellions are hardly ever planned out; did Elvis, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Ramones and the like, think to themselves - "well, time to change the world!" No, goddamnit. Rock musicians just do what they want to do (or in more unfortunate circumstances, what their label/managers/whoever tell them to do), and once in a while someone will cause a MASSIVE change. Nirvana were not rebels, they just didn't like Poison and liked the Pixies. Now they are credited with changing rock and roll forever. And furthermore, some of the best rock and roll isn't even about rebellion at all. Pet Sounds was a landmark, but it wasn't a rebellion.

Eh. I don't know. I get the impression that the reason so much modern rock 'n roll is so fucking boring as of late ("boring" doesn't equal "dead", by the way) is because people like Sufjan Stevens don't think it has any "viability." Rock musicians don't think what they're doing is vital or interesting anymore, so they settle into their nice little indie-niches and make music that they think will sound "important" (most of which ends up sounding stupid years later anyways). It's the same attitude prog-rock bands had back in the 70's - that's why they sucked. When you say rock music is dead, you are just working to make it worse.

Listen, I will be the first person to say that rock music is not what it used to be. I will be the first person to say that I find a lot of modern rock music boring, or lame, or faddish. But it's not dead. And if it is, then Sufjan Stevens sure isn't helping.


Adam said...

Well spoken, Sean.

I, too, find it odd that of all people, Sufjan Stevens is the one who wants to go out on a limb and say that rock and roll isn't dead. As if he's trying to keep it alive or something. If he wants rebellion so badly, he can snap his english horn in half and make and album full of feedback and drums (lyrical content about New Jersey)

The biggest problem people seem to have with rock today is that there's no progression. In a way, Corgan might have been right about electronica being the next big thing, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it will be any good. Call me old-fashioned, but I see most electronica as being soulless and boring (minus Dan Deacon's absurdism but that's just a shitload of fun). Other than that, I can't say that there are any real advances in popular music today.

What we do have are musicians who are taking the older formulas (a.k.a. songs... because just how many different ways can you flat-out reinvent the pop song?) and doing it well. The Arcade Fire, Modest Mouse, The White Stripes, etc, etc are keeping rock alive in the sense that they are still putting out great music. No, I don't think we'll be listening to this ten years from now and wondering why we liked this to begin with (then again, I do enjoy some good prog-rock every now and then), but will anything new come along and blow everything we ever knew about rock and roll out of the water? Probably not. That's what Sufjan wants and I'm not counting on it to happen. Besides, I'm satisfied with what we have right now.

And it's not even as if bands like The Arcade Fire are seeing themselves as harbingers of the Great Revolution (although their music might speak for that). Nah, the only time we see that is when some asshole like Brandon Flowers comes along and says that "Sam's Town" is the best album in 20 years.

And if you think Billy Corgan isn't getting blasted for being a pompous dick, check this out:

I'm sure there's more out there (read: I'm a lazy prick) but pitchfork, for one, hasn't been kind to Mr. Corgan lately.

Rock isn't dead. It just might be a bit diseased.

Sean "The Governor" Rose said...

Jesus, you're serious? I thought three versions of Zeitgeist was too much. My lord. I was actually gonna mention that the post but I didn't wanna go after Corgan too much, as he's not the subject of the post.

The Next Big Thing, or whatever, is going to be something that nobody sees coming if it happens at all. I'd like it to happen, but you know... it's never planned.