Thursday, July 4, 2013

Rock, Roll, and Staged Rebellions

Take the history of "rock and roll," for example: a staged rebellion that didn't actually rebel. Poor, primarily black musicians, operating with budget constraints, rediscovered the idea of music's pulse, and of its connection to "the real world." For years, they were ignored and marginalized by the culture at large; the pop-culture; the elite culture; the culture that is paid for and promulgated by those who control it. The essence of honest, raw, real-ity that they had employed, though, was catchy. It was real; it was enjoyable; it was easy, and fair. It spread despite initial attempts to stop it.

Immediately, it was purchased. Big money came in and fronted its own acts. The little rural and ghetto tunes became flashy and intrusive. Radio, television, newspapers, magazines and film all worked together to create the image of a society being torn apart by the "disrespect" of rock and roll. Rock was suddenly about sex, disrespect for authority, rebellion, fortune, and fame. Cultural producers spent money promoting rock artists and bands, holding national and international tours in major venues, and selling magazines and records and clothing, while simultaneously promoting scientific research, academic studies, political analysis, and cultural commentary that warned that rock and its rebelliousness was tearing modern society apart, and threatening all the institutions upon which it relied.

At the same time, the "in your face" rocker became whiter, and soon, almost wholly white. The rocker became richer. The rocker became almost wholly male. Publishers, land developers, tour promoters, and politicians from municipal to federal branches of the government worked to increase rock's impact on society, while warning that rock and rockers were tearing the nation apart. Major investors held controlling interests in both record companies and political-action-committees that advocated decency laws.

Rock's wealthy, celebrity stars began to sing more and more about having a good time, drinking, partying, and playing instruments, and less about fundamentally changing society. They cooperated with blue ribbon political committees to encourage formal education, donated money to big foundations, and lent support to pop-politicians or pop-causes.

The initial "backlash" against rock and roll didn't appear until the form's success had already been mapped out. The real backlash was against freedom and the challenge to society; the backlash of which most people were made aware was the managed backlash--the "Ooooh, the music's about sex, naughty sex, but rebellious rockers are making music about partying and having sex anyway, those rogues!"

When we look back, we may laugh at how silly it was that the "older generation[s]" came home from their respective World Wars and had a problem with "rock and roll" simply because it involved young people dancing and having a good time. Those senile old clowns, right? What was their problem?

Their real problem was that they were watching generations of young people sell their souls to corporate predators. They were watching the equivalent of empty calories and hollow sitcoms buy out the boomer consumer base in exchange for three-minute blurbs about dancing. If real rock and roll had survived, it would have been the voiceover of rebellion, rather than the backer for overweight Elvis wowing a nation with borrowed black moves; the nursery for Bono congratulating Dubya; the soundtrack of Michael Jackson squealing loud enough to drown out the noise of tens of thousands of butchered Salvadorans.

No matter how many times you play For What It's Worth over clips of olive Hueys flying toward Cambodia to riddle pregnant women full of armor-piercing rounds and sink their bleeding corpses in knee-high rice-paddy water, you can't make it a song about protesting war: it's really about how whiny white people shouldn't be prohibited from jaywalking in ritzy areas of LA after their favorite rock concert ends. For what it's worth, Buffalo Springfield is almost as good an example as Shakespeare for showing how art gets promoted as scandalous and meaningful when it's really not.


  1. For the same reasons was hip-hop nullified and then absorbed by white corporate "culture." Now we have such luminaries as Pit Bull offering us the same meal, i.e., chicks, glamor, and fame, with the addition of thirst quencher Bud Light.

    "Don't stop the Party!"

  2. Capitalism subsumes all.

  3. It is fascinating how this applies to everything, and it shouldn't be surprising: when you own capital, the most important thing you own is time - all the time you need to strategize about how to adapt and change and reinforce the system. Once you decide, you also have the wealth and the resources to do it.

    Rebels, workers, or the real rockers don't have much time - they have to eat, they have no 'stash', and thus their time horizons are usually shorter than necessary to build any meaningful resistance. It is doubtful if any is possible - from mathematical point of view, a subset of the system is always going to be smaller than the whole system

  4. One of the many fascinating facts in D. Graeber's book "Debt" was how rambunctious chinese peasants were - peasant rebellions were at some point happening at a rate of one every 2 hours. Surely being in charge of your own food supply helps with that...

  5. Was recently in San Francisco and made it a point to visit Haight-Ashbury. They've kind of sold out; there's even a Whole Foods.

    Also, Justin Bieber is dreamy.

  6. Did someone just fellate Graeber upthread? I didn't realize I walked into a gay sex club here.

    I wonder how the Wachowskis moved so quickly from pimply geeks to major project managers in HollyZionWood.

    It took longer for Larry to become Lana than it did for the brothers to become Hip New Commodities in HollyZionWood.

  7. I would suggest you read Greil Marcus on the history of rock, also Simon Frith and the late Lester Bangs. (especially the collection of his essays titled "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung"). Also "The Boy Looked at Johnny" by Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill. (yes, I realize Burchill is persona non grata right now, but the book is great)... If you've never seen the film version of "Velvet Goldmine" (NOT the glitzy musical on Broadway; which ironically, is part and parcel of what you have described here) then please check it out. (Citizen Kane references are deliberate; Ewan McGregor as Iggy is virtually earth-shattering!)

    I don't think anybody can properly write about the co-optation of rock and roll without that bibliography, TO START WITH.

    Sorry, but that's the only thing I'm a pseudo-intellectual snob about. ;)