Can it really be the case that Western music’s deep reservoir of creativity had, by the middle of the 20th century, almost entirely run dry? This somewhat implausible view is often implicit in conservative-leaning cultural commentary when it touches on the subject of rock music. There is, to be sure, much to despise—the peculiar rock star fusion of enfant terrible and smug virtue-signaller; “rap” verbal graffiti absurdly rhapsodised as musical genius; the nerve-jarring white noise of muzak—but none of this should blind us to the possibility that the pop/rock era has produced at least some music of genuine lasting value. It would be more true to say of it that the best has been drowned in the deluge of the worst.

Attempts to persuade others of the value of any piece of music are, of course, usually in vain, but in this essay I hope to show that dismissal of rock music in toto arises more from unfamiliarity with the best than from a positive rejection of it. Some years ago my daughter asked me to contribute to a playlist of all-time rock classics for her wedding reception. Within a short space of time I had exceeded two hundred recordings. To put this in context, the iTunes Library contains twenty six million songs. But here’s the thing: all my two hundred are genuine pieces of musical creativity and I could have come up with more. This distillation of a few hundred songs out of the vast lake of ephemeral pop/rock still amounts to a legitimate, albeit minor, part of the Western canon. Serious cultural journalism has never really got to grips with this.

There are the occasional sympathetic reviews of individual artists in conservative journals (including some in The American Conservative). More problematic has been the discussion of rock in general. When actual examples are discussed, they tend to be stock clichés that reveal—more than anything else—that the writer has never been particularly interested and so has had to resort to a kind of journalist pattern book—The Beatles, Sex Pistols, etc.

Generalised ex-cathedra dismissals like this one are the norm: “For the most part, pop music is bad stuff. Its tunes are anodyne, freeze-dried, lacking any substance. Its rhythm is base and never changing. . . . It is a vapid music with no consequential content. This may be a fair assessment for the most part but what of the exceptions? Exceptions like these: Paul Simon’s Graceland or k.d. lang’s Ingenue or Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska.

I chose these particular album examples of “folk-rock” for their consistency—a rare thing in the case of rock artists. Even the poorest work of a classical composer will not be complete dross; not so in the rock era. And sifting the good from the bad is a form of torture that few—beyond the years of their youth—are willing to inflict on themselves. I am one of those exceptions but even I would rarely risk my time on someone’s second and third album just because I liked some of their first. The band Crowded House, for example, came too late for me to “grow up” with and so I only know of them via their (excellent) greatest hits album.

One authoritative, conservative-minded essay on the nature of rock music confines its discussion entirely to the music of Nirvana and Oasis, presenting these two bands as self-evidently typifying the whole. “On the surface, the words and images [of rock music] lyricize the transgressive conduct that fathers and mothers condemned. . . . In the effort to give voice to this cryptic message, words float free of grammar and become flotsam on a sea of noise.” The writer it seems was simply unaware of lyrics like these:

It was a slow day
And the sun was beating
On the soldiers by the side of the road
There was a bright light
A shattering of shop windows
The bomb in the baby carriage
Was wired to the radio
These are the days of miracle and wonder
This is the long distance call
The way the camera follows us in slo-mo
The way we look to us all
The way we look to a distant constellation
That’s dying in a corner of the sky
These are the days of miracle and wonder
And don’t cry baby, don’t cry.

Boy in the Bubble: Paul Simon

And this:

Nobody on the road
Nobody on the beach
I feel it in the air
The summer’s out of reach
Empty lake, empty streets
The sun goes down alone
I’m driving by your house
Though I know you’re not home. . . .
Out on the road today
I saw a deadhead sticker on a Cadillac
A little voice inside my head said:
“Don’t look back, you can never look back”
I thought I knew what love was
What did I know?
Those days are gone forever
I should just let them go.

Boys of Summer: Don Henley

Or this:

Ah the man she wanted all her life was hanging by a thread
“I never even knew how much I wanted you,” she said.
His muscles they were numbered and his style was obsolete.
“O baby, I have come too late.” She knelt beside his feet. . . .
Now the master of this landscape he was standing at the view
With a sparrow of St. Francis that he was preaching to
She beckoned to the sentry of his high religious mood
She said, “I’ll make a place between my legs,
I’ll show you solitude.”
She took his much admired oriental frame of mind
And the heart-of-darkness alibi his money hides behind
She took his blonde Madonna and his monastery wine
“This mental space is occupied and everything is mine.”
She took his tavern parliament, his cap, his cocky dance,
She mocked his female fashions and his working-class mustache.

Death of a Ladies Man: Leonard Cohen 

It is my belief that when future generations come to curate the poetic muse of late 20th century Western poetry, it is songs like the above that will stand the test of time much more than the ‘poetry’ of the era.

No discussion of the songwriter/poet can leave out Bob Dylan. His vast output has been typically inconsistent—ranging from the marvelous to the dreadful—and so his Nobel Prize was rightly controversial. But equally dubious were the polemics by hostile commentators with little interest in (hence knowledge of) his work: seemingly reliant on tired ‘protest singer’ media clichés culled from a quick internet search and oblivious of the fact that the vast majority of Dylan’s five decade long songbook is either about love and loss or is darkly satirical.

Having championed the cultural credentials of the above examples in the “folk-rock” idiom, I will now hazard a case for some examples lower down the hierarchy of rock genres—a challenge indeed! A powerful memory of my early teens is in my bedroom circa 1963 and The Ronettes—early Phil Spector “Wall of Sound”—comes blasting out of the transistor radio.[1] It sent ripples all down my spine and amazingly still does half a century later. Here there are no poetic lyrics; no obvious musical sophistication so it is ripe for discarding as pop trash. What it does have though is a radically new kind of electronic orchestration with a visceral emotional power and strange beauty of its own. Production and sound engineering rarely gets a mention alongside song writing, musicianship, and performance, but is arguably the late twentieth century’s truly distinctive contribution to musical creativity—all the way from Folk-rock to Disco. “Go Your Own Way” (Fleetwood Mac), “Love is a Stranger” (Eurythmics), “Baker Street” (Gerry Rafferty), and “Thank U” (Alanis Morissette) are some fine examples.[2]

My teenage years also saw Blues music “commercialized” into Tamla Motown. The received view is to look down on its back catalogue of Holland & Dozier love songs (mixed as ever with plenty of dross) as mere “pop” but it deserves better. It laid the foundations for the occasional exquisitely engineered Dance and Disco music of the ‘70s and ‘80s. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” sung by Whitney Houston (but engineered by Narada Michael Walden) is an example as good as it gets.[3] It is a tragedy then that—driven by the onrush of “identity” narcissism—black music has largely degenerated into the ugly non-music called ‘rap’.

It is my (possibly ill-informed) impression that the pop/rock wellspring is now approaching exhaustion. The Canadian Indie band Arcade Fire was the last to catch my attention, but that was fifteen years ago now. If there is some new musical spring bursting from the young, it is one that I personally am deaf to. It will find expression somewhere though—computer game soundtracks perhaps—because “music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without”: so said Confucius.

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[1] PhilSpectorVEVO, “The Ronettes – Be My Baby (Official Audio),” YouTube video, 2:42, June 7, 2013.

[2] TheGreatestRockSongs, “Fleetwood Mac – Go Your Own Way (HQ),” YouTube video, 3:43, April 21, 2010; Eurythmics, “Eurythmics – Love Is a Stranger,” YouTube video, 3:50, October 25, 2009; Gerry Rafferty, “Gerry Rafferty – Baker Street (UK),” YouTube video, 4:20, January 28, 2011; Alanis Morissette, “Thank You,” YouTube video, 4:17, November 8, 2014.

[3] drdotfeelgood, “The Four Tops-I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” YouTube video, 2:45, May 23, 2008; HODJPT, “Whitney Houston – Whitney (Album) – I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” YouTube video, 4:53, February 12, 2012.

[4] Dick Rutan, “Arcade Fire – In the Backseat – (10 of 10),” YouTube video, 6:18, March 20, 2009.

The featured image is “The Music Party” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.

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