Rockism is Dead, but Rock ’n’ Roll Will Never Die

Photo by Leigh Righton

The Replacements’ untouchable, nonstop-drinking, prolific songwriting run in the 1980s, besides taking at least a decade off the life of Paul Westerberg, has become a defining influence for this generation’s neo-classic rock revival scene. Bands like Japandroids, Titus Andronicus, PUP and Cymbals Eat Guitars are perfecting the “shoot for the sky” rock style of soaring guitars and crashing cymbals mixed with punk aesthetics that would’ve filled arenas over two decades prior. Japandroids themselves may have released the decade’s best rock album in 2012 with Celebration Rock, an ode to The ‘Mats, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and the rock gods of yesteryear.

Despite their loyal following, it’s a near-lock that they will never headline an arena or stadium tour, though that’s where this music is destined to be heard, as over 20,000 fans with a beer in one hand and the other one fist-pumping to the heavens look for salvation. Hell, they’ll probably never get anything above an eight-point font billing on a Coachella or Bonaroo poster, not in a culture where rockism has been slowly chipped away at throughout the new millennium.

Rockism is the notion that the canonical history of popular music can be traced through successive rock albums back to 1965–1966, which saw the release of Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde from Bob Dylan, Rubber Soul and Revolver from the Beatles, and Pet Sounds from the Beach Boys. If Rolling Stone were to pick a starting five of albums to defeat the Monstars in the Battle of Rockism, this would be their death lineup.

Rockism as it was once known is dead.

There are a few contributors to its death:

  1. The Last Rock Star: Kurt Cobain’s troubled existence, combined with how Nirvana became the defining act for a generation of Americans, led to his untimely passing in 1994. Cobain and Nirvana represented the last time that a rock act was at the front of the cultural zeitgeist. Is Dave Grohl a rock star? Jack White? I guess, but I’m talking about a “their mere presence walking down a city street would cause the public to go into hysteria” level rock star. Dylan, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, 1984 Springsteen, Guns N’ Roses, etc. That was Cobain. No guitar-wielding man or woman has been able to accomplish that since.
  2. Post-Grunge Fizzles: The musical community decided to follow up the seismic shift in the rock landscape from the fugazi sleekness of hair metal to Nirvana and Pearl Jam’s alternative nation with a bunch of bands crafting one-hit wonders on albums that cost $17 at Tower Records and bore little resemblance to their grunge predecessors. While some of the single produced during this era are standouts, see “Sex and Candy” from Marcy Playground, “Bound for the Floor” from Local H and “Interstate Love Song” from Stone Temple Pilots, none of these bands had the magnitude of Cobain and Eddie Vedder’s acts, seemingly turning themselves into the bands they were supposed to be an “alternative” to.
  3. The Rise of Rap: As mainstream music criticism begrudgingly became more accepting of diversity in music, both in terms of genre and the race of the performers, it became clear to them that only looking at music through the prism of groups of four or five guys thrashing around on a stage was off-base with the real world. From N.W.A.’s explosion on the mainstream in the late 80s to Dr. Dre’s solo and production work in the 90s to Jay Z’s imperialistic dominance in the 21st century, as well as that of his more talented wife, it made little sense to continue to see “real” music as coming from only one sect of the population.
  4. The Internet: Why spend years crafting an album meticuolously if people are only going to illegally download the work, stream it, or just worry about the singles? There will always be merit to this, but not from the mainstream’s perspective. No one is bunkering down in a studio and spending obscene amounts of money to record Tusk and A Night at the Opera anymore. Frank Ocean, Kanye West and Beyonce, luckily, carry on this torch in their respective genre-bending works. The internet additonally eases the way in which artists can cultivate a fanbase and get their music out there, though not necessarily turn it into a smash commercial success, creating a scenario where there are less blockbuster releases from rock-based artists. Hell, U2’s The Joshua Tree had a midnight release 30 years ago like it was a new Star Wars movie.

So all of that leads to a world where there’ll certainly never be a place where someone playing guitar-based music lands themselves at the top of the culture stratosphere. While the world is thankful for artists in other genres making challenging and important music like those listed in the above paragraph, there’ll never be another another band like The Rolling Stones, nor a U2, nor even someone like Arcade Fire or The Strokes, with the former capturing a Grammy for Album of the Year on an indie label and the latter fueling a now infamous level of hype at the turn of the century as the Saviors of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

The odds are stacked overwhelmingly against a band attaining the level of fame previous generations had become accustomed to seeing, but rock ’n’ roll was never totally about that. Sure, the rock stars of the past loved getting boozed up, doing enough blow that should’ve stopped their hearts, and mingling with the rest of the planet’s elite, but it was always more about the music, their craft, sometimes the culmination of their lives’ works, for a lot of these artists. That ideal carries on, but the stakes are much lower. As one of those rock gods once proclaimed, “Hey, hey, my, my. Rock ’n’ roll can never die,” as well as, “My, my, hey, hey. Rock ’n’ roll is here to stay.”

Neil Young spoke the absolute truth there. As long as there’s a bunch of teenagers filled with discontent ready to pack a sweaty basement show and sing along to every damn lyric of a band’s catalog, as long as there’s a drunken crowd ready to dance away their blues to raucous guitars and slamming drums, as long as people are waxing nostalgic over “that night you were already in bed, said, ‘Fuck it!’ and got up to drink with me instead,” there will always be a need for rock music.

I think of the words of Dylan Thomas when imaging the genre as a force approaching what seems like it’s time of reckoning:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

And rage they fucking will.

I think of the seemingly never-ending “You will al-ways be a loser!” outro of Titus Andronicus’ “No Future Part III: Escape from No Future” from 2010’s The Monitor.

Or the frantically explosive second verse of PUP’s “DVP” that demands to be played at a volume sufficient enough to blow out your car window when you’re “DOING 180 ON THE DON VALLEY PARKWAY!

Or the subtle, yet perfect, opening drum pattern of The Hotelier’s “Two Deliverances” from last year’s Goodness.

Or, in what might be the crowning jewel of this entire genre I’ve been calling neo-classic rock, the life-afirming, beer-raising, tear-jerking chorus of Japandroids’ magnum opus, “The House that Heaven Built,” as lead singer Brian King yells “When they love you, and they will, tell ’em all they’ll love in my shadow, and if they try to slow you down, tell ’em all to go to hell,” as if he were riding down on a fiery chariot from heaven itself.

Japandroids will never be The Who. Titus Androncius will never be Springsteen. These are harsh truths, but only a fool would think that the greatest bands of this era couldn’t write something as impactful for their fans as “Baba O’Reilly” and “Born to Run” on their next records as those classic tunes once were for previous generations.