Pop's Living Dead

LA CityBeat, 2003


For too long, the zombies of rock culture have been bogarting the spotlight and pacing around the pop mainstream like pale-faced creeps, posing like Elvis, Hendrix, or the Ramones. The titans of rock have given the form all the life they could give it, but modern guitar-swingers are propping up the past like the boys in Weekend at Bernie’s. What more can be done with an axe and a bad attitude? Even the members of Nirvana seemed to have sensed they were hopelessly wallowing in refried history, shrugging through their anger – clearly born too late – and going through the motions like the cheerleaders in their own “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video. Rah-rah rock already.

Having written about electronic music and dance clubs since 1991 (ironically, “the year punk broke”), I’ve always felt guitar music was just hanging around while digital-based sounds were moving pop forward, replacing the old and rebelling against rock in the same way punk turned against the progressive and stadium excesses of the past. What’s more, I’ve grown up feeling it was my duty to find my generation’s own music. My father, a rock-musician-turned-journalist who ironically once said disco DJs hurt his gigging prospects and forced him to make a career change, also told me to stop dusting off his old Beatles records and find my own damn music. That I did, but, two decades later, his music still seems to dominate the popular discussion.

Rock is dead again? Rock died a thousand deaths and still hovers to offer nothing new since Groundhog Day 1979, but even then it was clear that punk was the angry, reluctant closing party. That year, hip-hop had its first chart single, and dance music was the rage. By that time, rock had already been hanging onto life with a myriad of marriages throughout the ’70s: rock opera, heavy metal, art-rock, country-rock. Today the genre continues to appropriate and hyphenate (techno-rock, rock-rap), but that’s done little to move it forward again.

Pop genres don’t really die, they move on, and it’s long past rock’s time to step aside. Jazz went from the dance floor to the radio to the supper club and into the realm of higher art. Rock, too, had its days on the dance floor. But it is now mainly a spectator sport, where white guys stand on stage and musically masturbate. It’s a good way to get chicks, but has this sound made any real headlines since the passing of Sid Vicious? Now Aerosmith, the Rolling Stones, skinny-boy rockers in trucker hats, critics, and many in the industry just won’t let rock go.

Music still has as much life as humanity itself, and its babies keep popping out of the place that has always been the womb of Western pop: black America. Blues, jazz, and rock largely had roots there, and now hip-hop, house, and techno are the newer kids from New York, Chicago, and Detroit, respectively. Perhaps it was hip-hop’s blackness that once prevented it from being seen as mainstream, at least until the Beastie Boys gave the genre its first No. 1 album in 1987; white consumers became the sound’s biggest audience during the late-’90s gangsta rap craze; and Eminem came around at the millennium with a weak voice and schoolyard quips.

Rock sure isn’t hanging around based on its soul, funk, or newness (things it once had – elements that continue to define what pop should be about). House music – “house” is just a newer term for the dirty word “disco” – has been around longer and arguably stronger than punk, grunge, hip-hop, and any number of genres that seduced the critics. But hardly anyone writes about it because it has gay, black roots. The 1979 record-burning riot on Chicago’s Comiskey Park ballfield was a profound low point in rock history, a fissure that in hindsight said a lot more about rock fans and the racist, homophobic state of their once-black genre than it did about dance music. White fans stomped like apes around a bonfire of 12-inch vinyl and chanted “disco sucks.” But disco was the future, and their mullet-headed music had hit a creative wall.

Post-disco house, unlike rock, has moved forward, utilizing technology instead of shunning it, and always looking to the future. In fact, house has a loving relationship with that word, future. Halo Varga’s 2000 track by that name is a black tunnel of dirty percussion and ominous whispers (“making an enemy of our own future” – indeed). Deep Dish’s 1996 “Future of the Future” is, in contrast, optimistic and even nostalgic for what’s ahead (“And you say think of the old days/We could have them back again/Well I thought about the old days/They’d go bad like they did then”).

Yeah, we’re dwelling on the future. Ironically, many rock critics who clearly haven’t heard much dance music diss it for being loopy and repetitive. You can’t really be more repetitive and derivative than rock. Older folks used to say it was all repetitive drums and no melody. They called it jungle music. Dance music developed its own frenetic hip-hop that puts James Brown on a 160-beats-per-minute treadmill. Some call it drum ’n’ bass. Others call it jungle. Ain’t it funky?

Today, you can’t turn on the television without hearing digital music in a commercial (from Sprite’s “Remix” to Mitsubishi’s heavy use of Dirty Vegas’s “Days Gone By”). The EDM (electronic dance music) revolution has already had chart successes, including No. 1 albums by Moby and Prodigy, but that’s not the point. The point is that digital music – hip-hop included – is serving up today’s newness. Sure, Moby posed as a rocker on Everything Is Wrong, and Prodigy wants to punk up the stage, but we also see Radiohead getting computer happy and Bowie bowing to drum ’n’ bass. Even Pink Floyd’s ’70s space rock, the Beatles’ loopy “Revolution 9” and the Who’s analog organ journeys sound more visionary today than anything by the Strokes, the White Stripes, or Coldplay. Now Perry Ferrell is a rave fan, and Ozzy Osbourne’s son Louis is a DJ.

In 1999, DJ turntables officially elbowed out Stratocasters and Les Pauls in U.S. sales. Rock has already succumbed to its natural course as a mature pop form. Nobody expected it to last this long, not even those who said rock will never die. Which act in rock today is doing anything vital, fresh, or that’s never been done before (save for those who’ve taken on the digital domain with open minds)? When Elvis shook his pelvis, it was scandalous, and when Dylan plugged in his guitar, it was controversial, but pop surely built on these changes. Now, desktop music-making is seen as unmusical, but it’s simply another small, irreversible step for pop-kind, and nothing will bring back the heyday of the guitar. Rock has simply been subsidized and propped up by a nostalgia-afflicted, baby-boomer-dominated culture and industry. It’s simply not supported by the streets.
If you want something fresh, you’ll have to turn to the blip-hop of Prefuse 73, the raunchy house music of Felix Da Housecat, and the out-of-this-world punk-tronica of Basement Jaxx, whose forthcoming Kish Kash is a road map to the future. Like jazz and classical critics, rock writers should continue to cheerlead for art, tunefulness, and improvisation in the genre and remind us of all it has given us (youthfulness, rebellion, voice, independence – things it no longer gives us). Just don’t say rock rules. It hasn’t since 1979.


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