I am in mourning. I think it is official that something that I really love is dead.
I’m talking about rock and roll music.
You know the scene from countless movies and television shows where a couple are at a dance, or a wedding, or some social event, and the band strikes up a mellow tune, and one of the couple looks at the other, and says, “Listen! They’re playing our song…?” Well, in my mind’s eye I see two old people slow dancing to Stardust or another classic in the Cole Porter/Hoagie Carmichael style. And that is the way it used to be.
Then along came rock and roll. Born from the marriage of rhythm and blues and jazz numbers of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, rock and roll began as a near-novelty, arguably first with a song called Rocket 88 and then with danceable tunes like Rock Around the Clock. Then along came Elvis Presley, a white boy singing like a black man, and the glue that held it all together was set. Little Richard, out of Macon, Georgia, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and many others came along and all of a sudden “playing our song” meant something a little different—a little more bounce and swagger that brought it all home.
The songs themselves were often silly, simple and were mainly about love and automobiles. Even the Beatles, who first came to the world’s attention in 1963, were mainly singing about the same things, albeit with a different accent and with fresh sounding chords and melodies.
Then Bob Dylan went from folk music to electric and it was Katie bar the door, as complex lyrics and songs that were not the usual three minutes long hit the airwaves, and on Dylan’s watch, everything about music and society changed in 1965. Some say that it was the final nail in the coffin for manufactured, fabricated tunes from the old Brill Building group, like Carole King, Neil Sedaka and Neil Diamond, who sat in offices and wrote songs on demand. All of a sudden lyrics about “Einstein disguised as Robin Hood” and “Googoogajoob, I am the walrus” were sung to heavier melodies and it was then that rock and roll really became an art form. This art form grew and insinuated itself into the public consciousness even more, and after, with the help of punk rock, surviving the disco era and the techno era and even the recent hip hop era, rock and roll, now usually just called “rock” has finally and probably been undone by something that I had thought was dead itself: manufactured music, done for money, and with no soul, no heart and with a clear eye on just making as much money as possible.
I’m talking about American Idol. To my mind, this “talent”-show-on-steroids is symbolic of all that is wrong with music, and by extension, art, today. Nothing about the show is creative. Indeed, when some of the hopefuls try to express some individuality, they are often harshly criticized for straying from the melody or for being “pitchy”, a word that may be the only thing creative to come out of this show. The most damaging and insulting aspect of the show really began a couple of season ago when the “judges” began telling these young people, many of whom were very talented singers, that they should be doing one style of music or another, instead of what they liked to do. This is no different than telling Leonardo Da Vinci to focus on comic book art, or telling Marlon Brando that soap operas are his future. How dare they!!!
So the death knell has rung for rock and roll. That American Idol and other factors (the internet and corporate greed among them) helped put the last nail in isn’t their fault, but there are about five generations of mourners who have lost the love of their lives. A sad time it is indeed. Long live Rock!