Friday, June 24, 2011
What is the rock master narrative?
The master narrative that dictates how people listen to rock music began to form in the 1960s. At the time, popular music attracted a cadre of critical writers who promoted themselves as serious critics of rock music. The presupposition they made was that this form of popular music had graduated from subsisting as a form of entertainment into an art-form. The ethos espoused by these critics (few of whom had serious literary or musical training) was young, fresh, and resolutely anti-academic— the criticism was grounded in generalizations about rock music and moderately close readings of rock lyrics. The hinge into a new era that was seen to be legitimate by these critics (there were multiple hinges, but this was the dominant one) was the corpus of songs produced by Bob Dylan between 1962 and 1968. Dylan’s lyrics aspired to the title of poetry; he was championed by Allen Ginsberg and other Beat writers; he was taken seriously by the New York Times. Respect and veneration for Dylan’s achievements became the first foundational block of the rock master narrative, and it remains largely intact today. Indeed, it is remarkable the extent to which Dylan is still considered oracular by critics, musicians, and journalists. This is true, even if Dylan has been outsold by almost every major rock artist since his emergence. The public have never been as convinced as the aficionados are. Among aficionados, it remains de rigueur to take Dylan’s artistic supremacy for granted.
Among other 60s artists, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones remain fundamentally unchallenged as “major” presences. Where criticism of the Beatles is concerned, it is commonplace to rank the songs of John Lennon over those of Paul McCartney— Lennon’s raw honesty is perceived to trump McCartney’s musical polish. But the Beatles were fundamentally changed by Dylan in a way that Dylan was not changed by the Beatles— as such, the major critical corpus of rock writing has tended to rank Dylan over the Beatles. Considering the extent to which the Beatles outsold Dylan, it is interesting to note that the rock master narrative is angled against the tastes of the general public. For casual listeners of rock music, there is no master narrative. As the vast majority of rock listeners are casual, rock critics sought to listen to the music “seriously,” on higher levels. Yet rock music is a popular art-form— whether or not there are higher levels to be listened to is (for the most part) debatable. If the critics who deemed Dylan’s lyrics poetry had no experience of serious poetry (and few did), than this portion of the master narrative has some loose screws. But, loose screws or not, this portion has become consolidated enough that few major rock figures have dared to criticize Dylan. The Beatles and Dylan are seen to be somewhat on an equal plane; the Rolling Stones, for some reason, are forced to play underling in the trinity. Commercially, they’re wedged between the Beatles and Dylan. While unassailably “major,” Dylan’s supposed grandeur and the Beatles overweening ambition ace them out. Nonetheless, a quirk of the rock master narrative is how many serious listeners will side with the Stones over the Beatles and Dylan. The Stones were edgy and confrontational even past Dylan; they steadily made rock music, rather than building bridges from folk and pop. So the Stones, in the trinity, generate confusion and disruption.
Past this, the second tier of 60s rock contains many artists who rival and sometimes outdistance those in the first— that Ray Davies, in particular, should be relegated to the second tier is interesting. And it must be said that there is a sub-narrative among musicians and critics in the UK which does place Davies squarely at the top. Other sub-narratives include 60s artists like the Velvet Underground, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, and the Who. Lou Reed, the Velvets’ auteur, is a hinge to another facet of the master narrative. This facet has been consolidated over thirty years. It involves a value judgment as to who the “true heavyweights” are, where songwriting is concerned. The stalwarts of the group are usually Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, and Van Morrison. All these artists are white; all emerged in the 60s or 70s. What cemented these artists’ position in the master narrative is the production of a substantial body of work over a long period of time. Commercial success might’ve been intermittent— artistic integrity and success were the mandatory prerequisites. The problem with this portion of the master narrative is that artists who do a quick burst of interesting work and then die or vanish can’t be raised up as heavyweights. Longevity is a superficial system of judgment, which creates a narrative without Kurt Cobain, Alex Chilton, Syd Barrett, Tim and Jeff Buckley, etc.
Importantly, and perhaps not coincidentally, almost the entire rock master narrative has been created by the early Boomers, born in the 40s or early 50s and weaned on Dylan in the 60s. They control the big magazines, and have access to publishers that younger voices don’t have. Because the production of the master narrative came originally from earnest impulses and now emanates from nostalgia, it has lost much of its potency for younger generations. As much as critics from this era attempt to find places for sub-narratives like Punk, Glam, Grunge, and Brit-Pop, the original placement of the trinity holds, and beneath it the “serious heavyweight” grouping. The rock music master narrative keeps a respectful distance from black music, even though black music is largely the basis for rock music. It also functions as a component part of the commercial industry around those it endorses. This is especially relevant where Dylan is concerned; books, movies, television documentaries, and magazine articles are regularly generated to keep Dylan present and accounted for to the general public. Upholders of the rock master narrative do make a group effort to keep Dylan aloft; it is perceived to be a necessary effort.
But the truth is, it is only really necessary if Dylan is a demonstrably superior artist. If he isn’t, the rock master narrative crumbles to bits. The judgment of this master narrative over the next twenty years will be interesting to watch. The Boomers will die off; other generations may create new narratives around rock music. As much as Boomers might prefer otherwise, the fate of Dylan and his music will not be in their hands. The master narrative that follows theirs’ might seem unthinkable to the Boomers, and the Boomer critics whose opinions we might interrogate. It might even be an issue to contend with if rock music deserves another master narrative. If only bits, pieces, and fragments survive, there’s a good chance it doesn’t. The original rock master narrative will be seen as a strange curio to scholars of popular culture, little more. This lesson stands— master narratives have their own strange dynamics, which are difficult to define or control. As they evolve or remain static, they mirror the temperaments of generations. They can then become a hinge to high viewpoints.