Sunday, July 10, 2011
Leaving the Rock Nest
It remains a strange dichotomy inherent in rock culture— all those destabilized, destabilizing behavioral patterns (sex, drugs, and rock and roll) remain comforting to rock people. They act as a kind of nest-hovel, a safe base to work from in the construction of lives and identities. If the New Rock forces rock musicians to leave this oddly sculptured nest, the first question which arises is not necessarily who the authorities will be (adults needing authority figures less than adolescents do) but what constitutes authority. The old authority-signifiers are obvious— record sales, concert attendance, underground cachet, musical and lyrical ability, and all the chiasmus positions between these. If things are honed back so that record sales and concert attendance are no longer an issue, and if no one can agree (as is likely) on a centralized aesthetic, we have a rock world made up of subalterns, who may or may not be pleased to be working under no one. Adults do generally prefer to have some recognizable authority over them; a realm without authority is a wilderness realm. The New Rock, too, could turn out, in the short run, to be a wilderness realm.
The situation requires feeling out. Local scenes put up local heroes; those under them may or may not accept their status. It’s also interesting to wonder how much reverence will remain for the first fifty years of rock music. It could be a firmly bound or broken thread, depending on who you ask and what their musical ethos is. The hypocrisy of mega-rock stars, who attempt to embody everything to everyone, may seem déclassé in retrospect. But a generation of rock Bohemians would be incomplete without a variety of touchstones. The process by which good material from the first fifty years which has not yet seen the light of day comes to light is inevitable, and with it a change of dynamics. On some levels, it’s a change from an American to a European form of consciousness. Looking up to mega-stars because you, too, desire mega-success is an American peccadillo. The rock dream of the “first fifty” is an American dream— unlimited wealth, splendid and spectacular outward success, all bequeathed upon average guys/gals who are often uneducated and spring from working-class backgrounds. In other words, rags to riches. The rock dream of the New Rock is no dream at all— you’re an artist, plodding away in your own garden. Gradually, you develop a comparatively modest following, drawn in by the quality of your art. It’s a European model that goes back longer than fifty years. Do rock people remember how small Shakespeare was in his lifetime compared to someone like Bono?
It’s not just that the New Rock offers no glitz; it’s that it cuts against the grain of what the American Empire represents to the world. America is perceived in many quarters to be an “adolescent authority,” conducting itself like a magnificently large teenager, without maturity or restraint. The model, for a French thinker like Baudrillard, was Disneyland. MTV was Disneyland with visible cleavage. Rolling Stone was Disneyland with a dollop of political idealism. Even the debauchery around rock has a Disneyland level— it’s designed to give an appearance of the magic, the fairytale. In an important sense, Keith Richards is a Mickey Mouse figure. Just shuffle the signifiers and he carries the weight of a totalized American fairytale. The New Rock goes backwards and forwards at once; backwards, because the European dignity of the serious artist has been a visible phenomenon for centuries; forwards, because nascent rock musicians have no choice but to employ this model, because the Disneyland levels of rock are rapidly and ineluctably receding. What’s left is a take it or leave it chance to do something (if you have the ambition) artistically worthwhile. If you want to be a cartoon, there are easier, less painful ways to do it (rock ways demanding that you kill off your body in the process). The New Rock winds up balancing American and European perspectives. It’s the classicism and dignity of Old Europe meeting the egalitarianism, level-playing-field mindset of ideal America. What’s gone are the fantasies, the carnival atmosphere and the six-foot smiling rodents. To the extent that Baudrillard could ever accept or embrace rock music and rock music ethos, it’s the rock that’s in front of us rather than the rock that’s behind. And any chance to conflate America with Europe in a constructive way is one that should be taken. It’s the age for America to be aging.