Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, May 15, 2005


Douglas Wolk does us a service by bringing the concept of “normativity” into the discussion of Rockism.  His formulation that Rockists see Rock as the Norm gets a lot of the truth but doesn’t go far enough.  His getting it so close helps me understand it better for myself. 

Here’s my take.

1.  Rock is the dominant cultural form and has been for a long time.

2.  Rockists see Rock as the Ideal.

3.  Part of the Rockist Ideal is to be in Constant Rebellion and to deny that Rock is the Dominant Form.  Like the song says, Papa-Oo-Mao-Mao.  Rockism posits a Perpetual Revolution, a Spinning of the Wheel, with the Rockists perpetually on top, and denying it. To put it another way, Rockists see Rock as the Norm in so far as Norm means Ideal, but they don’t see it as the Norm in so far as Norm means Dominant Form. When Nirvana reached Number One, the Rockists said, “We won.”

4.  Jazz partisans assaulted the castle of high art by claiming that jazz competed with classical music on musical grounds.  Rockists claimed the high art status of Rock on the grounds of High Romanticism.  A few of the High Romantic canons of Rockism:

4.a. the isolated genius of the artist;

4.b. the authenticity of the artist (the concept of auteurism, where performer creates the work by being the artist/writer);

4.c. the passion of the artist, typically signified in rock by timbres with high levels of distortion -- fuzzed guitars, gravelly vocals, loud drums (this pertains especially to Boomer-era rock and Boomer-certified punk and its offshoots);

4.d. the artist as rebel;

4.e. the authenticity of the lower classes;

4.f. which is juxtaposed against the beknightedness of the masses (a/k/a elitism, a/k/a the cult of unpopularity, a late, post-punk Rockist canon that helped kill Kurt Cobain).

5.  The High Romantic canons of Rockism have a shadow side:

5.a. the dissemination of all of the above (isolation, rebellion, elitism) through savvy high capitalist marketing and sincere, true-believer Rockist journalism and criticism;

5.b. the blue-collar masquerading of middle-class musicians;

5.c. the pressure on musicians to conform to all of the above.

Dylan crystallized these tendencies:  High Romantic notions of genius, isolation, rebellion, and auteurism, combined with savvy capitalist marketing and High-Romanticism-inspired blue-collar masquerading.  Since Romanticism itself came about in the shadow of Industrial Capitalism, it’s no surprise that the capitalist machine has long known how to market it.  As Kenneth Rexroth warned artists in the 1950s, Madison Avenue loves a rebel artist.

When the original Boomer Rockists chose Romanticism as their path up the High Art Mountain, it was a big historical mistake. 

First, the reliance on Romantic imagery and ideology shifts the focus from the music to the story-behind-the-music. While I’m as nosy as the next guy and love to know the story behind the music, promoting the story above the music itself short-changes the music. Rock has made unique contributions to musical technique, especially in qualities of timbre and rhythm. Rockism downplays this to the extent that it’s conscious of music-as-music at all.

Second, and more important, the confused class ideology (lower classes authentic, but masses beknighted) led to an obfuscatory class masquerade that has been bad, long-term, for our politics. There’s a direct cultural line from Bob Dylan, blue-collar rock rebel, to George W. Bush, man of the people.  I understand the difference between confused individual rebellion against one’s own class (Dylan) and calculated faux-populist demogoguery (Bush and Co.), but the rock rebellion of the ‘60s opened up a space of ambiguity where the Republicans could claim the populist mantle.

I know, I know, it’s wrong to blame Bush on Bob Dylan’s hagiographers, but I can’t help myself, it’s how I *feel*. And of course, as part of the wily Papa-Oo-Mao-Mao-ist Permanent Revolution of the Original Boomer Rockists, all questions of authenticity are now off the table, as the Rockists hide behind the New Pop Banner, having absorbed the Pop critique of Rockism and put it to their own use. So I can point out that the embrace of blue collar imagery by middle class artists like Dylan and hundreds of his middle-class artistic descendants has been *deeply inauthentic*, and the very people who promote the image of Dylan-as-Rebel-Artist reply, “Oh, it’s passe to care about authenticity.” But there is indeed something very authentic about the middle class denial of middle class roots -- it’s an authentic expression of shame about unearned privilege.

Maybe it’s that shame that’s at the heart of Rockism, and that connects Rockism to the Democrats’ electoral mishaps [asterisk]. Maybe Bush’s genius is to project an attractive (“rocking”!) shamelessness, while capitalizing on the populist urge for wealth that Rockist shame distances itself from. Have to think more about this.

We’ve gotten far afield. Culture’s like that, right?

High Romantic Rockism has been bad for music criticism and bad for American politics, but rock has long been the norm, and I’m in it and of it. While I love all sorts of music and listen to classical, jazz, and shmaltz pop at least as much as I listen to rock, I love the primal phrases, “that rocks,” and even, though less easily, “keep on rockin’.” “Rock” is my coin-word for, “that’s authentic, that’s true to itself, that’s passionate and real and right.” (Howard Dean rocked. John Kerry didn’t. I ended up supporting Kerry in the Democratic primary, but I was wrong. Dean would have been the better candidate.) And, unsurprisingly, the Romantic myth of the isolated, authentic, passionate, rebellious artist appeals to me deeply.

Rock me, rock me all night long.

[asterisk] I’ve always believed that Bush stole the 2000 election, and I’ve recently come around to believing that he stole 2004 too, based on inexplicable anomalies in the exit polls and on the Republicans’ history of cheating and upfront willingness to do so. Motive, opportunity, history, and evidence pointing in the direction of cheating . . . Still, in neither 2000 nor 2004 should the election have been close enough for Bush to have been able to steal it.
I think you could probably just insert "Modernist" (in the Marshall Berman sense of the word) in place of "Rockist" in much of this and end up in the same place.

Maybe Rock as a really successful pop form just shows these traits more obviously than other forms. But I think the will to power is pretty universal. There are just different modes of achieving it. And rock's way has a lot of tell us about the ways in which white middle/upper middle class Americans have asserted their will to power in the latter half of the 20th century (and beyond). It probably has something to say about the internal contradictions of American democratic ideology as well.


One more thing. While the Dylan to Bush argument seems valid to me as a 20th century example of this. I think there are numerous examples of elites playing "comman man" going back to the formation of the republic (in both art and politics). I don't think American elites ever had any doubt in their minds that they wanted to run things. But there was also an understanding that to run things according to the ideology they had set in place, it would be be necessary to acknowledge the masses as at least a junior partner in the enterprise.

This is kind of the genius of the system at some level. The possibility of full partnership is always a good motivator.

Be that as it may, I do agree that the mass show biz teenage rebellion show of rock and the fundementalist authenticity revival meeting of the folk scene came together and did a mating dance and Bob Dylan is what they birthed.

And at least for contemporary purposes, this coupling remains important because it seems to sketch out the dominant ideology of the present day Indy Rock scene (with it's very confused, obscured shadow will to power).

Good point about the Elites always playing the Populist card in American politics, going way back.

Re Modernism: What strikes me is that the Jazz High Art gambit was precisely modernist: Innovation, innovation, innovation. The Rockist High Art gambit has valued innovation, but it hasn't been the sine qua non, without which the High Art status doesn't exist. But then, you remember your Berman a lot better than I do.

I'm glad you mentioned Indy rock, which is the epitome of what I'm talking about, and where Rockism takes its firmest stands. If you count alt-country as a species of Indy rock, and I think you should, I'd bet good money that Indy rock boasts the highest professional discourse-to-sales ratio of any genre, with the possible exception of jazz and classical.
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