Geoff Pevere: Why Rock and Roll is Circling the Drain.

I don’t hate the Rolling Stones, but I can’t argue with anyone who does, and I’ve known a lot of people who do.

The reasons might have changed over the years, but the disgust has always been there. There’s just something about this band, who amalgamated a full half century ago this month, that invites intense contempt.

On the occasion of the band’s first half-century (I’m not yet convinced that Keith Richards will ever die, or if he does he’ll ever stop playing) the form taken by the animus is likely to be over the Stones’ age – collectively, they’re about two hundred and seventy-five years old – and the fact that they’ve got about as much to do with vital rock & roll as the dodo does to contemporary nature study.

This too is something I can’t really argue. Despite the fact that I have avidly loved and listened to the Stones’ for at least four decades of that half-century – their ’68 to ’72 period is as good a stretch as any in pop music — even I’ve got to admit that, as far as contributing music that really matters, the band pretty much packed it in after Exile on Main Street. That, if you need reminding, was released when Richard Nixon was in the White House.

But what needs to be said is this: as a vital cultural entity rock has been pretty much on the ropes since the first wave of punk anyway (and it was geezer establishment bands like the Stones that made punk so spitting angry), and as a form of unifying mass culture it kissed history goodbye with the 1975 double Time and Newsweek anointment of Bruce Springsteen. It’s declined into a boutique genre of pop music ever since, albeit one with a mythology so strong, compelling and persistent it’s been possible to convince yourself that it still matters. It doesn’t, really, at least not in the way it once did. And before anyone out there brings up U2 as a counter-example, I’d suggest simply strengthens my case. That’s a band I’ve got a lot of time for too, but they’re about as vital as that old VCR I’ve got in the basement, and their veneration as rock saviours simply begs the question of why rock needed saviours: because it was dying. Plus they killed first-wave punk, but I digress.

Rock, at least in its bass-drums-guitar blues-influenced mode, which first achieves mass exposure with Elvis Presley and achieves its final supernova with The Boss, is finished as a form of generationally galvanizing pop cultural expression, and it has been for some time. It’s finished because the generation that it galvanized is old, and because with aging has come the undoing of rock music’s most potent but ultimately self-destructive myth: the myth of rock as the ultimate expression of youthful rebellion. Because its cohort got old and kept listening to – and demanding — the same stuff, rock music has only lived as a form of anti-aging tonic for those who need to indulge in the myth every couple of years or so.

I’m not suggesting that music is dead as a creative form. It’s not and never will be. But it is dead as an influential mass cultural form, and what killed it was the contradiction between its foundational myth of eternal youth and the hard reality of everything gets old. Add to this the fact that the same generation that believed the dream only encouraged subsequent generations to reject it and seek out their own forms – which is as healthy and necessary as the impulse that rock sprung from in the first place – and you’ve got a recipe for guaranteed irrelevancy. Not to mention the fact that when the kids who loved rock grew up into the parents who loved rock, it kind of took the edge off the music for their kids. Kind of like my dad trying to convince me that there was something cool and relevant about Herb Alpert. (Which I now realize there was, but that’s not the point.) If it was parent-approved, it simply could not be dangerous. And it is a natural law of generational turnover that kids must find forms of cultural expression that piss their parents off. They may like the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan or even the Pistols or the Clash, but there’s no way they’re going to crank them up to keep Mom and Dad at bay. If anything, they’ll bust into the room and start dancing, which no self-respecting teenager in the world ever wants to see.

And so the Stones. By sheer dint of being around so long, by aging so obviously and spectacularly right in front of us, and by flaunting the unavoidable fact of their advancing years while boisterously and (very) profitably perpetrating the music of their – and our – youth, they might well have pulled off their most brilliant and genuine act of bad boy rebellion: they’ve said a big fat fuck you to the kids-are-alright myth of rock music simply by playing it for fifty years.

— 30 —

Geoff Pevere’s column appears every Friday.

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Geoff Pevere has been writing, broadcasting and teaching about movies, media and popular culture for over thirty years. He can’t help himself. His column appears every Friday.

5 Responses to “Geoff Pevere: Why Rock and Roll is Circling the Drain.”

  1. Well….that about sums up everything left to say about Rock and Roll. I’ll have to come up with a new pop culture topic from here on in 🙂

  2. My question is: Why is the decline of Rock and Roll, taking the Rolling Stones as a benchmark of that decline, a bad thing? Admitted, Jagger is a bit embarrassing now, but with all that energy still, he makes Cantankerous Old Man work. He is like Terry Pratchett’s old Barbarian. If you are looking for Super Bands like Pink Floyd I don’t know if that is going to happen. There just aren’t enough Syd Barretts around to exploit.

    So it is all retro today. Sadly, I think, so am I.

    Even when I go looking for new stuff today I find The Eagles of Death Metal. And that’s hardly new. I like what John Cale is doing now, and he is hardly jumping up and down on stage. People may ask “Who” if they’re not familiar with the VU, but here is a fellow open to the old and the new, and Leonard Cohen who is making all the old new under the sun. I like the edges, even if they are old and frayed. And I worry what will happen when these people pass on… musically.

    But Lady GaGa? Is she new? Or is she already old. Or is she new put in an old package.

  3. Glen Bringslid Says:

    There’s nothing left to shock people in R&R. It’s gotten as dangerous and disgusting as it possibly can, short of an artist shoving a stick of dynamite up his a$$ and lighting it off during a performance… A feat that punk rocker GG Allin actually aspired to pull off, but died first! So what’s left? Going back, starting fresh and making music from the heart that matters instead of posing…

  4. Rock and roll to me is a catch all phrase that once meant something but that doesn’t really apply now. Everything gets lumped into the pop music category these days it seems. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame doesn’t even know who rock acts are anymore as evidenced by the fact that Grandmaster Flash and Madonna are both members. Great performers in their day I guess, but not “rock” stars by any stretch.

  5. I especially like the reference to the dodo bird. Nicely done!

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