Since articles speculating about the impending death, or at least total irrelevance, of Rock Music continue to roll out, let’s indulge in a thought experiment. What, if anything, truly will spell the death of Rock music?
One can not broach this subject without first mentioning Jazz. Jazz is not, as is oft repeated, America’s only art form. Jazz is, however, America’s first and definitely most significant contribution to the arts. Emerging out of the seedier areas of New Orleans sometime early in the twentieth century, Jazz would spend multiple decades as the popular music. Built on a combination of the “Blues form,” syncopation, and improvisation, Jazz would branch off in a hundred different directions. Over the course of a half century (give or take), we got traditional Jazz, Swing, Big Bands, Cool Jazz, Bebop, Post Bop, Hard Bop, Modal Jazz, Latin Jazz, Afro-Cuban Jazz, Fusion, Free Jazz, and Jump Blues. The latter of which would, ironically, help give birth to the genre that would ultimately supplant Jazz in the mainstream: Rock and Roll. Not only was improvisation a key component of Jazz, it was also heavily dependent on innovation. One of the things that kept it relevant for so long was a constant forward evolution. While you could listen and hear the common threads – those chord structures, the syncopation, that swing feel, etc. – there was a world of difference between the Jazz music played by Buddy Bolden and that of Miles Davis. So, what happened? Why did Jazz sink into irrelevance, hokeyness, and perpetual novelty status? This is opinion on my part, but I put it down to a combination of the advent of recording technology and the emergence of a canon of standards (the so-called “Great American Songbook” and numerous others). The canonization and outright borderline deification of certain songs and performers combined to turn Jazz into an inward looking, meta referential basket case. It stopped assimilating much in the way out outside influence. It became incestuous. The blood became thin, weak. There is nothing wrong with building a strong canon, of course. A goal of the artist, after all, is to build a body of work that will live on long after he is gone. Orchestras still play Mozart and Vivaldi centuries removed from both men’s deaths. Violinists and Heavy Metal guitarists alike test their mettle with the music of Niccolo Paganini. The difference, however, between Orchestras playing old compositions from long dead composers from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries is that there is no definitive version of any of these compositions. Recording technology did not exist at the time these men were writing. As such, all they left behind was sheet music. No one really knows definitely what Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G Minor is supposed to sound like. No one truly knows what the Four Seasons is supposed to sound like. One does, however, know what “Giant Steps” is supposed to sound like. John Coltrane himself stepped into a recording studio and put it down on tape himself in 1959. This is the case with nearly all Jazz standards. At the end of the day, it becomes less a game of interpretation and more one of imitation.
Why am I carrying on about Jazz? Because I see Rock music following a similar trajectory. After emerging from Rhythm and Blues during the latter half of the 1950s, Rock reached popular music status. Over the course of the next four decades, Rock split into a hundred different directions: Psychedelia, Progressive Rock, Hard Rock, Punk, Heavy Metal, and on. Many of those genres split and developed their own sub genres and micro genres. There was no Rock canon, no “standards.” Enter the era of Youtube and internet cover culture. I was a musician myself at one point. As such, I’ve no problem with a band tossing a cover or two into their live set to fill out time. I’ve played plenty of Death and Iron Maiden songs in my day. However, you now have people who are building entire careers on “cover songs” and e-begging. I put cover songs in quotes because these are not covers in the traditional sense. Youtube covers essentially amount to a guitarist, drummer, singer, whatever taking a Rock song and attempting to copy and re-record their respective instrument’s part verbatim. This sort of rote repetition and imitation is not innovative, it is not impressive, and it is wholly uninteresting. It’s the laziness of a cover album or cover EP taken to even lower, lazier levels. It is also quite vexing that the very same music outlets that routinely cry about the lack of life in the Rock and Metal sphere enthusiastically aid in the perpetuation of this poisonous trend. Ultimate Guitar, Blabbermouth, MetalSucks, Metal Injection, Metal Hammer, and on have all complained about the stagnation of Rock music, yet all are positively lousy with wasted space extolling the brilliance of lazy, mindless internet “covers.” If you are so concerned about the health of this genre, stop blaming imaginary phantoms like elitist fans and nonexistent gangs of roving sexists, and start looking at what you are elevating. I’ve nothing against the music of the 70s, 80s, and 90s. However, turning this material into the Rock version of the “Great American Songboook,” songs which everyone must learn to recreate note for note, will render Rock just as hokey and quaint as Jazz. We’ve already plunged America’s first original music into formaldehyde and packed the jar in mothballs. Do we really want the second to suffer the same fate?