‘Hey hey, my my, rock and roll can never die.’ Depending on your own tastes and cognitive biases, Neil Young’s famous lyric will now seem more prophetic than ever before – or profoundly misguided. Last week saw the release of U2’s Songs of Innocence in what Apple CEO Tim Cook described as ‘the largest album release of all time’ (if only because a free copy of the album was gifted to all 500 million–plus iTunes account holders). Just prior to that momentous event, Gene Simmons announced the death of rock. This earned him a rebuke of sorts from Foo Fighters, whose new album Sonic Highways will arrive later this year. And not long before that, British rock duo Royal Blood released the fastest-selling rock debut in three years, which rocketed to the top of the UK charts for a week only to be ousted by the very un-rocking Sam Smith. Are these signs of guitar music in robust health, or terminal decline?
The first thing to note is that this debate is an old and very tired one: rock music has been declared dead many times since its emergence in the middle of the twentieth century, and it has returned, phoenix-like, not long after each premature post-mortem analysis. There is also the problem of definition, as Bernard Zuel notes: when you talk about the death of a genre, you’d better know where its boundaries lie. (Simmons’s comments are on shaky ground for this reason alone – his list of iconic rockers includes Madonna, the dance-pop star par excellence.) For these reasons, there’s little value in rehashing the ‘Is rock dead?’ debate. ‘Rock music’ is an amorphous term, and if you hold it up to the light at the right angle and squint, then Kanye West’s Yeezus, The Body’s I Shall Die Here, or Earth’s Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light albums can all fall within the rubric. How could such a nebulously defined genre ever die?
It is worth noting, however, that cultural anxieties surrounding the supposed ‘death of rock’ are always twinned with a notion of ‘authentic’ rock. For die-hard fans the inauthenticity of new forms of guitar music is what’s killing rock. Simon Reynolds illustrates this point wonderfully in his book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, in the chapter about the emergence of punk rock. Punk is often figured as a moment of pure rupture with rock’s past, something weird and ugly that emerged from nowhere and shook the foundations of twentieth century music. But as Reynolds demonstrates, punk’s primum mobiles (Patti Smith, Greg Shaw of Bomp! Records, Malcolm McLaren) were interested in restoring rock music to a supposed prelapsarian state exemplified by the Nuggets compilation of garage rock, to a time before Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band let slip the dogs of prog rock pomp and psychedelia. Although punk valorised rebellion and ‘living in the now’ (just as fifties rock had), it was musically speaking a retrogressive and conservative movement.
For this reason, the restoration of rock to its rightful place atop the charts at the end of the seventies was not greeted with enthusiasm by punk rockers, because the rock that displaced disco was the wrong kind of rock. Rock’s defeat of disco is traditionally held to have occurred when The Knack’s power-pop single ‘My Sharona’ entered the charts in June 1979, swiftly followed by the infamous Disco Demolition Night of July 1979. But ‘My Sharona’ – and, more generally, the entire ‘new wave’ of rock that came to dominate charts in the eighties – takes more than a few cues from disco, not least in its strong rhythmic drive and its focus on bodily pleasures. While certain rock groups revelled in the creative possibilities opened up by disco – Devo and Talking Heads amongst them – other groups found this impure hybrid version of rock abhorrent. Thus the success of new wave drove a counter-movement of hardcore punk throughout the eighties – indeed, hardcore punk progenitors Dead Kennedys actually performed a parody of ‘My Sharona’ entitled ‘Pull My Strings’ in early 1980 to a room full of music industry executives looking for the next big thing. (It’s not only punks who harbour the fantasy that only their strain of guitar music is pure – similar myths animate contemporary hard rock and black metal.)
There’s a paradox here: ‘purity’ and ‘life’ are in many ways mutually exclusive terms, at least when it comes to recorded musical forms. After all, if the rock of the late forties and early fifties contains rock’s quintessence, and that music has already been recorded and achieved its place in the cultural archive, why would it be necessary to make new rock music? As Reynolds notes in Retromania, the ‘phonographic recording is something of a philosophical scandal in that it takes a moment and makes it perpetual; it drives in the wrong direction down the one-way street that is Time’. The recording promises us an endlessly repeatable forward momentum, but instead delivers stasis – and stasis is death. After so many repetitions and reiterations, rock can no longer operate as an organic expression of rebellion and youthful élan vital; as Reynolds argues, it has instead become stylised, representing style itself. Rock, at least insofar as rock revivalists understand it, has become a beautiful corpse.
U2’s Songs of Innocence, like Royal Blood’s self-titled album and no doubt like Foo Fighters’ Sonic Highways when it arrives, demonstrates that rock’s beautiful corpse is still in motion. There will always be a market for slickly produced, FM-friendly ‘classic’ rock, even if the size and influence of that market remains subject to the vicissitudes of taste and fashion. And no doubt contemporary groups will continue to isolate redeemable qualities in rock and develop startling new mutations of it, just as Deafheaven, Have a Nice Life, and The War on Drugs have all recently taken aspects of rock’s multifaceted past and turned them into idiosyncratic musical vocabularies. But ‘authentic’ rock will remain stuck, an anachronism enabled to persist through recording technologies and the vast cultural archive of the internet. As Neil Young says, ‘rock and roll can never die’ – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that rock and roll will always be alive.
Chad Parkhill is a Melbourne-based writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Australian, Killings, The Lifted Brow, Meanjin, and The Quietus, amongst others.