Contributed by David Sherman
About a year ago in this blog, Keith Thompson made a compelling argument as to why we include music in the humanities. With the unveiling of Excelsior College’s new course, MUS 211: The History of Rock and Roll, Part 2, we are faced with a few different questions about the rationale behind studying this subject – especially a second part that covers the more recent years of rock and roll.
Many of us have lived through much of the history of rock and roll, and there is a nagging feeling that something that we have witnessed should not be considered a historical topic. When I watch Antique Roadshow and someone produces an oil painting from the 1950s for appraisal, I wonder why something that was created during my lifetime is considered an antique. I don’t consider myself an antique! Do you?
And since this new course – part 2 – covers the years following Woodstock (1969, for those of you who weren’t born yet!) up to the 2000s, the question you might ask is: why is rock and roll considered history? And what’s the cutoff point when current events become history?
It is an important question to ask, and I wish I had a good answer.
In considering this question, my reasoning was that with the Internet and 24-hour news stations, events of cultural and historical importance erupt fast and fade just as quickly. Due to our almost immediate awareness of an event and the saturation of readily available information about it, in our current culture, something becomes “news” much faster than it did a generation ago. And for the same reason, it becomes old news or non-news so much sooner that it begins to feel or seem like history much sooner, too.
The 1970s feel like history: the end of the Vietnam War, Nixon’s resignation, the election of Jimmy Carter, the oil crisis. These events just seem to feel like they took place a long time ago. That would mean that Led Zeppelin’s recording of “Stairway to Heaven”, Stevie Wonder’s “Living For The City,” Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again,)” and Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me not to Come” should also feel like “history.”
Similarly, if Desert Storm seems like it ought to be thought of as a historical event, then Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”and the beginning of the Seattle grunge scene would also be considered history.
How about the Second Gulf War? If that feels historical to you, then Green Day’s “American Idiot” should also feel historical to you. But it doesn’t to me. I think I can honestly draw the line at September 11, 2001 – which seems like history to me. But many political and social events and trends following 9/11 seem to, in some way, refer back to that shocking and horrible day. Events since then seem to me to be part of a continuum and feel more like current events.
And that’s about where I drew the line in this new course: roughly around the year 2001.
It’s easy to justify the study of the history of classical music (as we do in MUS 205), where students are introduced to the greatest of the great: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and the other occupants of Olympus. But rock and roll is still new, and we’re not yet sure who the giants are after the1980s. We know who has sold the most CDs, who had had the most airtime, sold out the most concerts, and made the most money. But is their music legendary? And since many of these artists and bands are still performing, the body of their work is not yet complete. So it’s almost impossible to know if there music will stand the test of time.
In addition, the shifting musical tastes of our changing society, most notably the changing tastes of American youth – the core audience of rock and roll – make selecting the stars of the ‘90s and ‘00s difficult.
If you consider these reflections, you might think of asking a second question: how can we be sure we’re studying the right people and music? Again, my response is just as unscientific.
Part of the answer lies in Module 4, when we discuss the evolving music business of the late 1970s and a now seldom-played album from that period.
One of the groundbreaking recordings from that period is one that you might not believe – or even know. The guitarist Peter Frampton recorded his album Peter Frampton Comes Alive in 1976 and, believe it or not, that was the first million-selling album ever. Elvis, The Beatles, and the Rolling Stones sold well over that number in the aggregate, but this was the first album to sell one million copies when it was released. It was the first “big album” as this term came to be known in the industry. “Big money” had finally come to the music business, and the chain of events initiated by this first million-seller changed the music business forever.
Peter Frampton Coms Alive: “Baby I Love Your Way”
(Lyrics available at: http://www.lyricsmania.com/baby_i_love_your_way_lyrics_peter_frampton.html)
Fans of the psychedelic music of the previous decade sneered at Frampton’s music as an example of how a good musician compromised his musicianship by watering down his music just so it would get more air play. And within five years, this album would be largely forgotten with the advent of punk, metal, rap and reggae in the 1980s.
So, you decide: should Peter Frampton be included as a rock and roll luminary, or not? Is the fact that he created the first “big album” enough to include him in the discussion? Is the fact that his music was so popular at that moment in time significant? Or is it just as significant that his “million selling” popularity was only very brief? Or is the fact that he was a working guitarist with several good bands before and after this big album enough to make him more of a footnote?
It’s a tough question – what did you decide?
What I’ve done in MUS 211 is to look at Peter Frampton using a wide-angle lens: Frampton is not so important for the music itself, but for the musical trend that his album represents. The mid ‘70s was an era when the groundwork was laid for what we now refer to as “classic rock.” Virtuosity that was displayed in the psychedelic period was still valued, but so was using recording studio technology to bring more character and sonic interest to the music. And at the same time, due to the growing autocracy of the radio industry, songs needed to be toned down to a degree to become “radio friendly.”
Using those musical trends as criteria, Peter Frampton becomes important as one of the several artists who we consider some of the first “classic” rockers.
And so my first part of the answer is: artists need to fit into the large picture of rock and roll. Those who were outside the general trends probably didn’t have much of an impact.
Ordinary people make rock and roll, and rock celebrates the everyman lifestyle. And while classical music is scouring the world for the next Pavarotti, rock fans are looking for that everyman with some talent and a sincere and meaningful message. If record labels were honest, they would tell you that they couldn’t pick the next star with any degree of certainty. If there is a groundswell of interest in an artist, they will react. But predicting the next “big thing” in rock is almost impossible because of that “everyman” quality of the rock stars. Their talent does not stand out head-and-shoulders above the rest.
So you have to start by looking at the charts to see who sold the most CDs, but you also need to look at those statistics with an eye toward history. For example, Elvis Costello’s recordings in the 1980s were popular, but his music was also noteworthy for an important reason: it didn’t refer back to the psychedelic music of the late 1960s. Rock and roll of the post Woodstock era of the 1970s derived its raison d'etre from psychedelic music and the experimenting that was done in the recording studio during those years. But Elvis Costello was one of the first musicians whose music ignored the psychedelic ‘60s and reached back to an even earlier time when the great songwriting teams, like Lieber and Stoller and Hal David and Burt Bacharach roamed the music industry. But his sneering demeanor, raspy vocal delivery, and clothes that recalled Buddy Holly made him not only a unique entertainer, but also a leader in the musical movement that brought punk and new wave rock to America.
Elvis Costello: (What’s So Funny About) Peace Love and Understanding
(Lyrics available at: http://www.lyricsmania.com/whats_so_funny_bout_peace,_love_and_understanding_lyrics_elvis_costello.html)
That’s the kind of talent you try to keep an eye out for. And my response to the second part of this question is answered by saying that until the historical picture comes into sharper focus, the “right” artists to study are artists who resonated with fans with a fresh approach to music that was still connected to rock and roll’s past, whether they were playing in sold out stadiums or underground clubs.
If there is any good news about rock and roll in the last decade, it is that practically all of the music recorded recently in some way relates back to earlier styles of rock and roll. Rock and roll artists are not continually reinventing the wheel. The stars of yesteryear are taken seriously; their music is studied and their styles are analyzed. And young artists have embraced the musicians who pioneered Rhythm and Blues / early rock and roll, like Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, and Little Richard. But earlier stars also include Paul Simon, the late Kurt Cobain of the band Nirvana, and Jay Z as other rock legends worth studying.
One of the new bands that I believe is noteworthy for being timely, resonating with fans, and building upon previous styles with a unique and fresh voice is Arcade Fire. In the last module of MUS 211, students are asked to comment on the current state of independent bands – the current “new voice” in rock and roll, using Arcade Fire as their example.
ArcadeFire: Keep The Car Running
(Lyrics available at: http://www.lyricmania.com/arcade+fire++the-keep+the+car+running-lyric.html)
The fact that the current generation looks to the earlier stars and styles for their inspiration and for the musical and professional lessons that they teach might actually be the best indicator that rock and roll of the 1980s and 1990s should be considered history.