The Winner's History Of Rock 'n' Roll
I wrote the sprawling essay below for this blog, but it ended up on The A.V. Club blog instead. Which is cool, because people actually read that blog. (Big ups to Paul, Mark, and Tom Roz for keeping it real with Under 30, though. Anyway, you should click the link and read it there. But if you're lazy, here it is.
Thanks to the archive plumbers at VH1 Classic, I recently rediscovered a 10-part documentary series produced by Time Life in 1995 called The History Of Rock 'n’ Roll. I was a big fan of the series back in high school, even if as a junior rock historian I was already well-versed in blues, Berry, Beatles, and Bowie anecdotes. Watching it now, I’m less interested in what it has to say about rock history than how it illustrates how history is written and re-written over time.
Seen now, The History Of Rock 'n' Roll is hopelessly rockist in the worst sense: The only decades covered with multiple episodes are the ’50s and ’60s, and about half deal with the ’60s alone; punk gets its own episode, but the rise of rap and MTV (the most important developments in music in the past 25 years, along with Napster) are shoehorned together into one show; disco is depicted as a grave threat to “real” music; electronic, heavy metal, and non-grunge indie music is ignored altogether; and white rockers almost always overshadow black ones. Oh, and richly mustachioed yacht-rock legend Jeff “Skunk” Baxter is quoted on nearly every subject.
Most of these oversights have been corrected since '95—metal and disco, in particular, have gotten their due thanks to revisionists. But music writers today continue to get some stuff wrong. Take MTV. The impression you get of the music channel from The History Of Rock 'n' Roll is that it ultimately hurt music because it made image more important than substance. Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich (whose band otherwise isn’t mentioned in the series) is brought out to give the obligatory quote about how rock fans in the old days could make up their own imagery to rock songs, and MTV took that away. I never understood this argument, even though it’s still common enough to pass as conventional wisdom. First of all, image has always been important. Is it just a coincidence that Elvis Presley was a cool, sexy dude? Wasn’t “seeing” The Beatles on Ed Sullivan the pop culture tipping point, not just hearing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” on the radio? Did David Bowie dress like a transsexual alien because it made Mick Ronson play better? Yes, all these examples just happen to be much better musically than, say, Kajagoogoo, but as far as teenagers from any era are concerned it scarcely mattered. At any rate, MTV didn’t stop people from assigning their own visual memories to pop songs. Faith No More made a striking video for its ubiquitous hit single “Epic,” but I never think about it when I hear that song—I remember my disastrous first junior high school dance in 1990, where Mike Patton’s spastic vocals taunted me as a struck out with every single girl in my grade. Quite frankly, I’d rather remember a flopping fish.
Nevertheless, “the MTV took my imagination away” party line is still popular among critics and has become gospel among casual followers of pop music over time. What’s interesting is that most people probably liked MTV when it first came out. Certainly a lot of people watched it, and they likely didn’t fret about how the video for “Talk Dirty To Me” was preventing them from assigning their own mental pictures to C.C. DeVille’s righteously rockin’ guitar riffage. And yet, it’s equally likely that most people think the early days of MTV pale in comparison to what was going on in the ’80s punk underground, even if they never owned a Replacements album at the time. Why? Because that’s what rock history tells us. Rock history, unlike regular history, is written by the losers. I define losers as people who liked music that wasn’t popular in the mainstream, and had very little impact on pop culture at large. (Before anyone gets their undies in a bundle, let me just cop to being a “loser” myself. It’s not a value judgment, just a reflection of what was happening in the marketplace at the time.) Because rock writers tend to love “loser” music—punk, indie rock, alt-country, “conscious” hip-hop, dance music that goes on forever without a hook—“loser” music is what gets remembered as history. I’m not necessarily questioning it, just pointing out that it’s “a” history written with a certain agenda in mind. Think of it as revenge of the nerds—we make our music popular in the long term to correct the mainstream's short-term "oversight."
It is possible to look at all the music from the past 50 years of pop and come up with different conclusions, however. Consider how regular history is kept. Historians determine what movements affected society the most, and look for specific examples that tell that story. In the end, history writing ends up being a popularity contest—whichever side of the movement comes out ahead is what is depicted most favorably. Because society eventually came out against segregation, for example, Martin Luther King is seen as a hero. But if the segregationists had won out, MLK would have been a dangerous dissident threatening to tear apart a hallowed American institution. And as an event recedes into the past, it gets tougher to argue with history. (No matter how hard you look, you probably won’t find a Massachusetts resident who regrets the Declaration Of Independence.)
To give another, more musical example, the importance of punk music continues to be grossly overstated. Aesthetically, punk’s influence can’t be denied—it’s why there’s a Hot Topic in every mall and pop bands dressed like punk bands on the radio. But musically, punk hasn’t endured nearly as well as disco. Even if the word “disco” was outmoded by 1979, disco-influenced music has accounted for about three-fourths of the most successful pop for nearly three decades (including hip-hop, which is aesthetically punk but closer musically to disco). If this sounds like sacrilege to you, consider this: Did most singers on the radio in the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s sound more like Joey Ramone, or Donna Summer?
What if someone wrote a version of rock history based on the winners instead of the losers? The amount of radio play and record sales an artist garnered would be equated with how good he or she was. Mainstream pop music would take up a proportionate amount of pages in the history books, keeping fringe music on the fringes. In short, music history would document what people actually listened to, not what they should have been listening to. It might not be a better account than what already exists (and would probably be much, much worse), but it would be more accurate in some ways.
Here’s a quick stab at a winner-friendly version of rock history:
Rock music was born in the mid 1950s thanks to artists like Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, Pat Boone, and Jerry Lee Lewis, who provided a silly-but-fun complement to serious and sophisticated music-makers like Mitch Miller and Dean Martin. As the decade rolled on, Ricky Nelson and Fabian picked up the torch and created brilliant hit singles for radio, as did Phil Spector, who helped to set the pop producer template with Berry Gordy. The most important music of the ’60s was made by Motown—its records formed the foundation of pop music for decades to come. Motown’s only rival was James Brown, an influence on pretty much every “important” artist in rock history afterward. White listeners followed British rock bands like the Beatles, whose Trans-Atlantic spin on American blues resulted in heavy metal, rock’s greatest subgenre.
Metal and stadium rock were among the most artistically important genres of the ’70s, as was disco, which revolutionized radio. A small minority embraced punk music, which was improved upon by the incendiary catchiness of new wave. In the ’80s, kids expresseed their rebellion against authority by listening to hair metal bands like Motley Crue and Poison and rap groups like Beastie Boys and Run DMC. But the decade’s most important artists were Michael Jackson, the best male R&B singer ever and creator of the greatest album ever made, Thriller; and Whitney Houston, whose wonderfully emotive style was adopted by most female singers in her wake.
In the ’90s, radio was ready for a revolution, and it was delivered by one of rock’s great artists: Garth Brooks. Gangsta rap and boy band pop, along with country music, completely changed how mainstream pop sounded. Alt-rock bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam also enjoyed popularity for a few years in the early ’90s, though the “grunge” fad failed to produce any lasting artists. Later in the decade, the two greatest genres of the past couple of decades—metal and rap—combined for a fresh sound epitomized by Limp Bizkit and Korn. Music in the ’00s was helped greatly by American Idol, which produced a series of brilliant artists. Eminem, Nickelback, and Rascal Flatts were among the brightest spots of the decade.
It’s not a perfect representation of a “winner’s” version of rock history, but you get the idea. There is no Velvet Underground, no Clash, no Husker Du, no Pavement. Is that a bad thing? Perhaps. But perhaps not. One thing is for sure: the losers better be grateful the winners don't care either way.