About three weeks ago I stopped by a friend of a friend’s apartment after DJ’ing a blues radio show in New York City. I had never met Julie, the hostess, before and as you do upon meeting someone new we exchanged banal pleasantries and inquired about the basics of each other’s lives. She, a financial consultant, was quite taken by what I did and began assaulting me with questions on music history, American culture, and anything else that seemed to fit my borderless field of study. Julie soon stirred the conversation to a Rolling Stone article she recently read and asked me a question I have yet been unable to walk away from: “Do you think Rock n’ Roll is dead?”
My mind has almost wandered full circle in search of the answer to that question. At first thought, my response was simple- how can one even consider it to be dead? If anything, Rock n’ Roll has grown to encompass every sound of popular music being recorded today, in our shrinking MP3 world. “Aint Back Yet” by Kenny Chesney is Rock n’ Roll as much as it is Country. No one would argue that “The National” is Rock n’ Roll. What about Eminem’s latest hit “Not Afraid?” Is that not a Rock n’ Roll melody in the chorus? Pop queen Lady Gaga uses bass lines, drumbeats, piano, rhythm guitar, and lead instrumentals (whether it be a Mac’d up synthesizer or echo’y electronic guitar) that are staples to the Rock n’ Roll formula. The point is, no matter what genre a song or artist may fall under in Billboard magazine or in the aisles of HMV, the roots of Rock n’ Roll can be found in just about all of them.
This is not to say that all music today is “Rock n’ Roll,” but the base definition of the term can be applied to almost any music being produced. Hence the juxtaposed dilemma to Julie’s question: Nothing and everything today is Rock n’ Roll.
I understand that “Rock n’ Roll” is a very subjective idiom. And, although I hate when writers use this cheap tactic to develop an argument, I feel it necessary to lay down the definition of Rock n’ Roll to clarify any misconceptions of the term and ensure all readers on the same page. Dictionary.com defines rock n’ roll as “a style of popular music that derives in part from blues and folk music and is marked by a heavily accented beat and a simple, repetitive phrase structure.” Definitively speaking then, you can see how my contention that everything from Kenny Chesney to Lady Gaga and from Eminem to The National constitutes as Rock n’ Roll. By base definition, almost all music these days can be considered Rock n’ Roll. Hence my response to Julie’s original question “Do you think Rock n’ Roll is dead?” must be, “No!” In fact, one could make the valid argument that Rock n’ Roll is alive today more than ever because so much music being made is derived from rock tendencies.
Logically, the argument appears sound, but I know it to be complete balderdash. Rock n’ Roll is well dead, so you could say, and the ultimate question becomes not whether or not it is dead, but at what moment did it die?
Etymologically, it began with the term “Rhythm and Blues” which was a catchall rubric coined by Atlantic Records producer and Billboard writer Jerry Wexler and referred to any music made by and for black Americans. The phrase “Rock n’ Roll” (or more specifically, “rockin’ and rollin’”) had nothing to do with music—it was black slang for sex, stemming all the way back to slavery and plantation vernacular. Radio DJ Alan Freed recognized the marketability of the catchy phrase when he heard it being used in some of America’s oldest recorded African American folk music (specifically, in songs like “My Daddy Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll)” by Trixie Smith). Freed began to describe Wexler’s “Rhythm and Blues” records as “Rock n’ Roll.”
What he was attempting to convey was an idea: This new American music may be black in style, but it was not solely reserved for black musicians and black audiences, as white kids were starting to play and listen to it too. The new Rhythm and Blues records began gaining popularity in the late forties and early fifties with young, white audiences and the term eventually evolved, referring to any music that incorporated a lead electric guitar, rhythmic drumbeat, and blues bass line.
Robert Palmer points out in his book Rock & Roll: An Unruly History that ultimately, Freed always intended the term to be race inclusive. A rubric like ‘black music’ or ‘rhythm and blues’ referred less towards particular style and more towards racial identity. For Alan Freed, Rock n’ Roll sought to describe a kind of music, rather than characterize or segregate those who were playing it. And so a new medium was born.
Rock n’ Roll was taken from the bed sheets of African American history and thrust onto the airwaves of WASP America. The sad thing is, none of this history means anything to anyone anymore. White kids in the 1940s who would steal away to secretly listen to Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, and Bo Diddley were both heroes and villains. We should praise them for their edge and persistence to break through racial segregation. We should condemn them for thievery.
There is no edge anymore. What made Rock n’ Roll so definite was the dare and the courage. For all intended purposes, racial lines in American music are gone; and this is a good thing. However, there is no truth left in its void. Rock n’ Roll died in May of 1958 when a British reporter broke news of a secret marriage between a twenty-three-year-old piano player from Louisiana and his thirteen-year-old cousin. It died on February 3, 1959 in a snowy plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa. Rock died in December of 1959 when a black guitarist, unfairly targeted by a white police force and racist judicial system in Missouri, was sentenced to five years in prison for sex with a fourteen-year-old prostitute. It died with the persuasive recording contracts by Atlantic Records that lured Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash away from Sam Phillips and off of the Sun Label. It died on February 9, 1964 when four boys from Liverpool played “All My Loving” live from the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City.
Yet, Rock lives on. It was alive in The White Stripes 2007 “Northern Lights Tour” and it is alive with The Black Keys latest album “Brothers.” It walks on “The First Impressions of Earth” and swims in Okkervil River. Rock n’ Roll can be found today in Rockabilly bars like New York’s Motor City Bar and Toronto’s The Dakota Tavern. Rock n’ Roll will never die as long as there is conformity to push against and an amp to plug into.
So Julie, is Rock n’ Roll dead? I am not afraid to say, I have no idea.
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– Kory French