“What Is Rock Music, Anyway?”

The approach I propose for an answer to the question raised in the title is informed less by what is commonly termed "American Studies" than by what I would describe as "Cultural Studies with a focus on the United States." This differentiation is not merely a splitting of hairs. What is labeled "American Studies" is by and large the product of a specific development in the 1940s and 1950s, of World War II and the Cold War that soon followed, when the chief makers of U.S. policy deemed it imperative that the United States be established as the positive force in global politics, the polar opponent of the totalitarian forces of fascism and communism. The United States, and what it stood for, were to be set up as a counterweight not just in political-ideological terms. To establish a proper positive model, cultural work was also needed. This, at least, was what many people thought in Washington, and for that purpose, two government agencies, USIS and USIA, promoted especially a new field of study which was named by sleight of hand and somewhat too grandly "American Studies"—as if, indeed, the United States encompassed all of the Americas.

So as not to be mistaken as a left-over cold warrior—a threat that has gained renewed validity by George W. Bush's appointments—I propose to do "Cultural Studies with a focus on the United States." This is not merely a stale joke. Traditional American Studies have much to do with the promotion of U.S. ideology—usually wrapped in the study of American culture, or rather such elements of American culture as the chief U.S. ideologists regarded as worthy of promotion. Popular culture therefore received only limited attention—hardly any, to be true—from traditional American Studies. Cultural studies, conversely, is not only open to the study of popular culture but actually seeks to do away with traditionalist distinctions between high culture and low, conceptualizations which embrace art as worthy of study while denigrating popular culture. Cultural Studies takes up precisely those issues which traditional approaches have neglected intentionally.

Rock music falls squarely into the lot of cultural expressions American Studies has traditionally neglected. And certainly, of all forms of cultural expression that emerged in the Western World after World War II, rock music is the one that has had the greatest mass appeal. Thus, rock music all but imposes itself as a crucial field for Cultural Studies.

The way rock music functions is emblematic of popular culture, for it works not so much by itself but through the interaction of artist and audience. A rock singer or band without an audience is nothing; it is only in the interaction with the audience—whether in concerts, on records, or through other media—that rock music gains significance. The key role of this interaction accounts for the strengths and weaknesses of rock music as a form of cultural expression. One weakness becomes all too apparent in the readiness with which rock music has always been exploited commercially; but it will not do, as some traditional Marxist critics have done, to reduce the discussion of rock music to a lament over the consumerist position it allegedly reserves for the audience. Such a view neglects a particular strength of rock music—one that is perhaps not quite so obvious. I mean the strength rock music derives from the interaction between the singer and the audience. One of the premises of this presentation is that the best rock musicians and their audiences have benefited mutually from the interaction that developed between them—that the artistic potential of a musician or band flourished because the interaction with the audience functioned as a creative stimulus and yielded new songs which in turn led to new responses by the audience. What I mean is best demonstrated by the emergence of Bob Dylan in the sixties, the maturation of the Beatles between 63 and 71, the rise of Bruce Springsteen in the 70s and 80s, the work of Neil Young, and the career of the Grateful Dead.

Having said so much about rock music, I had better come up with a definition of what I mean. What is rock music? This simple question proves to be surprisingly difficult to answer, for one characteristic of rock music is that it eludes a precise definition. "Punk, funk / It's all rock 'n' roll to me," sang Billy Joel (never a particular favorite of mine). Mick Jagger's attempt, "I know, it's only rock 'n' roll / but I like it," is no better. Rock music—or rock'n'roll, as it was once called—is a hybrid, a mix of various musical styles and genres. It blends with other musical styles so easily that it rarely appears as "rock only" and seems prone to mixing; its hybridity is manifest in the readiness with which rock gets hyphenated with other musical forms like jazz rock, blues rock, folk rock, hard rock, soft rock, country rock, southern rock, ethno rock, techno rock, acid rock, psychedelic rock, punk rock, funk rock … This readiness to blend with other forms is not something that rock music acquired as it developed; eclecticism has been a characteristic feature since rock music began. Those beginnings go back to at least the early 1950s, when rhythm and blues, a hybrid black music that developed in the 1930s and 40s, was taken up by white musicians such as Bill Haley and Elvis Presley.

The beginnings of Elvis Presley are especially instructive. He gained public acclaim—some say notoriety—by presenting rhythm-and-blues standards to white audiences at a time when the record industry and radio broadcasting were completely segregated in the United States. Born in Tupelo MS (the most rigidly segregated of all states), Elvis moved to Memphis with his family when he was 13, and he worked as a truckdriver before he began his career by adapting rhythm-and-blues hits. Usually, he infused them with a varying dose of Southern white country-music schmaltz—occasionally, that dose was heavy—to make them more palatable to white audiences. Putting it harshly, I say that Elvis pasteurized, standardized, and homogenized the black songs so they would not be too offensive for white tastes. Elvis' nickname, "the Pelvis," indicates that, to all appearances, his peculiar way of moving, the gyration of his hips, caught the attention of everybody, arousing white middle-class teenage girls while putting off their prudish parents; but what he did was harmless; compared to the original songs, his versions were almost as asexual as Doris Day in Hollywood movies of the time. Significantly, the term rock'n'roll had been in use in rhythm and blues as a euphemism for sex at least since the 1930s.

Nonetheless, Elvis provides a convenient vantage point for a consideration of rock music, for he brought together most of the assorted ingredients of rock music. Rock music is an amalgamation of those elements, but there is no fixed basis, no set of required ingredients—just as there is no fixed set of instruments or orchestration that is needed to play a rock song. Drums, a bass, guitars are almost always there, but they are not required; the same goes for vocals or lyrics, as a rock song can do very well without words or a singer.

In the first place, Elvis is exemplary because he is American, and rock music is a means of cultural expression that is peculiarly American in its origins. This is not to deny that British musicians have made significant contributions—such a denial would be preposterous, given the work of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Clash, etc., or of musicians like Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, David Bowie, and Sting. When I claim that rock music is peculiarly "American," I mean it in the sense of Richard Brautigan's definition of America being "often only a place in the mind" (in Trout Fishing in America). Rock music's Americanness of that particular kind is confirmed by people as diverse as the Leningrad Cowboys or Kurt Ostbahn (his quips about "Favorit'n & Blues").

Significant about Elvis' music as a prefiguration of rock music is that it crosses the color line, the barrier of race. With Elvis, African American rhythms and sound patterns make their way into "white" music, and emphatically so—thus bridging a gap that in the United States in the 1950s, and especially in the South, was thought unbridgeable. This element of "black" music is to be discovered in much of rock, though again, not necessarily in all of it. (I cannot make it out in James Taylor's ballads, for instance.)

Another issue noteworthy with Elvis is class: rock music is lower-class, working-class, and it poses a potential threat to middle-class sensibilities. This element of class difference, the potential threat to middle-class sensibilities, is there even in white rockers who cannot be accused of left leanings like Ted Nugent (a notorious heavy-metalist who had a large following in the 1970s and 1980s, and who openly and noisily supported Ronald Reagan's bid for the presidency).

Closely linked to matters of race and class is another important element, what the critic Robert Pattison has termed "vulgarity". Pattison claims, "Rock is the quintessence of vulgarity. It's crude, loud, and tasteless. Rock is vulgarity militant …" That insistence on vulgarity is precisely the reason why rock music has been anathema for traditionalist academics, who hold high an aestheticist notion of Art and Culture. As "vulgar" means "common," "ordinary," rock is incompatible with elitist concepts of Art, for in principle it is the exact opposite of Culture with a capital "C." Clearly, concepts of art based on traditional aestheticist criteria are unable to accomodate rock music; provisionally, it can be said that rock music is compatible with concepts linking art and the ecstatic.

Another distinctive element of rock music is its insistence on generational difference. The conservative critic Norman Podhoretz said as much when back in 1958 he castigated "the poisonous glorification of the adolescent in American popular culture." A rock musician, as a classic song by the Who has it, is always "talkin' 'bout my generation." From the beginning, rock music thrived on the opposition between young and old, kids and their parents. This is obvious in the music of the fifties and the sixties, which resounds with the demands of an increasingly self-assured and rebellious youth. By the late 70s, however, the situation had become complex. While punkers openly scorned the complacency of established middle-aged rock musicians, others like Police realized that they found themselves on the other side of the generational conflict that prodded so much of rock music. When "Don't Stand So Close to Me" came out, its opening line, "Young teacher, the object of schoolgirls' fantasies," hit home with me as I had just taken on my first teaching assignment as an instructor of English Composition to 25 American college kids at SUNY/Buffalo. As rock music has come of age, the issue has also become one of how musicians have dealt with that generational difference. I, for one, have a hard time with Tina Turner posing as her own granddaughter—but somehow, if barely, she manages to get away with it. I fear the day, however, when in about ten or fifteen years the Rolling Tombstones, formerly the Rolling Stones, will go on their final final world tour.

Another crucial element of rock music, the issue of sexuality, has already been alluded to in connection with Elvis. The name of the new music already referred to what was a taboo in the fifties, for then, anything that might even vaguely allude to a covert sexual meaning was deemed indecent. The new music was a vehicle of revolt against those constrictions, and musicians consciously offended against the taboos. Elvis' way of moving his hips was largely a provocation, and indecency reached a new peak when in '58 Peggy Lee—who had previously starred with Benny Goodman—sang lasciviously, "You give me fever"—and she did not mean the flu or malaria. When in 1965 Mick Jagger declared, "I can get no satisfaction," it ought to have been clear to anyone that a sexual revolution was well under way, even if middle-class America did not want to hear about it and clung tenaciously to its Puritan mores. It is safe to say, from today's point of view, that rock was the music that accompanied the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

All the distinctive elements of rock music mentioned so far suggest that politics is also a crucial element of rock music. This, at least, is what Lawrence Grossberg contended in a talk he gave in Vienna last spring; since his writing remains more tentative on the matter, and since Grossberg is arguably the authority when it comes to theorizing about rock music, one had better be careful in voicing dissent from the master's opinion that at least up to about the mid 1980s, rock music was intensely political. Much of it was, there is no doubt about that; but with some of it—just think of James Taylor's "Sweet Baby James"—the statement is only true when we take the term to be all-inclusive—which in a way it is—though then it also becomes meaningless. If "political" is narrowed down to denote "topicality" and "commitment to a cause," then Grossberg's generalization overshoots the field. The fluctuations in the career of Bob Dylan alone are evidence enough. Perhaps more to the point is my favorite band of the 1970s, Little Feat. They addressed the matter in a tune that became a mainstay of their concerts. The lyrics of the song go like this: "My telephone is ringing / they tell me it is Chairman Mao … / but I don't wanna talk to him now / 'cause I got the a-political blues." There is commitment to a cause, I would argue, but there is also a deep-seated ambivalence about this commitment, and this ambivalence, to my mind, captures the political dimension of rock music more accurately than Grossberg's emphatic assertion.

No less controversial, though more insistently present, is the commercial element ascribed to rock music. It is a truism that rock music has always been subjected to the aspirations of the music industry. Performers have always been caught between their own longing for commercial success and the putative exploitation of record companies and greedy promotors. Elvis Presley, for instance, was very much the product of the ambitions of Colonel Tom Parker, his manager, who had a significant hand in turning Elvis into a superstar and a transnational icon. Hardly any rock musician managed to escape unharmed the clutches of exploiters; indeed, a detailed study of the relations between musicians and their managers would provide invaluable insight in the effects the variegated and often disastrous workings of commercial interests had in the development of rock music.

One final characteristic needs yet to be pointed out—the remarkable adaptability rock music has displayed in the past five decades. By adaptability I mean that rock music has often managed to incorporate widely divergent, even mutually exclusive, positions without forsaking its airs of "authenticity." Elvis posed as a rebellious youth for about two years, before, in 1958, he was inducted in the U.S. Armed Forces; and there, serving most of his time in Germany, he was regarded as a model soldier. No less conflicted was Bruce Springsteen's 1984 release "Born In the U.S.A." His biggest hit ever, the song was hailed both as an affirmation and a rejection of Ronald Reagan's version of the American dream. Another case, not quite so obvious but of an astonishing endurance, is Don McLean's "American Pie," which is read variously and conflictingly as an elegy on the death of Buddy Holly, a mourning over the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and a lament on the death of rock'n'roll as it once was, pure and clean and simple, before it fell victim to political bravos like Bob Dylan or the Byrds (who can hardly be deemed political bravos by any account). That last reading is not so far-fetched as it may seem, if you listen to some of the inadvertent cynicism contained in the original lyrics—and then, of course, there is Madonna's recent cover version, whose slickness to me just highlights the original cynicism—whether it was intentional or not.

Rock music indeed seems to open space for the projection of all kinds of dreams and desires, and at the same time it seems to provide for space to refute or deny those dreams and desires.


excerpt of a lecture held 16/01/01,
Cultural Studies Ringvorlesung  
Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanstik
Universität Wien, WS 2000/1
text revised 17-20/01/01

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