Rock’n’Roll Won’t Die, No Matter What U2 Says

The music industry as we knew is gone, but rock will survive.

December 12, 2017 5:00 am
Irish band U2 plays on 'Saturday Night Live.' (Photo by: Will Heath/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images.)
Irish band U2 plays on 'Saturday Night Live.' (Photo by: Will Heath/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images.)

Very recently, I saw some respectable men in their late fifties prancing around on TV. They were sitting shiva for rock’n’roll.

I generally give U2 the benefit of the doubt –they’ve worked hard, they energetically support decent causes, and their musical heart is rooted in the post-punk of my youth—but here they were on Saturday Night Live, shouting into bullhorns and cranking out mediocre versions of early ‘90s KROQ grunge riffs and generally sounding like they were doing a hazy imitation of Stone Temple Pilots. Also, in 1998 The International Court at The Hague determined that the Mekons would be the very last band ever allowed to use the word “rock’n’roll” in the chorus of a song.

U2 were posturing themselves as saviors of their genre because this is what rich old white rockers do. In reality, they are actually saying, “It’s already dead and we are the only survivors, so we better bring in some EDM producers, because, you know, that’s what the kids like now, and my GOD, we wanna be relevant!” They also spit out a bunch of fuzzy and meaningless slogans – “Put your hands in the air/Hold up the sky/Could be too late, but we still gotta try” – boy, that is sure going to get a lot of people to turn out in next year’s midterm elections! And I have little doubt that “Will you be our sanctuary Refu-Jesus?” will lead to a productive dialogue between England and the European England about how to handle the looming Ireland/Northern Ireland border crisis.

First of all, rock is most certainly not dead. Truly. I think that’s an ugly myth created by people who are unable to distinguish music from the music industry. Music is fireworks, pearly supernovas in migraine fugue rainbow colors that turn a deep blue 10 p.m. sky the shade of summertime 4:44 a.m. purple; music pulls oohs and aaaahs unconsciously out of the most cynical, it massages old memories and provides mnemonics for new ones, it screams when it whispers and it whispers when it screams. And rock’n’roll is something intensely social and deeply personal, it is the sound of America’s disenfranchised made electric, and it is the reason you got on that train that took you away from your low, leafy suburb and into the spires of the city; and in that city (and your city could just be a college town, a city is any place of escape and social refuge!), you found friends because of rock’n’roll: rock’n’roll made you welcome in the Kingdom of Outsiders. Deep down, a part of you never left that place.

The music industry as we knew it died. Dead. Gone. But the music did not die. This is the profound mistake so many people make; they have comingled the artform and the economics that were a part of that art form. But the music industry is an ugly old Fireworks shack on a two-lane blacktop on the sun-burnt wrong side of a South Carolina beach town, waiting to be blown over by some September storm, washed out to the marshes. Even if the shack is destroyed, there’s still a Fourth of July.

I was exposed, again and again, to magical new music this year, music loaded with the spirit of invention, emotion, energy, rhythm and maximum minimalism that has defined rock’n’roll for 70 years. In fact, I’d say it was the best year for new music in decades. Yet Rolling Stone magazine, ignorant as pigs and arrogant as kings, tried to convince us that the old animal was on life support and being given daily heart massages by a couple of approved elders, like Dave Grohl and U2. It was literally impossible for creaky, farting, desperate old Rolling Stone to envision music existing without a music industry.

They forgot these simple lines, by Saint Ian Hunter: “The golden age of rock and roll will never die/As long as the children feel the need to laugh and cry.” True, that is corny as sweet sh-t, but it works: rock’n’roll is a feeling, a social network, it transcends business. It most certainly does not need Bono leaning over the gurney, going “Hand me the paddles! I am the only one who can save the patient!”

Say it again: The music business died, not the music. It’s very, very possible that what may emerge is not a new commercial model, but something that involves maximizing the power of ubiquity, plurality, and availability. Think: If everyone can have something instantly and for free, then you have to figure out a way to make that work. Take that as a given, a starting point, it’s very availability should be a signpost or map to empowerment.

I think rock’n’roll is so beautiful, so soul re-enforcing, so healthy, so necessary, that it should be given away. I mean, if music is to ever have any true power for activism, if it is to lead a revolution, if it is to achieve an energy that overwhelms its devaluation as an asset, it must conjure a way for it to be more powerful than it’s lack of economic value. (U2 has never understood this, going back to the Napster days.)

Rock’n’roll can do this any number of ways: By truly meaning something; by being fearless in its advocacy; and by being so adamant in its outsider spirit, that it becomes a necessary accessory of the essential tribalism of youth.

Necessity will be the mother of the new model, so make it freaking necessary.

To stretch this concept to its natural conclusion, the Bible is usually given away for free, and that hasn’t diminished the power of The Word. Personally, when I was a young person, the Kinks and the Jam meant more to me than the Bible, and I bet you felt the same about Bowie, Metallica, Judas Priest, Nirvana, Elliot Smith, whoever.

Take advantage of the economic catastrophe that robbed the music industry of the usual and usury way it had done business for 70 or 80 years (and which left its founders and many of its most electric geniuses paupers). Start again. Steal this music, steal this revolution, steal this insane, empowering, ability rock’n’roll has to inspire teenagers at exactly the moment they need to be inspired: When they socially and psychologically need to separate from the adults and create new formations with their peers.

Rock’n’roll gives teenagers genuine social power and the illusion of cultural power when they absolutely need it the most. This is the foremost irony of teenage life: We want to be different, yet we want some friends to be different with. The absolute brilliant beauty of rock’n’roll is that it can allow a listener to feel special, different, and set apart from the status quo while at the same time supplying a simple means with which they can find a peer group. I am someone special, but not so special that I don’t want friends. Will you be special with me?

Teenagers fiercely need to find the beacons that bring them home, bring them to their tribes, and guide them to the Kingdom of Outsiders. It is so difficult to do this these days – your parents like the same music you do, and even the most obscure cultural memes and tics can be accessed with little or no effort, so how do you determine what’s necessary? Therefore, the people who believe in rock’n’roll need to create something that must be heard, something that is an absolutely necessary catalyst to that moment, just as childhood is breaking into the awful maze of puberty, when we most need to feel separate from the status quo yet embraced by a new kind of family.

And it needs to be given away for free. We need rock’n’roll to be like the army, or like a smudge of Banksy graffiti; it needs to be free, obnoxious, and everywhere. It needs to offend and create fractures that will splinter off to create their own tribes. It needs to be a call to arms and it needs to take advantage of the plurality of the current media and web environment.

I never thought I’d miss MTV (and I am talking, very specifically, about the old school MTV, which ran a steady stream of rock videos, each and every one inviting some kind of opinion or judgment). MTV’s playlist was an easy target for derision. There were many times when it felt like an ugly weapon of the mainstream, encroaching on and insulting my more exotic punk rock, art rock, and college rock tastes. But MTV deeply understood the equation I outlined above: Here’s some loud and/or sexy and/or strange stuff that’s going to piss off your parents and draw enough lines in the sand to create the tribalism that is absolutely essential to adolescent life.

MTV (again, we are talking about old school, 1980’s MTV) understood that teenagers needed names they could chant around a campfire in order to create a tribal identity. And I fear that this vital element is one of the things largely absent from today’s pop culture: the clear-cut heroes and villains. Where are the totems to be danced around, so that in a decade or two (or three), young people can feel the way we did when we found Bowie and Bowie invented us? Yes, he invented you – or maybe it was Morrissey or the Cure or Nine Inch Nails or Hedwig, or whatnot.

I really want you to consider this: Think of how the entire arc of your life was changed because of the way you once loved a pop star. Pimply faced and bursting with fuzz and hormones, you stood by their totem, and found friends and lovers and direction, you found the table you sat at in the lunchroom by the west-facing window that looked out at the teacher’s parking lot, you may have even found a college; and when you got to college, that open door you walked through on the floor of your dorm, that open door that changed everything, wasn’t that, in some real way, shaped by a decision you made to align with a certain musical allegiances?

Find your heroes, wherever and whoever they may be. I’m not talking about Taylor Swift or Ed Sheeran. They may be disliked, but they can never truly “offend” with their music. In fact, these artists are so ubiquitous that they barely merit being disliked; it would be like saying, “Oh, I don’t care much for Netflix.” Who cares that you don’t care for Netflix? Liking Taylor Swift is a preference, it is not a lifestyle choice, and the heartbeat and bloodbeat of rock’n’roll lie in its ability to give the illusion (and sometimes it’s not an illusion) that loving an artist is a lifestyle choice.

Remember: Every single time we wrote a band name on the back of a notebook, we were saying, NOTICE ME. FIND ME.

 I address this to anyone who thinks rock’n’roll, or the spirit of rock, is dead: It’s easier to find something if it’s free. Just look at the Bible. Now, go say something important, loud, offensive, passionate, something that has to be said or has to be heard; say something so good that you want to give it away.

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