entertainment/archive/2018/05/ was-classic-rock-a-sound-or-a- tribe/561188/
We now live in the era of the blockbuster obituary—a Tom Petty or Wolfe drops with at least the frequency of a Disney franchise movie—largely for simple demographic reasons: The Baby Boom has reached the beginning of the end of its trajectory. And the Boomers, as seen in the very label classic applying to the soundtrack of their primes, have excelled at overlaying the mantle of myth on stories whose ink was still drying. But the overlapping public funerals of the past few years have also been a forum for intergenerational probing of legacies. Just this week, it’s been made clear how cherished Philip Roth was by the writers who came up after him. But resentments have also been revealed, linked to the notion of important white men choking off pathways to acclaim.
Hyden, though, is not a fight-picker. He ends up defining down classic rock, positioning it less as an essential art form than as a slowly dissolving tribe. The driving thesis seems to be that classic rock electrified folks like him not necessarily because of the brilliance of the musicianship, the evolutionary way it expanded its form, or the grand truths it told. Rather, the connection was personal. “I needed role models,” he writes, “and while Jimmy Page was unlike me in every other way, he did sort of look like me, which was enough.” That admission comes during an admirably self-aware passage about classic rock’s racial biases, and Hyden might not be mad if you came into the book thinking that classic rock was a last hurrah of straight-white-male centrality and finished the book still believing that.
He does toy with more formal definitions of classic rock, though. Early on, we’re reminded that the term derives from radio taxonomies, and that the divide that programmers made between “oldies” and “classic rock,” somewhat arbitrarily, drew a line in the mid-’60s. But he also suggests that intrinsic to classic rock is an emphasis on cohesive albums like The Dark Side of the Moon and Tommy. As a teen, what attracted him to classic rock was that it “felt like the opposite of pop music, which was proudly disposable and all about the here and now … whereas classic rock had roots that you could trace back as far as you cared to go.” The genre, he argues, began with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967 and ended with Nine Inch Nails’s The Fragile in 1999.
These criteria—radio classification, album-length ambition, and an awareness of tradition and legacy—clearly aren’t watertight, though. [emphasis added] Other genres have meaty, purpose-driven albums, as seen lately with Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar (both of whom Hyden acknowledges). Other genres self-consciously evolve from old traditions and aim for lasting listenership, as seen, again, in Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar. Moreover, if the album matters so much, why is classic radio—which divorces song from track listing—still the practical arbiter of the canon? Why is the most widely owned release by the Eagles, named by Hyden as the platonic classic-rock band, a collection of singles? Why is there a chapter on Phish and the Grateful Dead, whose appeal is concert improvisation rather than studio recordings? And what classic-rock station is playing “Starfuckers, Inc.”?
Having recently finished Knapp's monograph on Haydn (discussed here) it's interesting that Knapp pointed out that when rock music began to be taken seriously as an art form it was paradoxically "just" those strands of rock and roll that could be taken seriously on the basis of one of two standard cultural scripts. The first cultural script was of an oppressed minority barred from mainstream participation (black music) but the second cultural script was the rock star as a kind of authentic Byronic hero. Knapp's observation is that the kinds of rock that got accepted got accepted in terms that were paradoxically consistent with a re-applied checklist from German Idealism, and this despite the fact that a lot of rock and popular music was still coming from traditions of music and entertainment that can be thought of as having rejected the paradigms of German Idealism. The rock and pop that has not passed muster in being part of a rock canon (i.e. "classic rock") could be seen as work that is too camp to fit into the ideals of a "rockist" as opposed to "poptimist" sensibility.
Come to think of it, the "rockist" vs "poptimist" debates could come down to sensibility wars as to who favors the legacy of German Idealism and who is not in favor of it.
Billy Joel, for instance, can probably never be completely assimilated into the ethos of "classic rock" any more than probably Elton John can. Piano-drive pop music became insufficiently rocking for the genre. But then you might have Ray Charles or Stevie Wonder and they're fine, because ... well ... not white. The legacy of German idealism influencing white literary, arts and music criticism might even explain why someone like Jimi Hendrix could define rock and roll even as many other black musicians and composers get somehow shunted off to the side as R&B or pop.