Who Will The Next Fool Be?
One of the paradoxes of rock & roll is that its demise has been announced with the dependable regularity of a 4/4 beat ever since the genre emerged in the midst of the tranquilized nineteen-fifties. Almost immediately, fans declared that the forces of commercialism and the demands of a mass audience had eroded the music’s authenticity and condemned it to imminent extinction. Somehow the essence of rock, for all its energy and audacity, has been felt by its admirers ever since to be peculiarly susceptible to the effects of its own success. The public acceptance of a group or a particular song amounts to a kind of contagion. The more people who catch on to the sprit of rock culture, the less that culture possesses any power or pizzazz.
Furthermore, fans believe that the materials necessary to create rock & roll have to remain simple and uncomplicated, both in their instrumentation and their formal musical structure. Anything other than a guitar, bass, and drums utilized to perform the most basic three chords is deemed decadent, if not counter-productive. In effect, even though both the performers and the consumers of rock music have had to grow up, the music itself succeeds only if it remains young, perhaps even immature, in order to retain its fidelity to those forces that brought it into existence.
Rock & roll is therefore by principle music of and for the young. Its vitality begins to expire once either the audience or the performers pass the age when it becomes unseemly to be clad in spandex or engaged in blasting out power chords. Any artist who claims to be talking about their generation has to recognize that time moves on, bodies age, attitudes alter, and what once was the ferocity of youth must transform over time into the tranquility of middle age. Such at least seems to be the perspective of John Strausbaugh, editor of the New York Press, in his animated but single-minded rant, Rock ‘Til You Drop. As a white middle-class male nearing the age of fifty, Strausbaugh is appalled by those iconic figures of rock’s past who wish to extend their careers past some inevitable due date. Individuals like the Rolling Stones, Sting, the Eagles, and Crosby, Stills & Nash come across to Strausbaugh as the musical equivalents of Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, except that in too many of their cases they are not aging gracefully somewhere off the scene but are instead ripening unattractively before the public eye, engaged in performing what Strausbaugh sarcastically condemns as “colostomy rock.”
The author believes rock music to be necessarily an evanescent form of statement. “Here today, gone later today” should be, he states, “the motto of all rock bands. The shelf life of rock credibility is too short for it to be a lifetime career.” The only way for its creators and its consumers to continue to live out the rock & roll way of life, Strausbaugh argues, is to acknowledge that being led by one’s hormones no longer possesses any counter-cultural appeal when conducted by means of a Viagra prescription. Simply recreating the music of one’s youth once one is long in the tooth amounts to a futile exercise in nostalgia. Furthermore, those publications and institutions, like Rolling Stone and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which enable over-the-hill performers to put aside their obsolescence come across to Strausbaugh as engaging in cultural taxidermy, propping up antiquated and exhausted individuals in the place of vital and innovative younger performers.
It is hard to argue with the substance of Strausbaugh’s thesis, but easy to dismiss the flat-footed manner in which he makes his points. Truth to tell, one cannot take a multi-millionaire like Mick Jagger seriously when he resurrects “Street Fightin’ Man” or feel engaged by the back-patting ritual of the annual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductions. Rather than condemning these kind of artistic faux pas, however, Strausbaugh instead calls attention time and again to the sorry spectacle of aging rock stars endeavoring to protract their youth. In doing so, he adopts the musical equivalent of Joan Rivers in her fashion-nazi persona when she stridently dissects the stars’ appearance as they arrive at yet another award show. Much like the overbearing comedienne, though, Strausbaugh mistakes character assassination for critical analysis. To dismiss Cher as “so carefully and artificially composed, so stiff in her makeup and outfits, that she looked like a wax effigy of herself,” the “once svelte” Stevie Nicks as “stuffed like a sausage into some girdle or corset torture device” or Eric Clapton as “paunchy and chinless, bearded and burghermeisterly” confuses the possible erosion of their musical talents with their inevitable succumbing to the physical effects of time.
Considering the fact that the author is himself middle-aged, Strausbaugh’s incessant harping over the sagging flesh of his generation comes across as a kind of perverse, if unintended, form of self-loathing. He makes physical maturity seem so bleak a state of being that one cannot imagine the point of leaving adolescence behind if the only thing one has to look forward to is physical desiccation. Strausbaugh may well be correct that “rock is youth music,” but dismissing adulthood as a futile battle with the forces of gravity and mediocrity smacks of a kind of Peter Pan-like infatuation with the untested accomplishments of the current Generation Y.
The vision of musical history contained in Rock ‘Till You Drop is equally short-sighted. For Strausbaugh, the high point of rock culture occurred during the 1960s, yet he reduces that rich and varied decade into a monolithic exercise in anger and rebellion. “Our music, rock music,” he writes, “was a music of youth, of the new, of now; a music of high energies and experimentation and change and revolt.” While this set of attributes may apply to groups with a compelling, if simple-minded, political agenda like the Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, and even the MC5, it only dubiously describes an abundant amount of the music produced at this time. How many garage bands thought of themselves in revolutionary terms? When the Count Five activated a “Psychotic Reaction” in their fans or the Standells addressed their passion for the “Dirty Water” of Boston, they were not assuming their audience would break through the bonds of conformity. Even a group as musically progressive as the Velvet Underground seemed to shun overt didacticism, and Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention poked fun at the absurd idealism of their peers.
Strausbaugh erects his notion of rock’s predilection for cultural activism upon a misguided distinction between rock and pop. He argues that the former is driven by an insatiable desire for self-statement, while the latter succumbs to a disreputable desire for nothing more than commercial success. This is a dubious delineation at best, unacceptable as a statement about either musicianship or economics. In my view, to assume that even those musicians with a social conscience disdain the trappings of affluence altogether is absurd. Material success may come about as an intended by-product of pursuing a personal vision but few musicians, then or now, have been known to turn down the profits they accrued.
One gets the impression that Strausbaugh wished Rock ‘Til You Drop to puncture the complacency of those fatuous rock stars who have overstayed their welcome in the public arena. Declaring that the emperor needs a facelift, however, will not eradicate the monarchy nor alleviate much of the public’s adoration of celebrity. The next time the Rolling Stones tour, millions will shell out their hard-earned dollars to watch Mick Jagger ceremonially implore their sympathy for the devil. In the end, Strausbaugh’s belief that the boomer generation, both musicians and fans, has by and large failed to gracefully accept the need to pass the cultural baton to their descendents possesses a fair degree of conviction, yet Strausbaugh deflates his case through rhetorical overkill and unnecessary repetition. While he clearly hopes to punch holes in celebrity culture, Strausbaugh comes across as simply opinionated and cranky, one more unhappy music fan watching individuals he once venerated making fools of themselves.