Music

Rock Is the New Jazz. Sorry, Rock.

Image from the CD cover, Jazz Rock (Jazz Club) (Various Artists, Emarcy Eur/Zoom)

Here's some advice from good old Jazz to its cousin Rock about what happens when people stop listening to you.

Hardly anyone is listening to rock these days. Sure, dinosaurs like the Rolling Stones remain huge draws on the road—baby boomer fans can afford the $150 ticket price to relive the old days. But the future, measured by radio play and music sold and people under the age of 30 caring about a new album by Bruce Springsteen or Wilco or The Hold Steady—the future points away from “rock”.

The hip-hop wave has fully washed over the beach.

A visit to the Billboard Hot 100 today yields only two songs in the top 20 that could be argued to be “rock”. Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger” (#13) sounds utterly not like rock (dancebeat bass drum, the tinge of auto-tune, a chirping synth hook), and Gavin DeGraw’s “Not Over You” comes a little closer though it seems more like a pop throwback tune than anything with a genuine edge. Further down the chart there’s a little country and one indie-rock hit (Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks”) and that’s about it. The Black Keys in position 67 are pretty much the flag-wavers for “rock” in early 2012.

Rock, in other words, is The New Jazz. And Rock, horrible as this may sound, jazz and I have some good news and advice for you.

Get Used to Being Unpopular. It has its advantages.

First, Rock, don’t despair. Not being popular is simply not as bad as it sounds. You are no longer sitting at the Popular Kids’ Table in the cafeteria, it's true. But now you have the chance to develop some serious nerd cred, to get listened to carefully, and to get serious without turning off your fans.

You see, Rock, you are slowly morphing into jazz—a style of music that once was very popular but then was supplanted by the cooler young thing (uh, you) and had to discover new ways to survive. Is it hard to believe, from 2012’s distant perspective, that there was a time when America positively fluttered and moved to swing rather than a backbeat? It’s true. Dance halls once were the province of Benny Goodman rather than techno. And squeezed somewhere in the middle there, Rock, was you. Everything passes into history.

Sure, you’ll still be on magazine covers for the foreseeable future, just like Dave Brubeck and Wynton Marsalis and their ilk. But you’ll see, the days when your every move was a public matter are over. Big stars can’t walk the sidewalks in their heyday, but do you think that Ryan Reynolds will have any trouble walking into a Burger King when he is 65? Unlikely, Rock. And so with you.

Being jazz ain’t that bad. But it’s not glamorous. And there’s a price. Here are the details.

Nerds, historians, hipsters—they will embrace you... but at the cost of seeming pretentious.

“You know,” folks say, “the problem with jazz is that there are just too many notes.” For jazz fans this is like saying that the problem with Hamlet is that it has “too many words”.

But this is how most folks have perceived jazz for 50 years: too many notes, too many chords, too many instrumental solos, too much complexity. Liking stuff like that, folks suggest, makes you full of it, pretentious. What, you think you’re better than me ‘cause you like that jazz music?

Now, don’t get me wrong, Rock. Being Hamlet is terrific. Those who embrace you will do so with intellectual solemnity or downtown groove-ster hipness. You will find yourself written about in academic journals, and they’ll create a huge musty museum to celebrate you. (What’s that? Oh yeah, that’s already been done.) The fact that relatively few people are into you will be proof positive that you are worthy of seriousness. You will be played mainly by older folks and younger folks who seem kind of like they’re from another era—you know, the kind wearing thick black glasses and wear Hush Puppies desert boots.

Yup, you’re headed down that road, Rock.

Today’s most popular music is pared down to its essence: one groove, one hook, one repeated phrase. Your “classic” mode includes songs like “Yesterday” or “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” or “Stairway to Heaven”—songs with introductions, verses, choruses, even contrasting bridges. Maybe even improvised guitar “solos”. Do you have any idea how “jazz” that is?

A few weeks ago I’m watching Saturday Night Live and one of your “indie bands”, Bon Iver, was on the late night tube. Talk about pretentious! First of all, the band’s name is pronounced “Bon i-VAYR”. Second, the name comes from a French phrase meaning “good winter”. Omigod. Then the band starts playing and there’s no shortage of... trumpets and saxophones. Rock, dude, you are seriously turning into jazz.

And there's no shortage of other examples. On the 2012 Grammy broadcast there was Paul McCartney singing like some cut-rate Sinatra in front of a string section and harp. Gack! And younger artists like The Decemberists embody what would happen if an English major from Bryn Mawr formed a band with Herman Melville’s Ahab. Even Coldplay, that most bland and pedestrian of rock bands, had its last hit with a string quartet jabbing away on “Viva La Vida”.

You will get listened to and not merely consumed. But you’ll have to be good.

So, Rock, as your teenage fans disappear, so too will some of the headaches of being “current”. You won’t have to try to be all that “popular” anymore because, well, that would be ridiculous.

In serious jazz circles, there isn’t a single artist who frets about radio play anymore. That would be absurd. There's little need to sell out because no one is buying. And yet jazz still exists. Because (see my first point, supra) a smaller group of older fans fusses over jazz and discusses it on websites and in magazines. Foundation grants and university music programs keep the music afloat.

Get ready, Rock. The premium in your art will shift from joy and movement to craft and a meticulous trickiness. Wilco, Radiohead, Mutemath, even The Darkness point the way. These bands can really play. Goodness, Wilco even brought in an avant-garde jazz guitarist, Nels Cline, to give them more credibility as a tricky gang of sound-experimentalists. Simple country-rock songs with good lyrics were not enough for Jeff Tweey and friends. And so will you go, Rock.

Mutemath is a coooool rock band, but they're built almost entirely on playful twists and turns. They're one of those bands where, at some point in their shows, all the guys switch instruments to demonstrate their incredible facility and craft. Not exactly the Sex Pistols. The Darkness is a band of killer studio pro players who have fun, yes, but only by parodying an earlier (and more authentically goofy) style of rock. Genre parodies are just the kind of cleverness that reeks of jazz. Do you know who loved jazz? Frank Zappa. He was ahead of his time.

Freed of the need to appeal to some lowest common denominator, Rock, you will find artistic triumph. Some great music is no doubt ahead. But that’s also part of the problem. If you want to make it in the future, you will have to be very, very good. No more slumming, baby. That simple, strummy-strummy Jack Johnson stuff is not going to cut it.

No more Jimmy Buffetts will be tolerated. Just fair warning.

Great rock bands will now play in smaller venues, which is wonderful... for (older) fans.

With this downturn in popularity will come intimacy. No more massive tours with tractor trailers hauling stage sets and animated, flame-throwing dragon heads. We’re talking about seated dancehalls and summer outdoor stages, local theaters and—someday if you’re lucky, Rock—supper clubs and cool little walk-down places.

Jazz has been there before you, as usual. Once upon a time huge spaces were set up to contain the dancers who would fly across town to see the likes of Ellington or Dorsey or Shaw. These were the biggest shows in town, sell-outs for sure, pop culture phenomena of the highest order. But as the big bands could no longer fill these places, the typical jazz band (and its show) got smaller and tighter. By 1960 a typical jazz group might have been merely a quintet, easily packed onto a small stage at the Village Vanguard or Birdland.

But this is good, Rock. You’re going to like it. Or at least your fans will. They’ll be closer to their heroes, which will be important because fans’ eyesight will be failing more often. And the days of spending the whole time at a rock show standing up, dancing, crowd-surfing or surging into the mosh pit: them days is over. What with all the knee replacements and arthritis in the crowd...

But these shows may not pay the bills. And “album sales”, well, that’s already an thing of the past. You may have to cut down on some of your habits, Rock. No more smashing guitars or destroying hotel rooms. Since only one rock musician (if any) is allowed as a judge on American Idol at any one time, career choices are limited.

Finally, Rock, you will wind up being confused with jazz and its ilk in the minds of small children who find you hilariously old-fashioned, passé, and antiquated.

The last lesson I have for you, Rock, is that time will erode your sense of identity. Most folks these days don’t have the foggiest idea what “jazz” really is. There have been a sufficient number of car commercials and cheesy film soundtracks and chain restaurant ads featuring saxophonic warble-ings or walking bass lines or torchy singers—enough so that “jazz” is no longer a real style of music for most people and more like a brand of half-priced sunglasses. Essentially, if some kind of vaguely US-based music has no vocalist, people will call it “jazz”.

And I predict this will happen to you too. In another 30 years, any music that contains a “human” who is using hands on strings to “play” the instrument physically constituted as a “guitar” will be “rock”. From Robert Johnson to Peter, Paul, and Mary to Weird Al Yankovic, ‘twill be rock ‘n’ roll. Your rock aficionados will argue otherwise, but this will just be seen as high-minded purism. The New York Times “Arts and Leisure” section will do a long article about it.

Just below that article will be an even tinier and more obscure article about a new jazz trumpeter who is making the scene. And with some luck, that trumpet player will be figuring out a way to get back on the radio.

Maybe, just maybe, what goes around comes around. But you’ll have to wait in line, man—jazz is one step ahead of you.

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