Arts & Culture

All That Is Rock Melts Into Hope

Fifteen years ago, the alternative music press was fixated on the idea of  “post-rock.” Whether that label was applied to artists that featured guitar, bass and drums – like the Chicago band Tortoise, whose excellent new album Beacons of Ancestorship … Read More

By / June 20, 2009

Fifteen years ago, the alternative music press was fixated on the idea of  “post-rock.” Whether that label was applied to artists that featured guitar, bass and drums – like the Chicago band Tortoise, whose excellent new album Beacons of Ancestorship will be released June 23rd – or, more diffusely, to the sort of computer-enabled sounds that inspired the term “electronica,” its popularity indicated that the mainstream music industry was already experiencing a crisis of self-understanding. Labels had enjoyed a lengthy boom in the wake of the massive changes made visible by Billboard’s shift to the SoundScan method of measuring record sales, a development that gave formerly marginalized genres like hip-hop and punk a new legitimacy in the marketplace. While sales were still strong in the mid-1990s, however, the relentless search for new products had severed artists from the scenes that had previously nurtured them, stifling the countercultural energies that had fueled the rise of self-consciously “alternative” music. The cover of Tortoise's new Beacons of Ancestorship album

In the domain of hip-hop, this added up to a commercially savvy, but culturally suspect depoliticization of the genre, reflected in the ascendancy of Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs as a major player in the industry. As the sort of content he favored became a staple of the sales charts, rock and roll’s popularity in the marketplace began to slip. Although the renaissance heralded by the surprising success of bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, the Smashing Pumpkins and Green Day had not ceased entirely, the difficulty major labels were having in finding successors to those bands suggested that their flowering might have been the result of an unexpected autumn heat wave rather than a new spring.

Although none of the artists associated with the idea of post-rock seemed likely to produce platinum records, the attitude they demonstrated towards music seemed to hold more diffuse commercial potential. For one thing, their preference for extended instrumental passages made their music well suited for use in soundtracks and commercials, where vocal-driven rock and roll songs have often proved too distracting. But it was the rejection of rock and roll’s foundational premises that most excited the people promoting a post-rock sensibility. Whereas traditional rock had marginalized other genres of music, artists like Tortoise and Moby seemed intent on dissolving the boundaries that kept those genres apart. The expansion of musical possibilities made possible by this shift was breathtaking.

As an added benefit, post-rock opened up record labels’ extensive back catalogues for a fresh look. Just as hip-hop’s use of sampling had revived interest in funk and soul tracks from the 1960s and 1970s, post-rock’s refusal to reject genres for failing to meet a rock standard encouraged listeners to seek out older material, not in a historicist mode, but as music that was capable, in the right context, of sounding completely contemporary. If the break that Elvis Presley marked in the mid-1950s had made even the popular music of a few years earlier seem irredeemably dated for the younger generation, post-rock seemed poised to usher in an era in which the distinction between pre-rock and rock no longer held much significance.

In the end, though, post-rock did not prove to have the impact that its supporters had hoped. Although it pointed the way towards a new cultural sensibility, its leading lights were too dim to transform the music industry to a meaningful extent. As it turned out, the crisis in self-understanding that post-rock had signalled proved to be a prophecy whose full meaning could not be immediately discerned. In his remarkable 1977 book Noise: The Political Economy of Music, the French thinker Jacques Attali inverts traditional leftist thinking in arguing that changes in music often anticipate changes in the social order rather than merely reflecting them after the fact. While post-rock may not be the sort of music he had in mind, his suggestive comments about the revolutionary potential in free jazz – a major influence on some post-rock luminaries – make it possible, without distorting his ideas egregiously, to claim that the radical structural transformation that we have been witnessing in the music industry was prefigured, both in post-rock’s rejection of traditional notions of genre and in the reluctance to pursue stardom exhibited by most of its practitioners.

The cover of Jacques Attali's book Noise

That being said, there’s no doubt that the major factor in this structural transformation was the technological progress that made music available on the internet. But it is worth nothing that, long before Napster, MySpace and YouTube came on the scene, astute critics had imagined the future that those services would later make flesh. In his comments on the future of composition, written a number of years before the development of the compact disc became a hot topic, Attali himself proves remarkably prescient. “The consumer, completing the mutation that began with the tape recorder and photography, will thus become a producer and will derive at least as much of his satsisfaction from the manufacturing process itself as from the object he produces.” Interestingly, though Noise is about music, Attali clearly includes the manipulation of images in his conception of composition, a sign that, together with future-oriented media theorists like Marshall McLuhan and Alvin Toffler, he anticipated a world of what Henry Jenkins calls “media convergence.”

This vision of a world in which consumers want to feel like producers of their own content highlights the most profound change that popular music has undergone since being made available on the internet. More and more, even the most devoted music lovers struggle to identify what they are listenting to and, as a consequence, also frequently struggle to identify with it. Despite the fact that today’s listeners can carry “their” music around on an iPod or access it from internet sites like LastFM or, they regularly forget what they have in their collection. It used to be that, once you put an LP on the turntable, you were pretty sure of what you were going to be hearing, even if it was your first time listenting to the record. Now it’s common to see people pause to look down at their iPod or up at their screen to remind themselves of the name of a band they’ve heard many times before.

Rock and roll has always been perched, like a mountaineer navigating a breathtakingly precarious defile, between the promise of abandon and the realization that selling music demands the preservation of ties that prevent that promise from being kept. We want to lose ourselves in the music but find, over and over, that anonymity poses such a profound threat to the status quo that its pursuit is only sanctioned in contexts in which we are willing to name our desire. The advent of file-sharing threw the music industry into a crisis it may never escape not only because it let people listen for free – after all, radio had been doing the same thing for decades – but because it permitted them to build vast collections that were not organized by the corporate structures that package music for consumers. Anyone who has spent much time engaged in illegal downloading can attest to the number of tracks out there that are either unlabeled or, worse still, mislabeled. Combine the spread of this sort of entropy with the fragmentation of taste publics promoted by the sheer excess of content, much of it self-produced, that is available online and you have the formula for a catastrophic financial collapse.

The panic inspired by this disorder has given us a  corporate counter-reformation in which record labels concentrate on selling people what they already know and, in many cases, already own. Reissue culture, the repackaging of old material with new extras, such as previously unreleased tracks or footage, or in new formats, such as high-grade vinyl, is the most obvious expression of this trend. But it is also reflected in the almost hysterical insistence in the media that consumers pay close attention to the latest product by artists with established careers.

The hype surrounding Bob Dylan’s recent albums, in stark contrast to the indifference and frustration with which much of his work from the 1980s was met in the marketplace, is a prime example of this phenomenon. So are the conservative impulses manifest in contemporary alternative music culture, typified by the fact that the critically lauded 1990s band Pavement has now reissued expanded versions of all but one of its albums, with each one getting reviewed by popular publications like Pitchfork as if it constituted a new release, despite the fact that the band has been defunct for a decade.

While it’s not hard to rationalize such behavior – after all, the artists who receive this treatment have stood the test of time in a way that newer ones have not – it confirms the sense that rock and roll is well on its way to joining jazz as a musical idiom whose liveliness feels like a simulation, like the awkward stumbling of the undead. From another perspective, however this decline could be construed as a positive development, with the potential to destroy once and for all the divide between music that is deemed “contemporary” and that which is identified with the past. In other words, what the idea of post-rock promised fifteen years ago, the current state of the music business has the power to deliver fully. If listening to rock mobilizes the same antiquarian impulses as traditional music from the developing world or, for that matter, the sonatas of Scarlatti, it becomes pointless to restrict the definition of what counts as a living musical language.

Not that people have given up trying, mind you. From the radio stations that still have a traditional rock format to the impulse items on display at your local Starbucks, there are numerous examples of attempts to conserve what was best – in theory, anyway – about the music of the counterculture and its aftershocks. Sometimes the same-old same-old really is the same-old same-old. And sometimes it just sounds like it. But whether the artists are new or old, the way they are marketed reflects nostalgia for a time when rock was what linguists term an “unmarked case,” the default mode for popular music rather than just another narrow channel in the vast river delta of post-internet taste.

As previously noted, this metamorphosis in the music business has had profound consequences for devotees of forms once marginalized for not being commercially viable. Indeed, a major reason why we’ve seen a huge resurgence of interest in traditional ethnic music is that it is now possible for casual listeners to explore the material without feeling like they have entered a nightmarish alternate reality in which they are trapped inside a Renaissance Fair at which everyone but them is wearing historically appropriate costumes. Time is now so out of joint that the only anachronistic attire would be the sort that lacks a touch of anachronism.

A comic featuring "protesters" who declare their hatred of classic rockThe philosophical implications of this situation are wide-ranging and hold particular importance for the study and practice of religion. That’s why the work of prescient twentieth-century thinkers like Walter Benjamin – not to mention Jacques Attali, whose work shows the influence of the former’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” – seems more relevant with each passing year. And it’s also why musing on the health of rock and roll almost inevitably gives way to meditations on the meaning of devotion in an era that deprives us of the secure identities that fidelity seemingly requires. One pledges allegiance to a name, after all, even if it’s in pursuit of a state of being in which freedom is identified with namelessness.

Fear is an inevitable byproduct of uncertain times. Just as the penetration of modern thinking throughout the world has inspired panicked attempts to return to a solid foundation – fundamentalism, in other words – the massive changes that have come to the domain of popular music make many people long for sounds with which they are already familiar. To be sure the consequences of reactionary musical taste are not as significant as those derviving from reactionary political or religious taste. Nevertheless, it is worth taking the time to consider Jacques Attali’s thesis from the other side. If new sounds can presage a new socio-economic order, what might the retreat to old sounds foretell?

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the state of the contemporary music industry – to be more precise, its increasingly rapid shift from assembly-line production to do-it-yourself craft – is that it presents us with a situation in which the turn to traditional forms of musical expression, those of a folk or religious character, may be a more progressive move than the insistence that “rock and roll will never die.” If musical fundamentalism means the desire to listen to the same Billy Joel and AC/DC songs – and on many classic rock stations, the number of songs in regular rotation is astonishingly small – until one is consigned to a nursing home, then the willingness to seek pleasure further afield, in music that makes punk with a klezmer sound or soul with the sampled burbles of a washing machine, seems far more optimistic about our chance of arriving at a tomorrow better than today. From this perspective, the erosion of rock inspires hope of a new solidarity.


Charlie Bertsch is Zeek‘s Music Editor. Prior to joining Zeek, he held the same editorial title at Tikkun. Bertsch was also a longtime contributor to the late, great Punk Planet, and was one of the founders of the pioneering  electronic publication, Bad Subjects: Political Education For Everyday Life. He welcomes your feedback whether in comments posted here or by e-mail.