Rock of Ages?

There’s a scene in director Luca Guadagnino’s current film A Bigger Splash where Harry, the manipulative music-producer houseguest played by Ralph Fiennes, guides his hosts through a Rolling Stones track from the Voodoo Lounge album, revealing the tricks he used to get certain sonic effects. It’s not a bad song, but only a few bars are heard before he puts on another record. What plays now is the Rolling Stones' "Emotional Rescue"[*] which Harry can’t stop himself from dancing to. Is it a better song? Yes, but maybe it’s the context—the way Fiennes, shirt open, is shot under a hot Mediterranean sun; the funny-creepy irony of the lyrics in that moment; the cranking up of the soundtrack; a glimpse of the LP spinning on the turntable. Another character asks if he produced this one too. “Honey,” Harry shouts back, “I was only sixteen when they did this!” For Harry, clearly it’s not just a better song, but a great one.

And what makes a great song—we’ll stipulate rock songs here—is different from what makes a song representative of the genre, criteria for which Chuck Klosterman discusses in a New York Times Magazine piece headlined “Which Rock Star Will Historians of the Future Remember?” On the same day it was reported that Gus Wenner, son of Jann, would be harnessing the brand power of Rolling Stone magazine to launch a website on video-gaming—“It’s the new rock-and-roll,” he declared—Klosterman predicted that three hundred years from now, almost no one would even know what rock-and-roll was, and that maybe just a single artist, based on the staying power of a single composition (think Sousa and “The Stars and Stripes Forever”) would be the future’s only link to what he calls the “most important musical form of the 20th century.” And that artist and song are?

Questionable premise, annoying certainty, a unilateral pronouncement guaranteed to elicit complaints about overlooked nominees—well, that’s all part of writing about rock-and-roll (see Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs, Pitchfork’s best-ofs). Tower Records at its height not only anchored street corners and retail centers but also produced its own monthly magazine, Pulse, pages of which were given over to “desert island discs,” reader-submitted lists of can’t-live-without records—the ceaseless output of a subculture defined by its compulsion to collect, catalog, and rate. Klosterman’s piece, if not explicitly intended to generate similar response, has of course done just that. It got about thirteen-hundred comments in a little more than twenty-four hours, many no doubt from people who went straight to the end to learn Klosterman hadn’t anointed Mick or Bob or Paul or Jimi or Aretha, or James Taylor or Janis Joplin or the Beach Boys or Radiohead or REM or anyone else who hands-down, no-doubt, unquestionably deserves it over the ultimate choice: Chuck Berry and “Johnny B. Goode.”

At least it wasn’t Journey and “Don’t Stop Believin,’ ” which though I didn’t expect to see when I jumped to the end I was nonetheless relieved not to. Like Fiennes’s Harry with “Emotional Rescue,” I was only sixteen when Journey did that song, and for many years the occasional and unexpected sound of its music and lyrics would bring me back to the summer I spent at a seafood restaurant scrubbing crusted pots and pans, portable radio high on a shelf above the sink. Just as it was meant to, the song stayed behind, back in adolescence, back with that job. Except that a few decades later it showed up in the series finale of The Sopranos, then was featured in an episode of Glee, and from there it was smooth re-entry to pop radio playlists, and soon enough it was all but universally available and instantly accessible via streaming. Does it any longer return me nostalgically to that summer? No; it makes me think of my daughter and her friends shouting along to it in the back seat of the car a couple of weekends ago, but that could change at any given moment, and that’s the point. There’s little to gain in lamenting the easy availability and practical omnipresence of things, but music until relatively recently had a special way of demarcating the ever-accumulating points of one’s past from the ever-unfolding of one’s present. The removal of the “space” between suppresses the strange and sometimes even pleasurable dislocations that help remind us of time’s passing.

Yet those who never knew a world without streaming may not ever know such concerns. Dan Chiasson, writing about Ben Ratliff’s Every Song Ever (which its subtitle describes as a guide to listening in an age of musical plenty), spends a big part of the review considering just this.

[O]ne of the most amazing things about streaming music… [is] that you can recreate your past with a level of detail never before possible. Or, taking it a step further: you can recover experiences from your past, passions, insights, shames you’d forgotten. … The brutal winnowing of the past, selecting perhaps two dozen pop songs a year, a few albums—this vast oversimplification, this cancelling of all that culture deems tangential or unimportant—is now itself a thing of the past. Kids growing up in this environment are having a genuinely new human experience: nothing in the past is lost, which means temporal sequence itself—where the newest things are closest and most vivid, while the oldest things dwell in the dark backward and abysm of time—gets lost. Everything exists on one plane, so it is harder than before to know exactly where we stand in time.

I’m leery of arguments that make streaming an unalloyed bad. (How it affects those who try to make a living by writing, performing, and recording music is a fair and larger question; many new artists, however, have begun to establish themselves through YouTube, Bandcamp, and other distribution channels.) It brings a lot of different music to a lot of different people who might not otherwise have heard it; Spotify, it’s estimated, has 20 million tracks available for listening, and more are coming online every day. But plenty for the sake of plenty isn’t a good thing either. Does it make it easier or harder to identify a few great songs, to say nothing of a representative one? Or does it render the whole question meaningless? In which case, Klosterman’s timeframe of three hundred years might in fact be too generous.

[*] Clarification: In the scene in question, the Rolling Stones' version of "Emotional Rescue" plays; the band St. Vincent provides a cover of the song for the film's soundtrack, on which the original Rolling Stones version does not appearthough the Stones' "Moon Is Up" and "Heaven" do, as does Nilsson's "Jump into the Fire," which some may remember from GoodFellas.

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Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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