Historicism in Rock

In the midst of the cultural turmoil of the sixties, popular musicians began drawing on the prestige (and dysfunctions) of the classical world. Thus in the middle of the decade we get some of the first rock albums that can be heard and respected as “art,” exemplified in Ch.7 (predictably) by Sgt. Pepper, an album filled with enough riddles, eclectic variety, and avant-garde dabblings to keep even a musicology grad student intellectually satiated. Stockhausen shows up on the cover, and to top it off, a few years later The Fab Four (or really, Lennon and his Fluxus-connected wife) were making their own Darmstadt-style tape pieces (“Revolution 9”). It’s a moment of giddy cross-fertilization, a rare episode in 20th-century music history when the masses willingly expose themselves to difficult “art” (or at least suffer through it to get to “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”).

RT does his vast book a great service by showing how 60s popular music wrested cultural authority from the classical world, paradoxically by adopting art music techniques, ambitions, and pretensions. (Some critics argue he could have devoted more space to this vital issue.) I find it fascinating as well that rock criticism, which similarly experienced a boom in the 60s, likewise adopted a “classical” approach to its topic. Just as The Beatles borrowed tape techniques from the European avant-garde, writers and critics borrowed historicism from European (specifically, German) musical thought. The same criteria for historical value that was applied to music since the time of New German School—innovation, experimentation, and complexity—could now be applied wholesale to rock. Even though the sound and culture of rock often diverged significantly from art music, it could be aesthetically judged along the same lines as its classical forebears. Thus The Beatles trump The Beach Boys (at least until Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson’s bid for history).

This mode of historicist rock criticism is alive and well. To kick off the new year, Jon Caramanica of the NYT recently published a rant declaring 2011 “the most numbing year for mainstream rock music in history.” Why? Among other reasons, because rock is becoming “a graveyard of aesthetic innovation and creativity”… “hiding out in a few comfortable modes” instead of playing the risky game of progress. He damns modern bands for “walking blindly in the footprints laid out years, even decades, earlier.”

Caramanica might benefit from reading RT’s history. Indeed, all of this could have been written by Brendel in the middle of the 19th century; it is virulently historicist in orientation, linking value with progressive tendencies. (This sort of perspective is why, according to Elijah Wald, pop music writers tend to elevate artists that weren’t very popular.) It’s a fun little irony that rock criticism, a genre born of the counter-cultural, defiant tendencies of the sixties, would come to reimpose the same aesthetic hierarchies of its stodgy older brother.

To close, I leave you with a tune by the band Sublime With Rome, a group singled out for vituperative dismissal in Caramanica’s piece. As epigones of the 90s band Sublime, they stand accused of the cardinal crime of derivativeness.



  1. Jonathan says:

    Noted also, in a recently viewed documentary on The L. A. Troubadour, the bilious quotes from Robert Christgau (as if anyone cares)—how awful the California sound was (James Taylor, Carole King, the Eagles, etc.). The most tired critical gambit there is: THE MUSICIANS AREN’T DOING WHAT *I* THINK THEY SHOLD BE DOING!!

    Touching that you still have Dial M on the blogroll, btw . . .

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