>Rock Isn’t Dead, Stop Saying It Is

>”Rock and roll is dead,” he says, voluble again. “Rock and roll is a museum piece. It has no viability anymore. There are great rock bands today—I love the White Stripes, I love the Raconteurs. But it’s a museum piece. You’re watching the History Channel when you go to these clubs. They’re just reenacting an old sentiment. They’re channeling the ghosts of that era—the Who, punk rock, the Sex Pistols, whatever. It’s been done. The rebellion’s over.
-Sufjan Stevens, quoted in New York Magazine.

When I first heard that Sufjan Stevens, of all people, had taken it upon himself to declare that “rock is dead,” my response was pretty simple: “Fuck off.”

But even I admit that’s a little harsh. So after re-reading the quote, listening to a little more Sufjan Stevens, and just… you know, thinking, my response changed to: “I can see what you mean, but still, fuck off.”

Hey, everybody! Everybody who has ever been involved in rock music! A little advice: stop fucking saying that rock music is dead. It’s such a dumb, annoying thing to say, and the only reason any rock musicians say it anymore is to get little blurbs on the internet saying, “Indie-Rock Darling Says ROCK IS DEAD!!” Billy Corgan pulled the same stunt about a decade ago, because he is an asshole. I think it was around the time he released “Adore” and was quoted saying that “electronic music is the future” or something pretentious like that. (Why do people hate figures like Bono so damn much and never go after Billy Corgan? He’s a lot worse.) Corgan said “rock is dead” on Howard Stern or something because he wanted attention and because he wanted to set himself up as a Luminary of Rock and Roll. Basically, in my eyes, musicians who claim “rock is dead” think that they are better than it, or, even worse, that they are the best damn rock ‘n rollers in the world and they have that fucking right.

I’m hoping that Sujfan Stevens doesn’t think that, because he neither rocks nor rolls. That’s not what he does, and that’s fine; lots of musicians labeled under “rock” aren’t the Stooges. Stevens likes nicely-orchestrated, pleasant-sounding, and kinda-boring quirky indie-folk that Pitchfork Media creams their jeans listening to. He dresses up in angel wings and wears a baseball cap to keep up his carefully calculated kinda-unusual indie image. Overall, he is not “rock ‘n roll.” So when I hear him boldly declare “ROCK IS DEAD” like some kind of modern-age rock prophet, I get a little pissy.

“Rock has no viability anymore.” Ok, Sufjan, what the hell does “viability” mean? Commercial appeal? Unit sales? Well, shit, by that logic, rock isn’t the only genre of music that is dead. Ladies and gentlemen, let’s say tearful goodbye to jazz, blues, bluegrass, funk, soul, cabaret, string-band, fucking Mariachi… hell, I guess the only genre of music that’s actually ALIVE is rap and hip hop! (Err, scratch that.)

“There are great rock bands today—I love the White Stripes, I love the Raconteurs.” Been hanging out with Jack White a lot this week, Sufjan? He playing kazoo on your 38-musician orchestral suite?

“You’re watching the History Channel when you go to these clubs. They’re just reenacting an old sentiment. They’re channeling the ghosts of that era—the Who, punk rock, the Sex Pistols, whatever.” Wow, lots of rock bands follow that blueprint, eh? Observation of the century, Sufjan. People have been saying this shit for years. They were saying it in when the 60’s died (lovingly re-created in Almost Famous). Decca told the Beatles that “guitar groups are on the way out “when they auditioned for them. Shit, they were saying this in 1955. Saying this is like saying “The Ramones are just channeling the Standells, who gives a shit?”

“It’s been done. The rebellion’s over.” Okay, listen. If you are playing rock and roll music to be a hip, cool rebel, then you’re kinda lame. Rock didn’t start with some kid saying to himself, “Society is so SQUARE. I’m gonna make it ROCKIN’!” No, it started with kids playing music that made sense to them (primarily, more white-accessible versions of so-called “negro music” at the time). Rebellions are hardly ever planned out; did Elvis, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Ramones and the like, think to themselves – “well, time to change the world!” No, goddamnit. Rock musicians just do what they want to do (or in more unfortunate circumstances, what their label/managers/whoever tell them to do), and once in a while someone will cause a MASSIVE change. Nirvana were not rebels, they just didn’t like Poison and liked the Pixies. Now they are credited with changing rock and roll forever. And furthermore, some of the best rock and roll isn’t even about rebellion at all. Pet Sounds was a landmark, but it wasn’t a rebellion.

Eh. I don’t know. I get the impression that the reason so much modern rock ‘n roll is so fucking boring as of late (“boring” doesn’t equal “dead”, by the way) is because people like Sufjan Stevens don’t think it has any “viability.” Rock musicians don’t think what they’re doing is vital or interesting anymore, so they settle into their nice little indie-niches and make music that they think will sound “important” (most of which ends up sounding stupid years later anyways). It’s the same attitude prog-rock bands had back in the 70’s – that’s why they sucked. When you say rock music is dead, you are just working to make it worse.

Listen, I will be the first person to say that rock music is not what it used to be. I will be the first person to say that I find a lot of modern rock music boring, or lame, or faddish. But it’s not dead. And if it is, then Sufjan Stevens sure isn’t helping.

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>Short Album Review(s): Wild Honey and Sunflower by the Beach Boys

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If you have any interest at all in the Beach Boys, you probably know the story: they were the most popular surf band in the country in the early 60’s; Brian Wilson heard Rubber Soul and became obsessed with creating an “album-length statement”, resulting in the classic Pet Sounds; he then tried to create the Greatest Album Ever, called “SMiLE”, which was famously aborted in a sea of drugs, opposition from every other Beach Boys member, and Brian’s mental instability. After “Good Vibrations”, the Beach Boys would never be commercially viable again, barring a few hits here and there and some compilations.

But hey! Don’t let anybody convince you that the Beach Boys started sucking all the sudden after SMiLE didn’t work out. Sure, they never made another Pet Sounds or Today!, and Brian Wilson’s involvement became pretty flaky, but they still released some cool albums that flew under the radar in the late 60’s/early 70’s. I’ve been listening to a couple great ones – Wild Honey and Sunflower – ad-nauseum for the past couple weeks, and I’ll be the first to say that they’ve got a lot of merit.

Wild Honey is a soulful, funky pop/R&B album, released without fanfare in late 1967. Considering it was released the same year SMiLE was planned for release, it’s funny how completely different it was in comparison to what Brian Wilson’s masterpiece would have been: light, laid-back, and fun rather than dark, psychedelic and epic. Not only that, but the album is only 23 minutes long, with not one song running longer than two-and-a-half minutes, which probably didn’t give it much hip-cred during a time when albums were getting longer and longer. Anybody who was expecting the Beach Boys to become the Greatest Pop Visionaries Ever with SMiLE were, unsurprisingly, none too thrilled with Wild Honey.

But damn, this album is FUN! A little slight to be sure, but who cares? You’ve got your pop nuggets (“Aren’t You Glad,” the hits “Wild Honey” and “Darlin'”), straight out rockers (“How She Boogalooed It”, “A Thing Or Two”, “Here Comes The Night”), and even some surprisingly cool psychedelic numbers (“Let The Wind Blow” and “I’d Love Just Once To See You”, which sounds a lot like the Turtles actually). Unfortunately, we don’t get to hear too many classic Beach Boys harmonies, but once in a while they peek through in great tracks like “Country Air” and the fun a-capella “Mama Says” (which, funny enough, ended up on Brian Wilson’s updated SMiLE in the middle of “Vega-Tables”). As a little bonus, they even throw in a Stevie Wonder cover (“I Was Made To Love Her”), which is something nobody would expect the Beach Boys to do in 1967, especially considering that Wonder hadn’t even reached his 70’s commercial peak. Bottom line, Wild Honey is unlike anything else the Beach Boys ever recorded, but it’s a great album, the very definition of a pop confection and quite possibly the most purely fun album they’d ever release, freed from any of the pretensions and experimentations that have dated even some of the greatest albums from the era.

Sunflower, of course, is a different story. Released in 1970, when the Beach Boys’s presence in American pop music had faded into the ether, the album was viewed by many critics (mostly in Britain) as a return to form and a true follow-up to Pet Sounds. While I’d agree with them – classic Beach Boys harmonies are all over this album – it’s still pretty different from their 60’s output. Not that this is a bad thing, of course; here the Beach Boys sound even more mature than ever before, and being out of the public spotlight, they were allowed to make a relaxed, laid-back album, something SMiLE never would have been. Not only that, but Brian Wilson wasn’t even the main songwriter; some of the best songs are written by Bruce Johnston, Al Jardine, and even Dennis Wilson, who’d never had a chance to write as many Beach Boys songs as he did here.

The result, in my opinion, is one of the Beach Boys’s finest albums. Songs like “This Whole World”, “Add Some Music To Your Day,” “Forever” and “Our Sweet Love” are pure Beach Boys classics, with all the beauty of their mid-60’s work combined with folk and psychedelic sensibilities they’d never explored before. Other songs, like Dennis Wilson’s soulful opener “Slip On Through” and the self-referential “It’s About Time” proved that the Beach Boys could appropriate modern influences without sounding out-of-touch. Unlike many of their other post-Pet Sounds releases, this album is rich, exquisitely produced and cohesive – in theory, it’s the perfect comeback album. Of course, that was not to be; since it came out at a time when the Beach Boys were totally ignored, it sold negligibly and was quickly forgotten, and they never released another album quite as good for the rest of their career.

Yeah, Brian Wilson finally got some friends together and released SMiLE. It was pretty great, and in a perfect world, SMiLE would’ve been released at the height of the Summer of Love, given the same accolades as the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, and maybe – just MAYBE – these post-SMiLE releases would have been more popular. If you’re one of those people who thinks that the Beach Boys died after Pet Sounds, do yourself a favor and check these out – they’re some of the finest lost American pop albums.