The other day I took time out of my busy schedule to watch a documentary about the rock band, The Doors, called People Are Strange. It’s a solid piece of propaganda that glorifies the sixties in a way that would make Tom Wolfe and Oliver Stone proud. According to the movie it was an era where people earnestly believed in things from expanding your mind to blowing up your enemies. People Are Strange did a great job reenforcing the media message of my childhood from watching the television show The Wonder Years to the classic rock stations blasting Come Together that the sixties was the golden age of humanity. And even without living in that decade I’m inclined to believe them because the sixties had rock and roll.
I know there’s still rock and roll music. Music that would stand up with most anything that came out of the sixties is possibly still being produced today, but it lacks the resonance. Rock and roll is another niche in a culture with a million niches. In the movie People Are Strange when they show a bomb being dropped on Vietnam to the sounds of Riders On A Storm it was unclear whether the bomb inspired the music or the music inspired the bomb. Now I question whether our music inspires video games or video games inspire music.
Part of this could have been from the fragmentation of the media. People were limited with where they could get their information. There were a lot more newspapers, but there were only three television stations and no internet. So when a Jim Morrison came out everyone knew who he was. Today I’ve heard of Justin Bieber and Susan Boyle, but I’d be damned if I could name a song they sung. With the onslaught of choices it’s hard for a figure to become mythologized and a movement to dominate the culture like rock and roll did.
Today could an Elvis represent danger or the Beatles youthful idealism or a Jim Morrison Dionysus come to Earth? No, instead you’d probably see some groupie posting photographs of their schlongs on TMZ. Hedonism was a central tenet of the rock and roll era, but ours is an age where hedonism is publicized, but not feared or appreciated.
Some might say my epitaph for the rock and roll era is premature. In the seventies many argued that with the stadium tours and the commercialization of the music and the record labels being bought out by conglomerates also was a sign of the death of rock and roll. But then according to legend came punk rock which energized the movement. I think punk rock’s significance is overstated, but it was capable of producing new metaphors such as the one of Sid Vicious. MTV had greater importance in revitalizing rock and roll. It was a perfect outlet to get out to the youth new music and to create images that represented new stars.
And so after the autopsy I will pick 1994 as the endpoint of the rock and roll era. It is around the time when MTV began their slow escape from broadcasting actual music and instead relying on reality television. It is when the internet began taking off with the promotion of AOL and it is the year Kurt Cobain died. A lot of people say Nirvana was overrated. People say the same about the Doors and while I’ll debate the merits of both bands to the end of time what can’t be debated was that Kurt Cobain was the last figure in rock and roll to be mythologized. The martyr who’d rather die then let his music be exploited.
The closest musical moment that united our culture I’ve seen since then was when Michael Jackson, the man who represented youthful innocence gone awry, died. People reminisced about the music much more than the man, but all that music came from before 1994.
Rock and roll is dead. All we have left is the music.