Fed Up With Rock


Fifteen years ago rock was not taken very seriously. It was considered preadolescent music and when people talked about "serious music" it was understood that they were not talking about rock. Today all that has changed. Rock is omnipresent and is taken very, very seriously. Adults approach you shouting, "Have you heard the latest by the 'Mentally Retarded?'" whose latest generally is their first and last. Books are written on the history of rock and on its great significance for Our Time (always capitalized). Rock artists like Dylan and The Beatles are considered the great artists of our era. It is the purpose of this essay to put rock into a proper musical perspective.

First off I must emphasize that I am considering rock from a musical perspective. It is necessary to state this because I am often confused by rock aficionados who tell me they absolutely adore such and such a group and yet when pressed they admit they cannot remember any of the group's music. This split also shows up in many reviews of rock music I have read, where the reviewer will quote a passage from a song in order to show the reader how good or bad the song is. The reviewer has, however, said nothing about the song but has shown the reader the quality of the poetry that has been set to music.

This split between words and music in rock is not a trivial point. It does not, to my knowledge, occur in other musical genres. (For example, when Samuel Barber's opera "Cleopatra" was premiered a few years ago, I don't recall a single review pro or con divorcing the words from the music.) I think this split points to an important deficiency in rock, that deficiency being the frequent inability of the rock artist to integrate the subject matter of the words with the emotional projections of the music.

An example will clarify what I mean. I once listened to the Tom Jones show. At the end of the program there is an approximately ten-minute segment when Jones does nothing but sing. On this night he sang one of his top hits called "Delilah." The song is about a man whose woman betrays him for another man. The first man ends the story of the song by stabbing and killing Delilah. Pretty sordid stuff; and, yet, the music has one of the gayest tunes I've heard from rock. Tom Jones while signing the song was dancing around the stage, just having a jolly old time. At the point in the song where the man stabs Delilah, Jones was smiling and dancing as if he was tip-toeing through the tulips. The effect was ludicrous.

Another reason it is important to point out this split between words and music in rock is that it shows us the basic amateurishness of rock music. For instance, continental European rock stars have made no headway on the U.S. market as long as they sing only a foreign language. Why? Because if the listener cannot understand the words, he must then focus on the music and in rock the music just isn't worth all that effort. Yes, I know that English speaking rock groups make frequent tours of continental Europe, but one must remember that an awful lot of continental Europeans speak English. Also, ask yourself how many continental European rock groups you can name, groups who only sing non-English, have ever had tours in the U.S., and of those how many lasted any length of time? To emphasize my point I would ask rock fans if they would listen to Dylan if he sang only in Italian.

Now, in the serious music genre, the fact that an opera is in a foreign language is no hindrance to its distribution. The only exception to this is if the opera is written in an obscure language which the singers don't know how to pronounce. In that case a translation is usually effected (but not necessarily in the singer's native tongue). In fact, most opera lovers I've talked to prefer to listen to opera in a language they don't understand so that they can concentrate on the music.

There is another reason why some people like rock and once again it has nothing to do with rock as music. This reason can best be put under the term sentimentality or the "they're playing our song" syndrome. Adolescence is a turbulent age and it is during adolescence that most people start listening to popular music. Hopefully many pleasant memories are formed during adolescence. Frequently popular music is involved at important points in the young man or woman's social development (for example, at a dance or in a parked car with the radio turned on). Thus the popular music of one's adolescence tends to take on a special significance but the significance is extra-musical. This explains the curious phenomemon of most adults fixating on the music of their adolescence and never listening to contemporary pop music. It also explains the utter inability of adults to explain why they dislike present pop music. It isn't really the music they detest; it's the realization that their adolescence is past, that they are now considered old, and what they cherish is now considered passé.

It is pertinent at this point to note that serious music is not afflicted with this problem. People are still listening to Bach with avid interest; and father and son can and frequently do attend a concert of classical music with both generations enjoying it.

As far as the music of rock is concerned, it is totally unoriginal and secondhand. The bass lines and progressions show almost no variation between artists and consist almost entirely of I-II-IV-V-I. The form of rock music is deadeningly repetitious. I have heard songs by Dylan that last 12 minutes where the same passage is repeated from beginning to end, without the slightest variation, almost 15 times! There are songs by the Doors in which the bass line stays exactly the same for a full ten minutes.

The repetitiousness of rock's form demonstrates, once again, rock's inability to coordinate words and music. (This coordination is unnecessary in the case of artists like Dylan since the words of most of his songs are meaningless.) Because rock's form consists of repeating the same music with different words as the song "progresses," rock music cannot express the subtle nuances of the words it is singing. The words are forced into a preexisting mold. The rock world has never heard that "form follows function."

This means that there is only one way left for rock music to indicate the climactic moment of the song—to get louder. (This assumes that there is a climactic moment; many rock songs don't even have that much.) Rock music can get very very very very loud. So loud, in fact, that it can permanently damage a person's ears. "Yes, it is true that rock music is loud and achieves its climaxes by getting louder," says the rock fan, "but isn't it true that at the climactic moments of the works of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and other romantic composers the music gets louder?" Yes, that is true; but the loud climaxes of Beethoven or Tchaikovsky are integrated climaxes, that is to say the climactic moment of a movement isn't just the loudest place (many times it isn't), it is the place where rhythmic, melodic, and other developmental considerations reach their culmination point. Because rock lacks any development its loudness is merely bombast.

There is a new argument being offered in favor of rock music which deserves special attention. [See comments on rock in REASON, "Editor's Notes," December 1969.] The argument is that rock music has grown out of its adolescence and that it is now "incorporating" various elements from the classical or serious stream in order to achieve a marvelous new "synthesis" of pop, jazz, and classical elements. Actually this constitutes the best argument I've heard against rock for it points to rock's fundamentally parasitic nature.

There is nothing new in this argument except the source of rock's "borrowings." Consider the names of the subclassifications of rock music. There is folk-rock, meaning rock that is based on old folk music; there is hard-rock, meaning rock that is based on blues; and there is raga-rock, meaning rock that bases its music on the classical music of India. Acid-rock is rock that borrows from the borrowers. I think the main reason rock groups have started "borrowing" from the serious stream is that there is no place else left for them to steal from. But, despite the hopes of many reviewers, rock's borrowings of classical elements does nothing to raise the level of rock, it merely debases the borrowed elements.

Peter Millward in a letter published in REASON (March/April 1970) points out that there are only three ways in which this borrowing can take place:

1) to take a melody from one source and harmonize and/or orchestrate it differently for another set of instruments;

2) borrow certain orchestration styles which belong uniquely to one composer and adapt them to a melody of one's own choosing;

3) imitate the dynamics of a composer's harmony—in other words, to fragment an artwork…and reassemble the parts into something of one's own whim…It is self-defeating to fragment complete works of music, because doing so distorts some element of the composer's idea by dropping its context.

Lanny Friedlander, writing for REASON, in substantial agreement with Mr. Millward, wrote:

There is no particular reason why one should treat musical techniques any differently from any other kind of data. The fact that a scientist developed a certain lab technique to accomplish a certain goal doesn't mean that you can't use that technique in a totally different context.

Yes, of course, I agree. For example, Beethoven's modulatory techniques of his late string quartets were used by Wagner in opera, Bruckner in symphony, and Wolf in song.

But it is precisely techniques that rock music does not borrow. The difference between techniques and private ideas is crucial. For example, Elliott Carter's technique of modulation is a discovery of the way in which certain rhythms relate to each other. It is permissible to use someone else's discovery. A melody is not a discovery but a creation, a private idea expressed in musical form. It is not permissible to steal a melody. The relationship between the private ideas of a composer (e.g., melody) and techniques is the same as the relationship between a writer's discoveries and the characters in a fiction work he uses to express them.

At this point a rock fan is likely to note that serious composers borrow a lot of private ideas from each other. True. But, composers, at least since Beethoven, have been extremely careful to designate from whom they were borrowing. The composer usually states this in the title, e.g., "Variations on a Theme by Diabelli" or "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini." The title renders onto one composer the melody and to the other composer everything else. Also note that Bartok once wrote to Henry Cowell asking Cowell for permission to use tone clusters, a unique device Cowell had developed, in a piano piece Bartok was writing. Composers are very aware of the difference between techniques and original private ideas.

Rock groups evidently are not aware of the difference. These rock groups steal a private idea of a serious composer and pervert it by putting it into a different, lower, context for which the idea was not designed. Examples:

The rock version of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake," probably the most hideous piece of music I've heard.

The Bosa Nova version of "Scarborough Fair," an old English ballad, by Brazil 66.

The Swingle Singer's Bach.

The pop song based on a variation from Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini."

The Electric Prunes who, after finishing their "mass," were planning to do a rock version of "Madame Butterfly." This project was fortunately never completed.

The list could go on and on and on.

This is what is passed off as rock acquiring classical elements. What it is, in fact, is just plain old plagiarism, that is to say—stealing.

But over and above rock's parasitism, beyond its stuntingly repetitious form and total lack of melodic invention, there is a basic flaw in rock. A flaw so central to rock as to be its defining characteristic, for if it were to get rid of this flaw it would no longer be rock. That flaw is the total lack in any kind of rock (soft, hard, folk, acid, raga, etc.) of development or variation. There is no working out of melodic material (even on the rare occasions when the melodic material would be worth the trouble). There is no structural extrapolation. I have heard more development in the shortest piece of lute music of the Elizabethan Age than in the longest piece of rock music I've listened to.

Is development necessary for a piece of music to be good? It is a necessary but not sufficient condition. Why? Because development or variation is a mind stimulating process. Too much repetition is mind deadening. In the good or better piece of music there is a careful balancing of repetition and variation. The object is to have just enough repetition to enable the listener to know where the variations come from without making the repetitions too obvious or boring.

Rock, because of its lack of variation and/or development, is mind deadening. With the vast majority of rock, you listen to the song once and you've got it. All of it. Rock's juvenile simplicity makes it impossible for the mind to flex its mental muscles while listening—so it atrophies. This explains why rock songs are so incredibly short-lived. Since a person can grasp the totality of a rock song in a single hearing, there is no incentive for the listener to hear the piece again. Too many more hearings make the song tedious.

The atrophying effect of rock also explains why the drug-dazed and the hippies find rock so appealing. Both of these groups are hysterically antimind and antiintellectual; and it is perfectly logical that they would listen to music that deadens the mind. And is it only accidental that those mass gatherings of irrationality at Woodstock (where people would have starved if food hadn't been brought to them and disease would have sickened them is doctors hadn't been flown there in emergency helicopters) and Altamont (where people drowned in puddles and were stabbed to death) were rock "festivals"?

Serious music is not afflicted with the problem of its music becoming a bore over time. Serious music is music that has the qualities of development and variation. That is what people mean when they say "serious music," although most have not identified it as such consciously. Because serious music has these qualities, it preserves its interest as long as there are men who care to think. People still listen to Machaut, Monteverdi, Schutz, J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Bruckner, and Bartok. And not only do they still listen to these composers, but serious music lovers can and do listen to the same piece over and over without the slightest trace of boredom. I must have listened to Bartok's fourth string quartet at least fifty times and it is still as fresh and exciting as the day I first heard it.

It is necessary, here, to discuss a peculiar double standard that exists in the field of esthetic evaluation. The dichotomy is between music and every other art form. People usually realize that great literature requires immense concentration in order to understand what an author is saying. One does not read CRIME AND PUNISHMENT with the same (passive) attention as Dr. Seuss. Great paintings commonly contain that attribute which people often designate by saying "it grows on you." This means that as one looks at the painting many times, different aspects of the artist's intention fall into place, that the totality is not immediately perceivable.

For some reason people seem to think that the art of music shouldn't require the same concentration—that you are some kind of freak if you listen to a Bach organ fugue with the same undivided attention that one uses in reading a complicated novel, solving a complicated equation, or reading philosophy.

Many people seem to resent the fact that you may have to listen to a piece of music many times before it (finally, fully) makes sense; and yet the same resentment does not seem to intrude when dealing with literature. I, for one, am very disappointed if a piece of music has exhausted its content in a single hearing.

If the serious music lover tries to explain that serious music really is better than rock, he is met with a multitude of exclamations. The most frequent one I hear is, "You can't say that! The two genres are for different purposes. /They sure are…/ Rock is just as valid on its level as serious music." There is a grain of truth in the statement, although not the one intended. Rock is as valid on its level as serious music is on its; I hold, however, it's just that rock's level is at best the nursery school and at worst the gutter, while the level of serious music is the mountaintop, the moon, and the stars beyond.

Then why has rock become so popular, even among serious musicians? For example, Leonard Bernstein and Zubin Mehta both take rock seriously. The reason becomes quite clear when you look at what twentieth century composers are offering as music. If you place rock music next to the incomprehensible twitchings of the serialists or the irrelevant babblings of John Cage and his chance school, then, yes indeed rock is by far the better music. But that only indicates how low the art of composition has fallen in the twentieth century; it says nothing about the quality of rock. A third group of composers, e.g., Ned Rorem, William Schuman, Samuel Barber, David Diamond, etc., has resisted all these trends and still writes lyric music, some of which is quite beautiful. In discussions of twentieth century music, these composers are generally put down as "old fashioned," and they are the least played of the main schools of this century's music. If one compares rock to the music of these composers, then rock is put back into its proper perspective.

At this point someone is bound to ask whether I think one should ever listen to rock. Sure, it's fine as an occasional diversion. Just as an adult may enjoy a few quiet reminiscences over a nursery rhyme, one can also have a brief respite by listening to rock. But one would wonder about an adult who read nothing but nursery rhymes and I wonder similarly about people who listen to nothing but rock. Also, what one is listening to in a rock song is often the words and some, a few, rock songs do contain pro-life messages. But I respectfully request that people who "dig" a rock group's poetry not cloud the issue by telling me how good rock music is. The issues are quite distinct and separate.

Let's stop this prattling about the Great Significance of Rock and take rock for what it is. Rock is a sociological, not a musical, phenomenon. It is the background noise for the various love-ins, group-ins, festivals, etc. where one goes to blow one's mind, not to use it or to expand its capabilities. At its best, rock provides elementary rhythmic accompaniment to poetry. Serious music is in enough trouble without people being sidetracked by the trivial escapades of nonentities. Let's start getting serious about music.