Rock's Waning Influence
I was sitting in a diner at a table next to a bunch of young L.A. rockers. You know the kind -- tight black jeans, leather jackets, post-metal hair. Having nothing better to do, I eavesdropped on their conversation. Their game plan seemed to be to cover the overdue rent and the delinquent phone bill by signing with a major label and copping a million bucks by a week from Thursday. Initially, I was simply amused by their naivete. I had made similar ludicrous assumptions when I was a dumb punk neophyte. One difference, though: When I was one of the young and stupid, I'd not only wanted to be rich, famous, and beloved by women on at least three of the five continents -- I'd also wanted to take over the world. These guys seemed to treat rock music as merely another facet of the entertainment industry. In terms of cosmic passion, they might just as well have been talking about situation comedy. Is this what we have really come to, or was I just suffering a periodic attack of the belief that rock is either dead, sick, or not what it used to be? I'd long been aware that a lot of popular music has become frightening codified. Punk doesn't seem to have made a solidly innovative move since the Clash hung it up. Hard rock is painted into an exhausted corner, and even rap, the supposed fire of subversion, has locked itself into a form that hasn't radically changed since "The Message." On the other hand, I can hardly claim that nothing is happening here. From Nels Cline to Khaled, plenty of envelopes are being pushed in every direction. The problem is that the progress is being made strictly in terms of music, rather than in spearheading social reexamination. Then the realization hit me: I had to accept that, although it still plays a major role in our culture, popular music is no longer the predominant art form. For about twenty years, from around 1965 to approximately 1985, rock ruled. Where rock led, other art forms followed. Rock music set the standards from political posture to sexual preference, and its influence on everything from graphic design to science fiction was clearly recognizable. Through the last ten years, however, rock has lost its lock on the hearts and minds of Western civilization. If any medium has usurped rock's place in the cultural running, it is motion pictures. The cinema seems to be the new arena in which the important cultural battles of our time are now being engaged. The Oscars provided the context for what had to be the match of the year: The nihilism and drugs 'n' violence of Quentin Tarantino went head to head with smug, revisionist Gumpism. In the year of Woodstock II, it'd be hard to find a similar clash of titans in rock. Once upon a time, I might have felt that this shift was a betrayal of all that had been fought for. In some respects, though, I actually welcome the chance to simply let the medium be the massage rather than the perpetual message. This is not to say that popular music should be totally divorced from its social and political context. Obviously, rock has its place as a call to arms and a goad to insurrection, but, for each new generation to have to learn the hard way that social change means more than a Jim Morrison bellowing "we want the world and we want it now," seems a very closed and time-wasting loop. What I am concerned about, however, is that -- since rock blunted its cutting edge -- increasing numbers of the best and brightest are seduced by the movies. A decade ago, Don Was was one of rock's great iconoclasts, and seemed poised to step into the shoes Frank Zappa vacated when he became a guitar hero. Now all Was does is create movie scores and produce tribute shows for aging or dead superstars. Tom Waits was lost to Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola a long time ago, and I sometimes worry that Lyle Lovett is going the same way, particularly when all he managed to put out this year was an album of old, previously unreleased tunes. Since his liaison with Oliver Stone, Trent Reznor may also be in danger of drifting in the same direction. (Although, if treated as a purely audio work, Natural Born Killers has to be one of the weirdest concept albums of 1994.) Courtney Love coordinated the sound track of Tank Girl; Ice T is nothing less than a full-blown film star; and, in his moments away from being the conscience of America, Henry Rollins privately advises other musicians that "movies are where the bucks are." Although, in the nineties, I wouldn't decry anyone going "where the bucks are," I do wonder about the fate of pop music if its finest talents are completely leeched away by motion pictures. In bad moments, I fear we are witnessing the process that began with the music video come full circle, and we will see rock increasingly subservient to the new dominant medium. In the music video, musicians look to film makers to do some of their work for them, amplifying mood and atmosphere and easing the telling of the story or the delivery of the message. In the movies, the roles are reversed, and both story and message are the sole preserve of the director and the writer, while the participating musician pretty much follows orders. I may not want to see rock 'n' roll perpetually leading the charge, but I would hate to see it lose its autonomy in the cultural big leagues. Let's not forget that Madonna died in the third row of the cineplex, or the disaster that occurred when Elvis went to Hollywood.