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Rock 'n' Roll: Is It Time for a New Term?

November 08, 1987|ROBERT HILBURN

Pop music needs a new term in its vocabulary.

Rock 'n' roll, a spectacularly elastic label for four decades, has been stretched so far that the words no longer tell us what we need to know about an artist or an album.

The label, in fact, may be preventing a large number of potential admirers from listening to much of today's most distinguished and affecting music because they assume they wouldn't be interested in it. After all, it's only rock 'n' roll.

If millions of people have been touched by the energy and passion of rock, there is a corresponding bloc that is unrelenting in its opposition to anything associated with the maverick music tradition.

The moderate wing of this anti-rock faction acknowledges that Dylan had a way with words, but--they'll tell you--they could never stand his singing. The Beatles may have been charming and they came up with a few good melodies, but that was 20 years ago. To these people, the symbol of rock 'n' roll today is often an obnoxious novelty like Twisted Sister.

The hard-core anti-rockers dismiss the music as shallow and contrived, something marketed by cynical promoters for dim-witted or unsuspecting teens. Friends or critics who suggest there is something of value in rock 'n' roll are regarded as dupes of record company hype machines.

This widespread refusal to recognize rock's ambition and achievement has done much to hide the most encouraging development of pop music in the second half of this decade: the quiet but steady emergence of a group of writers and musicians who address contemporary concerns with the same artful purity of the most gifted novelists and film makers.

Paul Simon's "Graceland," Peter Gabriel's "So," U2's "The Joshua Tree," Los Lobos' "By the Light of the Moon," Bruce Springsteen's "Tunnel of Love," Sting's ". . . Nothing Like the Sun," John Cougar Mellencamp's "The Lonesome Jubilee" and Robbie Robertson's just-released solo album are the most prominent in a much larger list of recent works that fit into this category. These are artful, accessible albums by artists raised on rock, but who are not confining their music to what most people think of as rock 'n' roll.

The point was driven home when I played a track from Springsteen's "Tunnel of Love" to someone in her 30s who has no memory of hearing Springsteen. She liked what she heard and declared: "That's not at all what I thought he'd sound like. That's not rock."

Another friend, who expressed no interest in hearing Sting, was moved by the gentleness of the music and ideas expressed in "They Dance Along," an eloquent tribute to victims of political torture in South America. He said: "That's not what I expected."

The last major rock revolution--the punk explosion of the late '70s--caught everyone's attention because it represented new heights of crudeness. This new movement--what might be called the greening of rock--is going by largely unnoticed because it is not accompanied by any such outrage.

It's the next phase, New Wave, dance craze, anyways

It's still rock and roll to me.

--Lyrics by Billy Joel

Billy Joel is wrong.

Rock 'n' roll isn't the same as it was in the '50s, and that's one reason there is so much misunderstanding today.

Hastily adopted by disc jockeys and promotion men in the '50s, the term rock 'n' roll summarized the multilevel teen-age revolt against the irrelevance and restraint of pop music at the time.

Over the years, however, everyone started to be crowded together under the rock umbrella--artists with as different ambition and intent as Elvis Presley and Pat Boone, the Beatles and Herman's Hermits, David Bowie and Yes, the Sex Pistols and Journey, Prince and Boy George. Is it any wonder there is virtually no meaning left to the words rock 'n' roll ?

The average listener's definition of rock is determined by his or her identification with the music. To most fans raised in the '50s, rock 'n' roll will forever be best defined as the simple, celebrative sound immortalized in songs like "Jailhouse Rock" and "Sweet Little 16."

To fans who grew up in the '60s' so-called "golden age" of rock, the music's true heartbeat will always be found in records that echo or attempt to update the blazing social observation of Bob Dylan or the innocence-cum-cultural-awakening of the Beatles.

By the end of the '60s, however, the pop landscape had expanded so dramatically that the term rock became lost in a tangle of semantics. New subcategories were needed to acknowledge the various movements: folk-rock, country-rock, jazz-rock, pop-rock, heavy-metal, punk-rock, garage-rock, roots-rock, art-rock.

This fragmentation was pushed beyond the normal evolution by merchandisers, who realized that groups with only the slightest connection with rock--say Blood, Sweat & Tears--would have a far bigger commercial potential if they could be marketed as rock groups rather than--in that case--an accessible, horn-oriented jazz-pop band.

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