-by Joey Figgiani
Since Lenny Kravitz released his song “Rock and Roll is Dead” in 1995, I’ve wondered if he was right. So if Rock and Roll is truly dead: what has replaced it.
In 1954 Elvis Presley released his first single, “That’s Alright,” and both the public and the music world were changed forever. Boys traded ties and buzz-cuts for greasy long hair. Girls shrieked and even fainted from an onslaught of new-found masculine confidence and energy. Along with the changes in American music, movies like Marlon Brando’s “The Wild One” and James Dean in “Rebel without a Cause” helped give voice to American youth. Ultra-conservative parents started to feel the threat of losing touch with their children.
Like most progressive art in a capitalist system music executives soon came sniffing and exploited this once great American art form. Elvis got drafted and shipped off to Germany, leaving the window open for many clones to fill his shoes. Rock and Roll became a more family-friendly commodity. Tons of money rolled in, and lots of businessmen got fatter.
About ten years ago I was hired to teach music at a private grammar school where there was no curriculum or budget for instruments. Art and music classes had been cut to once a week. Parents had to pay extra to enroll their kids in an after-school music program. I had to improvise something educational that could keep forty-plus students interested during our time together. The younger kids were happy singing along with Barney’s theme and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” But even before I considered it possible to teach guitar with only one instrument, the junior-high students asked if I “could play any rap.”
At this important turning point in their lives, kids in grades 6 through 8 had little interest in Rock and Roll music. They’d never heard of Blues pioneer Robert Johnson, Bruce Springsteen or even RUN DMC. I drew up a timeline and thought about teaching a history of popular music, but all they wanted to talk about was Rap. All I heard in the halls, during lunch and recess was kids talking about Rap. Boys were dressing like Eminem and other Rap heroes, and girls resembled the females in their videos. Rock and Roll was now an ancient memory experienced fist-hand by their grandparents.
Like Rock and Roll, most Rap is the product of people coming up in challenging circumstances. Rock borrowed from a combination of the Blues, Country and Folk music it followed. Rap not only expands on this way of making music, but relies on other copyrighted songs, beats and snippets as its backbone; only some modern bands have vocalists who rap over live instruments.
Most Rap also follows a very strict template. As the vocals begin, each performer knocks the other, bragging about their money and power. It is almost the norm for a rapper to threaten anyone who has the guts to say their skills come close. Most lyrics also focus on being a pimp, gangster and talk about women being useful only for sex. This is where I see the difference between Rock and Rap and worry about its influence on new generations of young people. Today, with a struggling economy, exhausted military, and an extremely influential media, the Rap movement is the voice of a new generation.
In the late 60’s the Beatles’ John Lennon sang “when you talk about destruction…you can count me out-in.” The line was from their song “Revolution 1,” and Lennon was criticized and questioned about it immediately. In interviews Lennon said he wasn’t sure if he was totally convinced that if necessary, he wouldn’t get involved in a violent revolution if it were for the better. In his movie “Imagine” Lennon said a lot of his lyrics were usually just word-play and part of his abstract style. The Beatles only recorded two more albums after that and ended their legacy with the line on their final record: “and in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.”
America was still in a very comfortable and conservative period in the early 50’s before Rock and Roll broke through and changed the culture. The Rock and Roll movement helped free young people and created an identity to distinguish them from their parents. It also introduced using sex appeal to sell albums through animated performers like Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis (“Great Balls of Fire) Jim Morrison and Madonna (“Like a Virgin”). Rock and Roll started a change in popular culture that leads us to today, where modern music is far more violent, exploitative and revolutionary.
Currently number 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100, a Rap song by 28 year-old Nicki Minaj, “Super Bass” tells about a guy who walks into a club.
He be blazin’ up…is cold…might sell coke. He always in the air, but never fly coach. He a mutha’ fuckin trip.
And we thought Britney Spears was going to be a problem.
After Elvis shook his hips and The Beatles shook their mop-tops, Rock acts like The Doors, Janis Joplin and Jimmy Hendrix came to represent a new culture of drugs, free sex and recklessness. But early Rock and Roll never encouraged carrying guns, gangster life, selling drugs, promiscuity or touched on most negative themes of today’s music. On stage Hendrix used to set his guitar on fire. Today the image of the late singer is being used to promote the sales of a lap-top computer. We should now fear the possibility of a future where a “thug life” helps advertise laser guns on newly required digital HD, Blue Ray, wide screen, Dolby Surround, THX, plasma televisions.