Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Rock History And How It's Made

Several blog entries ago I discussed Art Laboe's first Oldies But Goodies (1959) compilation, a collection of mid-50s doo wop and R&B consisting largely of L.A.-based groups such as The Penguins (“Earth Angel”) and The Medallions (“The Letter”). By issuing the Oldies But Goodies album in 1959, so I argued, Laboe was the first to historicize rock ‘n’ roll, to lend it the dignity and distinction of a “classic” or “golden” era, represented by the album title itself emblazoned in gold. While I think I was correct in that observation, in retrospect I don’t think at the time I wrote the entry I had fully considered all of the implications of my remarks. What I should have said in that earlier post is that the initial Oldies But Goodies collection serves to mark or distinguish the first from the second generation of rock ‘n’ rollers.

Although he’s writing about the idea of “nationhood” and the formation of modern nations, Benedict Anderson makes the trenchant observation in Imagined Communities that since it was impossible for the generation that came of age after the historic ruptures of 1776 (America) and 1789 (France) to recapture the spirit and inspiration that gave rise to these revolutionary moments, the following, or second, generation began “the process of reading nationalism genealogically—as the expression of an historic tradition of serial continuity” (1991 paperback ed., p. 195). The process of reading nationalism genealogically, as a process unfolding serially in time, gave rise to the study of history, history itself as a profession—the historian. Those who, for example, take upon themselves the duty of constructing The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll perform the same sort of activities as other historians, selecting representative figures, moments, and events from the past and then ascribing to them value and distinction in a larger pattern of meaning.

Take, for example, the claim widely attributed to Brian Eno, that although just a few thousand people bought the first album by the Velvet Underground, virtually every one who did so was inspired to start a band. While one might legitimately ask how he (or whomever actually uttered the remark) managed to acquire such information and to possess such grand, omnisicent knowledge, that’s really not the point. My point is that he’s taking on the role of the historian—like all historians, his role a self-appointed one—constructing a cause-and-effect narrative history of rock, giving it a genealogy and hence a tradition. In this case, he’s ascribing to the Velvet Underground a key or foundational moment in a larger, sequential narrative called the history of rock, asserting that those who came within earshot of that VU album were the inheritors—the torchbearers—of the spirit and innovation of the band (the proper names of the group normally would follow). By analogy, think of the genealogical style of Biblical chronicles: x begat y, y begat z, and so on.

He has every right to make remarks like that, of course, as Benedict Anderson points out, since those who come after, the second, third, and subsequent generations, have the right to speak for the dead--even when those on whose behalf they speak could have never understood themselves as such (198). (As Anderson points out, Michelet, the self-appointed historian of the French Revolution, claimed to speak for those who sacrificed themselves for the nation of France, insisting that he could speak on behalf of the dead, saying what they "really" meant and what they "really" wanted.) In the creation of a narrative in which the Velvet Underground serves as the grand ur-precursor to every subsequent avant-garde, experimental, glam rock, punk, post-punk, new wave, goth, and indie rock band to follow, the historian is actually speaking his own history, in actuality his own desire, articulating a faith, for he is really designating as a precursor a band whose members authored a future that they could have neither predicted nor fully comprehended.

Here’s the same general point, stated more poetically, by Gertrude Stein:

No one is ahead of his time, it is only that the particular variety of creating his time is the one that his contemporaries who are also creating their own time refuse to accept. And they refuse to accept it for a very simple reason and that is that they do not have to accept it for any reason. . . . Those who are creating the modern composition authentically are naturally only of importance when they are dead because by that time the modern composition having become past is classified and the description of it is classical. That is the reason why the creator of the new composition in the arts is an outlaw until he is a classic, there is hardly a moment in between and it is really too bad very much too bad naturally for the creator but also very much too bad for the enjoyer. . . . For a very long time everybody refuses and then almost without a pause almost everybody accepts. (“Composition as Explanation,” in Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein, ed. Carl Van Vechten (The Modern Library, 1962), 514-15.

Why is the construction of such genealogical histories so important to us? Because to claim that there is no rationally directed development is to open one to the realization, as Karl Popper observed in the 1940s, that history has no discernible meaning or pattern, that the future is radically contingent. His argument has never been answered because it is unanswerable (except by an appeal to faith, a belief in teleology). Popper claimed that the human future will be as it has always been, dominated by technological changes. The history of rock has been dominated by technological change; a book ought to be written exploring the role of technology rather than, as most all are, as genealogical influence. What would rock music be if not for the electric guitar? The programmable synthesizer? And way back when: how else would have Elvis burst onto the national spotlight if not for television?

Genealogical history has the virtue of connecting the present to a past that consequently becomes meaningful, and hence providing the semblance of continuity from one generation to the next. But as for the creation of rock histories, influence (however defined) is a faith, and hence undemonstrable.

1 comment:

-Grant said...

You bring up a good point, Sam. The technology aspect is most certainly a driving force behind the change in 'style' of the era's music. However, whouldn't it be genealogical for a certain era's musicians to find their own way of utilizing that technology? I know you aren't taking ALL the credit away from musicians and giving it to technology. But if technology is going to advance anyway, I still think that it is the artists who need to be primarily recognized for their creative genius.