It’s time to stop using “rock” as a catch-all term for popular music
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I Want My MTV—the rude, ribald, and ridiculously entertaining oral history of the cable channel’s first 10 years by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum—consists mostly of stories about rock stars made to look like flamboyant aerobics instructors by gay video directors, comedians freebasing cocaine with college students on spring break, and TV executives (allegedly) receiving oral pleasure from pop singers in the work place. But one story stands out for being more telling about its era than salacious: It’s about the efforts of Run-DMC’s label, Def Jam, to get the rap group’s early, rock-oriented videos aired on MTV. Run-DMC’s struggle to get airplay is an old story about newcomers both resisting and yearning to be a part of the establishment; it’s also illustrative of how the word “rock” seems a lot less significant now than it was 25 years ago.
Although the monumental popularity of Michael Jackson made MTV abandon its early position as a rock-only channel that excluded black artists, Run-DMC and the nascent culture it represented was a still hard sell for the network, even as the group made concessions in order to fit in with rock tradition. Some of Run-DMC’s earliest hits featured heavy guitars and put “rock” right in the title—there was 1984’s “Rock Box,” and the following year there was “King Of Rock.” (It might not be accurate to call these “concessions”; according to Def Jam’s head of publicity Bill Adler, “our guys always thought of [this music] as rock. You rock the mic. You rock the bells.”)
In the “King Of Rock” video, Run and DMC walk into a rock ’n’ roll museum and are stopped by a security guard (played by Late Night With David Letterman regular Calvert DeForest, a.k.a. Larry “Bud” Melman), who cackles, “You don’t belong in here!” The guys proceed anyway, and make a mockery of the place, scoffing at Buddy Holly and The Beatles and even stepping on Michael Jackson’s glove. It must’ve seemed heretical to some at the time for two rappers to blow raspberries at these music legends, but the idea was to gain mainstream acceptance—on MTV, on the radio, and in the media—by aggressive force. “We were sick of journalists asking, ‘Do you think hip-hop is a fad?’ ‘Where do you think you’ll be in five years?’ We felt disrespected,” DMC says in the book. “You’re goddamn right we wanted to cuss out The Beatles.”
Run-DMC was inducted into the actual Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2009, the official sign of acceptance by the rock establishment, though by that time the recognition seemed superfluous. Run-DMC’s impact on pop culture was already beyond question; what is questionable is why we’re still using “rock” as an umbrella term for all the forms of popular music being made today.
In 1985, “rock” was used synonymously with “pop”—that’s why it was so important for Run-DMC to position itself as a kind of rock act, because it made the group visible in the mainstream. And it’s why institutions like the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame have been charged with recognizing excellence in all genres of pop for more than 25 years. In some respects, we still use rock as a catch-all in 2011, though this is more a reflection of old habits in parlance than how things are currently situated in music. A cursory listen to the radio or glance at a sales chart confirms as much; good luck finding white, long-haired men with guitars. And it’s backed up by the numbers: The closest thing to a rock album on the list of this year’s biggest sellers is Mumford And Sons’ Sigh No More, a genuine blockbuster whose extraordinary success over the course of nearly two years makes it the exception that proves the rule. (For comparison’s sake, Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter IV has done similar numbers in about a quarter of the time.) Coldplay’s Mylo Xyloto has a shot at creeping into the year-end top 10, though that’s arguably due to the band’s willingness to go with the flow of contemporary pop; Rihanna dueting with Chris Martin helps the latter more than the former, just as appearing on Kanye West songs catapulted Justin Vernon of Bon Iver to stardom.
This is a better showing than 2010, when no rock albums ranked in the top 10. Rock fared even worse on the singles charts last year; if the definition of rock is capable of being stretched far enough to include Train’s “Hey Soul Sister,” then rock had a grand total of one song on the list of the year’s top 10 most popular digital downloads. The news was no better in the U.K., where the BBC declared 2010 “the worst year for rock ’n’ roll since 1960.” How bad was it? The highest ranking rock single in the year-end British Top 100 was a rendition of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” from Glee. In all, only three rock songs charted on the U.K. list, down from 13 in 2009 and 27 in 2008.
Rock’s poor chart performance in 2010 was part of an ongoing downward sales trend that goes back to at least to the turn of the century. On Billboard’s list of the top artists of the ’00s, which was compiled using data from the albums and Hot 100 singles charts, only one rock band ranked in the Top 10: Nickelback. Two other bands, Creed and Linkin Park, squeaked into the lower reaches of the Top 20, thanks mainly to popular releases from earlier in the decade. The only Billboard chart where rock did well was the Top Touring Artists list, but the long-term commercial prognosis for the genre wasn’t exactly rosy there, either. Four out of the top five road warriors were rock acts, but all of them—The Rolling Stones, U2, Bruce Springsteen, and Elton John—are old enough to be Adele’s parents (or grandparents). The youngest of the top touring rock groups, Bon Jovi, is still primarily known as an ’80s band geared toward big-haired housewives who name their vibrators “Richie.”
A lot of this seems so obvious that it's practically common sense. (Critics have been having this conversation since the ’80s.) And yet we still have things like GQ’s “Gods Of Rock” cover from November, where hip-hop’s two biggest contemporary stars, Eminem and Lil Wayne, appear next to the living embodiment of rock’s indefatigable spirit, Keith Richards. Once upon a time, purists would’ve flipped over Eminem and Lil Wayne being “legitimized” with the “gods of rock” tag (whatever “gods of rock” is supposed to mean). Today, the photo seems wrong for a different set of reasons. Imagine Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry standing next to Glenn Miller under the headline “Gods Of Swing,” and you get the idea.
I love Keith Richards, and I love rock probably more than any other kind of music. But Eminem is the biggest-selling artist of the 21st century, and Lil Wayne is one of the most famous men on the planet with one of the year’s most popular albums. Richards, meanwhile, hasn’t played on a No. 1 record in 30 years. Perhaps it’s time we look at the achievements of the other two guys through a different, more modern lens. “Rock” as a signifier of master-of-the-universe level stardom just doesn’t ring true anymore.
At this point, lumping Eminem and Lil Wayne into rock history makes rock in 2011 seem popular and mainstream—not the other way around. While rock has never been rigidly defined as a genre, and has a magpie sensibility with new sounds and trends, it is no longer the center of pop culture, with the prerogative of granting honorary membership to artists practicing in other genres. Even if rock has never been specific or easily definable entity, the term no longer suits the wide-ranging and amorphous body of music currently being made and heard.
But if not rock, what? Is it time to start talking about emerging rock bands plugging into “the heart of hip-hop”? Should rappers be claiming non-rap artists as their own, forming a new lake that all other musical tributaries lead to? It might only be a matter of time before music historians remember Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith for contributing drum parts to so many classic rap songs; The Beatles for inspiring parts of the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique; and King Crimson for supplying an awesome hook to “Power” from West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Because Run-DMC won’t be barging into the music museums of the future; it will be running them.