Which one of these guys is the real 21st Century Rock Star?
I keep reading commentary on Gene Simmons’ Rolling Stone interview (conducted by his own son) where he stated that rock music was “murdered” by people no longer wanting to pay for music. And then the commenters go into a whole spiel about other people delivering eulogies to the art form for decades now and how that’s an old hackneyed thing to say. Yeah, it is. And defending it is even more ridiculous. It’s all a subjective circlejerk anyway.
And after watching the Apple Watch and iPhone announcement yesterday and seeing the reaction to it on the Twitters and Facebooks, it made me think about Gene’s comments and what they meant.
Because what happened yesterday that no one was talking about? The biggest band in the world, U2, released a new album free on iTunes. Not “pay what you want”, not the Amazon or Best Buy “exclusive” discount, but free. And almost no one gave a shit.
That’s still not what Gene Simmons was talking about. He was talking about the opportunities to make a lot of money (like he and Paul Stanley did) in selling music recordings. That has changed since digital downloads turned music from a physical object to zeroes and ones that you can get on your phone. The price of producing and consuming musical recordings has gone down incredibly over the past decade and a half and so the industry has changed. If you’re still thinking that making it in music will make you fabulously rich, then you’re over 45 living in the old world or under 15 living in a fantasy world. That horse is fucking dead, no reason to beat it.
But that’s not what I want to talk about either, I want to talk about the art form. Because rock music as a style is very much alive, but as a social movement, it can join Jazz and Big Band in the land of the dead.
Gene Simmons saw rock music as a way to get rich and famous and laid. But before it was a meal ticket (just like a lot of black kids feel about making it as a Hip Hop artist now – however, as a successful Hip Hop artist you have a lot more chance of making a track that will light America on fire than you do as a successful rock musician), it was rebellion against the establishment of the 1950s and the “Greatest Generation”, who were trying to maintain their outdated values in the era of mass media. That’s what Mad Men portrays so beautifully.
By the time that KISS became the “Hottest Band in the Land”, rock was already not the most popular music on the charts. Don’t get me wrong, I love those goofy makeup-faced bastards, but they didn’t represent rebellion, they were theater. Punk had an ethos and a community of rebellion, so did the Sunset Strip hedonism of glam rock, and even the opiate nihilism of Grunge (which was co-opted so ridiculously quickly.)
But the movement is dead. It no longer means anything and we all know it. The biggest artists of the Classic Rock era are dead or touring on just their hits. Billy Joel won’t even release an album of new material anymore because he knows that nobody would care if it came out. Think Frank Sinatra in the 1960s, he retreated to Las Vegas and acting.
American Rock Music meant something not only to the youth who were changing their social scene drastically in the United States in the 1960s, but it represented hope to the people under Soviet domination stuck behind the Iron Curtain. We had their hearts and minds because rock n’ roll represented freedom, it represented a better way of life. Is that what it represents today? Genres like Stoner Metal or Active Rock don’t just not have the same kind of revolutionary context of The Doors or Bob Dylan, it’s not even in the same league when it comes to traction. It’s a niche category, a majority of people just haven’t heard the music.
If the biggest band in the world in 1968, The Beatles, came out with a new record they were giving away free, then they wouldn’t have been overshadowed if it was released on the same day as RCA’s new record player. The artists were the stars because that’s what attracted the Baby Boomers. They wanted to be like the artists and challenge the status quo. And modern Rock music doesn’t challenge anything. “Meet the New Boss, same as the Old Boss”. It isn’t rebellious anymore because the Rock n’ Roll Generation won. Tattoos and piercings are no longer seen as a barrier to entry when it comes to employment. There’s nothing shocking in Rock stars’ behavior and lyrics have lost their power to make us gasp, Gangsta Rap desensitized us to the that stuff in the 90s.
So when we watch the Apple Watch and the iPhone being released (and so many people tried that they crashed Apple’s live streaming site), no matter what your opinion is of their product, we’re seeing The Beatles on the rooftop. We’re seeing Jimi play “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock.
Technology is the revolution that music used to be. And it’s better. Tech lets us make these things ourselves. And that’s better than worshipping some asshole who can play a few nice chords. Rock music as a movement gave us some great songs, but it also turned regular people into demigods who were able to live with impunity over others and behave in criminal ways and everyone would just laugh it off. We deified deviants because they were good performers. Half the context for the “Rock Revolution” came from what the audience wanted to believe that the artist represented. It was the best we could do for awhile.
But now, we want to make it ourselves. We don’t need Paul McCartney to tell us to “Let It Be” anymore, we want to record our own song and upload it to YouTube. With the tools to create videos, songs, and photos in your pocket all the time, and the audience of your friends that you can reach instantly through social networks, everyone’s a creator. And some creators will always find a bigger audience than others, but we decide, it’s not just shoved down our throats (most of the time, some people still listen to the radio and watch whatever’s on TV, but obviously the ratings have shown us they’re a dying breed.)
I have no idea if the new Apple products are going to be any good (that iPhone 6 Plus looks grotesquely large for a man with delicate hands like myself) but I do know that this new technology has shown us the true value of our entertainment industry. It’s harder to make a living at it because anyone can produce something themselves and more people are doing it.
And when the regular person is no longer forced to pay for music, he won’t. Outside of t-shirts and live performances, musicians haven’t made their case in a compelling manner as to why they should be made incredibly wealthy and when the corrupt music industry can’t prop itself up through inflated prices and dirty tricks then it’s forced to live on the money that people are willing to give them.
Right now, most people see that value in technology (even if it’s $350 for a watch that will chain you to your email and phone even more – but that’s an article for another time), that’s where the cutting edge is. It’s okay, revolutions end. Rock can take its place with Jazz or Ragtime as a great music style, it’s no longer the voice of the people. But I think maybe it’s better that they’re speaking for themselves.