The Kings Of Rock Are Dying, Long Live The King

The American rock band Starship, which was a continuation of Jefferson Starship, is known for her infamous song “We Built This City On Rock And Roll”:

However, it is perhaps more accurate to say that rock-and-roll was built on rebellion. Whether it was against “traditional” (i.e. Christian for their times) values, religion, society, culture, or whatever was the intended target, rock-and-roll, for all of the catchy beats and popular songs she has produced, was fundamentally created out of a rejection of that which was valued at the time. It was young, contemporary, and liked by many. Youth is often times associated with the genre because just as many young people want to “discover” who they are, a phenomenon documented in many cultures throughout history, it is out of the youthful period of a man’s life that he feels a sense of invincibility as well as a belief that he can take on the world by himself.

Youth is a wonderful thing, but like all good things, it is temporary and fit to serve a purpose. In a world post-original sin, to put it bluntly, people get old and die. It’s a reality that nobody- not even rock stars -want to face.

Yet this is the reality that rock stars- as with the rest of their aging generation -are having to come to face. It is going to have a significant impact on the genre as well, for while there are many different styles of rock that exist today, the men who defined the “golden age” of rock-and-roll are all within a similar age group, and so are going to likely “die off” in mass:

Rock music isn’t dead, but it’s barely hanging on.

This is true in at least two senses.

Though popular music sales in general have plummeted since their peak around the turn of the millennium, certain genres continue to generate commercial excitement: pop, rap, hip-hop, country. But rock — amplified and often distorted electric guitars, bass, drums, melodic if frequently abrasive lead vocals, with songs usually penned exclusively by the members of the band — barely registers on the charts. There are still important rock musicians making music in a range of styles — Canada’s Big Wreck excels at sophisticated progressive hard rock, for example, while the more subdued American band Dawes artfully expands on the soulful songwriting that thrived in California during the 1970s. But these groups often toil in relative obscurity, selling a few thousand records at a time, performing to modest-sized crowds in clubs and theaters.

But there’s another sense in which rock is very nearly dead: Just about every rock legend you can think of is going to die within the next decade or so.

The decline of rock music as a profitable genre is something that the music industry has already taken note of. In 2018, hip-hop and its variant styles successfully displaced rock as the most popular music genre. This is likely tied to the declining Boomer population, which was the main target audience of the genre as well as its largest consumer, and likely into old age.

Something that one forgets about music is that it is something which defines culture, and that in turn shapes a man’s perspective on what he values. Rock is, as noted above, a “young” person’s music, but it is rooted in the rebellion that is long associated with youth, not because one must be young to listen to it. This philosophy of “rebellion” summarizes the ethos of the Boomer generation, who spent her years in relative prosperity as compared to their parents and enjoyed a very high standard of living largely due to the tremendous expansions of credit by which they indebted themselves and taught their progeny to do likewise. They tended to reject religion, culture, tradition, and all things which bind a man to his family and the past.

Traditions come and go, as well as do certain practices. However, this is usually an organic process, where one thing gives way to another, but not with a disconnect from history. Just as it was the Boomer generation in which abortion was adopted- something that came about largely due to the acceptance of through their Silent Generation parents and the previous “Greatest Generation” before them -it was the Boomers who continued that abortion not through their rejection of the ethos of their parents, but by the systematic abortion of it from their lives and adopting a chaotic “winner-take-all” mindset in which, as the famous 1980s saying went (which was also the age of “maturity”, family production, and income earning for Boomers), “he who dies with the most toys wins”.

Yes, we’ve lost some already. On top of the icons who died horribly young decades ago — Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Elvis Presley, John Lennon — there’s the litany of legends felled by illness, drugs, and just plain old age in more recent years: George Harrison, Ray Charles, Michael Jackson, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Tom Petty.

Those losses have been painful. But it’s nothing compared with the tidal wave of obituaries to come. The grief and nostalgia will wash over us all. Yes, the Boomers left alive will take it hardest — these were their heroes and generational compatriots. But rock remained the biggest game in town through the 1990s, which implicates GenXers like myself, no less than plenty of millennials.

All of which means there’s going to be an awful lot of mourning going on.

Behold the killing fields that lie before us: Bob Dylan (78 years old); Paul McCartney (77); Paul Simon (77) and Art Garfunkel (77); Carole King (77); Brian Wilson (77); Mick Jagger (76) and Keith Richards (75); Joni Mitchell (75); Jimmy Page (75) and Robert Plant (71); Ray Davies (75); Roger Daltrey (75) and Pete Townshend (74); Roger Waters (75) and David Gilmour (73); Rod Stewart (74); Eric Clapton (74); Debbie Harry (74); Neil Young (73); Van Morrison (73); Bryan Ferry (73); Elton John (72); Don Henley (72); James Taylor (71); Jackson Browne (70); Billy Joel (70); and Bruce Springsteen (69, but turning 70 next month).

A few of these legends might manage to live into their 90s, despite all the … wear and tear to which they’ve subjected their bodies over the decades. But most of them will not.

I can pick out most of who these people are, and so can many Millennials, Gen X, and Boomers. But what relevance do these people have, truly, outside of their music about what is often times drugs, sex, and self-indulgence, as that is what defined the genre for most?

Men do not live their lives in a vacuum. Everything we do- for good or for bad -is a contribution to ourselves, our communities, and those around us. Now there is no problem with playing music, and even things that may not in themselves have absolute intrinsic value or are just for fun. Entertainment indulges some of the passions of the soul, and it is not a bad thing to laugh, or to rejoice, or to enjoy oneself. The problem is when that is all which one does because if one does not act outside of this, one can become trapped in a prison of his own making where this is all that he can produce.

It is not limited to music either, but to any area of life. It is in part a reason for the general depression that pervades American life, because one is forced to do certain things in order to earn an income, or because it is all that one knows and one does not know or have the ability (for any number of reasons), or sometimes desire to get out of one’s circumstances. If this continues long enough, it does not help a man better himself or those around him, but it becomes a weight that sits on his shoulders, bearing him down until he collapses and, being stuck with no way seeming to relieve himself, he gives himself over to the death of his self and rots under his own burden.

The musicians here, as with other people who gain large amounts of money or power, is that the sensation of power becomes a drug that one must take more of to get a sense of arousal from, and each time with diminishing returns. A man in his 20s who was popular on stage may have been able to get lots of women and fame, but now that he is in his 70s, he may still strive for the same “high” of the past but with the same means. It not only feels not the same, but it just looks creepy to see an old man acting like he is 50 years younger than who he actually is. At least with the man in the office, or in the fields, or in another dead-end type job, his depression comes from essentially his acknowledgement as a slave to another man or a situation, not like in the case of the rocker, who is enslaved to his passions, which are fickle and change constantly and can never be fully satisfied.

This will force us not only to endure their passing, but to confront our own mortality as well.

From the beginning, rock music has been an expression of defiance, an assertion of youthful vitality and excess and libido against the ravages of time and maturity. This impulse sometimes (frequently?) veered into foolishness. Think of the early rock anthem in which the singer proclaimed, “I hope I die before I get old.” As a gesture, this was a quintessential statement of rock bravado, but I doubt very much its author (The Who’s Pete Townshend) regrets having survived into old age.

It’s one thing for a young musician to insist it’s better to burn out than to fade away. But does this defiance commit the artist to a life of self-destruction, his authenticity tied to his active courting of annihilation? Only a delusional teenager convinced of his own invincibility, or a nihilist, could embrace such an ideal. For most rock stars, the bravado was an act, or it became one as the months stretched into years and then decades. The defiance tended to become sublimated into art, with the struggle against limits and constraints — the longing to break on through to the other side — merging with creative ambition to produce something of lasting worth. The rock star became another in our civilization’s long line of geniuses raging against the dying of the light.

In 2012, the musician Ke$ha put out a satanic song called “Die Young” where in the video she desecrates a Catholic Church in a satanic ritual:

This is not a rock video, but this video captures the essence of what rock is.

Now I do not want to say “all rock is bad” or serves no purpose. This is grossly incorrect. However, it is the philosophy behind it- that one must be like spark in a pan, or a firecracker in the night, that it would be better to life for a short while in a blast of glory based on selfish indulgence than to live a long and hard life.

Note that I emphasized selfishness, because a short life lived for the glory of God or in a very moral way is a huge blessing. The Catholic Church has noted this too, that many of the truly great saints died young because they served their purpose for God’s creation, and He took them home. This is also not to say that old age is bad, for while it is true that many evil men are given a long life because, dreadfully, this is all they have, a long life is also a blessing, especially for a sinner, because it is more time to repent, to do good deeds, and to help others.

The issue is again one of philosophy. Taking an Epicurean bend, it is to place all of one’s hope in the material, and if that is so then there is no purpose to life other than to indulge oneself, and if that is the case, why not enjoy everything now hard, fast, and viciously, before one gets too old and has to face reality?

Rock music was always a popular art made and consumed by ordinary, imperfect people. The artists themselves were often self-taught, absorbing influences from anywhere and everywhere, blending styles in new ways, pushing against their limitations as musicians and singers, taking up and assimilating technological innovations as quickly as they appeared. Many aspired to art — in composition, record production, and performance — but to reach it they had to ascend up and out of the muck from which they started.

Record companies and professional producers and engineers were usually at the helm, making sure to protect their reputations and investments. Yet to an astonishing degree, the artists got their way. Songs and albums were treated by all — the musicians themselves, but also the record companies, critics, and of course the fans — as Statements. For a time, the capitalist juggernaut made possible and sustained the creation of popular art that sometimes achieved a new form of human excellence. That it didn’t last shouldn’t keep us from appreciating how remarkable it was while it did.

Rock music has its origins in various forms of popular guitar music mixed with the blues. However, like country music versus original bluegrass and other forms of common Anglo-Irish mountain music, the rock genre was a corporate creation which came into existence by large record companies, many of them Jewish owned, taking the basest, crudest, most vulgar aspects of these songs, distilling them into something cruder, and marketing it as a cultural achievement to define a generation. This same process also repeats with the rap industry, as it is largely owned by the same general record labels and they have simply switched the styles for a different audience. Ultimately it is all about profit and not the people save to take their money from them.

This is likewise another reflection of the failure of the Boomer generation and their parents to pass on their culture and history to each other in a healthy way. By their rejection they simply gave way to another thing to replace it, just as manufactured and artificial as was their break with the past.

Like all monumental acts of creativity, the artists were driven by an aspiration to transcend their own finitude, to create something of lasting value, something enduring that would live beyond those who created it. That striving for immortality expressed itself in so many ways — in the deafening volume and garish sensory overload of rock concerts, in the death-defying excess of the parties and the drugs, in the adulation of groupies eager to bed the demigods who adorned their bedroom walls, in the unabashed literary aspirations of the singer-songwriters, in mind-blowing experiments with song forms marked by seemingly inhuman rhythmic and harmonic complexity, in the orchestral sweep, ambition, and (yes) frequent pretension of concept albums and rock operas. All of it was a testament to the all-too-human longing to outlast the present — to live on past our finite days. To grasp and never let go of immortality.

It was all a lie, but it was a beautiful one. The rock stars’ days are numbered. They are going to die, as will we all. No one gets out alive. When we mourn the passing of the legends and the tragic greatness of what they’ve left behind for us to enjoy in the time we have left, we will also be mourning for ourselves. (source, source)

This is the time to turn to Wisdom 2 in Sacred Scripture, where God speaks:

For our lifetime is the passing of a shadow;

and our dying cannot be deferred

because it is fixed with a seal; and no one returns.

Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that are here,

and make use of creation with youthful zest

This is the ultimate crux of what separates the philosophy that “rock-and-roll”, as well as many of the forms of rap, especially “mumble rap”, have for today, as the only difference between the former and the latter is one of sound and face but not essence, from Christianity and much of culture.

Culture is an expression of the human soul and the experiences of a people, good or bad, in what they want to remember. Each culture is different in how she defines her memories.

The world has always suffered from a crisis of meaning, and this is part of what Christianity fixes, because Christ gave the correct teachings to guide those in the world for what the meaning of life is and how life is to be lived. Culture that comes from Christianity, while not directly related to it, is influenced by it and the two (ideally) work in a harmony. In the case of the Western world, this is what the Boomer generation largely rejected, and was influenced necessarily and directly by their parents. This process of rejection has not stopped, and the result has not been a better world, but a continual form of revolution passing to another revolution without any end or sense of peace and completion.

Rock-and-roll is dying and has given way to “mumble rap,” but make no mistake, “mumble rap” will die out too and be replaced by something else, and something that is likely more debased. The issue is not one of style, but philosophy that one chooses and is reflected in what one consumes, for as a man eats, so he becomes likewise.

It is sad to think about a 70 year old listening to “Walk this Way”, but is it any more ridiculous in 30 or 40 years to hear a Millenial or Zoomer listen to 2Pac, Eminem, or “Lil Xan” in the same way? It is just a different face and a different place, but the same end.

The world is not getting better as she is running full speed towards a new paganism. To quote the famous rock song by Molly Hatchet, she is “flirting with disaster”.

Now is the time for Christians, especially the younger ones, to consider what they want to define themselves by in terms of philosophy and culture, for it is difficult always and will become extremely hard in the future for one to continue to hold to one belief while continually embracing and persisting in values that are completely opposite it.

The death of rock is the death of one particular philosophy. It has changed forms in part, but with the death of one form always there is the opportunity for reflection to make a better choice.

The Kings, or rather idols of rock are dead, but long life the kingship of Christ.

 

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