Thursday, June 3, 2010

Not Quite Classic

A long time ago I wrote about the word "modern," how many meanings it can have, how confusing it is to keep those meanings straight and how they often overlap. I had become frustrated by it while studying "early modern" philosophers.

A much less lofty area of "study" has struck me today with the abuse and confusion it afflicts by having appropriated the word "classic." Classic rock is what got me to thinking about all that's Classic. And not so Classic.

Classic has been used to refer to several kinds and periods of philosophers, and then you've got your classical, which is best known because of classical music (mostly unrelated to rock music, unless you're Ian Andersen, and completely unrelated to classical civilizations), but then you've also got your classical influences in art, your Neo-Classical art, and those classical civilizations (also referred to as "antiquity") which are really just your ancient Greeks and Romans and no one else. Sheesh!

Now I wish I had the resources and the genius to prove to you that there should be a Classic Rock canon (like the Western canon, complete with dead and aging white dudes, only it would totally rock), but I may never get there. Other people have probably attempted to set the rules for one. Of course this assumes that there should be canons of anything, at all. Well I, for one, believe there should be, so we can skip over that argument (for now) and just be left with the wondering about how we would go about selecting the rock canon.

If we're going to canonize, then we might as well periodize. Periodizing is far trickier than it sounds. You can't just cut things up by date. Art, literature, rock music, whatever have you, is categorized by style as well as roughly by date. These two considerations (and often location as well, which isn't as important with rock music since it's mostly an American/British hodge-podge) go into the making of a period. Notice we don't refer to "late 19th century writers" as much as we do to "Victorian novelists," nor do we talk much about "early seventeenth century literature" but rather "Elizabethan drama." Same goes for those I already mentioned, "modern poets," or more snazzily, "the moderns." We don't call them "early twentieth century writers from both Britain and America." The period or, more realistically, the category we put the literature into gets a loaded name (i.e. Romantic) that means so much more than a period or a genre or a location. The style and influence of the thing in question is probably the most important factor in how it is categorized. Yet, we can't look past the time factor completely. If something in a particular style is separated by many years from its influences, it becomes a "Neo-" this or that, or gets its own shiny new period name.

The point of that last paragraph (it started to get away from me I tell you) was that Classic Rock is something of a rock period name, and it is a confusing one. Rock is more commonly (than literature) classified almost completely by style when we want to get specific, even though the people who know the styles know they come from certain periods. Motown, Doo Wop, Jazz Fusion, Heavy Metal etc. The term Classic Rock, by contrast, sounds as if it is seeking to classify rock by a time period -- but Classic Rock also refers to a certain broad style, even if that's not apparent in the "period" name. And of course, within that period there are many, many types of styles or maybe rock genres that we can name. For instance, arena rock, folk rock, the rock opera, Southern rock, and (perhaps paradoxically) progressive rock, are all Classic.

But that kind of variation is to be expected when you classify by time period -- within what everyone calls Enlightenment philosophy, there are different schools sharing some basic aims, i.e. Rationalists and Empiricists, yet there are contemporary philosophies that no one would ever call "Enlightened" even though they happened at the same time. Similarly, not all popular music contemporary with what we call Classic Rock earns that illustrious label. Sometimes because of style (The Cars are "Classic," Depeche Mode is not), sometimes because it just sucks (or gets overlooked) and doesn't ever get played again. Just like with literature, where not everything makes it into the classroom or even the library, not everything will make it onto the radio (our rock classroom) or into the record store (our rock library). So since it refers to a period, but not everything in that period, and since it keeps stretching that period as it sees fit, the word "classic" has become almost as confusing as the word "modern"! Especially when I start to hear fucking Red Hot Chili Peppers on my go-to Classic Rock station. I adamantly exclude them from the canon.

So I'm going to say this -- Classic rock is a period/style of rock. It is not a never-ending moving-wall time period, and it is not just anything with guitars in it that's started to collect some dust. You can call your car classic when it's 25 years old, no matter what kind of jallopy it is. (The rock stations are not even waiting that long to effectually canonize the jallopy music of the 1990s!) So someday somebody's Chevy Tahoe will be classic. That's okay, a GM product is not really art. But "Classic," with a capital "C" as applied to rock music, should come to mean that fixed but blurry-edged period of rock (mid-sixties to mid-eighties perhaps?) when it was gelling, developing, experimenting, doing its best, throughout its golden and silver ages (which some rock scholars and DJs will define). Most of it deals with simple subjects, uses simple instruments (at least for the core of the band), and appeals to the same parts of the brain/crotch. Some of the later stuff (and progressive rock, as the name suggests) is more complex, and makes attempts at reflecting on itself and the world. This is the end of it, as it was with the end of classic visual art. Self-awareness, once achieved, ushers in new eras and disconnects the artist from what's become tradition. The Police are a good example of this I think. (And "Classic" Sting is my favorite English teacher turned rock star. Are there more I wonder?)

They're here to warn us about the dangers of standing too close to older men,
and to let us know we should try to get out of Suburbia before some Scottish
dude gets eaten by a loch-monster.

So Classic Rock rose from artistic striving, through oblivion and self-indulgence, into self-awareness and subsequent self-destruction. Rock after the 80s became over-indulgent once again, but in a trite way. We get our Grunge, our Alternative (to what?) music. I listened to all of that stuff, having been a "tween" and early teen in the early '90s. It was good to me, but I knew it wasn't the same thing as Led Zeppelin or The Who. After a few years of that grungy stuff (some of which is played once in a great while on my station, and I forgive them for some of it) I stopped listening to new rock music altogether, unless you count weird shit that would never be on the radio. Many serious rock folk agree that the end of all decent popular rock music happened around 1996 or 1997. The recognition of that date might be what has caused the 60s-70s-80s stations to start including the early '90s in their line-up. If Nirvana's the end of an era doesn't that make it Classic? I don't think it does. Maybe we can call it Post-Classic. And now we're in a Dark Age!

Anyhow I need to do the work to make a more complete case for this if we are ever to decide on a basic Classic Rock canon. Until then (whenever then might be) I will continue to be offended when U2 or REM interrupt my listening with their whiny, unclassic, tunes, (whining seems to be big thing post-1980s) and I think I still may write a nasty letter asking for the removal of the Chili Peppers from those hallowed airwaves vibrating at 97.1MHz, those imagined wavy lines who usually carry to my waiting ears some groovin' bass line or some soaring tenor vocals. Scrub them clean of the filth of Anthony Keidis!

Today on The Drive (the aforementioned 97.1 FM) the DJ told a story of The Kinks' Ray Davies having to fly back to London from New York right after recording Lola, because the BBC was making them dub over "Coca-Cola" with "cherry cola." Today the studio (if there was any studio involved) would text him on his cell, he would go to the hotel and sing the new line into his iBook, then email it to London to be digitally patched over, leveled out, and anti-aliased all to hell to cover up any noticeable change in quality. But Davies had to fly back to London to re-record a tiny piece of magnetically stored sound so the engineers could carefully splice and tape it back together, all to ensure that the rock n' roll was not audibly tainted by capitalism. Now that's Classic.


  1. Music, eep. Another area where my knowledge is sadly lacking. Well, I'll try my best because I really did enjoy this post. I love it when smart people talk about music because I can almost understand what they're getting at :)

    I admit, terms like "Modern" and "Classic" tend to go right over my head if they're not explained very carefully. Wait, "Classic" and "Antiquity" are different? Sorry, I'm still experiencing burn-out apparently.

    So Nirvana wouldn't be Classic Rock? I knew it was Grunge, but I thought it also fit in the Classic Rock canon. Hmmm.

    I'm going to take your word for what qualifies as Classic Rock, because like I said earlier, this is an area that is not my strong suit. I knew that U2 and Red Hot Chili Peppers didn't fit in it. My old system was that if it came out when I was in school, it wasn't Classic. I always thought Classic was 60s-70s (I left out the 80s, bad me again).

    I like your argument, its well drawn out and it makes sense. The anecdote at the end was brilliant by the way. I curse how modern technology has taken some of the art out of music.

    You should teach something like "Philosophy of Classic Rock". That was completely random, apologies. Sleep-deprivation tends to do that.

    Great post, Robyn! :)

  2. I would love to teach some kind of rock class someday. They do "film as literature" everywhere -- why not "rock as literature"?

    Nirvana and other Grunge probably will end up in the canon because it's the end of an era, but I really see that as the final rock fizzle-out period and not Classic Rock. To draw an unlikely parallel, I also get annoyed that people refer to the 15th century as "medieval." Now that's gonna make me have to write another entry...


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