Classic Rock

The sun is the same in a relative way, but you’re older.” -Pink Floyd

Around eighth grade or so, I began to catch on to a little secret my dad had been casually holding out in front of me for a few years: there is some serious pleasure to be gained from an appreciation of classic rock.  In my usage of “classic rock,” I mean to include all of the big 60’s/70’s rock n’roll bands like The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, CS&N, Bob Dylan, Janice Joplin, CCR, Hendrix– but remember, this is all experienced from the point of view of someone born in 1993, the year Nirvana released In Utero, at least a generation (or two) after classic rock faded from its unquestioned status as the dominant genre of popular American music.

This inspires a question.  What does classic rock mean to a “young person” today? And what did it mean to young people in the 60’s?  The term millennial is heaved about far too loosely (admittedly, this blog advertises its writer’s perspective as a uniquely “millennial” one).  We have so many more options because of changes in technological norms and information conveyance.  The avenues to hear music are easier to come by.

To start, classic rock will forever be associated for me with the hedonistic rockstar roadie image, the up-all-night, high-all-day, screw-jobs-and-conventional-society, we’re forever free! type of attitude.  This sort of ethos, chronicled throughout the extensive (and expensive) aura of the history of rock n’roll, the behind-the-scenes stories of the Jon and Paul meeting, or Keith Richards’ exploits in the London nightclubs of the 1960’s 2000’s, sells its listener on a very specific feeling- feelings of freedom, openness, vibrancy, youth, abandonment, the true spirit of rock.  In this sense, every rock song is about the same.  The buzzwords to listen for: babe, tonight, now, love, we/them, rebellion, resistance, liberation.  They won’t be hard to catch.

What were we liberating ourselves from? How’d the rebellion come to an end?  Where’s that resistance now?

As cultural writer Jeffrey Nealon points out, when Led Zeppelin plays over a Cadillac commercial and Rolling Stones tour can be sponsored quite literally by the housing bubble (their 2005 tour was brought to us by AmeriQuest Mortgage), we have to admit that those 1960’s cultural rebellion narratives we believed so strongly in are, simply put, dead.

Personally, I’m not able to love something, however grandiose and radiant, if I don’t believe it really exists.  I’m wary.  I don’t want to be tricked into seeing what’s not really there, especially by someone trying to sell me something.

The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” openly and transparently about the lack of consumer desire, now plays over a commercial for Hilton Hotels.  This isn’t what the Stones had in mind, is it? But the commercial will work. It’s a great investment on Hilton’s part; if the “use a rock song to sell my completely-unrelated product” formula wasn’t an effective one, marketing executives would stop using it.  They haven’t yet.  

I point all of this out and take on a somewhat cynical tone because I care about all of this very deeply.  It matters where we put our faith- and when I put my faith into a Led Zeppelin song when I was twelve, those feelings of authenticity and freedom became immediately attached both consciously and unconsciously to the commercials they were paired with. If classic rock songs could speak, they’d say “commodity culture sucks, live your own unique life.” But does the music and how its handled reflect this? I argue that it directly contradicts its own ethos. This narrative plays itself out over and over again on radio, iTunes re-releases, remastered music videos, historical documentaries, etc.

It’s that authenticity, the feeling you get when you “look to the west,” to borrow from a personal favorite in Stairway to Heaven, that makes classic rock such an enduring, recyclable product.  It’s a feeling that sells itself over and over again.  It gets stuck in your head.  It makes me wonder what we were really seeing out there in the endlessly-promising west.  If we really believed all that stuff, haven’t we failed ourselves just a bit?

We’re buying a feeling, a thrill, a perspective on the world.  It’s okay.  We’re buying an old pleasure, a tired alienation and pain; it’s the same as with everything else.

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