Saturday, November 24, 2007

Rock is Deader than Dead

Rock is Deader than Dead. So said Marilyn Manson.

Build a new god
To medicate and to ape
Sell us ersatz
Dressed up and real fake
Anything to belong
Anything to belong
Rock is deader than dead
Shock is all in your head

I wrote a little while ago about the unnatural persistence of old rock music. These zombie tracks are treasure trove for those of us, including me, who are perfectly happy with our dumpster-diving lifestyle. But their sheer number means they're a brake on those young 'uns who think they have something new to say. Something I read recently something says this does not matter. If it's really new, it will require a new way to say it.

In Helix, a Speculative Fiction magazine, yesterday, I read a thesis by John Barnes about SF - apparenlty also deader than dead - and why it died at the right time. In it, Barnes gives us a quick home test for dead genres:

A genre is alive if new works can change the genre fundamentally (e.g. the way that, say, the Campbell Astounding of the 1940s did science fiction, Showboat and Oklahoma! changed the musical, or Hammett and Chandler changed the mystery), and not if the reaction instead is to say, "Well, that's not really in the genre." A genre is alive if it is consumed by people who passionately want to see what comes next, and not if it is consumed the way people consume string quartets, Proust, or Shakespeare. … A genre is alive if innovations are debated, fought over, copied, and re-adapted …. It is no longer alive if new tropes and strategies are nearly always treated as one-time stunts or experiments.

This seems like as good a smell-test as any. Looking at rock music today, do you think anyone can come along and wrench it into another direction now? Or has it run its developmental course and reached its adult and almost certainly senescent stage?

Barnes's reasoning for the existence of an actual lifespan for a genre is interesting, though I wasn't convinced of its universality:

And it [science fiction] is a genre that flourished among mostly English-speaking, mostly middle-class, mostly Caucasian readers from the late 20's to the early 90's of the last century — in other words, for about seventy years.

There is nothing unusual about that figure; if you look at genres that have flourished in the past (and faded since), most of the good stuff, the stuff that is remembered long after the genre fades, falls within a span of about seventy years.

Once, about a thousand years ago, I read something in a science fiction story. It said that if you want a successful scam, you have to come up with a new angle. And if all the angles have been covered, then you must come up with a new spin on an old angle. I would say that science fiction and rock music are probably at the stage of finding new spins on old angles. But in these days of niche marketing and long tails, you can argue that a new spin on an old angle is sufficient to meet the criteria Barnes gives for the genesis of a new genre, which he describes as follows:

Their deaths are built in at their origins (like other living things). At some time, just prior to the formation of the genre, there is some sort of hole in the culture, some subject the culture can't think about well, or reconcile itself to. It might be rhythm and exuberant sexuality (as with rock'n'roll). It might be the plain feelings of ordinary people, unmediated by formal analysis and classical references (as with the early Romantic poets). It doesn't matter what it is nearly as much as it matters that somewhere, there's something culturally important that the culture doesn't have a way to talk about.

If a new spin on an old angle plugs the hole in the culture, then the old angle is still alive, ne?

I can remember when Waiting For The Next Big Thing ™ was itself the Big Thing. Broadly speaking, we'd divide popular music into decades. You could quibble about the actual start year, but for the purposes of argument, call it fifty-seven, sixty-seven, seventy-seven and eighty-seven – Rock&Roll, Psychedelia/Prog, Punk and Hip-Hop. Then the big seventh waves stopped rolling in. Ninety-Seven – no major shift there. 2007 – it's the end of November and I haven't noticed anything yet. (Then again, I don't think I've listened to any music generated this year yet.)

I'm still listening to rock, because there really isn't much else that actually makes me feel good that's readily available. Of course, that may be because I've reached adulthood and am beginning senescence myself.

Barnes's article is a good (shortish) read, for both Science Fiction fans and rock fans, even though I took it with a grain of salt.

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