Rock & Roll in Retrospect
By Karl X Brown
As I type away with an unlit cigarette in the corner of my mouth, listening to ‘Godzilla’ by Blue Öyster Cult, I am trying to hearken back to a time that I did not experience but for which I still feel some nostalgia. This song reeks of weed smoke and incense. It has a lot of reverb on the guitars, which are heavy but subdued. In this way, it is a prototypical stoner-rock song, more sonically similar to Cream or Queens of the Stone Age than, say, thrash metal.
I stop rocking for a trice, and light the cigarette. And I look out towards the city through the maple leaves outside my window. ‘Godzilla’ closes out with a refrain that goes: history shows again and again how nature points up the folly of man. This seems true, if a bit non-sequitur for a song that is pretty straightforwardly about Godzilla. And I cannot help but wonder if maybe rock and roll itself was a mistake.
I grew up playing guitar. I hung out in guitar shops for hours, playing Gibsons I could never afford, complaining about the music of the time, and debating who was the Best Guitarist Ever.
What the fuck else is there to do in the suburbs?
As of today, the guitar is not near the center of musical culture, and for many reasons I cannot imagine that many boys are begging their parents to buy them one. For one, the degree of failure and frustration involved with learning an instrument is inherently discouraging. Indeed, I remember being unable to produce a single clear tone with one finger on the E string. But moreover, dopamine access is trivial today even compared with 15 years ago. In a time when video games are so complex and engrossing, and porn is ubiquitous and free, it must be nigh impossible as a 14-year-old not to be addicted to gaming, masturbation, or both. In any case, why would a white boy, who had just spent all day learning Common Core math and being subtly brainwashed, then come home only to suck at an instrument whose mastery no longer carries any social cachet?
Of course, guitars are still used in popular music today, but like with most of Bruce Springsteen’s catalogue, the guitar kind of disappears into the ensemble. It is a genre-signifier, something to hold in order to look the part. Despite its loss of status, however, its appeal is obvious and somewhat eternal. The acoustic guitar is versatile, but the electric guitar is virile, even phallic. The guitar solo, as a concept at least, is an outpouring of sexual energy. The solo was so standard for so long that even the ridiculous pop song ‘Walk Like an Egyptian’ has one—and a better one, technically speaking, than the tedious ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ whose solo is just Kurt Cobain playing the vocal melody with some bends.
The solo became passé around the turn of the century when a somewhat nebbish style of indie rock became cool. Some rock bands emerged with seven or eight members, with some of those members being the girlfriends of the other members, some of whom may or may not have held advanced degrees from schools like Juilliard or the Boston Conservatory. Once it became uncool for white guys to be toxically masculine and ridiculous, the writing was on the wall. By now, the rock genre has exhausted its capacity for mainstream importance, and the entertainment industry as a whole has basically attacked masculinity for decades now.
We can perhaps look to the mainstreaming of grunge to find a key turning point, namely the aforesaid Cobain for having written ‘Polly,’ a delightful little ballad about rape and torture, and for having penned an obnoxiously liberal rant for the liner notes of the ‘Incesticide’ album. In this heroin-fueled diatribe, he apologized for being ‘so anally PC’ but also urged that his listeners ‘leave us the fuck alone!’ if they hate [insert coalition of the oppressed]. Let us not forget, too, that Cobain was a borderline rapist in his own right. It is almost banal to say that the phenomenon of male feminism is almost invariably either a sublimation of some guilt, or a twisted form of dating strategy (i.e. predation).
We can also point to Eddie Vedder, who apropos of nothing broke into a pro-choice freestyle during the instrumental break of ‘Porch’ on SNL in 1992. With this move, Vedder shat on what was an otherwise stellar performance for that venue, all the while clad in a t-shirt that bore an image of a coat-hanger.
Now these were serious musicians who were serious their beliefs: no PR man had to instruct these two to boast shitty opinions any more than a record executive could have told them what chord progression to use; but in hindsight, it is clear that these kinds histrionics were never a threat to the real power structure, which has channeled the energy of leftist politics of this very sort since the 1960s. I push no particular conspiracy theory here, but it is basically ancient wisdom that there is more power in the arts as such—in music, fiction, and other cultural memes—than in any dialectical discourse or ideological autism. If you want the nudge the masses in a certain way, ‘here we are now, entertain us…’
So how has public opinion changed since the halcyon early 90s, those weirdly cynical yet painfully earnest times? Anymore, the pro-choice position is about as edgy as burning a Bible: it is an act of speech, an opinion, and opinions are welcome so long as they question the traditional morality. The right to end an unborn's life for any reason whatever (and 95% of the time it is elective or money-related) is now a self-evident moral maxim among liberals. Try selling pro-life in a city like Chicago today and you will certainly be met with hostility, possibly a finger in your grill, or a fist in your ear. ‘What did we ever do to these guys that made them so violent?’
I guess the lesson here is that culture happens, one way or another. If it is useful, social engineers will get their hands on it, and the sails will be raised to catch the ‘winds of change.’ Thus we might speak of the entire history of rock and roll. Grunge was not so much about leftism as I see it, but about the record companies simply selling suburban ennui and misery back to us. It was about teaching a bunch of impressionable latchkey kids to embrace cynicism and irony, and entire albums about heroin. This cohort was like Play-Doh. Their successors, the Millenials, are like Play-Doh that the kid left out too long, hardened and dried, unyielding in their support of whatever garbage the system has handed them.
Rock felt good, as rebellion, aggression and idolatry always do. And I still like it; it remains the music of our lives. But in the final count, I guess all we have is the nostalgia for the last ‘American decade’ and for flannel and baggy jeans. Today, many of the relics remain in the form of a bunch of fat-faced, aging punkers in eyeglasses, still touring bars and playing festivals, and saying ‘fuck Trump’ and ‘fuck Nazis,’ while toeing the line of Alphabet Inc., PepsiCo, and the EU.
Don’t ya know that you can count me out?
Not long ago, there was in American society a pretty high degree of shared experience, at least relative to the present time. Before the logarithmic growth of Internet and the advent of social media, people more or less did, and consumed, a lot more of the same specific media at the same time. This included the evening news and prime-time TV shows as well as music. When a big rock band would put out a new record, for example, it was a relatively big deal. Imagine a world in which teenage girls went out and bought ‘Frampton Comes Alive.’ This world existed, for better or worse, in our parents’ lifetimes, and perhaps some of ours.
Not long ago, rock bands sold millions of copies, often in a matter of weeks, and sometimes in a matter of days—Pearl Jam’s ‘Vs.’ in 1993 took just over one week to go platinum. Rock stars were ‘poets’ who ‘spoke for a generation.’ The kids would ape their styles and ultimately construct their worldviews to some extent on the basis of the lyrics of, say, Roger Waters or Billy Corgan or Jello Biafra.
Not long ago, people listened to terrestrial radio, and consequently made fat and unattractive DJs into quasi-celebrities. MTV would premier a video from a big band, or Michael Jackson, during prime-time, and kids would talk about it at school the next day. To put things in a somewhat startling perspective, the 1981 Rolling Stones U.S. Tour was attended by about 1.3% of the American population, with 50 shows averaging 60,000 in attendance. Stadium rock was fairly new in those days, and so this tour has since been eclipsed in scale many times over, namely by heavily promoted globalist wankers like U2, and other assorted pop stars who have virtually no talent.
Now popularity is not necessarily a worthwhile aim in itself. Popularity is just a phenomenon, one that has no intrinsic relationship with quality—and more often than not, I would say, an antagonistic one. It is surely amazing, nonetheless, to consider that there was a time when the biggest rock band in the world was authentically great: the Stones in fact remain the GOAT, irrespective of mine or anyone’s opinion in this matter. Just as Aristotle was simply ‘The Philosopher’ to the Muslims, so are the Stones the definitive rock band. They are what it means to be cool, what it means to have a dick and to impose toxic masculinity upon the world
Is this circumstance, wherein popularity and quality intersect, possible to reproduce? Was this a one shot deal? Whatever the answer might be, had the Stones done twice as many shows on that ‘81 tour, and in only Rose Bowl-sized stadiums, they would have probably sold out every single night. None of this is to say that ‘classic rock’ per se ought to come back. We have already smoked that bowl, scraped the resin, and then smoked that too. I am also not saying that we ought to mainstream the Talk Box again, or resurrect Peter Frampton, if he is as dead as I suspect he is. Rather, the point is that this all speaks of a different world, one which is not coming back for many reasons. To be sure, this is partly due to technology as previously mentioned, which privatizes our experiences and isolates us, but it is also in no small part due to other, people-related reasons.
The city I live in—not the City of Angels, but the ‘city of Big Shoulders’—is basically nothing like it used to be. It has long been cleansed of European enclaves. Those peoples were scattered to the suburbs during the post-war period of the last century, evidently to give birth to sardonic grunge fans. There was a time in which ‘ethnic’ meant, say, Czech or Catholic. My city retains the schools built by all of those people. It retains the names of the neighborhoods, the streets and the parks. All of the charming storefronts, bungalows, and three-flats will stand for as long as there is the human capital to maintain them, but beneath the nominal and superficial, it is a different city. Save for the Democratic voting, the stupidly high taxes, and the corruption, most everything that once was now is not.
There are many obvious reasons for this which venture into forbidden territory, but flux of this sort is the new reality throughout the developed world. Wherever the thirsty weed of Americanism takes root in urban areas, it starves out the local flora and fauna, and over time we see the sundry cultural capitals of the West fall one by one to this menace. This is now exacerbated by the extreme genetic disparity among the population. Given these circumstances, there no longer exists in America the possibility for art that speaks to, or springs from, the masses.
Now American culture is historically tough to pin down, precisely because America has always been ‘multinational.’ The states began as nations unto themselves, with citizens owing their primary allegiances to those states, and with regions to this day showing much of the same genetic clustering. Thus the Civil War is, I think, rightly seen as a war that was ultimately rooted in real ethnic differences among fairly closely-related white peoples. This is an obviously heterodox position, but the Southern honor culture, as the smallest of examples, did not arise from nowhere. Those people were largely of a different origin than, say, the more refined and reserved Yankees of New England. To this day, Southerners call us Yankees, and we Yankees flee the high rents and dysfunction that we ourselves created, and then go on to occupy the big Southern cities and turn them blue.
The point is that cultural phenomena are not merely products of historical circumstance as liberal apologists would require them to be, but are instead unavoidably bound up with genetic heritage, which is quite stubborn and reluctant to change. As we can observe, wherever Europeans have set out on the globe—be it America, Australia, or the Southern Cone—they have tended to more or less re-create something very much like Europe in terms of social organization, aesthetics, and economic outcomes. And even with the great diversity of Europe considered, there is a mean that is in some way visible and tangible: the American South and the American North, for example, are far more similar than either one is with Mexico, or Taiwan.
Thus, if one sees culture as an organic outgrowth of some genetic mean as such, it is a short leap to consider something like the Civil War as a conflict between two distinct nations of Europeans. Now this seems quite contradictory, given that on one hand we are arguing that Europeans are so much alike, while at the same time so different, and wont to start wars with each other; but history has shown both to be quite true.
Today our situation is kind of like the antebellum period, except that the genetic and cultural disparity is significantly greater, and the potential for conflict all the more explosive. The future is unpredictable, but the past testifies loudly to the fact that war is first and foremost a product of disparate peoples occupying the same political space, and this is invariably preceded by the very kind of cultural war we see every day in politics and the media.
It is often said by the gainsayers of conservative nostalgia, with great snark, that America ‘has no culture’ or ‘never had a culture.’ But if ‘culture’ as a phenomenon refers more or less to the aesthetic backdrop of a society, it would be an offense against language to make such a claim. ‘Culture’ here is merely a descriptive term, the locus of all things superficial and observable: like the philosophical concept of ‘the world,’ it exists by logical necessity. Thus even Anglo-Canada has a culture, which as anyone can see, is markedly different from the Québécois culture. And what is the origin of the phenomenal differences between these Canadian populations if not the essential genetic differences between English people and French people?
That this needs to be argued at all demonstrates that the civic nation-state—the American ‘idea’ writ large—depends on a willful ignorance of the most basic aspects of diversity. Indeed this idea is diversity’s devaluation and its destruction. It is a kind of alchemy, only without the expectation of a synergy or ‘improvement.’
But regardless of one’s position on the spiritual origin of poutine or the ultimate cause of the Civil War, it is hardly controversial to say that within the larger sphere of Americanism, the culture has come to be a ‘non-culture culture.’ Today, the shared cultural experience lies almost exclusively in the realm of overrated TV dramas and boring Super Bowls. Aside from this, we are all equally assaulted with the same media stories—tragedies mostly—which are politicized to excruciating degrees and then memory-holed shortly thereafter. In other words, we share nothing but pure tediousness. And a society of tediousness surely grows weary by the day, and seeks not to create and innovate, but to adapt for survival’s sake, or simply hide away.
Now it has been noted that the music of any ‘today’ always ‘sucks’ compared to the music of yesterday, but this time it is unarguably true. And this observation extends itself so far beyond past complaints about Muzak, disco, or whatever was said of the Beatles by the people who grew up listening to whatever was popular before that. The music I am subjected to when I go to any place of business is so aggressively bad, so off-putting and alien to me, that it could only be described as psychological warfare. To go grocery shopping, or to go workout without headphones, is to have one’s mind raped by a succubus with an affected black-American trill, backed by a generic Latino beat. If the artist happens to be white, it is likely some effete mimicry of rock, always employing the standard (vi-IV-I-V) pop-punk progression.
This is the music for people who actually dislike music to listen to in their offices, during commutes, shopping for sundries, and other places where one must simply tune out. This is the music of people who resent art, perhaps despise it, and perhaps on some level fear consciousness itself. The great Roger Scruton spelled out the reality of this noise pollution better than I could, but in any case I could not fathom having to work in a retail store these days and putting up with this stuff for up to eight hours. Why is this the case? Diversity and corporatism come to mind as the obvious causes. The former disturbs the cohesion that is prerequisite for the possibility of real culture; while the latter for its part consolidates power over any industry, and simply ‘runs the numbers’ and finds a ‘good fit.’ This naturally applies to the music industry, and the result of course is some kind of unholy ‘cultural median’ as described in the previous paragraph.
But there is surely more going on here beneath the left-right dialectic, which inevitably mires itself in an unwinnable ‘racism versus antiracism’ jerkoff. Even in the homogenous society, we are not seeing a lot of innovation aside from consumer products and other social cancers. The intangible quality that produces things like culture and intellectual innovation seems to be largely absent, and the latter is censored whenever it appears. We like to fetishize Japan, for example, but they appear to be spiritually ill, showing a number of pathologies as a result of taking up Westernization which is not essentially of them.
Across what is called the West (which might as well include Japan and even South Korea) there is distinct feeling of ‘what’s the fucking point’? We observe the declining birthrates and forget that this too is part of the same spiritual illness. The concept of ‘creativity’ hinges itself on a relation to a transcendent principle, which bestows a form. Thus to make anything, be it art or new life, is to comprehend some likeness of that which is atemporal. To create, then, is to dance, freely as one can, within the bounds that are somehow given from above. But there is no ‘above’ to supply the will that is perhaps necessary for the kind of world that we long for. We have ironically made the world, and the entire cosmos, flat. And all of existence is but a biochemical fatality, or so we are told.
Look, I have no drop of ideology in me. If I could sum up how I feel about things as concisely as possible, I would say that I simply ‘disagree with the premise,’ because that premise—whether one calls it liberal democracy or Americanism—is clearly false. And given this contempt for the natural order of things, one cannot imagine how things might have played out in any other way. All of the chaos, the spiritual torpor, the infanticide, the ‘hate and bigotry’...this is a civilization in its twilight coming to love its own lies. This is not the end of the world. No, these things seem to happen in cycles. But the die is cast—creative exhaustion marks the time, post-history has set in. ‘It’s on America’s tortured brow, that Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow...’
Someone has written, ‘all things must pass.’ I find nothing less inspiring than the conservative impulse to want to simply revert to some idealized point in the past. Now this may be a strawman of conservative thinking far more often than it is true, but it does happen to the best of us. And the man who can only ever think in this way is mediocrity incarnate. This is what the GOP sells to you.
At one point it was thought that rock could never die, but at some point between the gunshot that felled Kurt Cobain and Obama’s second term, it did. Rock died, and therewith also those Boomers, bra-burners, spooks and subversives who ‘broke up our tables of values.’ Rock is dead, insofar as that means that rock is no longer ‘important.’ But then again, what is ‘important’ in America these days other than the latest outrage?
There are doubtless a thousand rock shows happening on this very summer’s day, but many of the acts that tour the bars and play the large festivals are in their 50s, or were never that popular, or good, to begin with. We have already seen rock shunted to the side, and if things should continue unfettered, it is likely that when the children of the Boomers die out, rock will go the way of skiffle. It is actually easy to imagine an America of, say, 2060 in which only a few scholars would know anything about the music that we and our parents grew up with.
The headliners of today’s rock festivals are often women, or other acts who are not even vaguely attempting to rock. There are always hip hop acts wedged into these things, too—and nothing is more pointless, nothing more embarrassing to behold, than live hip hop It is tantamount to karaoke but without the attempt at a melody (and so considerably worse than actual karaoke). This evolution of taste is not accidental, nor is this the best example of black music.
I suspect that the vast majority of the white people at these shows would have never come to like hip hop were it not for social engineers jamming it down our throats, and tastemakers like Pitchfork insisting that it bore some artistic merit. Even Kanye, perhaps the one example of a true artist in this genre, is profoundly overrated. He surrounds himself with a bunch of white music dorks to pick out those impossibly obscure samples that round out his perceived genius. And this is genius in a way; it clearly works. The Kanye type is a safe replacement for the archetype that the kids really want. He is the Id, the ego, the excess...but he is just a clever producer doing karaoke. Count the rock star among the many things they took from you.
It is true that the slave will learn to love his slavery. He will go to great lengths to justify the utter shit that surrounds him. The masses will learn to like anything even if is not of them, and even if it is clearly bad for them. But the aesthetics, the philosophy of our time, it betrays our every instinct: the modern man knows that something is wrong, that perhaps everything is wrong. There is still in this man an urge to make beautiful things, a drive for authenticity. The Ur-hipster cries out against all lies! If one is normal—which means one is numbed—one simply consumes the trash music, the trash food, and the comic book flicks. If one is angry, one might dive into some esotericism, or spend a bit too much of his time debating how to ‘improve mankind’ or something else preposterous.
But anger is a gift. Even Aldous Huxley, the hideous technocrat, spoke of the utter hostility of the modern world towards the man in his natural state. Anymore, your own maladjustment may be the lone benchmark that tells you that you are indeed still alive, that a mysterious life force still exists within the ‘whatness’ of your being, that you are not merely an organic conduit for porn, corn syrup, and Fake News on a track towards the Abyss. Embrace the anomie. Impose your will onto the world. This is what rock means. Rock may have been abused, but in its true form it reflects something in us that is unmistakable, and eternal.
The picture we have painted here represents the ‘lonesome, crowded West’ that Modest Mouse mused about over twenty years ago. It represents the source material for Arcade Fire’s ‘The Suburbs’ of roughly a decade ago. Indeed, so much of what we have to say today is but an echo of what has already been said so well, and which others had already set to a few memorable chords. All of these gripes are true, and none of them is new, but we have not yet come to agree on a way out. I doubt that the members of Modest Mouse or Arcade Fire share more than a tiny sliver of my worldview, but I interpret their lyrics through my own lense, and take that truth as it comes to me. After all, truth today is, for all practical purposes, a private show.
Though we knew this day would come
Still it took us by surprise
In this town where I was born
I now see through a dead man's eyes
Karl X Brown
is a romantic: a reactionary, reacting irrationally to rationality. He is a lifelong Chicagoan and Northwestern alum; an essayist from the perspective of transcendental realism, classical metaphysics, Orthodox theology, and most of all, the absurd.