Worn out leather jackets.
Black skinny pants.
Groupies. Lots of groupies.
Smashing guitars in hotel rooms and getting caught in Tokyo for trying to smuggle marijuana into Japan.
These terms and phrases reflect only some of the things that have come to inform the public imagination about what makes up the image of a rock star.
While a careful and thoughtful analysis of pinpointing the precise social, economic and cultural factors for why rock music in the West suddenly became so pretentious deserves a completely different blog post altogether, I believe it can arguably be said that there are indeed certain elitist values, beliefs and stories that contemporary western rock music romanticizes and perpetuates.
Some of these stories include believing that western rock music is the only “pure” form of music out there since it doesn’t involve the use of manufactured, artificial, lip-synched or auto-tuned sounds like all the other music of today.
In this kind of story, there is the assumption that western rock music is far more superior in form and content because it is “more raw.” After all, the singers sing and write their own songs and heck, these artists must have toured dive bars for years, so they must be good because the people of dive bars really know good music!
Another story told about western rock music is that it is THE MUSIC of youth rebellion, despair and sadness.
You can’t really be as sad as you say you are if you haven’t listened to that infinite Cure playlist I made for you last week.
In my opinion, the most frustrating story told about western rock music is that if you don’t know and internalize everything there is to know about a particular band that you like (how they formed, what went into making each album, where they are now), then you’re not really a “good” or “true” fan.
You’re just a phony and you probably like mainstream music too, EW!
Or even a comment as strange as: The moment anyone says “I really like that song by Justin Bieber,” I instantly know this person is not credible and anything they say is probably wrong!
While it sounds like I might be in the company of the legion of die-hard 11-year-old Green Day fans based on the italicized text above, those statements are what real life people have actually said to my friends and me. Scholar Kelefah Sanneh identifies these kinds of statements to be a part of a slowly developing yet well-known prejudice in popular music criticism called rockism.
According to Sanneh,
A rockist isn’t just someone who loves rock ‘n’ roll, who goes on and on about Bruce Springsteen, who champions ragged-voiced singer-songwriters no one has ever heard of. A rockist is someone who reduces rock ‘n’ roll to a caricature, then uses that caricature as a weapon. Rockism means idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; lionizing punk while barely tolerating disco; loving the live show and hating the music video; extolling the growling performer while hating the lip-syncher.
Rockism isn’t unrelated to older, more familiar prejudices - that’s part of why it’s so powerful, and so worth arguing about. The pop star, the disco diva, the lip-syncher, the “awesomely bad” hit maker: could it really be a coincidence that rockist complaints often pit straight white men against the rest of the world? Like the anti-disco backlash of 25 years ago, the current rockist consensus seems to reflect not just an idea of how music should be made but also an idea about who should be making it.
I’m interested in how these very same values, belief systems and stories are heard by people of colour who listen to western rock music and how these people of colour internalize these messages to perpetuate patterns of internal self-loathing and internalized racism in their musical tastes and social behaviours.
This isn’t to say that all western rock music makes people of colour hate themselves and project that hate onto other people of colour. After all, there are many rock musicians like Tina Turner, Alexis Brown, Joan Jett and Pearl whose work speaks to more empowering, uplifting and joyful messages. Rather, it’s to point out how people of colour, particularly those who are first generation North Americans, can’t listen to western rock music passively. To listen to western rock music passively would be to miss out on how forms of privilege, oppression, racialized histories and diasporic anxieties collide with one another, even in something as mundane as engaging with music.
In my own experiences, I used to be able to listen to bands like the Rolling Stones and Nine Inch Nails without any critique. Eventually, I realized how white-centric the supposedly universal messages these bands were putting out, and just couldn’t listen to their music unproblematically anymore. I just couldn’t keep willfully ignoring the fact that the people in these bands didn’t look like me. It was all just 50 shades of white and beige all the time, all talking about the same homogenous message. This is important, because for a young person of colour, even seeing a face similar in colour to yours in popular western media can often make a world of difference for your self-confidence, self-identity and self-esteem.
In fact, I remember hearing a Nirvana song once called, “I hate myself and I want to die” when I was 14 years old and thinking, “whoa, Kurt gets it.” Years later, I understood the white, middle-class suburban context in which that despairing song emerged, and seriously wanted to kick myself in the choli for believing the message of the that song to be “universal.”
Kurt Cobain himself was someone who fascinated me for a long time because of the always-accumulating mythology built around his life. Considered by some as a forerunner of “good rock music,” it never occurred to me till recently just how much Cobain’s difficult personal life was romanticized and glorified based on the messages contained in his music.
Even today, in all of the detailed biographies about him, writers and fans seem to gloss over the fact that Cobain was also dealing with exhausting mental health and drug-abuse issues throughout his musical career. Whether intended to or not, fans of Nirvana (myself included) bought into the western rock narrative generated by the band: the narrative of lost youth, longing for better days, rebellion against the status quo, suicidal thoughts and pining for a soulmate.
At the same time, it’s curious to consider how the tragic death of Whitney Houston, an equally if not more romanticized musician, saw news media outlets, fans and music critics respond with a rhetoric of “tsk tsk, she should have known better,” rather than “OMG, my precious baby, you are such a martyr.” I wonder what could have caused such a different public reaction?
Just to reel you back in, this isn’t to suggest that you shouldn’t listen to a particular band because their message is messed up. You CAN like a kind of music that is problematic and still enjoy it in the way you want and like. [Ed. note: the forthcoming spring issue of Shameless includes a piece that focuses on this issue! Stay tuned.]
Rather, this is to suggest that when it comes to the experience of listening to music, particularly western rock music, we should take great care to be critical of those who try to take up space and demand that their musical tastes and likes are the only “true,” “best,” “informed” musical tastes. In a relevant way, I believe these elitist tendencies in discussing western rock music can be connected to the operations and movement of social power and privilege.
When having the unfortunate or entertaining experience of debating with a rockist person on types of western rock music, watch out for the rockist’s tendency to make it seem like there is only one narrow branch of rock music that is good. Rockists seem to forget that the entire genre of western rock music is so richly diverse in its origins and sub-genres and how it is actually full of people from all races, genders, sexualities and abilities.
Rockists also seem to forget how the western rock music that they so dearly cherish today had its origins with the rhythm and blues genre created by the black slaves and ancestors of the American slave regime. Rockists would rather you not know that for the most part, rhythm and blues musicians crafted their content as a response to the systematic oppression and brutal violence they encountered for living in a white supremacist society. To me, it seems like rockists don’t want you to remember that inconvenient racialized origin story, because that would mean they couldn’t continue saying that people of colour playing guitars was an oxymoron.
From my own experiences of listening to western rock music, I always felt like the reason why rock became so popular during the period that it did was because at the time, it seemed to challenge and transform existing social norms of family, sex and gender. At the time of its popularization, it seemed to offer people, particularly youth an entire realm to themselves for rebellion, freedom, community and some kind of profit.
In the United States, where much of the popularization of rock music was taking place on a mass scale, I believe that rock music was able to become so big when it did because it was also the time of the unfettered American mass production of goods. Nuclear, white families were being encouraged to buy everything from television sets, fridges, cars and all kinds of how-to guides. There was so many new products and goods they had to deal with and youth had all this extra disposable income and leisure time to spend money on things like music. For these reasons, it’s especially interesting to see how a specific economic and social context in North America would end up creating the foundation for a white-art-snob culture devoted entirely toward dictating what musical content in western rock music should be created and who should be creating it.
Stay tuned for That’s Rockist, Part II, where I dive a little deeper into my experience of listening to rock music as a first generation POC North American. In the meantime, here’s an awesome Shameless playlist made for the purposes of this very blog post.