Rock and Roll Has Been Dead for Years
Covid-19 told us very little that we did not already know about American society. All the fissures it revealed were there long before, observable by anyone paying attention.
One of the best examples of this is the death of “rock and roll.” The spirit of rock music was capacious. The Rolling Stones were rock stars, and so were the members of NWA, the rap combo whose initials stand for a phrase that cannot be printed in a family magazine. Half a century ago rock was at the vanguard of a cultural revolution whose scope is almost impossible to describe. When John Lennon called the Beatles “bigger than Jesus” or asked us to “Imagine there’s no heaven,” the world took notice. Before the previously unimaginable combination of antinomian views and mass consumer appeal, everything gave way.
Fast forward to 2021 and it is difficult to escape the conclusion that rock is dead, and so is the spirit that made it possible. Today popular musicians are just an extension of the professional and managerial classes. Their job is to reinforce the elite worldview, not to question it. Try to imagine Keith Moon of The Who, whose hobbies included driving sports cars into swimming pools, taking masking seriously, or Janis Joplin eagerly announcing that she had been injected with something other than heroin because the president told her she should.
What the death of rock shows us is that the cultural revolution to which it was among the greatest contributors is over. There is a new establishment in place, and popular music exists to prop up the consensus it has established, not to overthrow or even to question it in the mildest possible terms. This is why instead of praising her as a rebel, the liberal media establishment has heaped scorn on Nicki Minaj for expressing doubts about vaccines, which are widespread among African Americans.
The Mountain Goats are not a name to conjure with in most circles, but suffice it to say that within the narrow world of 30-something men who have detailed opinions about beard grooming kits and bad relationships with their fathers they are very hot stuff. Within that unhappy sphere they are considered one of the best rock bands of the last 20 or so years. So naturally the band tweeted from its official account a few weeks ago to complain hysterically about an American Airlines pilot who drew attention to the fact that the CDC has not exactly been a model of scientific clarity during the last year and a half.
Thank goodness a few aging rockers didn’t get the memo. Van Morrison and Eric Clapton collaborated last year on an (admittedly ham-fisted and borderline unlistenable) anti-lockdown song. Dave Mustaine of Megadeth recently told an audience in New Jersey that he was sick of what he referred to as Covid-related “tyranny.” Three decades ago when metalheads like Mustaine were preaching the destruction of all of society’s values, they were heroes to everyone except that fountain of sanity Tipper Gore. Now they are the closest thing secular liberals can imagine to the forces of Satan.
Let’s not miss the point here. The question is not whether Morrison and Clapton were right (though I happen to agree with them) about lockdowns. It is about whether they were acting like rock stars by rejecting the consensus. They definitely were, and what’s striking is how little appetite there was for their arguments.
Maybe the death of rock and roll was a good thing. Certainly to fans of classical music and jazz its achievement seems comparatively thin today. We could also have done without the casualness it helped to bring about in dress and manners. Still, I can’t help but think that we should mourn this loss, as we would that of an ugly but iconic building. When it was destroying the consensus culture of the 1950s, rock might have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. But it was still skeptical of something, which is more than can be said for today’s entertainers.
Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp magazine and a contributing editor to The American Conservative.