The great rock ‘n’ roll swindle
What were the best albums of the 20th century?
Look through a dozen lists and you’ll find the same few coming up again and again. “The White Album” by the Beatles, “Nevermind” by Nirvana, “Exile on Main St.” by The Rolling Stones, “Led Zeppelin IV” by Led Zeppelin and “The Velvet Underground & Nico” by The Velvet Underground are particular examples. These are ubiquitous classic records, and they illustrate quite clearly the bias of American music media.
The five albums that have been most often cited as “the greatest ever” are: “Revolver” by the Beatles, “Nevermind” by Nirvana, “The White Album” by the Beatles, “Pet Sounds” by The Beach Boys, and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” by The Beatles. It’s not really surprising to see the Beatles topping such a list – they were, somehow, the top-selling artist of 2009, despite being defunct for almost 40 years – but is the best album of the 20th century absolutely going to be a rock album? That’s a big claim to make.
Let’s start with the first big hole in this claim. The best selling album of all time is Michael Jackson’s 1982 release, “Thriller,” yet it’s not on that list. Sure, it’s hard to underrate the influence of the Beatles on modern music – Sir Paul even did a duet with Jackson on “Thriller” – but Jackson’s showmanship alone has defined live pop music and choreography. There’s Jackson in every hip-hop and R&B act since “Thriller” was released, not to mention much of the pop.
Hip-hop is a whole genre that doesn’t make it on “best-of” lists. Run-DMC, for example, is partially responsible for a major genre of music, and they’re in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Female artists don’t rank high on such lists either, despite Whitney Houston and Shania Twain breaking the $40 million sales mark.
The obvious conclusion we can draw from this is racism and sexism on the part of the mainstream music media. But that’s something for another column. More interesting are the musical qualities that seem to be preferred by the rock-biased – “rockist” – listener.
The rockist prefers artists who present a unique style that evolves over time. The rockist wants a performance, not just good composition. The songwriter or songwriters must be performers. Ideally, the rockist prefers groups of talented musicians who form a band to combine their visions and abilities, though the rockist enjoys one or two key band members acting as the face and creative drive for the band.
Lyrically, the rockist likes big concepts and more general emotional vibes, though a good concept or story album will drive the rockist nuts. Both lyrically and musically, the rockist likes a big chorus to sing along to. Though the rockist likes the record, a skilled if not virtuosic live performance is key to the musical experience. Though the rockist emphasizes the live performance, the rockist is album-oriented more than single-oriented.
All of these elements, minus the underlying racism and sexism, present an interesting filter through which to view music. French electronic duo Daft Punk passes almost every point on the above rockist bias checklist. They are composers and samplers, but they include original instrumentation in their music, and they produce a vivid, unique show from their giant lit-up pyramid stage. The same is true of pop musician P!nk, though her backing band gets little credit.
So here’s the downside to the rockist bias. It cheapens great performers who are poor songwriters, and it cheapens great songwriters who are poor live performers. It dismisses artists who focus on sharpening their songwriting and building a large, consistent song catalog. More repetitive song structures that focus on building a groove are passed up. The rockist emphasizes the complexity of each instrument, which ignores complex composition formed by simpler instrumental parts.
Rockism is just another lens through which to view music. For the most part, the lens itself isn’t the problem. The problem is the contempt so many music critics have for other points of view. Sure, the point of being a music critic is to have an opinion, but the rockist bias has been around so long and is so popular that differing opinions are put off to the side. Music is subjective; “Revolver” is not objectively better than a Ke$ha album, the work of Tupac Shakur or recordings of spring birds in the Bosque del Apache.
Music isn’t about being right or wrong. Music is about beauty, and beauty is in the ear of the listener.