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The Problem with Rock 'N' Roll

By Luke Winkie

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If I wanted to, I could flaunt Foxygen’s We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Music in front of disgruntled boomers to prove to them that the heart of rock ‘n’ roll is still beating. It might be reductive but I think Foxygen would dig the designation. They’re the only songwriters who’ve written about San Francisco like a Mecca since at least Girls, and you don’t even get the sense that Jonathan Rado or Sam France has a pill habit. It’s a record that sounds like an epoch-spanning tour, impeccable melodies landing in Dylan rambles, flower-pop bursts, and darting post-punk groove. Foxygen know what they’re doing.

When December comes a-callin', Peace and Music may very well be the de facto Important Rock Album on our year-end lists—the token example that guitar music can still be potent, viable and soulful in 2013. Like Japandroids in 2012, Destroyer in 2011, LCD Soundsystem in 2010, and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart in 2009. It would be incredibly short-sighted to say nobody is marking new territory in rock music. Bands like Battles, Liars, and Besnard Lakes certainly do exist, and their presence is not to be taken lightly. But public consciousness rests on what it knows, and it knows Foxygen. It’s known Foxygen since before their songs were written, and that has made them ridiculously successful.

Rock music has become this strange place where the earth stands still, where the future seems unobtainable. Bands pick their spot on the timeline, and do it the best they can. I’m not spiting them, I like the songs. Foxygen plays the songs they want to hear. They're the same ones we all want to hear. We like our rock 'n' roll traditional and regal, and that’s not going to change any time soon.

Rock 'n' roll music is more than just music. A human being onstage with a guitar is a very powerful symbol. It’s old and weathered, purified with a longstanding sense of respect. We want these icons to guide us to places we only read about. Someone in front of an MPC doesn’t necessarily face the same social expectations as someone holding a guitar: Rock music, because of its history as literally the most important and dominant music of the past sixty years, might be inherently restrictive. Perhaps the guitar invokes something we can’t control.

On the other hand—and this is on some really real shit—there’s not very much you’re ever going to be able to do with a guitar that hasn’t already been done before. We’ve had guys like Yngwie Malmsteen or even Tom Morello take the shit you can do on a guitar to a whole different level, but it’s not like one of them comes along every single day, and it’s not like a guy being able to play fourteen notes at once while using his dick to pick the strings is necessarily going to be interesting. Meanwhile, once you make the mental leap to realize that your music doesn’t have to be structured around one single instrument or even instruments at all (I SEE YOU A CAPELLA) your ability to create groundbreaking art is pretty much revolutionized. So what, then, is an inherently reductive genre to do?

There might not be an answer; it’s not even necessarily a bad thing. The fetishization of old records has certainly led to some memorable music in modern times, but it’s also made it feel like rock ‘n roll has already reached its natural conclusion. Like the blues, or polka. That sort of mentality makes it easy to anoint Foxygen. They bring historical creativity, not necessarily progression, which is what we’re asking for. That might be a suitable thing. The idea that rock music is over and only available for loving reconciliation might be a good place to end. Nobody will stop caring about rock 'n' roll; its preservation makes it unavoidable. If it’s true that we as humankind have ceased to thirst for new ideas in rock music, because we’re already so nurtured with innovation in practically every other scene, then that’s acceptable. The future will only come if we’re culturally ready to celebrate whatever it is that’s ahead of the curve. Right now it’s hard to see that happening.

 

Luke Winkie ain't got no more ass; he done wrote it off. You should follow him on Twitter here - @luke_winkie

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