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In the beginning, the special magic of rock and roll is its countless freeze-frames of eternal youth and the promise of social regeneration that ought to be youth's reward, all expressed with apparent naturalness and spontaneity — an unimpeded, unratiocinated link to the wellsprings of creativity. But unself-consciousness is always a chimera, and in an information-laden culture like our own it soon proves a tough trick for ten-year-olds, never mind young adults or the old adults they fast become. So we end up valuing not just rock's purchase on youth, spontaneity, and renewal, all of which continue to pop up in the oddest places, but also the way it reconstitutes those staples in the presence of their opposites. Unexpectedly, rock and roll turns out to have a lot to say about aging as well — not about pretending to be something you're not, although plenty of fools try, but about retaining and refining flexibility and responsiveness as your emotions are weathered by loss and your physical plant decays. You learn that it's OK to become sophisticated as long as you don't lose your simplicity. Grooving or messing with rock's musical materials, seasoned troupers and overeducated young students of history conceive or reclaim or luck into admixtures, rediscoveries, and interactions that somehow don't crimp their access to direct emotion — even when they're painfully aware that direct emotion is the main thing they live for. Struggling for strains of humanistic corn accounted passé or oppressive by their betters, inspired amateurs make them live again. And every time these miracles come to pass, one's hopes for democracy are fortified against all the instances in which they've been smashed or distorted or cynically manipulated or just plain faked, often enough by rock and roll itself.

The nuevo-Athenian demos and the Frankfurtian "mass" are both hard to get hold of these days. Like every popular form since Greek tragedy, rock and roll has eaten itself over and over, accruing an ever-expanding body of historical reference and formal microdistinction, and like every modern commodity, it's been boutiqued from here to Fat Tuesday and megamarketed halfway to kingdom come. The sixties truism that located half the world's best music in the top forty has broken down as singles have evolved into video-driven promotional devices that invariably decline the utopian project of uniting a pop audience vaster than the sixties ever imagined, and that are generally anonymous dance fluff or sodden international ballads when they go all the way. As political meanings turn into superstructures built upon superstructures, social context counts for less. And while all too many sink sludgily into nostalgia, those who best love the music's usages and traditions are forced into the corner of aesthetics for its own sake.

Robert Christgau, Grown Up All Wrong: 75 Great Rock and Pop Artists from Vaudeville to Techno
Copyright © 1998 by Robert Christgau. All rights reserved.

Posted 11 April 1999


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