I'm beginning to feel like I've been suckered. As a music obsessive of the geekiest order, I've committed a great percentage of my life to meaningless rock 'n' roll minutia; cognitively mapping out a virtual library of useless tidbits about bands that most people wouldn't even want to hear—all for the sake of asserting myself as a pulse-keeper for youth culture's most reliable timepiece: the rock 'n' roll band. Sure, many musical upstarts over the last 40 years have had their palpable merits—but in my stubbornness, I refused to remove my rock 'n' roll blinders. In one of its limitless permutations, my impossibly myopic reasoning reckoned the rock band would forever be a powerful voice in the minds of America's disaffected youth. And yet, for some years now, I've contended with a sinking feeling that I've done my best to ignore—the rising waters of realization finally coming to a head in this past year—the times, as another antiquated youth culture denizen once observed, are a-changin'.
THE DEATH OF THE BAND?
You probably wouldn't know it by reading this paper every week—what with the seemingly endless barrage of white, disaffected, and heavily quaffed foursomes that most Portland clubs contend with on a nightly basis—but the rock band as a cultural force seems to be dying a quiet death. Once the music of youthful rebellion, rock music has lost much of its decades-long caché among contemporary youth culture—ironically finding itself playing Ricky Nelson to hiphop's Rolling Stones. With hiphop increasingly asserting itself as music's dominant youth culture force, the rock band—in its customary guitar, bass, drums setup—is beginning to feel about as in step with youthful relevancy as jazz, bluegrass, or any other musical form devoted to traditionalism. The subsequent product of this decades-long shift (aside from bumming out most aging rock music obsessives) is that a lot of creative, musically minded young people are abandoning the traditional trappings of the rock band for the more insular, production-based mediums of hiphop and electronic music. Furthermore, the people who are largely making the most interesting, artistically relevant pop/rock music today are increasingly doing so with the benefit of similarly retiring technologies—often by assimilating the stylistic road markers of hiphop and electronic music. This, coupled with the compounding financial difficulty of being in a rock band—including equipment costs, space requirements, van rental/insurance—suggests that a shift is certainly at hand. It's a shift that—taken to its logical end—will eventually mean less necessity for band-ish entities on the whole. The question is: Have I sold my soul to a sinking ship?
But perhaps there is still hope. Raised under the Beatles school of popular music appreciation, I admit that I've always slightly favored the seemingly endless potential of the recorded medium over the testosterone bombast of the live performance. It's a balance that I have recently accepted in spite of my frequent misgivings, above all else because of the understanding that in order to directly support the musicians that I care about, I must do so in the clubs—as most independent musicians still derive the majority of their musical income from the tickets and merchandise they sell at shows. Still, as the disparity between performance and musical innovation seems to grow ever wider—especially where pop/rock music is concerned—the waning thrill of live performance has become increasingly difficult for many to justify. But it could be the band's only hope.
Recording technology has advanced to such a degree that even my most beloved indierock bands seem to have an impossible time effectively reproducing their sound live in an interesting way. More often than not, these sorts of performances feel as if I'm paying more for the pleasure of standing in the same room with said performer than I am for the sake of the music being performed. Conversely, the few who majestically transcend the often-tedious trappings of live performance—most of whom in some variation on the traditional "band"—rarely make the same convincing case on record. This rule is hardly steadfast, of course—I can almost sense the butterfly effect of thousands of noise musicians' simultaneous eye rolls—but it's difficult to argue that the distance between recording technology and live performance hasn't strained to a point of disparity.
As they rely most heavily on technology, hiphop and laptop artists are logically most guilty of this paradox—as their thoughtful, sonic complexities are, in live performance, most typically reduced to tuneless shouting and e-mail checking (respectively) atop direct input karaoke tracks. Physically unsuited to the well-established rock show paradigm they are largely forced to follow—that is, performing on a stage while people admire your passion, presence, and dexterity—many band-less performers resort to multimedia and performance art as a means of holding an audience's attention; tactics that, more than anything, just serve to distract from the music they're supposedly trying to promote. Try as they might, pre-recorded performers' attempts to animate their music essentially all seem to fall short of the rock band's because playing recorded tracks—no matter how much they alter them live—just feels like the antithesis of live music: it's dead music. And even if you know that guitarist has affected the same orgasmic posturing each of the 3,000 times he's played that solo, it's still somehow infinitely more believable when you know that the sound is coming out of his hands.
So the rock band can still take solace in the fact that—in spite of its dwindling relevance—they can typically trump the laptopian in the live arena. Is it any coincidence, then, that in the past several years we have witnessed a steady stream of indierock bands expanding to the size of small symphonies? Almost as if taking their advantage to a cartoonish extreme, bands like the Arcade Fire, Hidden Cameras, and—in the most ridiculous degree—the Polyphonic Spree have bloated to encompass a sound that could only be created by a mega-piece rock band, and are doing so to great commercial success.
Still, most bands can't afford to be the Polyphonic Spree—and with the obscenity of gas prices, an industry-wide drop in ticket sales, and the extreme over-saturation of the indie touring circuit, a lot of bands are finding it more and more difficult to tour at all. Then there's the looming (if distant) threat of music's inevitable abandonment of the album as tangible artifact—the point at which retail CDs will largely be deserted in favor of digital files—something that will threaten to cut a healthy chunk of merchandise money from the gas tank. Even if the rock band proves to be the last new performance-centric popular musical medium, how long could it possibly float on that fact alone?
DEAD MUSIC, PART TWO
It's a difficult idea to absorb completely—over decades of critical re-tread about rock music's coffin nails, the gluttonous standard of the rock band format has been saved time and time again by some stylistic re-invention. Today, that innovation is the product of reduction—the capacity of one person to create a sound that once required many. And maybe innovation needn't be by way of a four or five-way collaboration. Still, it's hard to imagine the shape that rock music would have taken were it not structured cooperatively—if it weren't for all of the competition and ego balancing, wouldn't the music industry of the last 40 some-odd years just be flooded with the sort of super-indulgent solo albums the critical world so consistently bemoans?
I wouldn't go so far as to suggest that rock music as a creative medium has gone entirely tits-up—I'll leave that to some other, more subjective music critic to decide—but I'll be damned if the traditional rock quartet isn't starting to look as antiquated as a jazz or bluegrass band. And if even I—rock 'n' roll's deck boy—have enough perspective to see that the ship is set to sink, we are in big, big trouble. n