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When Neil Young wrote his edgy tribute to rock-and-roll "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)," the genre was hardly dead, nor really approaching it. A new generation of rockers—the punks—were trying to clear a space for themselves by claiming that rock was dead (Harold Bloom style, one might say), but in fact they were only revising it with a slightly different vibe. Johnnie Rotten, whether he liked it or not, was a descendant of Johnnie B. Good, and Young himself would go on to become an inspiration to the Grunge scene, which, for a rather brief shining moment, revitalized rock-and-roll and helped put an end to the mousse-inflected hair-band era.
But when, in the tumultuous wake of the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, I read that Taylor Swift was stepping up to help lead the resistance, I could see that here was a sign that things, finally, had changed, and that the moon was in a new phase indeed. Not that a popular music star leading a political charge for her generation is anything new: heck, that was what the '60s were all about. But Taylor Swift is no rocker, and it is not rock stars who are taking the generational lead these days.
The reasons for this are not hard to find, but they are worth a cultural-semiotic exploration. We can begin with the obvious observation that rock-and-roll is no longer the most popular genre of youth music: rap/hip-hop is, along with rhythm-and-blues and the sort of highly choreographed pop that Madonna pioneered, Britney Spears mainstreamed, and that various divas from Taylor Swift to Lady Gaga to Katy Perry now rule (straddling both pop and rhythm-and-blues, Beyoncé belongs in a category of her own). But to start here rather puts the cart before the horse, because it doesn't explain why rock-and-roll plays a second fiddle these days; it only shows that it does.
So where's, say, Neil Young, the composer of "Ohio" in the immediate aftermath of the Kent State massacre, in this hour of political need? Well, um, he's also the composer of "A Man Needs a Maid." So how about the Rolling Stones, those "street fighting men" of the '60s? I think that the titles "Brown Sugar" and "Under My Thumb" are enough to explain why no one is running to them for leadership right now. And Bob Dylan, the author of "Lay Lady Lay" and "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" (about the bitterest putdown of a woman in pop history)? 'Nuff said.
I think the pattern here is quite clear: rock-and-roll is rather hopelessly entangled in a male-centered history that is most charitably describable as patriarchal. It isn't the fact that all the performers that I've mentioned are now firmly entrenched in old age that puts them on the political sidelines today (after all, they are all still active and highly profitable touring acts); it's the rock-and-roll legacy itself. Even today's young rockers (and they do exist), can't escape it.
Which brings up a related point. Rock-and-roll is not only coded as "male"; it is also coded "white." Yes, Chuck Berry (and a lot of other black musicians) took a leading role in creating it in the '50s, but rock was taken away from them in that era of official segregation and literally color-coded as "rhythm and blues"—a split that even Jimi Hendrix and the Chambers Brothers could not quite fully repair. And when rap began its meteoric rise in the '80s, it was Heavy Metal (one of rock's most popular incarnations in that decade) that became the de facto voice of white audiences (it is interesting to note in this regard how Ted Nugent and Dave Mustaine—two high profile metalists—are also outspoken conservatives today).
Add it all up and it is clear how changes in American demography and gender relations have affected popular music, and, thus, have determined just which performers will be received as voices for their generation. The signs are all there, ready to be read as part of a much larger historical shift. "Rock is dead," sang The Who, who then quickly added, "Long Live Rock," from that land where the passing of one monarch still means the ascendance of another. That was a long time ago, and Roger Daltrey has more recently opined that rock really is dead now and that rap has taken its place. But rock isn't really "dead," of course; it's just been sidelined. And in the #MeToo era, rap—though still ascendant—isn't alone at the top of the charts (political as well as musical) either. Just ask Taylor Swift.
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