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My My, Hey Hey: Why Rock-and-Roll Has Had Its Day

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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 ascendantisn't alone at the top of the charts (political as well as musical) either.  Just ask Taylor Swift.

 

 

Image Source: “IMG_0614” by makaiyla willis on Flickr 2/4/17 via Creative Commons 2.0 License

5 Comments
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In general, I agree with the comments you made, particularly your references to rock's patriarchal history. However, it is rather shocking that you would write, "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 implication seems to be that in the 60s, it was rockers who were "leading a political charge." Phil Ochs came to mind instantly. Ochs was a compelling voice against the Vietnam war and for civil rights. His "Draft Dodger Rag" and "I Ain't Marching Anymore" came instantly to mind.

Linda Comac

Adjunct Instructor

New York Institute of Technology

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I well remember Phil Ochs, and you are quite right about his passionate political commitment.  Same for Joan Baez, and (for a time) Bob Dylan (though Pete Seeger was famously annoyed by Dylan's electric turn).  I didn't mean to exclude these folk singers from the 60s list, but my reference was to popular music stars, and generally it was the rock stars who enjoyed the greater popularity and exposure when it came to high profile messaging, and my reference is to them.  Didn't intend to be exclusionary, though.  And "Pleasures of the Harbor" is about as hauntingly as beautiful as music gets, in my book!

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Hi, Jack -

Seeing as I grew up in what I'll call the "late punk era" (early 90s) which coincided with the rise of "gangsta rap," I can add a layer to this - or so I think. 

Gangsta rap - as you know - paralleled with a rise of more conscientious rap acts such as Tribe Called Quest, acts that genuinely professed social and political issues that remained popular for a long while. Like today's rock, such hip hop today is rare (exceptions, oddly enough, are white rappers like Logic and Macklemore and Compton's own Kendrick Lamar), supplanted by acts boasting about the usual stuff: cars, money, drinking, club life, you name it. Again, nothing necessarily new, but the lack of social consciousness in music today, in such a charged political climate, is at least surprising. And then it's not.

I remember when I saw this rise of "club rap" really start to drown out other acts (circa 2002), and I would simply ask my friends how they transitioned from artists who changed their style of music from genuineness to the proverbial "sell out," and the answers were funny and disturbing: "No one likes that boring crap anymore," to "Girls like that club stuff, especially when in the car." In other words, escapism sells.

This trend is in all genres of music, especially rock. Pop today is nothing but an appropriation of all genres, especially techno and dance (ahem, excuse me...EDM), but the lyrics and purposes are all to simply entertain. (One rapper humorously described it as the "same s%#@, different laxative.") And why wouldn't it be? Every facet of life, including entertainment, is political...except that it isn't. Nowhere does Taylor Swift dedicate her music to anything remotely political. Her lyrics are dedicated to break-ups and barbecues. But one post on Instagram requires audiences to revise Taylor Swift history for their own political lenses. That Country Girl ethos (conservative) that she withdrew from for true pop stardom (mainstream and liberal). How exhausting.

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Very good deep-contextualization here, Eric!  It underscores the irony inherent in this Swift moment.

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About the Author
Jack Solomon is professor of English at California State University, Northridge, where he teaches literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics. At present he is Director of the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review, a task to which he frequently applies the critical thinking insights that cultural semiotics can reveal. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.