This fall the students in my course “The American Rock Music Canon since 1955” will assess the significance of one popular musical artist who has achieved prominence in the 21st century (2000-20) over the course of the entire semester. Each student is required to study an artist exclusively to avoid multiple projects on one artist. Though I am highly curious about who the students will select I am even more curious about how they will define the concept of “significance.”
Prior to the late 1960s music critics who wrote for mainstream publications did not usually view R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, and other commercial genres, as music warranting “serious” aesthetic consideration. Criticism was reserved for classical music and/or jazz, not the music pouring out of jukeboxes. Writers might forecast the potential of singles to perform well on radio stations or in record stores sales in trade magazines, such as Billboard and Cash Box. Most critics, however, viewed the notion of “quality” as contrary to the music younger buyers consumed.
A new generation of writers who grew up with R&B and rock music inverted the old view of pop music as trivial. In the pages of youth-oriented music magazines such as Crawdaddy (f. 1960), Rolling Stone (f. 1967), and Creem (f. 1969), nascent music critics, including Paul Williams, Jon Landau, Dave Marsh, and Richard Goldstein, chronicled the latest recordings in acid rock, soul, and folk-rock, as metonyms for their generation. Many rock writers defined “quality” or “serious” music of their generation against the slick, glitzy, commercial pop music aesthetic epitomized by the music featured on tv variety shows, easy listening radio stations and Las Vegas.
Original songwriting, self-contained bands who played their own instruments, topical themes, and progressive political personae, defined artists as “authentic.” Overlapping the emergence of this aesthetic was the increased prominence of albums over singles, and a shift in rock music from a music for dancing, rooted in R&B, toward a music for listening and contemplation. As Elijah Wald observed in 2009’s How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll, the late 1960s generation gradually traded the joys of catchy, danceable 45s for the layered, studio produced, classically influenced listening suites such as The Beatles’ 1967 opus Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club. While musicians’ embrace of studio technology, heavier lyrics, classical music influences, and other signifiers of “sophistication” gave rock a more serious veneer, Wald laments the ways this created gaps between R&B’s original influence on rock ‘n’ roll. He also observed a divide between black and white listening tastes. This is the root of the notion of rock as “white” and R&B as “black.”
I recite this history because in the late 1960s and 1970s positive support from critics could make an artist’s career, and this legacy endures. For example, Jon Landau was pivotal to attracting national attention to Bruce Springsteen in the 1970s. Rolling Stone exceeded the typical boundaries of a music magazine by becoming a vital force influencing the political and cultural life in the 1970s through the innovative “new journalism” of writers like Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, among others. Today, rock criticism has far less overt sway on the public’s musical tastes. However, lingering attitudes about what constitutes “authentic” music informs the “official record” of musical significance including the artists who are inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and written into popular music history books.
Many of the artists who have risen to prominence in the 21st century, including Adele, Beyoncé, Justin Bieber, Michael Bublé, Chance the Rapper, Norah Jones, Kendrick Lamar, P!nk, Taylor Swift, and Kanye West, complicate notions of authenticity and the related concept of significance, as defined by early rock critics. For example, hip-hop composing, which involves writing melodies and lyrics over drum machines, pre-recorded tracks and/or patchworks of samples, is very different than the finger-strumming and piano tinkling we associate with 60s and 70s era singer-songwriters. Similarly, the dance-oriented pop of Beyoncé and P!nk seems more visceral and singles-oriented, thus akin to early 60s pop, than the “heavy” and “cerebral” art rock of the late 1960s.
Beyoncé offers a particularly interesting point of contrast here regarding the issue of significance. From her beginnings as a vocalist in the group Destiny’s Child (1998-2003) through her first few solo albums (2003’s Dangerously in Love and 2006’s B’Day) she has always been a skillful purveyor of irresistible ear candy. For dance fans the pulsating grooves of 1999’s “Say My Name,” 2000’s “Jumpin Jumpin,” 2001’s “Bootylicious,” and 2003’s “Crazy in Love” are undeniable.
But, by 2008’s I Am…Sasha Fierce Beyoncé wanted critical R-E-S-P-E-C-T. You can tell because she employs a format and persona musicians often use to showcase their artistic range—the double-album and the alter ego. I Am sold well, spawned popular radio hits and won her accolades, including five Grammy Awards. However, 2013’s Beyoncé and 2016’s Lemonade were even more overt efforts to use the album format to tap into contemporary sensibilities and thus resonate as a statement rather than a collection of singles. I am referring to Beyoncé’s choice to release “visual albums” rather than traditional audio-only albums. Beyoncé was released unannounced on iTunes as a whole album rather than being previewed by singles. Lemonade’s lead single “Formation” (performed in spectacular fashion at 2016’s Super Bowl Halftime Show) evoked the Black Lives Matter movement and Beyoncé’s Black southern heritage in a far more overt fashion than previous efforts.
The album, which reflected on multiple aspects of black female identity and experience, spawned a multitude of reflections from cultural critics and academics. These include Beyoncé themed syllabi and several books, including Omise'eke Natasha Tinsley’s 2018 Beyoncé in Formation: Remixing Black Feminism and Veronica Chambers’ 2019 edited collection Queen Bey: A Celebration of the Power and Creativity of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. It is unclear if Beyoncé is more likely to be remembered for her pop radio hits or her ambitious album projects. Or, to put it another way: Now that she has commanded the attention of tastemakers and scholars, as well as fans, will her efforts to make statements define her as significant artist or will her penchant for buoyant pop imbue her with a different kind of status?
I hope these thorny issues are the kinds of issues my students will navigate in the course. Record sales, industry awards and “influencer” status are quantifiable ways to assess a musician’s impact. But innovation, artistic influence and social relevance are more ambiguous and complex measures that require a different kind of insight and judgement beyond cataloging awards and counting followers. Authenticity, which rock critics tied to writing original material and playing one’s instruments, has endured as a nominal standard for decades. But the narrow social identities of the critics who solidified this critical standard (which critic Kelefa Sanneh termed “rockism”) has eroded the influence of this trope and opened other avenues of consideration. When we factor in changes in technology, the proliferation of genres and sub-genres, and the influx of diverse voices in popular music the notion of “significance” seems more uncertain than ever. This ambiguity and decenteredness is a welcome development that provides an exciting critical opportunity for rethinking the kinds of conventions rock criticism originally sought to subvert.
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