Rock and Roll Will Never Die
By A. D. Freudenheim

19 November 2000

Director Cameron Crowe's newest movie, "Almost Famous," is a sticky-sweet fictionalization of Crowe's own early life in the 1970's. Seen through the eyes of a young man Crowe calls William Miller, we travel along with the protagonist as he pursues his first major rock music story, to be submitted for consideration by Rolling Stone Magazine: an in-depth profile of a fictional (but presumably typical) band called "Stillwater." Throughout the film, Lester Bangs, the founder and editor of 60's music journal Creem (and played here by Philip Seymour Hoffman), admonishes young William not to lose his objectivity, not to become friends with the band members. Nonetheless, we watch as William joins the Stillwater entourage and gets sucked in, seeing the members first as heroes and then as people.

But there's more to it than that. Lester Bangs also repeatedly points out that rock and roll is dead. What William the aspiring rock critic has stumbled upon isn't even the last gasp of real rock music, but it's newer, intellectually poorer incarnation, covering its lack of depth with amplification and theatrics. Rock and roll, and the true rock and roll era, is over - and young William has missed it, Bangs says.

Lester Bangs was not particularly radical in making this point. Since rock music first came on the scene it has consistently been pronounced dead. Mostly, these pronouncements have been made by those within the music industry who are either unable to anticipate the "next big thing" or those who cannot make their peace with it. The music world is no different from the technology industry in this regard: the evolution of everything from the PC to the web to the Personal Digital Assistant has happened in an environment filled as much with predictions of doom and gloom as glorification of the uses of all these technologies.

Yet rock and roll now has a half-century behind it, despite the constant predictions of imminent death. From 1950's style American do-wop and skiffle rock evolved … The Beatles, in Liverpool, and The Rolling Stones, in Manchester, who blew away earlier geographic boundaries and stormed the entire world. The 1960's fed a supposed counter-cultural revolution that then died out … but the 1970's lead to bands like Led Zepplin and The Who taking their art to new levels; groups like Rush and Yes developing brilliant, tightly-choreographed performance styles, and gimmicky bands like Kiss and Alice Cooper giving us new bogeymen for the destruction of adolescents as much as anything else. The 1970's are often claimed as a wasteland for rock, and disco is often pointed to as the eventual cause … until the arrival of New Wave and punk made critics long for the guitar-based rock of only a few years earlier. The Cars and Blondie, with their heavy synthesizers and keyboards, or the truly childish "acting out" made real by The Clash and The Sex Pistols, drew rebukes from the rock establishment that "music" was gone, replaced either with noise or peppy, preppy candy for the masses. The 1980's had arrived, and by the middle of the decade, lead by Madonna and Michael Jackson, they bled us dry on brilliant pop … all the way through to the 1990's, with the music industry's late recognition of rap as a force among "urban youth" (media code words for inner city Black teens) and the arrival of "grunge," as personified by Nirvana and Pearl Jam, giving voice to white teen angst. Now, rap has evolved to the age of hip-hop, seen by some as the only direction contemporary music could take - and by others as the long-awaited proof of the destructiveness and misguided values of rock music itself.

What the movie really highlights is the failure of music critics - and the problems with aging; but for the most part, our cultural critics have themselves succumbed to this same error. They've let their own feelings for a particular band or style of music get in the way of their ability to see how people would evolve with the music - and how music evolves because of people themselves. "Almost Famous" is an appeal straight to the heart, a sentimental playing of the strings of youth, of an era when things were "different," even as that era is decried as lost by movie itself. More importantly, though, the movie is a reminder of the true power of all music - rock, classical, jazz, and hip-hop: its endurance is tied to its emotional qualities, its ability to evoke a particular feeling in the heart or the head. The critics concern themselves with "quality" in abstract ways that have intellectual value but hold little meaning for the average listener. As Paul Simon sang in his song "Boy in the Bubble," "…Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts…" Cameron Crowe has given us a good reminder of just how powerful those heroes can be when we take them into our hearts.

  Copyright 2000, by A. D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired!