December 30

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where is my cane?

I believe it happened while I was sitting in traffic. Or maybe it was during a meeting that was dragging on at work. It happened somewhere that allowed my mind to wander a little. I bet I was doodling.

Whatever the situation, however I was reminded, it was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s annual inductee list that got me thinking about rock and roll again.

My waking thoughts used to be preoccupied by music. I used to care about new releases from my favorite bands; I used to live for sharing obscurities. And then I realized… I hadn’t thought about rock and roll in a good long while, and I hadn’t cared. I stopped thinking about rock and roll. I stopped trying to keep up. It’s late December, literally and metaphorically, and I can’t get the year (or the music) back. It’s too late. There’s nothing to do but accept time’s marching orders and keep going, head down, pretending that there’s nothing odd about the fact that Nashville is the last great music city.

I panicked. My mind raced. Nobody pretends that music matters anymore, and only old dames like me panic when they realize that rock and roll is culturally irrelevant.

Wait, when did this happen? When did people stop living and breathing for their favorite bands’ next album? Does the term “rock and roll” mean anything to anyone under the age of thirty?

So, kids of the world, here’s why the disappearance of rock and roll freaks me out: I loved that rock and roll meant something, genuinely, imperfectly. Its purveyors were proud of bending rules and pushing away structure. Rock and roll transformed from simple blues progressions to canoodling jazz to screeching guitar solos to punk and back and forth and down and in and nobody doubted what it was. That’s how strong rock and roll (or at least the idea of it) used to be.

But it’s time to face hard facts: Bill Hicks is dead and rock and roll got old. It got old like the baby boom generation that perfected it. And like so many of our elders, rock and roll isn’t interested in changing anymore.

Once this group of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees is stroked and feted, who’s next? We’re staring down the barrel of bands and artists from the ‘50s through the ‘80s that nobody would have thought deserving in their heydays. It’s not like “selling out” is a big deal; musicians hawking soda and cars hasn’t been an issue for decades, and artistic integrity is a strange aberration. The field is wide open, but for whom? For what?

Fact is, hip-hop has been the most “rock and roll” of genres over the last twenty-five years or so—flying in the face of convention, having a hell of a lot of inventive fun, and speaking for a generation—but will all of hip-hop want to be celebrated under the “rock and roll” umbrella? I can’t imagine it would.

So, that leaves a few more years of inducting aged (or dead) members of mainstream rock acts who had a solo album or two; blues guitarists or sort-of jazz musicians who were just popular enough to escape the “Classical/Jazz” section of the record store; and a trickle of alternative rock bands that may or may not include the tepid “garage” rock revivalists of the early ‘00s.

This is the music that will inform the next decade of the Rock and Roll HOF, should it limp along for that long. This is what we have to look forward to.

My god, did anyone ever imagine that rock and roll would run out?

Yet here we are, and I’m not optimistic. Once the well is truly dry, I foresee a handful of trajectories in our post-album world:

  • Rock and roll will continue to turn up softened and pedal-steeled into country music and just like what happened with the blues, everyone will pretend that it’s never been any different.
  • A Judge Dredd-like future where the finest songwriting exists in jingles and theme songs.
  • Similarly, bland versions of “rock and roll” songs will only appear in musical theater, as this is the last surviving medium that requires songs to be in any way melodic and to tell a coherent story.

But I want to have hope for something better.

I want to see a genuine rock and roll comeback. I want to live in a world where albums matter in a big way, and where making music is exciting and meaningful not just for the artists, but for the fans. This is where rock and roll led the way once, and it could happen again.

The television pendulum has swung away from mindless reality shows and back to well written, character-driven series; why not something similar for music? If the most heartening trend of 2014 continues into the future, then perhaps the timing is right for the public to turn away from committee pop and back to thoughtful, meaningful, and interesting music that might deserve to be called “rock and roll.”

But if rock is dead, let’s not dwell in nostalgia. Let’s bury it and see who comes to mourn.