Well, no. Rock is more resilient than that. And if you are contented with that answer, you can stop reading now.
Peter asked us to consider what we’ve learned from since 9/11. I’ve lots of thoughts about whether the wars were worth it, what went right and wrong, “neo-conservativism”/“democracy promotion” real and mythical, the great and ugly turn against the Iraq/GWOT policy circa 2004-2005 by centrist-leaning liberals, and so on, but school’s begun and all of these topics open up massive geo-strategic debates that this one citizen is not up to at the moment.
Where, apparently, nothing was learned from 9/11 and the decade that followed. (That is, nothing newwas learned, even if new persons learned them, and old hands learned them anew: things like a cover of Neil Young’s “Military Madness” by the curious indie band Woods or Pearl Jam playing Dylan’s “Masters of War” on Letterman) exemplify this.)
But where, less apparently, a change already underway, a disenchantment with rock’s radical pretensions, was made more pronounced. It will take a couple of posts to explain what I mean by this.
And it will be hard to say even then whether I am right, as rock bohemia in the aughties displayed a pattern that has long characterized it, albeit in a more pronounced way than usually the case. My wavering here reflects the fact that the Rock Songbook is all about bringing out the repeating patterns of the rock phenomenon, and thus puncturing its ever-forward pretenses, while nonetheless hoping to encourage its participants to break their way out of the cultural cul-de-sac it has revealed itself to be. I want things to move in a new direction, and I thus want to focus on signs rock’s political disenchantment. But I know how things tend to repeat.
Here’s the pattern at hand: a) discouragement or disgust with radical politics orthe undeniable impact of some conservatism-friendly facts, results in a move away from political statements and activism, a retreat, into counter-culturalism, self-discovery, and artistry-for-artistry’s sake, b) shifts in the political situation, or disgust at “apathy,” provoke a passionate recommittment to the leftist cause or a new articulation of it, and then, at some point, the rock-bohemian returns back to a). In the aughties, 9/11 to about April 2004 was an a) withdrawal period. 2004-2009 was a b) commitment period. And for some time the rock bohemia set has been back at a). (All the exceptions to the general pattern are granted.)
By 2001 I had already become quite tuned-out from rock, and so maybe my sense of it is off, but from my removed listening post, it seemed to me that 9/11 afflicted rock with an excruciatingly awkward case of nothing to say. An interval of suddenly feeling rather irrelevant and at a loss. I’m not talking about the morons who immediately held up Chomsky-esque explanations, persons that quickly found their stridency shunned even in bohemian circles in the early aughties. I’m talking more of some 24-year old Brooklynite artsy-type, who delivered flowers and candles to one of the spontaneous memorials, a type who wouldn’t go out and buy an American flag herself, but who was nevertheless disgusted when she read about that lefty writer forbidding her son to display one. She’s the type that had attended rock shows and regularly joined in broad denunciations of American power, or at least had regarded such statements as part and parcel of her scene. She had related to the final scene in Fight Club , where anti-consumerist radicals had blown up (at night, mind you) the skyscraper headquarters of the credit card companies. But after 9/11, many of these things now seemed wrong, or petty, or just ill-fitting. Politically speaking, every non-moron could now see that the casual anti-Americanism so prevalent in 90s boho-leftist discourse could have horrible consequences. One had reason to be ashamed of one’s past complicity with it. One also had reason to interrogate any secret or poetically expresseddesire one might have had to “blow modernity up” with the Fight Club boys. “Modernity” had flesh-and-blood people in its towers, ourpeople.
But it was an even more dismaying moment for rock radicalism than that, because it came at a time when it was already experiencing a low-point.
Here, we have to step back a bit to understand. The late 80s and 90s saw an intensification of the rock identification with leftist activism that had always been there, but which had suffered through some hesitant and confused years when punk and new wave crashed onto the scene with their anti-hippie and sometimes even anti-Labor ire in the late 70s and early 80s, a confusion heightened by the Thatcher/Reagan victories and the mainstream “morning again” mood they brought. However, once that mainstream had been established, a certain underground ethic intensified and regularized rock’s radical commitment, gathering cultural strength, and from 1988-1997 it actually grew popular, probably with the economic prosperity provided by Anglosphere conservatives and the security provided by the collapse of the USSR subconsciously giving many persons permission for indulging in greater radicalism.
But there was not a clear cause to direct the new radical energy into, even as one was longed for. A number of my fellow rock-bohemians hungered to get “our 60s,” our movement that would unite our generation with purpose—it was feeling I felt throughout my 80s teenage-dom, but I became disturbed at the way the “political” longings were increasingly so content-empty, not seriously seeking any overall account of things, and thus seeming ready to embrace any ol’ something to be against that would serve as an excuse to protest. For some the cause adopted was environmentalism, or anti-“globalism,” and others (who had the license to) got into angry explorations of the holy triad of race/ gender/orientation (class was usually on the back-burner). In any case, as the 90s closed this rock-bohemian leftism increasingly appeared as little but a confused incoherence that took hyper-radical political gestures for granted (sort of as another mode of transgressionism—Chomskyite Marxism for me, Marilyn Manson for thee, piercings for both of us) even as its actual materialism and actual political impotence/apathy became ever-more pronounced. By that time a lot of Gen X folks, myself included, had tuned out anyway. Music-wise, and rock-phenomenon-wise, it was increasingly hard to deny what a writer for Spin magazine had said around 1997: “Say it, face it—music just doesn’t matter as much as it used to.”
So when 9/11 hit, rock was already demoralized about its purpose, especially politically, and at something of a low ebb in general—you can see this in the early scenes of School of Rock. A spirit of weary resignation, heard in grunge, and more thoughtfully evoked by bands like Radiohead and Blur, increasingly seemed rock’s default mode, punctuated here and there by fits of rage, fits that became more ridiculous than ever during the strange nowthat followed 9/11.
I never bothered to listen to what the big “designated spokespersons” for rock social consciousness, Springsteen and U2, had to sing in response to 9/11, although I’m sure there’s at least some ideas or gestures there worth discussing; but due to my own investigations–via Plato and Tocqueville–into the Inconstancy of the Democratic Soul, I was getting rather interested in David Bowie, and it turned out he released what I’m guessing was one of the most timely rock responses to 9/11 and What It Meant for Us, an album titled Heathen.It was an elder statesman’s take, rock-wise, on our awkward situation and his awkward place in it.
We’ll consider that album next, but then, we’ll leave the last word for a contemporary artist, one whose young simplicity speaks more powerfully than Bowie’s mature sophistication can.