The School of Rock was just a feel-good comedy about Rock and 6th-graders, given life by Jack Black’s performance, right? At first glance, yes. But the script was onto the fact that by the late-90s, rock felt played out, tiresomely/predictably decadent. And that in a reaction to general cultural degeneration (see Blast from the Past, the “evolution of the malt-shop” montage) of an all-too-real sort, an educational vision of rigor, virtue, and all things classical—most often pursued in private school settings–had become truly attractive. The film’s response to this situation? In essence, don’t deny the Rock within you. In the course of the film, Dewey Finn’s(Jack Black’s) room-mate Ned Schneebly, learns to reject the false path of “growing up” by putting rock dreams aside, for the moderate position of still being a rock guy while becoming a responsible teacher/citizen. Ned is played by the script’s author Mike White—and I say that what he learns is what we’re to learn. Part of being good teachers to our youth is to give up on the fantasy of returning to classical-everything, to rigor all the time, and rather, to recognize the perennial need of the young to release their inner creativity and “stick it to the man.” Such urges have to be expressed, and since they can be through Rock without descending into “getting wasted,” which Finn insists is not the heart of Rock, the kids, and the adults, need to “keep on rockin’.” And yet since Rock really could be lost through the youth becoming unfamiliar with its true expressions, teachers of it are needed. All of its humor aside, the film seriously proposes this. Rock, understood in the unified manner that rises above the old 80s barrier between punk and metal, is a perennial form that answers our perennial needs.
The film thus directly challenges the viewpoint of the Songbook (which among other things, considers both classical and rock n’ roll—your patriotic burger-grillin’ Fourth link is here–as superior to rock). It is a worthy challenger.
Admittedly, there are two ways of reading the film’s teaching.
First, it could be taken as reflecting the blinkered viewpoint of the Dewey Finn character simply. The film has great fun, after all, illustrating how he lives, eats, and breaths Rock. In conversation, he falls into quoting rock lyrics, and refers to a teaching job as a “gig.” He drives an old black van adorned with the Grim Reaper, and the song he writes is about the trauma of getting kicked out of a band. Refreshingly, he has no open-mindedness to his students liking Christina Aguilera, rap, and other pop forms. In his world, that stuff is just wrong, and liking it simply reveals an appalling ignorance. Now, that probably isn’t the film-makers’ (i.e., writer Mike White’s and director Richard Linklater’s) viewpoint. To an impassioned rap or techno fan, they would likely admit that those forms might also remain vital. So their broader point could be that, whatever your “Rock” thing is, i.e., whatever your young-blooded creative thing, stay impassioned about it. It is after all Finn’s blinkered focus on rock that allows him to do it and teach it well. The film is exhorting us to stay true to our freak flags. To some degree, of course, that is always a worthy lesson, and perhaps one we particularly needed around 2003.
Second, in addition to this general lesson, the film could be basically recommending Finn’s musical viewpoint, if not the blinkered way he holds it. This viewpoint is a specific and intelligent one that remains compelling even after all the (self-deprecating) humor about it. Finn feels the following reflect Rock excellence:
1.) Led Zeppelin, and “The Immigrant Song” especially.
2.) The Who, particularly Moon’s drumming, and Townsend’s guitar-posturing.
3.) The Ramones
5.) The Doors
7.) Black Sabbath
These are what he really loves. There are other rock tastes that he can endorse—Stevie Nicks for the repressed principle, Yes for the formal keyboard player, and certainly he has his own variation of musical moods–but all the options worth taking seriously (with a certain exception for the black gospel/soul traditions hinted at) remain within the Rock canon, whereas the likes of Aguilera and Puff Daddy are rejected outright, and classical has to be kept on the periphery.
Is it not the case that the film itself celebrates those bands? And through its soundtrack and other incidentals, it also signals its approval of The White Stripes, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, The Buzzcocks, The Modern Lovers (hear hear!), and a number of others.
Putting these bands together reflects a certain point of view. It favors hard rock and reverences its late-60s through 70s heyday, but accepts certain lessons from punk, tries to avoid the metal-head stupidity displayed in This Is Spinal Tap, and has an AC/DC-esque openness to rock n’ roll proper.
At the college radio station I DJ-ed at during the 80s it was rather unhip to play regular heavy metal, i.e., the latest Judas Priest, Van Halen, etc. However, it could be hip if you played some of the more rapid-fire classic numbers, such as Sabbath’s “Paranoid” or Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” especially if juxtaposed against some punk. And there had always been a few bands that seemed less about emphasizing the heaviness of hard-rock, and more about playing what I’ll call hardened rock n’ roll, in the spirit of Zeppelin’s Been a long time since I rocked and rolled. By the late 80s, there was a growing interest in bands of that spirit, especially if they brought punk verve to the table: a DJ on such a kick would probably play Motorhead’s “The Ace of Spades,” a punk song, some Aerosmith, perhaps the Replacements or Thelonius Monster, and especially, AC/DC. AC/DC was the way to force your fellow alternative-rockers to admit that the 70s weren’t so bad. Prior to the grunge revolution, many in the alternative set were already returning 70s-ward in this manner, as seen in the popularity of Jane’s Addiction, and even bleeding into that of Guns n’ Roses. Grunge returned to hard rock in a more downer/serious spirit, a la Husker Du, Sonic Youth, and the Pixies, but in any case, it was the final hammer that broke down the “wall of hostility” (sorry) between the punk-influenced set and the metal-head set. Dewey Finn is only possible in the aftermath of this reuniting of the rock tribes.
I’ve been pretty hard on hard rock in the course of the Songbook, charging it with killing the swing, having a reductive attitude about sexuality that similarly reduced the music, and I’ll add here that it has an unhealthy “Beethoven-ic” tendency to try to embody POWER, related to the way it (somewhat like rap) often becomes an overcompensating quest for musical MANLINESS. But I’ve also tried to convey how easy it is for contemporary suburban folk to get musically drawn in a hard-rock direction, how there’s something addictive about its primitivism. Some of my more recent posts have emphasized the self-conscious artiness and mixtery of the early “pop-art” rock sound and its reoccurrence in contemporary formulas, but here I’d like to suggest that the more organic movement for folks with electric guitars in hand, and with little patience to be tutored by the Afro-American tradition, is towards the elements of hard rock. Even when many of them attempted, for nearly a decade, to radically alter the hard rock form via punk methods and attitudes, the music eventually gravitated back to the earlier pattern, albeit with many of the punk attitudes becoming assimilated into the overall rock scene.
Now obviously, the perpetual return (without ever really going away) of the hard rock style is the most obvious form of retromania or recyclement there is. With my own revivalist proclivities, I would be happier to see kids learning from a School of Rockabilly or a School of Rock-Steady, and I feel obliged to point out that there is no consistent reason for why hard rock has a greater claim to musical vitality in 2003 or 2013 than, say, rockabilly, rocksteady, or 60s-soul-infused-music would. I.e., once we admit that our pop-music story has for some time ceased to be about forward motion, then the relevant musical debate becomes about what music, or set of musics, is best for us.
To its credit, The School of Rock faces that head-on. It asks us to not get demoralized by the fact that rock is no longer moving forward. It knows that there is plenty of tiresome rock, and that the whole thing can really seem pathetic in our time, as the opening scene with Dewey’s band emphasizes. Still, it teaches that Rock is the form most natural for us, especially us over-schooled/regulated suburban democratic folk. We need it to break away from the vision promoted by Horace Green Prep; or rather, the film presents Rock as the artistry best-suited for balancing out the school’s responsible values. The radical rock dreams seen in a film like The Doors are absent here, despite Dewey Finn’s catechism-like saying that “one great rock show” can “start a revolution.”
The real significance of the film then, is that it gives us the retrenched defense of Rock. No, it no longer really moves forward. Yes, the aggressive hedonism that has often seemed its raison de etre really is a problem, and must be kept in check if the kids are going to be all right. But so long as we (sigh) admit that those are the facts of life, and accept that the days of starting real revolutions are gone, we can and should still enjoy it. Whereas the first “dialogue” in the film is the text-message these guys suck. Leave? the entire story shows us that we cannot leave Rock. Not without being untrue to ourselves.
And, yes, for various specific reasons, a strong case can be made that hard rock that proves the most enjoyable form for acting out(techno, rap, and most disco-pop downplay the musician too much) our freak-flag needs. Avant-garde rock explorations, pop artiness, and depression rock(Pink Floyd, Wilco, Radiohead, Mazzy Star, etc.), remain closely related to it, so much so that a Dewey Finn rock band might momentarily step into those modes, especially the last, but they don’t have the passion requisite for really getting one’s ya’s ya’s out, for “stickin’ it to the man” with a “face-melting guitar solo.” They’re all a bit too college. So outside the overly-intellectual set, hard rock necessarily remains the main mode for our ritualized rebellions.
So everything’s cool, then? We’ll just keep on a’ rockin’, teaching it to the kids, regaling them with stories of the days when giants like Jimi, Janis, and Jim walked the earth, but always keeping them from taking it too far? So the School says…
…but I’ll save my impertinent questions for another post.
Suffice it to say for now that this very funny and apparently utterly light movie contains a serious message.