Long before I ever became an academician I loved rock n’ roll-from the crunch and sizzle of Jimmy Page guitar riff to the soul-soothing wail of Aretha Franklin.  But most of all, I loved the songs themselves, from love ballads to R&B grooves to punk rock political anthems.  And I’ve spent decades building my music catalogue, both to enjoy the music and to get a better grasp on the evolution of this art form.

It wasn’t long ago that to call rock music an “art form” was a howler.  And it has only been very recently that study of the popular arts generally has become a legitimate field of scholarly inquiry.  Happily, today there are several academic journals devoted entirely to the subject, and even the most prestigious aesthetics journals routinely feature treatments of rock music.  Finally scholars have realized what should have been obvious all along.  The study of popular culture is important because it provides us with insights in a wide range of subjects: art, anthropology, psychology, sociology, cultural studies, and philosophy, to name a few.  And study of the history of popular culture is significant for the same reason that any historical inquiry is significant.  It provides us with a better understanding of human nature and society.

Perhaps the reason some have doubted the significance of rock music as an art form is that, frankly, much of it is bad.  And, indeed, radio stations play mostly tripe all day long.  They always have, even in rock’s “golden age.”  But something like this has been true of all art in every age.  Much of the music made in the 17th, 18th or 19th centuries was no doubt very bad, but that music has been deservedly lost to time while the best has survived-as it always has, standing the test of time precisely because it is the best.  What we call “classical” music is simply the best music of bygone eras.  And, yes, some music from our era will survive for centuries as well.  They are not royal courtiers anymore, but include film soundtrack composers (e.g. John Williams and Danny Elfman), singer-songwriters (e.g. Bob Dylan and Morrissey), and rock bands (e.g., the Beatles and Radiohead).

Students of popular music face a challenge that students of classical music do not.  History has yet to weed out the weak specimens among the songs of our time, so we must do the extra work to discern which songs will likely stand the test of time because of their merits.  As in the biological world, it comes down to survival of the fittest.  And contemporary music critics are sometimes no more able to predict which songs will last than a biologist is able to predict the future evolutionary path of organisms.  As Bob Dylan has said, “You have to stand on your tiptoes to see the future.”

But the sheer difficulty of the task should not discourage us.  There are, after all, some basic aesthetic standards when it comes to assessing rock music, just as there are for any art genre.  And we have already seen some “natural selection” of rock songs already, if we go back to the 1950s, 60s, and even the 70s.  There are songs that we already call “classics,” from Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”

In future posts, I will discuss a variety of popular musical artists and songs, some of which have risen to the level of “classic” and some which I suspect will do so in time.  I will also offer some of my own “best of” lists.  The first of these will be the twenty best albums of the rock era, which I will post in just a few days.  So stay tuned, rock fans.

2 Responses to “Popular Music and Survival of the Fittest”

  1. Antojito


    A “classification” of decadence.

    My sympathies go out to the belief that good music should stand the test of time, but I’m stumped as to any reason why this would happen necessarily. Even supposing that such a force is at work in the world, maintaining the best of the best for those who come after, I can’t see why exceptional quality would be the only criterion for longevity.

    The belief expressed in your blog is tempting and, indeed, comforting for art students; they won’t have to fear that they are merely rummaging through the randomly buoyant flotsam of a time that has long sunken into oblivion. But is it true? Maybe the music we hear from the past is a pitiful remnant of what was originally offered—a pristine Twinkie glistening in its cellophane long after the fresh baked pastries have turned putrid. Why should we assume the test of time yields classics, i.e. “the best music of bygone eras?” Maybe time gives us the most commercialized, most effectively packaged, most snazzy, and most inane material offered in its day.

    When faced with classics, I don’t see the best. I see the best we’ve got, and their merits for study are far more anthropological than aesthetic. Where does this leave a student of value who doesn’t share your optimism for that which has stood the test of time?

    Excuse my inattention to the bigger theme of your post. You were gearing up to talk rock and roll and I got hung up on a PHI three hundred something question. Don’t feel obligated to respond–far be it from me to push your work life into your blogosphere life.

  2. At A Hen's Pace


    I will look forward to that list! We have a 13 y.o. rock lover and would-be guitarist who has a big interest in the oldies, but I know they’re not all worth his time, or even appropriate.

    What do you think is behind the resurgence of interest in “classic rock”? Just look at the t-shirts for sale at Target: Pink Floyd, AC/DC, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, etc. I know the movie Across the Universe stirred interest in the Beatles, but I think it was already there. I wonder if it’s a reaction to the rap/hip-hop/dance beat style?



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