The persistence of certain rock-critical ideals is rather astonishing. You might think that with everything else having changed and evolved several times, from the music itself to social trends to political zeitgeist, critical orthodoxies common in the late ’60s would all sound utterly antique by now…but no. Here are three sentences from a review of the reissue of Exile on Main Street (I’m not linking or mentioning the writer because this isn’t about the writer: it’s about the ideas): “[I]ncredibly, the most focused and lucid Stone at the time was none other than [Keith] Richards, who piloted the sessions and made his obsession with gritty American roots music the record’s dominant aesthetic. When Richards slipped into a muse-crushing heroin haze [after many tracks were recorded], Mick Jagger’s indefatigable sense of professionalism and craven adherence to the latest pop trends clicked in. Just one year after Exile was released, the Stones were playing string-drenched ballads and dressing like a glam band.”
In this corner (yea!): “gritty American roots music.” And in this corner (boo!): “professionalism…the latest pop trends…string-drenched ballads.” Rock is, in this conception, a rebellion against complacent ’50s-style professional entertainment, which seeks only to placate comfortable, middle-class suburbanites. It does so by reaching back to the much more authentic and “real” (or “gritty”) sounds of “American roots music” – the blues primarily, country, folk. First: leave aside whether you like Exile, prefer “gritty American roots music,” etc. – it’s simply that the terms in which the “good” parts of Exile are contrasted to the “bad” parts are so clichéd and worn-out. And they simply don’t stand up to examination.
Contrast is made between “gritty” and “roots” on the one hand, and “professionalism,” “pop trends,” and “strings” on the other. The writer is implying that Richards’ approach was “authentic,” while Jagger’s was not: “professionalism” overlays pre-existing values about production and style over “genuine” emotional expression; “pop trends” puts commercial success and commercial styles ahead of the musician’s “real” musical interests, and “strings” are the archetypal signifier of non-rock (pre-rock, really) commercial gloss. Because they’re a non-rock instrument, and because rock musicians generally have to hire an outside, professionally trained arranger to provide the string parts (and because the parts themselves are played by musicians stereotyped as old fuddy-duds who hate the music they’re playing just to earn money), disdainful references to string arrangements abound in this sort of rock criticism. (Personally, I think horn arrangements are often much cheesier than string arrangements, and few actual rock string arrangements use the soupy, “1001 strings” approach implied. Often a small string section, like Mick Ronson deployed notably on a couple of Ziggy Stardust tracks, is much more suitable to a rock sound.)
One absurdity is, of course, that Keith Richards was not an old African-American blues musician: he was, at the time, 27 years old and one of the wealthiest men in the world. Doing “gritty American roots music” was pretty much what brought him to that position of wealth and success: if he had decided instead to arrange a bunch of songs for Hollywood strings and sing like a lounge crooner, that would have been much more radical than, essentially, doing what Keith Richards always does, musically. (Please note again: that Richards does Richards very, very well on Exile isn’t the point.) One of the perils of “authenticity” is its often-overlooked tension with “originality”: the assumption is that a musician will follow his or her heart, thereby being both authentic and original…but the more original music is, the harder it is to read as “authentic” – since “authentic” can also mean “conforming to a pre-established tradition.” You can’t do both “roots” music and innovative music: if you’re doing “roots,” you’re not innovating, and if you’re innovating, you’re (often, quite intentionally) uprooting things, not tending to their roots. Thus the classic critical trap, whereby musicians that repeat the same thing over and over again are condemned, but musicians who deviate from what they’re known for are also condemned (see: Neil Young in the ’80s).
A whole host of values tends to ride along with this critical perspective, in which a musician who is troubled, or dark, or aggressive, is more “rock’n’roll” than one who seems well-adjusted, optimistic, or congenial. And while once upon a time, perhaps the music industry, and even the world, needed to acknowledge that everything was not all conformist and Pleasantville, for at least the last thirty-some years obnoxious, macho, self-centered, aggressive attitudes have been completely in line with the ruling orthodoxy. Christ, even Burger King loves a rebel.
It’s come to the point where being an utter dickhead is taken as a sign of artistic bonafides, and anything less is regarded as the utmost pusillanimity. To return to Exile: I’m not suggesting that Keith Richards is a dickhead, nor that Mick Jagger is a gentlemen knight whose values ought to be upheld against Richards’ knavery (the absurdity of that perspective shows the limits of the set of associations I’m describing). But I think the reflexive valuing of the dark, the troubled, the cynical, and the reflexive downgrading of opposite qualities, should be questioned for the way it can play into, or even validate, attitudes that are far from liberatory…and since some notion of “liberation” is also at the heart of the rock ideology, that ought to give such critics pause. Ancient rock “rebellion” was often, at its heart, about including the overlooked – not least, the racially overlooked. It wasn’t about badassery for its own sake.