Recently, whereas within the pharmacy line at my native CVS, Huey Lewis and the News’ “The Heart of Rock & Roll” made its presence recognized on the overhead audio system. It instantly stirred up emotions of ambivalence. The motive: Messrs. Lewis and News’ 1984 hit completely exemplifies certainly one of in style music’s extra irritating subgenres: the rock n’ roll tune about rock n’ roll.
We’re all accustomed to rock n’ roll songs about rock n’ roll (or RnRSaRnR, for brevity’s sake). Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music.” Oasis’ “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.” Kiss’ “Rock and Roll All Nite.” Billy Joel’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.” The listing is so long as it’s relentless. And for these of us who possess a well-calibrated inside Seinfeld, one nagging query bubbles to the floor: What’s the take care of these songs? And what makes them so irksome? Put one other means: I like rock n’ roll, however I don’t like “It’s Only Rock N’ Roll (But I Like It).”
Prior to deep-diving into this decades-old pattern, let’s set up parameters. First up, the RnRSaRnR subgenre is unique to rock songs about rock music, versus songs merely containing the phrase “rock” of their title. As such, let’s instantly discard every part from the Rolling Stones’ “Rock and a Hard Place” (in all probability about poverty) to the Scorpions’ “Rock You Like a Hurricane” (in all probability about fucking) to the B-52’s “Rock Lobster” (in all probability about crustaceans).
Secondly, there are quite a few accepted methods of spelling “rock and roll,” with most variations buzzing like flies across the conjunction “and.” We have the absolutely spelled-out “rock and roll,” the ampersand-reliant “rock & roll,” “rock n’ roll” (apostrophe to the proper), “rock ‘n roll” (apostrophe to the left), “rock n roll” (no apostrophe), rock ‘n’ roll (double apostrophe), and the seldom really useful “rock/roll.” For the sake of continuity and sanity, I’ll decide to utilizing “rock n’ roll” all through this piece, besides the place an alternate spelling seems in a tune title. (This most definitely will occur.)
Also be aware: The phrase “rock” needn’t be listed within the title for a tune to be thought of a bona fide RnRSaRnR. Perhaps the highest-profile instance of that is Starship’s “We Built This City,” a tune usually denounced in music-critic circles because the worst factor ever written. Its crimes — and they’re myriad — embrace being (a) a shallow, industrial rock(ish) tune that has the cojones to denounce the shallow commercialization of rock songs, (b) the least-enjoyable brain-hijacking earworm since 1982’s Snoopy Brusha Brusha Toothbrush jingle (don’t click on that hyperlink), and (c) simply an all-out dreadful achievement from the parents who type of was the Jefferson Airplane.
While Starship earns the excellence of crafting the worst rock n’ roll tune about rock n’ roll, we want look no additional than AC/DC for sheer RnRSaRnR amount. Over their decades-spanning profession, the Aussie dangerous boys produced no fewer than 22 songs with “rock” within the title, from the broadly recognized “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)” and “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” to deep cuts like “Can’t Stop Rock ‘n’ Roll,” “Rock ‘n Roll Train,” “She Likes Rock n Roll,” and “Got Some Rock & Roll Thunder.” (As you possibly can see, even AC/DC can’t decide to which letter/phrase/image ought to be sandwiched between “rock” and “roll.”)
Having now confirmed the identification of historical past’s most egregious and most prolific RnRSaRnRers, let’s study the a number of failings that plague the rock n’ roll tune about rock n’ roll. First up is the patronizing disrespect it thrusts upon its viewers. If it pleases the court docket, permit us to return to my neighborhood CVS, the place “The Heart of Rock & Roll” was holding its drug-seeking listeners captive. Like many rock n’ roll songs about rock n’ roll, “The Heart of Rock & Roll” does a great deal of pandering, with Huey Lewis dutifully tallying the variety of American cities nonetheless able to rocking. The lyrical listing consists of “D.C., San Antone and the Liberty Town, Boston and Baton Rouge, Tulsa, Austin, Oklahoma City, Seattle, San Francisco, too.” Do you reside in certainly one of these cities? Guess what: Now you’re higher than individuals who don’t dwell in certainly one of these cities. The band positive aspects additional pandering factors for the Canadian launch of the “Heart of Rock & Roll” single, which strategically crams in a shout-out to Toronto and Montreal previous to the compulsory 1980s saxophone solo.
Lewis could not have been the primary to navigate the treacherous terrain that’s the rock n’ roll tune about rock n’ roll, however because it pertains to pandering, he was definitely the most effective recognized. (Point of curiosity: This attracts a parallel to namesake Meriwether Lewis — of “and Clark” fame — whose 19th-century explorations took him by D.C., Seaman’s Creek and the Liberty Town, Bozeman and Bitterroot, Three Forks, Atchison, Ol’ Dakota City, St. Helen’s, Sacagawea too.)
So as we’ve gleaned from Lewis’s antics, a prevalent function of rock n’ roll songs about rock n’ roll is the express must stroke listeners’ egos, figuratively high-fiving them for doing little greater than listening to the music they’re presently listening to. This technique goes past preaching to the choir; it’s akin to taking the stage at a June Cleaver conference and yelling, “Who right here loves baking cookies and doling out life classes to tweens?!”
Next up is the self-aggrandizement that imbues a great variety of RnRSaRnR. On the floor, there’s nothing unsuitable with rock n’ roll taking satisfaction within the musical area of interest it’s carved into our collective unconscious. Yet as soon as this self-regard is downloaded into tune type, we’re left with a product that reeks of neediness and insecurity. Whether you’re a style of music or a time-released, clinical-strength antacid, while you’re really nice, individuals comprehend it. Which makes shouting your virtues from the rooftop wholly pointless. And a bit awkward.
There’s additionally an inherent bias to this type of musical self-evaluation. As the rock n’ roll artist, you’re just too near the subject material to offer an sincere evaluation of its deserves. Rock n’ roll has not solely paid your payments, it’s made you well-known. If an previous school buddy secured these items for you, your gratitude would — consciously or not — discover you glossing over his much less fascinating traits, from that questionable facial-hair configuration to the actual fact he pronounces milk as “melk.”
Another deadly RnRSaRnR flaw is is the fake nostalgia through which it usually peddles. A big share of rock n’ roll songs about rock n’ roll yearn for rock’s gauzy yesteryears, making an attempt to have a good time — and even recapture — what was, whether or not it really “was” or not. It’s a specious type of sentimentality, and it does extra disservice than good to rock’s storied and ongoing historical past. Elton John begins “Crocodile Rock” with the wistful proclamation, “I keep in mind when rock was younger.” A mere two verses later he flips the script, blindsiding us with, “But the years glided by and the rock simply died.” Ouch. Quality rock music was in no quick provide circa 1971, when Led Zeppelin IV hit file shops. Yet 23-year-old Robert Plant longs for its so-called heyday on the album’s second observe: “It’s been a very long time since I rock n’ rolled / It’s been a very long time since I did the stroll /Let me get it again, let me get it again, let me get it again / child, the place I come from.” Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock n’ Roll” flaunts a marked choice for that bygone-era sound, between her need to be “singin’ that very same previous tune” and her doubtful potential to discover a jukebox in 1982 that solely fees ten cents a play.
An ironic aspect impact of RnRSaRnR’s nostalgia is that these songs — all “fashionable” on the time of their launch — negate their very own relevance by design. In “Old Time Rock n’ Roll,” Bob Seger posits that OG rock is the one music interesting sufficient to get him out on the dance ground. Which means that upon its 1978 launch, even “Old Time Rock n’ Roll” would find yourself on Seger’s “don’t dance to this!” listing, having been penned 20 years after rock’s halcyon days. In reality, “Old Time Rock n’ Roll” systematically shits on the complete Seger catalogue, provided that none of its songs predate 1969. To use the Grammy winner’s personal phrases towards him, “Today’s music [including Seger’s own] ain’t received the identical soul.”
Built round a precarious and ramshackle basis, the RnRSaRnR can’t assist however collapse underneath its personal weight. With even probably the most informal scrutiny utilized, the subgenre swiftly veers into the existential: Is a rock n’ roll tune about rock n’ roll even a rock n’ roll tune in any respect? Or is it little greater than self-reflexive homage — one which seeks relevance by spotlighting (and at its worst, siphoning) the rock n’ roll accomplishments that got here earlier than it. All artists are formed by their influences, so standing on the shoulders of giants is par for the course within the music world. As the previous screenwriting adage goes, “Show, don’t inform.” Rock n’ roll excites and conjures up us when it walks the stroll, not when it talks the speak. To paraphrase AC/DC, “It’s an extended strategy to the highest in case you wanna rock n’ roll after which watch others get wealthy by writing superfluous tributes to how nice you rocked n’ rolled.”