Why I Don't Like Rock 'N Roll

by Polar Levine for popCULTmedia, January 19 2003

Hello. I'm a musician. I write about music. I'm a with-it pomo kind of guy with attitude and funny hair. I think older music is, in general, no better than newer music. I'm immune to nostalgia and I don't believe in The Golden Age of anything. I like acoustic, electronic and totally abstract music. I like music from the mountains of Himalaya and Appalachia; from cities like New York, Bristol, Salvador and Karachi. I like it with a beat or an abstract smear. I like it soft and sweet. I like it loud. Real loud. Sometimes I intentionally listen to music that's designed to induce headaches. It feels good. I like the groove greasy and the bottom phat. But I don't like rock n' roll.

OK, I like some rock. I try to like more of it. I actually take the time occasionally to put some headphones on, blast the shit and try to discover rock's G-spot.

I like Tool, System Of A Down, some Pearl Jam, Jane's Addiction, The Beatles, Little Feat's second line groove stuff, two or three songs on every Stones album, Alanis Morissette, the Chili Peppers' rhythm section, some U2, Nirvana, Radiohead, Los Lobos, Coldplay, Sheryl Crow, XTC. Of course my favorite Zeppelin song is "The Crunge." OK, that's a few. I know there are more.

And here's something exciting: I've had a change of heart recently about one band. I'm happy for it. Changes of heart exercise that particular muscle and keep it firm and flexible. A few months ago I wrote a piece in which I held up the unquestioned universal acclaim of The (somewhat musically challenged) White Stripes as an example of low standards in the music crit biz. But I gotta say -- I love "Fell In Love With a Girl." Does that mean that I consider the Stripes to have gotten their chops together between "Jolene" and "Fell In Love?" No. But they got their production chops together. Their recent production has dealt with their sloppy playing by compressing the piss out of the mix so that it sounds like a mono 45 played on a tiny portable record player from the 60's. Like the Stones' "12 X 5." Same is true of the Hives' sound. I like this. Now I like The White Stripes and I like The Hives a bit (but getting bored fast), and some of these new bands with "The" in the name and nothing to say. I think rock at this stage in its history is real good at reviving the way it started out -- as very simplistic, loud ear candy. I figure if you're going to get all existential and deep -- the music should get deep. Those diddly minor key goth nursery rhymes just can't carry the weight of that Big Angst shit. That's why I like Tool and System, although their lyrics are of the smart, alienated, socially conscious high school senior type. Their music is incredibly dynamic -- soft softs and real loud louds, sudden silences and sudden explosions. Tool uses odd time signatures and both bands hit you with totally unexpected events. When you know everything that's going to happen and when it's going happen, it's bland. It can be Limp Bizkit or Barry Manilow. It's still bland. Loud and distorted don't make it "hard."

As long as I find myself careening down this slippery slope toward a year's worth of hate mail -- let me reveal my main gripe about rock. It has no groove. Just a big loud pulse like an 800 ton metronome. When rock n' roll started out it was the mysterious offspring of R&B (Louis Jordan) and Honky Tonk Country (Hank Williams). African-American Blues and Jazz had a crucial effect on Euro-American pop music since the days of Al Jolson in the 1920's. Even the "hillbilly" music of Jimmie Rodgers in the late 20's and 30's felt the African influence. Rodgers even used some of the major African-American jazz innovators of the day on his sessions. But post-World War II America was ready for the great aesthetic merging of the races.


What has come to be known as "groove" in pop music started in traditional African groove science. I gotta be a bit technical here. African rhythm is based on the cosmic interplay between triple time (what Euros know as 3/4 waltz time) and duple time (the common 2/4 or 4/4 we all know and love). These clashing rhythmic worlds are held together by the gravitation force of its clave (timekeeper, and time feeler) which is in 6/8. With a very subtle shift in accent by the lead drummer the groove can feel more like triple time or more like duple. The triple time is more "vertical" sounding and is heard in the trance-inducing rhythms used in religious ceremonies. The more duple feel has that party groove thing.

That triple/duple feel of African music fed the American innovations of blues and jazz. The jaunty straight 2/4 feel of Celtic and Scottish music was transported to the USA to become Folk, Country and Bluegrass. The polarity of early rock n roll was made of: 1. the church inflected R&B of Ray Charles, Little Richard, Fats Domino and; 2. the Rockabilly (blues/R&B influenced country music) of Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. But the two giants who made rock the monster that ate the world, Chuck Berry and Elvis, mainlined it straight through the veins of American culture because both created the perfect blend of R&B and Rockabilly -- that evil marriage of Africa and Europe the Authorities were so terrified of. But all those early guys -- white and black -- had groove. And their groove truly swung. Damn it -- it swang.

Black rock always sounded different from white rock, but both had swing in the grooves. When I use the term "swing" I don't refer to swing bands or the particular "swing" of jazz. Swing or "play" in a rhythm is that X-factor, born of spontaneous interplay, that makes a rhythm breathe and the butt of the listener have a life of its own. It shakes up a "pulse" and turns it into a groove. In the mid 60's the Brits based their rock on American R&B and Blues so there was groove there. The psychedelic bands of the late 60's based much of their rhythm sections on Stax/Volt soul grooves. Hendrix, early Sly And The Family Stone, Blood,Sweat & Tears and The Rascals were the Chuck Berrys/Elvis' of that era mixing R&B and funk with white rock n' roll.


But something happened in the Seventies. Maybe it had something to do with disco, that factory-made denatured funk, four on the floor drool that was served to American and European dance clubs because --, excuse me -- white folks can't dance. Surprise! It's true -- most white people can't dance for shit. If the groove is more complex than BOOM-chi BOOM-chi BOOM-chi BOOM they trip over their shoes. It's a great cause of embarrassment for a blue-eyed ashkenazic jewboy like me. I can point out the many technological, intellectual and athletic achievements of Euro types but the funky chicken ain't one of em. It's not a melanin issue or some biological quirk of fate. It's just that in Africa and the Latin American countries to which Africans were invited for their free labor and entertainment skills -- music is polyrhythmic. Polyrhythmic music forces people to dance with their hips, butts, shoulders and heads. Those instructions are imbedded in the groove. In the USA the dominant culture derived its dance life from that straight 2/4 thing from Ireland and Scotland. It's cool. I love Irish reels and Appalachian dance tunes. They're loose and funky in a BOOM-didi-BOOM kind of way. But people over there in the lands of the Anglo-Saxons and Celts dance from the theighs down. From the knees up there's a stiff body going up and down, up and down trying to keep warm in those northern climes. Those dances are the precursors of that pogo stick dance that moshpitters and Deadheads do. It's totally hip in Riverdance, though

But it was punk that brought on the permanent racial divide in pop music. Primarily a gate-crashing of working class amateurs into the ever-glittery world o' show biz, a bunch of non-musicians starting a band was literally a spontaneous let's-put-on-a-show affair. It became the new folk music. The problem is -- it got super popular. Skill at singing or instrument playing was not an issue so the music got over on piss and spit and the three defining musical elements that would define rock from that time forward -- extreme loudness, simplistic riffs played practically in unison by the entire band and ostentatious badness of attitude. It was conservative and retrograde musically; and radical in attitude and amplitude. On the positive side, it brought back the amateur freshness of early rock; and the brief period of No Wave in New York pointed to a glorious future. On the negative side, it came with an ideological bent toward staying stupid forever. Without a few years of learning to sing or play an instrument and jamming, early punk rockers never learned the subtle interplay that creates grooves, so groovelessness became hard-wired into the format. The rhythm of rock became little more than a loud distorted pulse; most bands do pulses that are sloppy and ham-fisted and a few bands do it crisp and tight. The basic format has no syncopation and little harmonic variation beyond the triadic (the standard three-note chords). So rock, wild and hyper-intense but without groove, became mainly a white domain while blacks stayed in their own neighborhood of funk, soul and, eventually, hip hop. Lacking groove, rock dropped out of my sonic world.

Out of the art schools and the basements of the nerd class came a slightly more sophisticated and ironic offshoot of the punk movement -- New Wave. This happened just at the time when digital music and MIDI burst on the scene. And this intellectual wing of newbie rockers jumped on the new technology. But when drum machines replaced live drummers in the studio, and sequencers replaced years in the woodshed, the rhythm sections lined up into perfect digitally quantized grids of 1-2-3-4. Live drummers started imitating the unnatural precision of the drum machines. Evenly spaced synthesizer eighth notes boing-boinged in lockstep. The geeky chirpings of Mark Mothersbaugh, The B-52's and Lene Lovitch iced the cake. The guitar bands were interesting in inverse proportion to the size of their hair sculptures. There was some great music in that period like Thomas Dolby and Talking Heads. Both Dolby and The Heads ("Remain In Light" and "Speaking In Tongues") truly got some groove on and their lyric writing brought rock into its brightest literary burst since Dylan in the 60's.

Then there's the singing. Maybe it was the twelve hours a day of singing while joyfully picking cotton under that ol' dixie sun -- but somehow the sound of black folks' voices had a raspy thickness that their Euro counterparts lacked. White rock singers have been giving themselves hernias for decades trying to get that sound. Those sad attempts started off as an assortment of growls. Then they evolved into outright screaming. The problem with screaming (besides putting lots of stress on vocal cords) is that, for one thing, it sounds phony. Worse, it doesn't allow a singer to develop a dynamic or emotional range. The best they can do is overcome that limitation through the structure of the song. Nirvana innovated the softer verse followed by the full tilt chorus -- a device that's now a clich. But it's real hard for those screamers to shift vocal gears spontaneously. Many white singers successfully adapted their voices to a rougher sound. Robert Plant, Elvis Costello, Kurt Cobain, Rod Stuart, John Hammond, Melissa Etheridge and many many others. Springsteen sounds phony when he screams but he's soulful as hell in his normal voice. Many of the New Wave singers dealt with the issue by bypassing it, choosing, instead, a reverse minstralsy -- a goofy caricature of white geekiness.


Since I was a little kid groove took me away -- salsa, African drumming like Olatunji, funk, Brazilian music. I hear music from the bottom up. If the groove swings I listen to the lyrics. I don't know most post 60's rock lyrics. I know Little Feat's words to their "second line" grooves (New Orleans funk) like "Rock n' Roll Doctor" or "Fat Man In the Bathtub" but not the words to the rock songs. I hear the words to Spin Doctors' funk stuff but not the rock stuff. The Spin Dox singer Chris Barron sings like he grew up listening to Mose Allison who swings his ass off. So I liked the Dox when they were around.

Metal is a real paradox. It's the one genre of rock that rewards virtuosity. But it's so intellectually vapid that it's too damn silly to take seriously. When it's not going on about all issues teen, it's the best rock n' roll has to offer like Primus, Tool and System of a Down.

And what's this thing about "Modern" Rock or "Alternative" Rock? Most of it is defined by its retro inclinations and as a defiant alternative to. . . cello concertos, I guess. It's primarily college guys singing nursery rhyme melodies over totally predictable chord changes. Often there's a one- or two-note melody that only appears to change when the chord changes, which is a device called a pedal; and pedal only works when used a handful of times in the span of a career. Considering the liteness of the melodies and often the lyrics as well, its obligatory loudness seems weird. There are hundreds of bands at this very moment performing entire sets of "Brown Eyed Girl" retreads. Some of them are even going, "La la la la la la la, la la la. . ." as you read this.

Rock is making an attempt lately to reconnect with the African American side of the pop music equation. But rapRock, with its punk/metal format is devoid of groove and the raps are screamed so there's none of the verbal flow and wit found in the best hip hop. What a wasted opportunity.

Yo, Polar! Hey, asshole -- the music YOU like is also full of clichs. Jazz is just a bunch of squiggles in the same tired format. The lyrics to funk & R&B are just lame couplets about booty. And salsa is just about booty in some foreign language."

True, True. But it's full of groove so I like it. It's my prejudice toward groove, you see?


Do I think rock is bad music? No. I just don't like it much. Because it lacks groove, play and, too often, wit. And it lacks texture. A distorted guitar and bashing drums has one texture and one texture gets tired pretty quick. I'm prejudiced toward music that has groove, wit and texture; and prejudiced against music that lacks those things.

Another thing that pisses me off about rock is the mythology that surrounds it that helps generate its steady sales figures and annoying hegemony in the world's pop music bandwidth. (for the moment -- pop-country, rap, kiddiePop and teen R&B rule the charts, but the music press is falling into step lockstep proclaiming that rock is back and kiddiePop is dead.)

There's the myth that rock n' roll is the music of rebellion. Guys just love to imagine themselves as rebels whether they're in study hall or at the golf course. At one time this myth was truth. It hasn't been for a very long time. Now is sells deoderant. That rebellion myth is now one of those old wives' tales, but in this case it's an old marketing exec' tale. The fact is, virtually all kids and post-kids of white persuasion listen to rock -- often rock and only rock. The young'uns also listen to rap and some ancillary pop. The oldsters might take in some lite jazz. But almost all listen primarily to rock. The rebels these days are the ones who DON'T listen to rock. They might listen to free jazz or blues or classical or (god-forbid) show tunes. The only rebels who listen to rock in the past twenty years are black. Every teen and post-teen "rebel" rebels against their parents and those authority figures that pose no real threat. Serious rebels defy their peer group and the types of authority figures that can disappear you. If a white kid spills an Dave Douglas CD or a black kid spills a Hives CD out of their locker, they might not make it home from school in one piece.

Then there's the attitude stuff. Negativity is cool with me. Depression, angst and fuck-the-conventional-wisdom are all candidates for my middle name. Actually, I have no middle name which even leaves some room for occasional bouts of nihilism on my OK list. But rage, pugnacity and violence as fashion statements are a fuckin' drag. Loud loud loud and only loud gets bland before you can say "Celine." Music that aspires to kick the emotional gamut from big anger to rage is mighty limited. Life on earth is pretty rough for practically all living organisms but it doesn't get much easier than it gets over over here. In the USA, Land of the Mall, wearing negativity like a pre-ripped shirt is as bourgeois as it gets. Rock is bourgeois even while it thrashes away trying to be subversive. Even Marilyn Manson (a very talented and negative guy) and his very expensive and fussy funny clothes delivers a big, fabulous floor show in the tradition of Vegas in the ring-a-ding-ding 50's of our parents and grandparents. I expect Marilyn will be yuckin' it up in the sand trap with Alice Cooper in a few years.

But not liking rock n' roll is my loss. I don't hesitate to admit that. Not just because it causes my fingers to slip off the pulse of American pop culture or because it chases me off the dance floor. Mainly because I know I'm missing out on some really great music that doesn't get through to me.

If anybody can think of anything I might like that's rock n' roll -- please burn me a copy and send it to Polar Levine, c/o MediaChannel, 1600 Broadway, Suite 700, New York NY 10019. I'll send you something back that I like.

Polar Levine