Jewish World Review Sept. 18, 2003 / 21 Elul 5763
Rock music appeals to fans' yearnings for mindlessness
The room was rockin'. Guitars wailed, drums flailed,
raucous-raspy voices shouted out exploded lyrics, bodies shook. And I
I was born before rock 'n' roll existed. The late pioneer rock
producer Sam Phillips, legendary owner of Sun Records, thought the
phenomenon started with "Rocket 88," a souped-up 1951 rhythm and
blues car song that Ike Turner wrote. Phillips called it "the first
rock and roll song."
Whether other rock historians agree is really beside my point
here, which is that rock 'n' roll is a relatively new creation in
human culture, one that really came into its own as I was entering my
teenage years. So you'd think that by now I'd have a better fix on
why this driving, sensual music has such wide appeal, especially to
But I don't. I have only theories, many of which were jangling
around in my head recently as I attended a concert in Lawrence by
Andrew W.K., a popular band that encourages fans to join it on stage
and sing (OK, scream) and dance (OK, undulate). Often, Andrew himself
can't even been seen in the crowd.
The andrewwk.com Web site, full of impenetrable prose presumably
written by Andrew, tries to explain the W.K. part of the name this
way: "The letter 'W' was, is and always will be the world of
strength and unity - the shape of 2 arms locked in unyeilding (sic)
power. ... The letter 'K' was, is and always will be the consumption
of the universe. The contious (sic) symbol of greater than, less
than, always level."
Rock 'n' rollers tend to rock better than they spell.
To my ancient ears, most hard rock music is merely noise. And I'm
probably not alone in that view. One of my stepsons bought me a
ticket for the Andrew W.K. concert. Halfway through the performance,
one of his college-age friends, watching all the singing and dancing
and leaping from the stage, came over to me and confided, "This is
just an excuse to act stupid."
Well, maybe. But that explanation simply cannot explain rock 'n'
roll's staying power. Admittedly, 50 or so years in the long arc of
human history is a mere blink, but the rock phenomenon is
international and shows no signs of abating.
So again, the question is why.
There are conventional and historical answers: Rock protests the
status quo. It simply evolved naturally out of other musical forms.
As such, it was almost inevitable. It meets a deep need for physical
release. It resonates with some core rhythm in our souls, saying
things to us in right-brained ways similar to the way modern or
abstract art does and that more traditional music and art do not. It
has proven itself to be an economic powerhouse. It celebrates when so
much in our culture denigrates. (This answer, however, ignores the
tendency of rock and rap to denigrate much of what they pretend to
Although I've already said that much of hard rock sounds like
noise to me, I don't want to suggest that all rock lacks musical
sophistication. I recall the first time I heard the Beatles' album
"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" in the late 1960s. Although
my musical training is terribly modest, I recognized immediately that
these rockers were breaking important new ground and possibly even
making a lasting contribution to composition.
So there's rock and there's rock. But why do so many people find
rock so appealing? Why do they spend so much money to buy recordings
and tickets for live performances? Why do they abandon so much
inhibition when the beat starts?
My current theory: Part of the reason is that when the music
fills their heads, there is no room for much of anything else. The
music relieves them of the responsibility to think, to discern, to
recognize nuances. At its most extreme, rock crowds out almost all
other sensory sources and demands undivided attention.
When employed on an occasional basis, rock can provide a vacation
for tired craniums. But my guess is that for many dedicated rock
fans, the music is an escape from something they've never learned to
use well, something that, in the end, frightens them - their brains.
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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2002. All rights reserved