Will rock ’n’ roll ‘go down in history’ like classical music?

By Mark McGowan
NIU Newsroom

Danny Rapp issued a famous and urgent proclamation nearly 60 years ago with The Juniors snapping their fingers at his side

“Rock and roll is here to stay. It will never die,” he sang. “I don’t care what people say. Rock and roll is here to stay.”

So far, of course, he’s right.

niu_newsroom5With the announcement today of the 20-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 2016 nominees, fierce debates will renew over the unfathomable snubs and the bewildering inclusions of others who many rock purists would consider, um, disco or something worse.

The music that Frank Sinatra once called “the most brutal, ugly, desperate, vicious form of expression it has been my misfortune to hear” has now endured for several generations.

It’s triggered countless arguments between parents and their crazy teenagers – who eventually become parents bound to fight with their own teens over that garbage coming from the radio. Its numerous obituaries far exceed those exaggerated ones Mark Twain complained about; Foo Fighter Dave Grohl, just a 1-year-old baby when Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin died, seems to spend every minute he has left on the planet proving those mourners wrong.

For that matter, so do septuagenarians Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who are probably planning another world tour of their Rolling Stones. And don’t forget the Who’s Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey, neither of whom died – or stopped rocking – before they got old.

But what would Mozart say about the staying power of rock ’n’ roll? Or Bach, Beethoven and Brahms? Or Haydn and Handel?

Music composed centuries ago – its many styles known collectively as “classical music” – remains as relevant today as when it was first written. Classical music’s pedigree is irrefutable; orchestras of all shapes and sizes continue to record and perform the works of the masters to adoring and large audiences.

Let’s put aside the age-old debate – Beatles or Stones? – to start another: Will rock music last like classical music?

Ed Klonoski, an associate professor in the NIU School of Music, thinks so.

“People who are performing in modern rock or contemporary rock, whatever you would call it, are steeped in the traditions of the classic rock period, but there are many styles that overlap,” says Klonoski, who made a living by playing electric guitar in rock bands before entering academia to teach music theory.

“And as those new styles are emerging, classic rock as an era is being more clearly defined,” he adds. “Once an era becomes defined, it can last forever.”

Classical music evolved in a similar way, he says. Polyphonic sounds of the Renaissance Period, for example, led to the more harmonic baroque styles. “While there was change, there was also overlap,” he says, “and the same polyphonic principles would last all the way into the 21st century.”

Part of what makes classical music flourish is its symbiotic relationship with education, he adds.

“When children learn to play the violin, they don’t learn to play classic rock,” he says, adding that many colleges and universities teach only classical; some others, like NIU, have branched into jazz and world music.

Joe Bonomo, an associate professor in theDepartment of English, is also a believer in rock.

fleshtones“Yes, absolutely,” says Bonomo, author of a 2007 book on garage rock legends The Fleshtones. “It is simply – and profoundly – a human expression. As long as there will be electricity and guitars and amplifiers and drums, there will be rock ’n’ roll. None of those expressions are going to die out.”

He traces rock’s history to the late 1940s and early 1950s, when young musicians conjured “this insane blend of R&B, boogie woogie, country and blues.” That mix of sounds propelled so many young people to, as the Byrds say, “just get an electric guitar and take some time and learn how to play.”

“We’re just at the cusp, which is so exciting when you think about it,” Bonomo says. “Rock ’n roll is still essentially a baby, certainly relative to Bach and Beethoven, etc. When Chuck Berry said, ‘Roll over, Beethoven,’ he wasn’t kidding.”

Jim Schmidt, chair of the Department of History, usually doesn’t look ahead in his line of work. Maybe that’s why the lead guitarist of local cover band Buffalo Jump sees both the grim – and the great – in store for rock ’n’ roll.

“There are some pretty clear social divisions in who likes this kind of music, young or old. Such music is often criticized for being male and white. I’d say the latter is truer than the former, but these patterns persist,” Schmidt says. “And if these patterns are true and, as the population shifts, this does not bode well for classic rock. The same analysis goes for the Republican Party, by the way.”

But he’s encouraged by a couple of recent, informal polls of his NIU students regarding their favorite bands and singers.

“You’d be surprised by the results,” he says. “In both surveys, the top was the Beatles. Other classic rock bands also score high – Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, etc.”

Klonoski, who’s mostly listening to the blues these days, knows one reason why.

The music he grew up with – the British Invasion and his older brother’s vinyl records of Traffic and Derek and the Dominoes – is an altar of worship for all kids who obey the lure of the Fender Stratocaster.

“One of the characteristics of the classic rock era are some unbelievably legendary electric guitar players,” he says. “Jimmy Page. Hendrix. Clapton.”

Meanwhile, Bonomo says, the ever-changing styles and palates that might seem like impediments to rock’s durability are doing just the opposite.

“I see that as the lifeblood,” he says “I see changing tastes as being the moving parts of the engine of rock ’n’ roll.”


The same goes for modern technology, he says.

“The literal sound quality of music has been affected – many people argue negatively – by the so-called loudness war and a squashing-down of the broad analog spectrum into the mp3 range,” says Bonomo, who prefers to enjoy the early Sun Records artists such as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash on vinyl.

“But the portability of new music – the fact that I carry literally 16,000 songs in my pocket – is so astonishing and so new that we really have no idea what the consequence of that is going to be,” he adds, “other than to say that rock ’n’ roll and pop music is going to continue to matter.”

David Gunkel, a professor of in the Department of Communication whose scholarly specialties include Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and new media, sees a bleak and bright future for music of all varieties.

“Rock ’n’ roll, like other genres, including classical for that matter, are obsolete and on the verge of disappearing forever,” says Gunkel, who in the early 1980s played drums for Milwaukee-based punk band The Boneheads.

“Genre categories are socially constructed by us to sort, and make sense of, a huge diversity of musical data,” he adds. “We use these categories to identify what we like to listen to and then extract those out of this huge data set.”

Evolutions of music make that job complicated and beyond the range of the human brain, he says.

“A genre like rock ’n’ roll covers a whole variety of music – for example, rockabilly, psychedelic, heavy metal, which you can subdivide into speed metal, death metal, hair metal and more,” he says, “and the subcategories are not enough to drill down far enough to hear that piece of music we should be hearing.”

Listeners in the not-too-distant future will not make those decisions themselves, Gunkel says.

The revolution already has begun with the efficiency and speed of algorithms used by Pandora, Netflix, Google Plus and Amazon. For example, he says, 75 percent of all content viewed on Netflix was suggested to – and not organically chosen by – the consumers.

“The algorithms learn our behaviors. They know what we like and what we buy. We train the algorithms in our tastes – like on Pandora, when you skip some songs and not others – and they in turn make better and better recommendations,” he says.

“Genres are an endangered species. We don’t need them,” he adds. “If it fits your listening pattern, it’ll go on. Algorithms don’t need categories.”

Such technology comes at a time when “we have more music available than we’ve ever had in human history” as computers make it quick and simple to create and distribute new works across the world. Record labels and radio play aren’t necessary.

However, Gunkel says, the marvel of discovery will become a sad casualty.

“Think about walking through the library, looking for something in the fiction section. You could spend all day walking through the stacks and never find what you want – but you find things by accident,” he says. “One of the things that gets lost in the efficiency of the algorithm is noise. We say that digital media is noiseless, but you lose that component of noise that introduces something unexpected or something surprising.”

Yet at the end of the day – or at the end of time – Schmidt and his compatriots in Buffalo Jump can find assurance in the future of rock ’n’ roll right in front of their stage-lit faces.

All the evidence they need is bouncing around the dance floors of local pubs.

“Rock ’n’ roll clearly speaks to at least some people on some musical level unrelated to words,” he says. “When playing with the band, there are certainly reliable songs that people will ‘jump up and down to,’ as I usually put it. The words do not matter. Key example: ‘Blister in the Sun.’ It’s more that, ‘it’s got a good beat,’ as they used to say on American Bandstand.”

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