Realizing that “Youth Music and Youth Culture,” a Princeton conference last November, was actually about the 20th-century cultural hegemony of African-Americans was like seeing for the first time that Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner only masquerades as a human/android love story and is actually a movie about the historical wounds of slavery. Asking how “we” can tell the difference between a human and a replicant, and what the rights of a replicant might be, Blade Runner is really preoccupied with the alienness of blacks and whites to one another, and the inhumanity of whites to blacks. That it takes slavery as its trope is the clue, and no surprise: the house divided against itself still stands, or stands still. While other cultures may be about other differences, or about several differences, we have allowed ourselves mainly this large one.
Andrew Ross began the gathering he organized by asking to whom youth culture belongs, youth or those who market it, and various panelists waxed protective of various subcultures in the face of cooption. Tricia Rose was unnerved by how easily African-American culture is shared, Dick Hebdige remarked that it’s a misconception that “everyone has equal rights to all knowledge,” and Donna Gaines asserted, “I don’t feel the need to tell the power structure what young people are doing.” Then, in the penultimate speech, Susan McClary put it on the table: the 20th century “is the period when African-Americans took over the making of images, the shaping of bodies and subjectivities through music.” The same glass Rose saw, but half full, and the anodyne to Hebdige’s anxiety. “Hip-hop kids, America’s only real trend-setters, have far-reaching effects on fashion,” wrote Kiema Mayo recently in The Source. “What is not so obvious to us, our posture, is mimicked from Seventh Avenue all the way to Japan.” Why shouldn’t white beys affect tappers’ garb? They’re not conquering something, they’re being conquered.
This was what the conference meant. It may have been about “youth culture,” but if there’s really a youth culture for it to be about it was probably hip-hop, and definitely not rock. Of the five panels, two focused on rap, one on dance music, and two, more diffusely, on “youth music” in general, including rock—just barely: only Robert Christgau and Robert Walser mentioned rock bands, and briefly.
Is there a contemporary rock youth culture? Aren’t young people today recycling the cultural signifiers of their parents, the clothes just the most obvious example? What’s taken for “youth culture” today is mainly hip-hop culture, African-American culture, associated with a demographic cohort rather than an age group, just as rock is the music of a demographic cohort rather than a universal attribute of youth. Without predicting that senior citizens will eventually be starting rock bands, I’d guess that in another thirty years it may be clearer that the association of rock with youth is fortuitous.
That association comes partly from rock’s history, partly from its notorious commitment to the moment, its transience. Actually, life flees at least as swiftly at 50 as at 20. But whereas conventional wisdom comforts age by suggesting that experience, the reward for enduring time’s passage, is worth the price of each moment’s loss, rock warns that it’s not. The poignance of rock is that usually you don’t get better at playing it as you get more experienced, i.e., older. To understand this music, you have to understand the horror and elation of living for something that slips from your grasp even as you master it. Rock lives are just like other lives, only more so: grotesquely fastforwarded, and thus inherently sad. They suggest that while it’s one thing to speculate about striking a bargain at the crossroads, it’s another to have no choice in the matter.
Rock’s rebellion was never so much against age as against time itself. Delay, reverb, vibrato, trills, harmonics–all the trademarks of rock guitar are efforts to play with time. Rock suggests to its performers that they die soon, if not young, and confronts the audience with living fast, three-minute song by three-minute song. That’s the terribilita in rock, and I suspect in rap, that no one at Princeton mentioned. After all, Blade Runner could also be read as an allegory of the rock ‘n’ roll career: the replicant’s four-year life-span isn’t a bad estimate of how long it takes a band to suck.
Discussing science fiction recently in the Voice, Richard Gehr asked, “Why can we remember the past and not the future?” That question, implied in Blade Runner, makes more sense the fewer memories you have. Rock’s pervasive nostalgia extends even to the future, asking why we will be condemned merely to remember it. This disgust with time’s passage forces the riptide of rock’s best moments. By being so thoroughly “youth_ music,” rock speaks again and again of death.
Ann Marlowe writes about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll for the LA Weekly and The Village Voice.