In my chapter on authenticity and popular music, I’m mounting the argument that popular music operates in (among other things) a tension between creativity and tradition. (Yes, I know, not just popular music—I have read Eliot). My contention is that while this tension remains largely in balance, at any given time one or the other is dominant, and this is the underlying cause of the fact that popular (and here I’m referring to mainstream rock) music often cycles through phases of rock-revivalism in response to some sort of creative excess. Thus, it could be argued, punk was a reaction to the overblown styles of the 1960s rock dinosaurs, grunge to the dominance of the synth during the 1980s, etc. (Don’t lean too heavily on the periodicity: it’s a complex cycle, they overlap, and there are always outliers.)
I want to argue that one aspect of this latest version of rock revivalism—which I would suggest we are just starting to emerge from—presents itself in terms of a suspicion of virtuoso musicians (read guitarists) and a preference for a simpler, truer, style of playing. Thus in the late 1970s the mainstream audience abandoned the technical skills of Jimmy Page or Eric Clapton for the forthright honesty of Johnny Ramone or Mick Jones; in the 1990s Kurt Cobain became the guitar hero, rather than Eddie Van Halen or Kirk Hammett of Metallica. I think this explains The White Stripes and Jet, bands I don’t particularly like because I find them derivative.
I should also say that this doesn’t mean that I think that Eddie Van Halen is a “better” guitarist than Jack White: he is certainly technically more accomplished, but technique is only part of what makes a guitarist good—The Edge of U2 is an example of someone whose lack of skill was turned into the band’s biggest asset. Technical skill is not necessary a determinant of influence.
Looking for some way of supporting this contention I went to one of the key sources of the rock discourse, Rolling Stone, and checked out their 2003 article, The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. Notwithstanding my previous paragraph, I was expecting that this would pretty clearly be a list that privileged skill, technique, and possibly flamboyance, and while influence would be important, it wouldn’t trump the good, solid ability to shred! So imagine my surprise when number 12 was Kurt Cobain; 16 was Johnny Ramone; and 17 was Jack White. Great guitarists all, but better than Tom Morello (26), Mark Knopfler (27), or Eddie Van Halen (70)? What hope have I got when I can’t even get Rolling Stone to trot out the cliches. Has the rock myth become so politically correct that we can’t even say that Joe Satriani (who doesn’t make the list) is a better guitarist than Kurt Cobain?
So (here’s where you come in), is my argument incorrect? (it must be said, my supervisor thinks it is) Can’t I say that over the last 10 years the discourse of tradition has held sway in the mainstream popular music industry, privileging the music that conformed to the “honest”, “natural”, back to basics approach over those songs and bands that pushed the out-moded “virtuoso” card? Look at the Triple J “Hottest 100” charts over the last couple of years and you’ll see plenty of bands of the former type and very few of the latter.
I know this is a vastly simplified description of the complex forces that shape modern musical tastes, but underlying there is a kernel of truth. Isn’t there?