Friday, May 12, 2006

The End of the History of Rock

Teleology is the belief that history is moving toward an end. Obviously, it's a pretty standard belief for religious folks, but secular philosophers have been teleological, as well. Most famously, Marx thought that history was inevitably a progression toward a utopia in which people will work a little bit and spend a lot of time philosophizing. His beliefs were an extension of Hegel, who also posited that at some point history would end. More recently, in 1992, a philosopher named Francis Fukuyama wrote a book called "The Last Man and the End of History." He argued that history was actually already over.

Obviously, he isn't using a layperson's definition of "history." His argument is that democratic capitalism is the pinnacle of human achievement, and we will do no better. The game is over. We may still have "events," but no new "history." Though not everybody lives under a system of democratic capitalism, Fukuyama's argument is that they inevitably will (though it might take centuries).

For a long time I've wondered if rock n roll has also reached the end of its history. A couple years ago Chuck Klosterman wrote a column for "Spin" arguing that the history of rock ended when Bob Dylan and Gene Simmons did a duet together. The ultimate Hegelian synthesis had occurred, and there was nothing left to do. I used to agree, but now I think that the history of rock actually ended in 1977 with the recording of Charlene's "Never Been to Me."

I heard this song a couple times since it was on the play list of a radio station I used to work for. This station played a lot of bad music, and this song was certainly no exception. I only recently re-discovered it (don't even ask me how) and realized its importance in hindsight. It was originally recorded from a male perspective, then made famous with re-worked lyrics from a female perspective. I think it is befitting the song's enormous importance that it goes both ways. Here are the female lyrics for your enjoyment:

Hey lady, you lady
cursing at your life
You're a discontented mother
and a regimented wife
I've no doubt you dream about
the things you'll never do
I wish someone had a talked to me
like I wanna talk to you.....

Ooh I've been to Georgia and California
and, anywhere I could run
Took the hand of a preacher man
and we made love in the sun
but I ran out of places
and friendly faces
because I had to be free
I've been to paradise
but I've never been to me...

Please lady, please, lady
don't just walk away
'cause I have this need to tell you
why I'm all alone today
I can see so much of me
still living in your eyes
won't you share a part
of a weary heart
that has lived million lies.......

Ooh I've been to Nice and the Isle of Greece
while I've sipped champagne on a yacht
I moved like Harlow in Monte Carlo
and showed 'em what I've got
I've been undressed by kings
and I've seen some things
that a woman ain't supposed to see.......
I've been to paradise,
but I've never been to me.......

Hey, you know what paradise is? It's a lie. A fantasy we create about
people and places as we'd like them to be.
But you know what truth is?
it's that little baby you're holding and
it's that man you fought with this morning
the same one you're going to make love with tonight
that's truth, that's love.........

Sometimes I've been to crying for unborn children
that might have made me complete
but I.....I took the sweet life
I never knew
I'd be bitter from the sweet
I've spent my life exploring
the subtle whoring
that costs too much to be free....
hey lady......
I've been to paradise......
but I've never been to me.........

I've been to paradise
but I've never been to me....

I've been to paradise
but I've never been to me..

If you do a google search on the song title and click on the first hit you can actually hear the melody, which has a very typical late 70s adult craptemporary piano melody with an awful spoken word coda. You can almost smell the record cover as you listen.

Why does this song represent the end of the history of rock? First, you might quibble that this song can't possibly mean that since it is not a rock song. Wrong. This was played by the same AM Top 40 stations that would spin "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," "You Really Got Me," and "Magic Carpet Ride," which morphed into "Hotel California" and "Go Your Own Way" and eventually "Muskrat Love" and this schlock. It is the heir of the rock tradition. I would argue that it wasn't Pink Floyd that created the Sex Pistols, but Elton John (though that is an argument for a different day).

It's actually not that hard to connect the dots from Elvis to Charlene. Rock started in the 50s as something to dance to. This was important because dancing (as opposed to waltzing) separated youth culture from older culture. The next step was for the music to supplant the dancing and become the most important thing. Therefore, though people weren't necessarily dancing to "She Loves You," by simply listening to it they were asserting a generational cultural identity. Of course, in time that is not enough either, so ideology must be introduced into the mix. This is when rock began to have ideological pretensions. A Hegelian synthesis between the Beatles and Dylan brought this about. Like most humanist transcendence projects, though, it was doomed to failure. Just like Melville came along and blew Emerson's project away with "Moby Dick," Charlene, though perhaps less deliberate than Melville, showed up in 1977 and put the final death blow to the idea of living a transcendent life of individual freedom and profligate hedonism.

Of course, with most significant historical events, it took awhile for the world to notice. Democracy and capitalism didn't emerge overnight, nor did "Moby Dick" become widely read until after Melville's death. Similarly, the original version of "Never Been to Me" peaked at #97 on the charts. A random DJ in Florida started playing it in 1982 for the heck of it (before terrestrial radio reached the end of its history, but I digress) and it caught fire worldwide and peaked at #3 (and #1 in Britain). This is interesting because musically, the song sounds much more like a 1977 composition. It was obviously the lyrics which had more of an impact in 1982, as by that time people realized that the jig was up, and though rock music may be made in perpetuity, the truth of the matter was that the history of rock had ended.


Blogger Tim said...

I was following you there for awhile. Then you lost me. Whatever. I really like the new Panic! at the Disco song.

7:27 PM  
Blogger Azor said...

Did I lose you because it was too complicated or too long? I'm guessing the latter. You were probably distracted by something going over newspaper column length.

2:48 PM  
Blogger Heidi said...

tim just has some reading problems

12:28 PM  
Blogger Tim said...


10:00 PM  

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