Yes, Don McLean, I believe in rock ‘n’ roll. Real rock ‘n’ roll, anyway, which basically means the old stuff since, as Andrew G. Rosen put it, “Rock [today] continues as a fading mirror of itself as it forever weakens in failed duplication.” But I’d prefer not to dwell on the acoustic sins streaming from radios today – in most other senses, I take a broad view of rock: from soft folk ballads to pounding heavy metal, it’s all good.
Which means it’s perfectly fine for Peter Yarrow to jam with Jimi Hendrix, for Brian Wilson to harmonize with Elvis Presley, and for Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison to find out who the real American poet is. Because rock’s diversity is precisely what allows one song to envelop a listener in the most perfect sound ever created, only for the listener to think the same of another track two days later.
In short, rock ‘n’ roll can be about anything and sound like anything. Some songs send a message more simply, more directly, and more intimately than could be achieved through any other medium, like the Beatles’ “Let it Be” or Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence”; others tell a story that conjures more emotion in four minutes than any Hollywood tearjerker can in two hours – just try listening to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” or Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” without pouring out sympathy for the protagonists. Yet others slap lyrics together quickly, relying instead on high-energy riffs and pounding beats to get the blood flowing: even your uptight great-Uncle George wouldn’t be able to stop himself from tapping his foot and bobbing his head to the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” or AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” And then, of course, there are songs like Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” songs which probably don’t mean anything, but whose words and sounds are so haunting they leave the listener with a sense of awe and wonder.
This boundless freedom of expression, both lyrical and musical, embodies the essence of rock ‘n’ roll, as well as one of art’s greatest paradoxes: rock is both carefree escapism and brutal realism, at once assuring the listener of his invulnerability and his mortality, his liberty and his responsibility. Thus, rock ‘n’ roll does not comment on life — rock ‘n’ roll is life, taking its audience from the highest high to the lowest low and back again, sometimes within the space of a few notes. And when the perfect harmony between these poles is found, well, that’s when you get “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Yesterday,” and it’s when you know that, no matter what, life is worth it, if for no other reason than to crank up the stereo and blast Guns N’ Roses one more time.
So, to get back to McLean’s questions, I don’t know if music can save my mortal soul, and I don’t care, because I do know this (say it with me in your best Brian Johnson screech): Rock ‘n’ roll ain’t noise pollution.
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