Disrupting the the “Winners’ History of Rock ‘n’ Roll”

rock and roll belongs to the baby boomHistoriography is one of those aspects of the study of history that even most History majors find insufferable, let alone the common folk. This I understand: not only is it very self-absorbed to study THE STUDY of history, but the subject is often taught and presented in a really boring, academic way. When I was writing my thesis at Acadia, I know quite well that the majority of my fellow honours students dreaded finally getting around to writing that historiography chapter, not exactly gung-ho to go through the hassle of placing their contribution within the pre-existing scholarship.

But geekily, I always kind of liked historiography. Perhaps it was my dual background as both a History and English major that allowed me to enjoy pondering the creation of historical narratives and the conflicts that emerge when the different perspectives clash. I’d say that my essay examining the various histories and counter-histories of the origins of the Cold War probably ranks in my top five favourite essays I wrote in university.

As usual, this seemingly-random two-paragraph reflection does have a point: it was inspired by a great post over at the A.V. Club blog earlier this week regarding the history of rock and roll music. Author Steve Hyden describes his stumbling upon a mid-1990s documentary on VH1 called “The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll” and how it led him to ponder the way in which music history is written and interpreted.

Take a few moments to read the article here. If you’re too lazy to click on the link, let me give you the Coles Notes version. For a start, here’s the paragraph where Hyden presents his central thesis:

Rock history, unlike regular history, is written by the losers. I define losers as people who liked music that wasn’t popular in the mainstream, and had very little impact on pop culture at large. (Before anyone gets their undies in a bundle, let me just cop to being a “loser” myself. It’s not a value judgment, just a reflection of what was happening in the marketplace at the time.) Because rock writers tend to love “loser” music—punk, indie rock, alt-country, “conscious” hip-hop, dance music that goes on forever without a hook—“loser” music is what gets remembered as history. I’m not necessarily questioning it, just pointing out that it’s “a” history written with a certain agenda in mind. Think of it as revenge of the nerds—we make our music popular in the long term to correct the mainstream’s short-term “oversight.”

Hyden goes on to explain how regular history is written by winners – Martin Luther King is seen as a hero because society eventually came out against segregation, but had the opposite occurred he would be seen as a dangerous dissident – but that music critics and writers tend to elevate the importance of the music that THEY liked rather than what actually reaches or affects the most people. Hyden explains that punk music, for example, is grossly overstated whereas disco has continued to influence the vast majority of popular music for decades but is still spit upon by writers. He concludes the article by writing a short winner-friendly version of rock history, completely lacking in the Velvet Underground, or the Clash, or Radiohead (and with Nirvana as a mere footnote).

Now before I get into my rebuttal, I want to state that I actually agree with Hyden’s central thesis – that rock writers tend to focus on music that is not necessarily the most popular at the time – and will gladly concede that I think there’s room in the annals of rock history for an increased look at everything from disco to metal to, yes, even rap-metal. No matter how much a genre may suck in general – like, say, rap-metal – if people listened to it, it’s worthy of inclusion in the cultural canon (and to some extent, I think this is happening: websites like Pitchfork are much more willing to embrace ‘winners’’ music than similarly elitist publications have been in the past). But there are some oversights and neglects in Hyden’s analysis that I think prevent it from truly comprehending the historiography of popular music.

One problem is that Hyden is comparing apples to oranges when he discusses rock writers and popular history. The idea that history is “written by the winners” may be somewhat true in a popular sense but hasn’t applied in academic circles for quite some time. The 1960s saw a new wave of historians come of age often (dubiously) referred to as “revisionists.” They saw fit to challenge existing historical narratives and find new counter-narratives that emphasized neglected or untold aspects of the past. To this day, I would suspect that the majority of historians in academia see their role as not adding to the popular history but challenging it: why retell a story that’s already been told? Why not spend your time and effort shedding new light on the unreported parts of history?

By putting popular history and music writers side by side, Hyden makes a faulty comparison by ignoring that latter have more common with academic historians than they do with the popular narrative. For one, music writers are fanatical devotees to the material that they’re studying and writing about, caught up in every little minutia of music just as academic historians are the only people who might give a damn about their narrow field of interest. But more importantly, most music writers have come of age in the decades since the 1960s and therefore are part of this new revisionist-focused historiography, where the role of the historian/writer is not to reinforce existing popular narratives but to add to them and challenge them. Billboard charts, radio airplay and record collections have already told the “winners” version of music history; why not tell the other side?

Now I won’t pretend that there aren’t some complications in my equation of music writers and academic historians, the main one being that music writers have actually had success in influencing the popular narrative. Few present day academic historians can point to popular history and say “I influenced that.” But music critics have had a huge impact: for example, even if its just a token gesture of respect, most people have come to believe that punk music was important (how else to explain Joe Strummer getting a Springsteen/Costello/Van Zant/Grohl tribute at the Grammy Awards of all places?).

But is this a bad thing? The other major omission/oversight of Hyden’s analysis is something that he actually hints at but doesn’t expand upon. When discussing punk music, he writes: “Aesthetically, punk’s influence can’t be denied—it’s why there’s a Hot Topic in every mall and pop bands dressed like punk bands on the radio.” But it’s far more than just that. Hyden actually hits the nail on the head then when he puts together his ‘winners’ history’ and describes punk: “A small minority embraced punk music, which was improved upon by the incendiary catchiness of new wave.”

And right there is the reason why the study of ‘loser’ music is so important: because in most cases, the winners borrowed/stole/were influenced by it. Even if an artist/performer was as mainstream as you can get, chances are that they were exposed to or personally enjoyed all sorts of less-popular sounds, both within their own genre and outside of it. Loser music is where the mainstream goes to seek out new, invigorating sounds and genres, where it finds new life and new energy. It’s hardly a direct translation – mainstream artist X makes alternative music Y accessible to the masses – but the influence that ‘loser’ music has on the mainstream is undeniable. Could Nirvana and Limp Bizkit have existed without punk music? Could Eminem exist without Grandmaster Flash? Could any rock and roll music at all exist without the blues and jazz of the pre-WWII era?

The whole reason that we study history in the first place is to find out where things come from and how they ended up the way they are today. Hyden makes it seem like the reason that ‘loser’ music becomes embraced in hindsight is because the music writers have over-emphasized it. The reality is that it’s the popular music, the ‘winners’ music,’ that has time and time again embraced ‘loser’ music; all the music writers are doing is connecting the dots for us.

Watch: Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Steven Van Zant, Dave Grohl and others – “London Calling” (Joe Strummer tribute live at the 2003 Grammy Awards)


2 responses to “Disrupting the the “Winners’ History of Rock ‘n’ Roll”

  1. Hey there, I stumbled across this blog post while surfing the net. (OK, I Googled myself.) Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful response to my blog post. If I could add one thing: As a fan of “loser” music, I tend to agree with the current version of rock history. I’m not suggesting chucking that history in favor of a “winner’s” version, merely expanding the current version a bit more.

    Anyway, thanks again. Cool blog!

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