IN 1977, THE great, now dead, rock critic Lester Bangs, in his Elvis obituary, wrote to a culture just starting to fracture into niche markets, “We will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis.”
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Thirty-four years later, nearly two decades into the Internet age, the September 2011 break-up of the rock band R.E.M. reminded me just how right Bangs was. R.E.M. was one of the last traditional rock bands still doing relevant work. They stood firmly in the line that ran from Presley to Lennon to Patti Smith and Joe Strummer. Like all those predecessors, R.E.M. wrung out various guitar-based roots music forms to see what they would give up, not just with the entertainer’s aim to be famous or rich, but with the artist’s ambition to make something true, beautiful, and revelatory, and maybe change the world. But the era in which a rock band could exert world-changing cultural leverage has probably passed.
Elvis changed the world because, like Walt Whitman, he “contained multitudes.” He uttered his barbaric American yawp, standing, like Paul Bunyan, astride the usual polarities of masculine vs. feminine and black vs. white. With the help of his mentor-producer Sam Phillips, Elvis made a new sound that would eventually become as big and inclusive, as wild and free, and, sometimes, as unthinking and greed-addled as America itself.
From its very beginning in Sam Phillips’ fevered brain, the rock-and-roll idea was about bringing America’s cultural outsiders into their rightful place in the cultural mainstream. The other, inextricably related, part of the rock-and-roll idea had to do with the connection between the artist and audience. The artist came from the people; he or she was always one of us. And, in live performance, the artist and the audience became equal partners in creating a communal experience that was greater than the sum of its parts.
When that old rock culture began to die is subject to debate. One theory holds that the end began on Aug. 1, 1981, when MTV went live. Music videos made it possible for a telegenic artist to bypass the years of grinding it out, playing first high school dances, then small clubs, then showcase clubs, slowly and laboriously building an audience face to face. Certainly the death sentence was clear by 1994, when the web began making first images, then audio, then video available instantly, on demand.
On the one hand, the web seemed like a very rock-and-roll thing. It made it possible for anyone—regardless of pedigree or expertise—to declare him or herself first an author, then a musician, and now a filmmaker. But on that other hand, the web also shattered the shared culture of record stores and radio stations that had allowed American freaks—from Little Richard on—to become national heroes. The entertainment and advertising business no longer needs to gather us all together in one shared space to make money off of us, and so it won’t. We were always too dangerous mobbed up like that anyway.
Bangs was right about Elvis. No one ever again mattered as he did—not even R.E.M., U2, and Springsteen rolled into one could match the King’s cultural heft, although some would argue that Michael Jackson came close. But what’s even worse, no rock band will probably ever again matter even as much as R.E.M. did in gathering a mainstream mass audience around a set of alternative, socially responsible, and politically engaged values and ideas. There are still great bands out there. To my aging ears, The Gaslight Anthem and Kings of Leon are, at their best, as good as any of their ancestors. And in his sign-off statement on the band’s website, R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck promised fans that they would see him again, if only “standing at the back of the club: watching a group of 19-year-olds trying to change the world.” I wish I could share his optimism.
Danny Duncan Collum teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort. Find out about his novel, White Boy, and more at www.dannyduncancollum.net.