Ranting against rockism

by Dillon Riley / Beacon Staff • November 5, 2014

“They don’t make ’em like they used to.” That chestnut is trotted out to remind us of the supposed halcyon days of manufacturing—a pointed questioning of the authenticity of modern industry. When applied to music trends, it remains equally problematic, but despite this there’s a longstanding movement based on that very same premise of misinformed nostalgia. This trend, which outright rejects all things contemporary, even has its own term: rockism.

Rockism is the systematic refusal to engage with anything that deviates from the classic rock form. As defined in “The Rap Against Rockism,” a crucial 2004 New York Times piece by music critic Kelefa Sanneh, rockism is “idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star.” What’s strange and ultimately sad about rockism is that it’s not just a small minority of bitter oldies fighting for recognition in today’s music climate: the rockist tendency can even be seen in teenagers and children. They post lengthy diatribes on YouTube videos declaring their love of The Who, questioning why no one else their age feels the same, and— a personal favorite—asking God for John Bonham back in exchange for Justin Bieber.

Now, I’m not advocating for the complete removal of the classic rock songbook from the minds of music listeners as a counter-measure, as that would be insane. Rock earned its acclaim during its heyday in the ’60s and ’70s, and I would be remiss to not give credit where credit is due. However, the (false) idea that rock gods like Led Zeppelin completely dominated the mainstream music culture is a major tenant of the rockist claim. Ask anyone who lived during that era, and they’ll tell you that there certainly was as much banal pop music then as there is now. Cheesy family-band pop acts like The Osmonds and The Monkees drew followings just as large as Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift have now with their music, while also managing to cross over into television. Despite the revisionist history that rockists love to employ during their heated online debates, pop controlled the mainstream during rock’s greatest age, too.

However, that still doesn’t answer the question of why rockists refuse to listen to contemporary music. In some ways, it can be chalked up to pure, unadulterated laziness. The internet has provided ample opportunity to engage with music’s illustrious history. It has also opened the doors for vast discovery of new music. There are apps devoted entirely to helping users discover new artists based on their personal tastes. There is a multitude of blogs and other online publications devoted strictly to covering music. Thus, it is not exactly a stretch to call a music fan who’s deliberately unfamiliar with contemporary music—i.e. a rockist—willfully out-of-touch. 

Sure, rockists have plenty of reasons to support their crusade toward a hindered taste; they’re just illogical and misinformed. To them, all “new” music is made with computers—nothing more than button-pushing and vocal correction software—and no one plays real instruments anymore. They say that music nowadays has no soul, and it’s all done according to formulas. They are wrong. Because the talent displayed in contemporary music doesn’t align with their narrow view of virtuosity, rockists dismiss the notion that any technical skill lies beneath the surface of these songs.

What reflects even more poorly on the rockist point of view is that, in spite of their ridiculous claims that guitar music is dead, there’s likely more rock bands in America now than ever before. Within the indie rock spectrum alone, there are easily thirty thriving subgenres with an influence that reaches far beyond the regional level. For those in search of something a little closer to home, there are artists like Benjamin Booker and The Districts who fit the tried-and-true blues guitar structure into their own individual style. While both artists have established fan bases and tour relentlessly, they’ve yet to really break through to the mainstream—or more importantly, break into the consciousness of the average rockist.

Yet, in my opinion, people who purposely ignore decades of music culture outright are in no position to pass judgment on the authenticity of this, or any other, generation’s music. The rockist point of view is not simply a put-on ignorance of contemporary music, but rather a personal attack on the tastes and opinions of those who subscribe to music outside of rockists’ own narrow comfort zone. Rest assured, music culture will likely have much more time for listeners with varied favorites, and far less time for closed-off rock riff devotees. For now, let’s watch them try and fail to relive Woodstock. After all, we’ll soon be too busy sifting through next week’s new releases to care.