Rock Music Is on Life Support. Is Hollywood Next?

The era of mass media may have ended decades ago, but the hangover is about to hit us all hard. In “The coming death of just about every rock legend,” Damon Linker of The Week explores the rock & roll carnage to come:

Yes, we've lost some already. On top of the icons who died horribly young decades ago — Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Elvis Presley, John Lennon — there's the litany of legends felled by illness, drugs, and just plain old age in more recent years: George Harrison, Ray Charles, Michael Jackson, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Tom Petty.

Those losses have been painful. But it's nothing compared with the tidal wave of obituaries to come. The grief and nostalgia will wash over us all. Yes, the Boomers left alive will take it hardest — these were their heroes and generational compatriots. But rock remained the biggest game in town through the 1990s, which implicates GenXers like myself, no less than plenty of millennials.

All of which means there's going to be an awful lot of mourning going on.

Behold the killing fields that lie before us: Bob Dylan (78 years old); Paul McCartney (77); Paul Simon (77) and Art Garfunkel (77); Carole King (77); Brian Wilson (77); Mick Jagger (76) and Keith Richards (75); Joni Mitchell (75); Jimmy Page (75) and Robert Plant (71); Ray Davies (75); Roger Daltrey (75) and Pete Townshend (74); Roger Waters (75) and David Gilmour (73); Rod Stewart (74); Eric Clapton (74); Debbie Harry (74); Neil Young (73); Van Morrison (73); Bryan Ferry (73); Elton John (72); Don Henley (72); James Taylor (71); Jackson Browne (70); Billy Joel (70); and Bruce Springsteen (69, but turning 70 next month).

A few of these legends might manage to live into their 90s, despite all the … wear and tear to which they've subjected their bodies over the decades. But most of them will not.

This will force us not only to endure their passing, but to confront our own mortality as well.

This is what happens when a genre is exhausted, and there aren’t any new stars of an equal stature arriving to take the place of the departed. As I wrote at Instapundit back in 2016, shortly after David Bowie, Lemmy of Motorhead and Glen Frey all trundled off to the place Pink Floyd dubbed “The Great Gig in the Sky.” Growing up in the 1970s with a father who had an enormous collection of Big Band records, I would semi-regularly see him a bit morose in the morning, after the Today Show announced that another swing era superstar had died. Louis Armstrong in 1971. Gene Krupa in 1973. Duke Ellington in 1974. Ozzie Nelson in 1975. And Bing Crosby in 1977 (the big one, as my dad worshiped Crosby).

Jazz died off as a mass genre for two reasons. First, as Mark Gauvreau Judge wrote in his fun 2000 book, If It Ain’t Got That Swing, postwar economics and the rise of bebop as a counterforce in jazz greatly killed off the big bands of the 1930s and ‘40s, but the complexities of bop led many teenagers in the 1950s to seek out rock and roll as a simpler music style to dance along with. Capitol Records putting the full force of their PR team behind The Beatles when they arrived in America in early 1964 cemented rock and roll as the dominant musical genre for teenage whites, as Nat “King” Cole, who helped make Capitol a dominant force in America in the 1950s, discovered to his horror when he called their flagship Los Angeles office that year and the receptionist answered “Capitol Records – home of The Beatles!” (My dad shared his pain, as reflected in the very few new titles in his record collection after 1964.)

However, by the beginning of the 21st century, rock’s dominance was already on the wane when first Napster and then Apple’s iTunes radically altered how consumers access music. MTV, which gave rock a new lease on life after music industry fears in the early ‘80s that video games would replace their product as teens’ primary consumer spending good, was itself a spent force by the mid-to-late 1990s.

Hence, the nostalgia that many rock fans feel, with little or no new product that’s equal to the material produced during rock and roll’s heyday. The connection may not be immediate, but Linker’s article also dovetails with a new piece in Spectator USA by Will Lloyd titled “Disney and the imagination recession”:

Today Hollywood’s undoubted creative power is spent updating and reimagining stories that are decades old. Like medieval monks endlessly toiling over classical manuscripts, they’ve added little to these stories aside from fancy marginalia. The sense of stasis that results is proof an imagination recession. Of course, there are probably millions of 38-year-old men, with their cookie-cutter apartment shelves lined with collectible dolls, who await, with epic rapture, the next Wonder Woman movie. They feel as if they are living in an unprecedented cultural paradise. For the rest of us there is the British painter David Hockney’s judgement: ‘most fields of art and culture seem to be stuck somehow.’ Even the most anticipated novel of the fall is a sequel.

In film it is Disney that’s most responsible for driving the culture into a ditch. On a creative level it has been gruesomely disenchanting to watch them harvest audiences’ nostalgia for pictures that are barely a few decades old.

Alvin Toffler’s 1980 book, The Third Wave, was published just as cable television was starting to break the dominance of America’s Big Three commercial TV networks, and the first Jurassic online platforms — CompuServe, The Source (acquired at the end of the 1980s by CompuServe), and local home-brew computer bulletin board systems were just beginning to break the stranglehold that the newspapers and wire services held on news and information. During that same period in the late 1970s, home video games and the DIY revolution of in-home music recording were also beginning. Toffler coined the phrase “demassification” to describe how the consumption of media was changing from the monolithic chokehold of what we now call “old media” had on American opinion:

What appears on the surface to be a set of unrelated events turns out to be a wave of closely interrelated changes sweeping across the media horizon from newspapers and radio at one end to magazines and television at the other. The mass media are under attack. New, de-massified media are proliferating, challenging—and sometimes even replacing—the mass media that were so dominant in all Second Wave societies. The Third Wave thus begins a truly new era—the age of the de-massifled media. A new info-sphere is emerging alongside the new techno-sphere. And this will have a far-reaching impact on the most important sphere of all, the one inside our skulls. For taken together, these changes revolutionize our images of the world and our ability to make some sense of it.

The de-massification of the media de-massifies our minds as well. During the Second Wave era the continual pounding of standardized imagery pumped out by the media created what critics called a "mass mind." Today, instead of masses of people all receiving the same messages, smaller de-massi-fied groups receive and send large amounts of their own imagery to one another. As the entire society shifts toward Third Wave diversity, the new media reflect and accelerate the process. This, in part, explains why opinions on everything from pop music to politics are becoming less uniform. Consensus shatters. On a personal level, we are all besieged and blitzed by fragments of imagery, contradictory or unrelated, that shake up our old ideas and come shooting at us in the form of broken or disembodied "blips." We live, in fact, in a "blip culture”…In this new kind of culture, with its fractured, transitory images, we can begin to discern a widening split between Second Wave and Third Wave media users. Second Wave people, yearning for the ready-to-wear moral and ideological certainties of the past, are annoyed and disoriented by the information blitz. They are nostalgic for radio programs of the 1930's or movies of the 1940's. They feel cut off from the new media environment, not merely because much of what they hear is threatening or upsetting, but because the very packages in which information arrives are unfamiliar.

Instead of receiving long, related "strings" of ideas, organized or synthesized for us, we are increasingly exposed to short, modular blips of information--ads, commands, theories, shreds of news, truncated bits and blobs that refuse to fit neatly into our pre-existing mental files. The new imagery resists classification, partly because it often falls outside our old conceptual categories, but also because it comes in packages that are too oddly shaped, transient, and disconnected. Assailed by what they perceive as the bedlam of blip culture, Second Wave people feel a suppressed rage at the media.

Third Wave people, by contrast, are more at ease in the midst of this bombardment of blips—the ninety-second news-clip intercut with a thirty-second commercial, a fragment of song and lyric, a headline, a cartoon, a collage, a newsletter item, a computer printout. Insatiable readers of disposable paperbacks and special-interest magazines, they gulp huge amounts of information in short takes. But they also keep an eye out for those new concepts or metaphors that sum up or organize blips into larger wholes. Rather than trying to stuff the new modular data into the standard Second Wave categories or frameworks, they learn to make their own, to form their own "strings" out of the blipped material shot at them by the new media.

Instead of merely receiving our mental model of reality, we are now compelled to invent it and continually reinvent it. This places an enormous burden on us. But it also leads toward greater individuality, a de-massification of personality as well as culture. Some of us crack under the new pressure or withdraw into apathy or anger. Others emerge as well formed, continually growing, competent individuals able to operate, as it were, on a higher level. (In either case, whether the strain proves too great or not, the result is a far cry from the uniform, standardized, easily regimented robots foreseen by so many sociologists and science fiction writers of the Second Wave era.)

Which brings us back to Will Lloyd’s article at Spectator USA. De-massification puts enormous pressure on those who still need to fill seats in movie theaters, the last truly mass media still standing. (Part of the fun of seeing an exciting action movie, a laugh-filled comedy or chilling horror movie is seeing the audience in a crowded theater react to it, which in turn heightens our own reactions.)

Today, most people reading this article over a certain age grew up in that last era of mass media, when Ed Sullivan could introduce The Beatles to virtually all of America in a single evening. A few years later, the complete domination of three American television networks over its audiences would in a single year turn Batman, Star Trek, and Mission: Impossible into brand names that to this day generate billions of dollars of revenue for the studios that own their copyrights.

Music concerts and the film industry are really the last media institutions that still require an audience to turn up en masse in a single location to consume its product. No wonder Hollywood relies on the fumes of Marvel and DC comic books, plus midcentury franchises such as James Bond, Star Trek, Star Wars, Mission: Impossible and Brit-lit such as the Lord of the Rings, the Narnia franchise and Paddington to keep itself alive. No wonder rock music as a whole already has one foot in the grave.

In other words, the last remaining universally known products of mass media are getting very old and their freshness sell-by dates have long expired. And there’s no mass media left to create something that strikes a sufficiently universal chord in either rock music and Hollywood to influence the zeitgeist any longer. Rock music has arguably already given way to rap as the most popular genre of American teenagers. Hollywood could be in deep trouble if the public turns away from superhero and sci-fi franchises the same way that moviegoers abandoned the musical as a genre in the late 1960s. It’s not like either industry hadn’t seen these trends coming, and they will each be “riding the gravy train” for as long as possible, as Roger Waters (age 75) would say. But for both, the end of the line may be in sight.