Saturday, May 9, 2015

That Used To Be Us

When Bill Maher had Shawn Carter - you know, Beyoncé's husband? - on his HBO show once, he did the usual bit of posterior-kissing that every talk show host goes through when talking to a rapper, then said that Carter was musically and culturally ahead of the curve just like the Beatles had been.
I know Maher's a comedian, but he didn't mean that as a joke.  And I didn't find it the least bit funny.  It hurt like hell. To think . . . a rapper and his fans are a major cultural force, something rock bands and their fans once were . . . but are no longer.  When Maher made it clear that the rap crowd now defines Western popular culture, I pondered the sorry state of rock and roll, and I remembered a phrase coined by journalists Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, which they used as the title of a book they co-wrote about the innovative nature of other countries as opposed to an increasingly irrelevant America in the present day, that succinctly describes the rock crowd's irrelevance in relation to rap's relevance: "That used to be us."
And now a "scientific study" from England, of all places, goes even further.  It suggests that rap has had more of an impact on popular music in the half-century beginning in 1960 than the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, or any of the other British bands of the 1960s and 1970s.  These findings were the result of a computer analysis of excerpts of 17,000 songs that appeared on the Billboard charts between 1960 and 2010, and the conclusion was that rap evolved form whole cloth and radically changed American popular music, while the British bands of the sixties and seventies merely followed trends that had already been established by American rock and rollers and R&B artists before 1960.
Despite the suspect nature of hard data to analyze a subjective topic, the only things rock and roll musicians and fans can do is shake their heads . . . because the deck is stacked against us. It's become obvious that rap has not only displaced rock and roll, it's marginalized it to the background, where it will be left to wither on the vine.  Rock and roll musicians with fantasies of multiplatinum success and rock fans with delusions of a brilliant future for the genre can only come to terms with the reality of the situation. What rockers could once do or experience and can do and experience no longer, the rap crowd is doing and experiencing.
Once upon a time, rock and rollers got the girls.  They dated and married fashion models.  Now we see Mr. Shawn Carter and Mr. Kanye West at red-carpet events with their glamorous wives while today's rock and roll losers can't even get a date, because no girl wants to date a musician who works at Wal-Mart and lives with his parents.  They can only look at Mr. Carter and Mr. West with their ladies, and say, "That used to be us."      
Rappers, like rockers of yore once did, also get to tour the world and travel to Paris, the Riviera, or Milan. The rock and roll bands of today, trying to make it out of Evansville, Indiana or Canton, Ohio, will be lucky if they ever get to make it as far as Pittsburgh, never mind New York.  They can only look at rappers attending the Cannes Film Festival, as John Lennon once had, and say, "That used to be us."
Rock musicians no longer sell out arenas and stadiums; they're lucky if they can sell half the seats in a theater in some bourgeois commuter-rail suburb.  They're either classic-rock acts on their way down from the Olympian heights of arena and stadium shows, or they're young bands who will never make the big time and sell out Madison Square Garden, like rappers do.  Rockers can only lament, upon seeing hip-hop acts sell out sports venues, "That used to be us."
And, of course, we rock fans are seeing all our favorite radio stations bite the dust while hip-hop radio thrives.  There are about three or four hip-hop/R&B radio stations in New York City, while there are only two rock stations there - one is a classic-rock station and the other is a college-indie station - supplemented by two suburban rock stations with weak signals.  There's little room for today's rock bands on New York-area radio.  As hip-hop fans in the greater New York area delight in the bounty of stations available to them, we Tri-State rock fans can only say, "That used to be us."
And this study out of England pretty much makes it official - that, well, that is no longer us, and that we are nothing - we rockers and rock fans no longer even matter.  And that hurts.  It really, really hurts.
When Kanye West repeats his declaration that rap is the new rock and roll (as I'm sure he will), it's going to hurt even more. But just remember: when you see a rapper or a rap fan diss the music that came before his time, bear in mind that rock and rollers and rock and roll fans alike used to make fun of the big-band jazz and orchestral middle-of-the-road pop their parents used to love.
That really did use to be us.  To our great regret.
Maybe Stephen Stills was right.  Maybe we shouldn't let the past remind us of what we are not now.

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