In the midst of the culture
wars of the early '90s, some academics argued for broadening the literary
curriculum so it wasn't quite so focused on dead white European males, while
others defended the traditional canon, including acknowledged greats such as
Shakespeare, Milton and Dickens.
The key arguments in
defense of the Western canon were made by sociology professor and literary
conservative Allan Bloom in his 1987 book The Closing of the American
Mind. And while he was attacking what he called "political correctness,"
he also took a shot at another cultural scourge.
"Rock music has one
appeal, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire not love, but sexual desire
undeveloped and untutored," Bloom wrote. "It acknowledges the first
emanations of children's emerging sensuality and addresses them seriously,
eliciting them and legitimizing them."
Bloom meant that as a
slam, but I take it as a compliment: At its best, rock is focused on living
in the moment, celebrating the wonders of discovering the world around you,
just like a child. By definition, it would seem to be opposed to the very
notion of establishing a canon. Yet the rock press is obsessed with doing
In recent years, we've
seen countless efforts to rank rock's icons in just about every mainstream
magazine; on radio, MTV and VH1, and in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (VH1
aired the Hall's 2006 induction ceremony Tuesday, though you can still catch
reruns of the sorry spectacle of Lynyrd Skynyrd in tuxedos.) But the rock
institution most devoted to charting the canon is the granddaddy of 'em all:
Rolling Stone magazine.
Not content with being
the driving force behind the Hall of Fame, Rolling Stone is determined to
establish a permanent pantheon in print. It first listed the "100 Greatest
Albums of the Last 20 Years" in 1987. Then, in December 2003, it published a
special issue charting what it claimed were the 500 greatest albums ever.
Now comes the whopping, 4-pound, hardcover version of that list titled --
you guessed it -- Rolling Stone: The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time
(Wenner Books, $35).
Set aside for a moment
the question of whether the album as we know it -- a collection of songs
recorded at a particular time and arranged in a particular order -- is an
anachronism in the age of downloading, when listeners can create the albums
they want to hear. And let's even look beyond the magazine's traditional
biases against genres such as progressive rock and heavy metal, and its
'60s-centric vision of the universe, which holds that for all intents and
purposes, rock was basically over after '71.
The biggest problem with
Rolling Stone's defensive, reactionary, Bloom-style effort to carve a canon
in stone is that it's not only based on the idea that rock has stopped
evolving, but that it is a dead art form, perfectly ready to be preserved in
formaldehyde. And nothing could be further from the truth.
There exists a new
generation of electronic musicians for whom Kraftwerk is more influential
than the Beatles; legions of rappers who have more love for N.W.A than Bob
Dylan, and a new wave of indie rockers who worship Husker Du and Big Black
rather than the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys. But there is a sole entry
by Kraftwerk on the Rolling Stone list, "Trans-Europe Express," way down at
No. 253; N.W.A only emerges at No. 144 with "Straight Outta Compton," while
hip-hop in general doesn't make an appearance until No. 48 with Public
Enemy's "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back"; Big Black doesn't
make the cut at all, and Husker Du barely squeaks by at No. 495 with "New
Written by the usual
crew of dry contributors, including David Fricke, Anthony DeCurtis and Parke
Puterbaugh, and overseen by veteran editor Joe Levy, the essays accompanying
each entry are as uninspired and bland as the selections, full of
oft-repeated tales and devoid of fresh critical insights. Fans will learn
A much more honest and
inspiring and far less alienating and exclusionary approach to surveying the
best from rock's past can be seen in another new and almost as hefty tome
called 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die (Universe, $34.95).
Here, London-based editor Robert Dimery presents some of the best albums
ever in strict chronological order, from Frank Sinatra's "In the Wee Small
Hours" (1955) and Elvis Presley's self-titled debut (1956) through a trio of
entries from 2005: M.I.A.'s "Arular," Beck's "Guero" and "Get Behind Me
Satan" by the White Stripes.
In this book, more than
three dozen diverse and passionate writers treat the albums as living works
of art, conveying the joys inherent to the listener without making hot-air
assertions about which are more important, influential or historic. They
have created a knowledgeable guide for fans to keep beside their iPods while
looking for brilliant and challenging new sounds, instead of a dry and
academic catalog designed to make Baby Boomers feel as if the only music
that matters is the stuff they loved as teens.
Judging by the passage I
quoted earlier, Allan Bloom would probably be appalled by both books. But I
bet he'd find Rolling Stone: The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time the
more "respectable" effort -- which only goes to prove how worthless it is.