Conservative list makers embalm rock  

March 26, 2006


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 exactly that.

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 Day Rising."

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 nothing new.

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.