When I attended community college a few years ago, I decided to challenge myself by taking difficult courses that would expand my knowledge base and prepare me not just for attending a four-year institution, but also for the real world that lied ahead. That was how I spent Tuesday and Thursday afternoons taking a class called “The History of Rock and Roll,” which was taught by a U of M grad student who walked us through a chronological history of music with intricate PowerPoint presentations while challenging us with impossibly difficult essay questions like “describe some of the differences between The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.”
I won’t lie: sometimes, the class was so difficult that I thought about giving up. As the subject matter got more complex, eventually reaching mind-boggling subjects like “grunge,” it was tempting to walk out of the classroom, drop out of school, and look for janitorial work. But I stuck with it, and with enough hard work and dedication was able to earn an “A” in the course — something that remains one of my most impressive adult achievements.
What stood about the course, besides the difficulty, was how it turned something as exciting and life-affirming as rock and roll into another boring classroom topic that was rooted in objectivity. The course’s curriculum inherently made authoritative judgments over which bands were worth including and which would be left out of the history it was teaching us. The class stuck to the classic, practically official rock and roll canon — also seen in places like The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — tracing a linear line from artists like The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan to more contemporary music that was influenced by them.
One of my longtime insecurities as someone who writes and talks about music is that most of these canonized artists have never done much for me. This ranges from liking their songs, but not feeling any emotional connection to the music (The Beatles, Led Zeppelin) to outright disliking artists that are considered legendary and hugely important (The Rolling Stones — ugh). In all cases, I recognize the band’s influence and how they helped innovate rock, but even the most detailed and fascinating of PowerPoint presentations couldn’t make them feel as important to me as they seem to be to everyone else.
Not loving these bands has always made me feel alienated and sometimes even stupid. If I can’t like these artists that are universally considered to be incredible, maybe I don’t understand music. So I’ve spent a lot of mental energy reflecting on the canon and why it has never worked for me like it does for everyone else. My biggest issues are that the canon has two major biases: it is heavily skewed towards men, especially “rock gods,” and it is also biased towards older artists who came first, because obviously nobody in the last 20 years has innovated music. If you like listening to music that was made by women after 1980, the canon isn’t going to have much for you, and I can’t get behind a history that excludes so many artists.
Music does have a history, but the canon tells it incorrectly. It focuses on a single path that goes in a straight line, when a true, honest history of rock and roll is made up of different branches and curves off that path. One of my favorite things to do as a listener is find a specific genre or style of music, and try to piece the history of it together myself by connecting the dots between various bands. This way, the music tells the story rather than a professor or a bunch of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame voters, and it stays true to what I enjoy about it, which is the process of discovery and the subjectivity.
The best example of this different way of viewing music’s history was from a random blog I stumbled upon online when I was searching out female-fronted punk music. A very devoted, possibly crazy person compiled a series of 12 CD-Rs that served as a reference of female punk from 1977-1989, and gave them to some friends, one of whom uploaded them online. I listened to it and was astonished at how comprehensive it was — it combined relatively well-known artists like Blondie with some of the most obscure bands imaginable, like German groups that released one song on a cassette in 1981 and gave it to three of their friends. What made it so enjoyable wasn’t just that I liked the music, but that the series was mixing artists of all levels of popularity and obscurity together and forming an entire story of a certain niche of music — one that is completely ignored by the traditional canon.
While the canon is based on exclusivity and favors artists who are popular and “important,” this collection made no judgments and included seemingly every female-fronted punk band that made a song in the time frame. A powerful feeling I got from it was that no band is more important than any other, and everyone who makes music is in their own way contributing to its history. Even a band that released literally one song was remembered and viewed as important in this context.
Rather than making certain music sacred or unimpeachable and clinging to bland objectivity, I prefer that collection’s more subjective and inclusive take on history that focuses on the music rather than what people have written about it. Obviously, a class can only discuss so many bands and a museum can only have so much space, but that’s why a History of Rock and Roll course and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are ineffective. The real history of music is sprawling and defined just as much by outsiders as the most popular artists of all time, and to reduce it to such a small number of popular artists is antithetical to what makes music great.