Will Chuck Berry's Music Be All That Survives from Rock?
The May 29 edition of the New York Times Magazine carried a piece by Chuck Klosterman called “Which Rock Star Will Historians of the Future Remember?” In the article, Klosterman postulates that in 300 years, all that anyone would remember of rock would be one artist. He also suggests that that artist would be Chuck Berry.
The essay is well written and contains enough cultural references to suggest that Klosterman knows his way around the genre. But that only makes his premises as surprising as they are faulty. He says that “pretty much from the moment it came into being, people who liked rock have insisted it was dying.” Yes, people have been predicting rock’s demise since the beginning, but those people have mostly not been the fans; they’ve been the ones who never liked or understood the music. And while the genre’s definition has widened, rock is still far from dead after 60-plus years.
Klosterman’s biggest mistake is the one on which he bases his whole article: the idea that “as the timeline moves forward, tangential artists in any field fade from the collective radar, until only one person remains . . . until the genre and the person become interchangeable.” As evidence of this, he cites one marginal albeit “durable” genre—marching music—that he says is now “encapsulated” in John Philip Sousa.
One obvious huge exception to his rule is classical music, which has been around for centuries and which listeners still associate with many names, including Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Haydn, Tchaikovsky, and on and on. I believe the same will be true for rock, notwithstanding Klosterman’s baseless assertions that the music “isn’t symbolically important,” “lacks creative potential,” and “has completed its historical trajectory.” Assuming civilization endures, people will still be listening in 300 years to the Beatles, Dylan, and Chuck Berry—and a whole bunch of artists whose names we don’t know yet.
“The first day I got interested in rock,” John Lennon once said, “. . . when Presley’s ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ came out in England, they [the record labels] were saying rock was gonna die already . . . but they were wrong.” Klosterman is wrong, too.
Jeff Burger’s books include Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters, and Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, which is due out Nov. 1, 2016. His website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades' worth of music reviews and commentary.