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Will Chuck Berry's Music Be All That Survives from Rock?

Chuck Berry

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.

 

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Jeff Burger’s books include Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and EncountersSpringsteen 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.

Artist Chuck Berry

Interesting article, but I agree with you Jeff...rock and roll has legs...

My two cents is that Klosterman takes things multiple steps too far.  Before the advent of recording sounds,  music was transferred generation to generation by orchestras, smaller bands and folk musicians.  It took time for music to reach distant points.  It would seem likely then that what made it through the ages was in part based on where the music became popular, how and when it emanated from where it started, and of course some things are so classic that future generations will realize it, if they have access to it. Obviously since the start of recording began and especially with the Internet, music can be delivered worldwide almost instantly and is stored permanently with ready access for billions of people. In that sense rock should persist more easily and longer than music from hundreds of years ago. With worldwide population expanding exponentially, it seems that more people than ever will be exposed, or at least have access to, music from around the world.  Of course we already experience the difficulty of so much music and so little time,but with such pervasive and permanent access, just going by the huge population now compared to hundreds of years ago, rock should be remembered long from now. But to boil it down to one performer seems like an excercise in prompting discussion or simply stirring the pot. I don't think Bram Tchaikovsky will be among those remembered among the classics, though Girl of My Dreams was a cool tune.