My wife and I went to see “Rock of Ages” last night as part of our celebration of our seventh wedding anniversary. Eighties music was kind of part of how we met. I was the lead singer in an eighties revival “new wave” band called the Junior Varsity Superheroes while we were dating and in our first year of marriage. For most of my life, I wanted really really badly to be a rock star. When we recorded our first (and only) CD, I sent it out to college and regional indie newspapers and we got some semi-positive reviews (or at least reviews with semi-positive excerpts that I could cut and paste into a press kit to send to clubs throughout the region). I felt like we had pretty good momentum. Then my son was born and the bass player and guitar player both moved that summer. And my brief rock and roll career ended. I was bitter for a long time, but watching this movie about rock and roll last night (even though it’s completely over-the-top and not to be taken seriously), I’m kind of glad that I never got sucked into that world. And I’ve been pondering the question of whether rock and roll destroyed our culture.
I don’t mean the genre of music, but the concept, the id-ness of the experience of throwing your body into a worship service for an idol with tight leather pants and a steamy hot bare chest. I wanted to be that guy so badly, and I was so successful at it when I was playing Pearl Jam songs on my air guitar in the bathroom in front of the mirror in middle school, but then I failed so miserably at it when I actually had to stand in front of people (the few who actually came to our shows) on a stage. I had to always have my stack of keyboards in front of me because I didn’t know where to put my hands otherwise. I could never have been a front-man without an instrument. I imagine that if anyone had ever made a video of me playing my songs, it would probably look something like Napoleon Dynamite because I absolutely don’t know how to move my body.
It’s hard to untangle my own autobiographical experience from this, but the question I want to ask is what would it look if music could just be the joy of worshiping sound (and the Creator of sound). I’m not saying that it would need to have those corny, predictable “family safe, kid friendly” lyrics you find on Christian radio, but what if you could enjoy the beauty of the sound without all that fame and fortune and idolatry in the mix? I’m not sure to what degree my experience is universal, but I can’t just enjoy a Guns and Roses song; I have to be Axl Rose when I’m singing it. I cannot sing along to a rock and roll song without imagining myself on a stage in front of a crowd. Maybe this is just my own personal twistedness, but based on what I hear other people in my generation share, I think that fame-lust is a real epidemic in our culture, and I blame “rock and roll” (again, not the particular music genre, but using that word as a label for the particular form of idolatry and sensual ritual that popular music has become in our culture in the last sixty years).
A combination of factors after World War II created the phenomenon of pop culture that we have today. The concept of “teenager” was basically invented in the 1950’s as a marketing demographic. Since then, we have built a culture that is tailored to the sensibilities of 13-21 year olds. I would say that two extremely destructive values have been cultivated that capture the “spirit” of rock and roll: 1) Everyone is supposed to be a star. 2) Everyone has the right to be entertained. Much of what is sick and twisted about our culture is caused by people living according these values. And we can’t avoid naming capitalism as the root of this demonic culture, because people are hypnotized into wannabe rock stars who have to be constantly entertained as the catechesis for their discipleship of consumerism.
I wish we lived in a world where there was a coffeehouse in every neighborhood that maybe sold a little bit of wine and beer, where people could go not to get smashed, but simply to enjoy a band composed of people that they knew from the same neighborhood. I know that there are neighborhoods like this out there (since I’ve lived in them before), but what if those neighborhood coffeehouses were all that existed and they weren’t just a point of entry, the single A minor league venue for musicians? W0uldn’t it be beautiful if musicians could actually make a living playing music for people who knew them personally and loved them but didn’t worship them as gods? I long for the day when I will be completely healed from the need to be a rock star; it may be a lifelong process. Maybe I’m just projecting, but I have the feeling that there are quite a few other wannabe rock stars who need to be healed too.