Published August 18, 2008
With the world shrinking at a continuously faster pace, far away places are being exposed to western popular music and rock. Will this mean that the next pop music superstar is currently tuning his shitar on the streets of Mumbai?
“I have seen rock‘n’roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” This is one of the most famous lines in rock history and was written by then critic Jon Landau in Boston’s Real Paper in 1974. In a sense Landau was prophetic, as Springsteen became one of the biggest stars of the following decades and, along with U2 roughly ten years later, can be called the last true superstar of rock – someone who had cross-generational appeal and can fill football arenas again and again. In a sense they were also a self-fulfilling prophecy, launching both Springsteen’s career and later Landau’s as his manager.
What they did not do, however, was point to the future of rock and roll. Springsteen’s success came not because he had something radically new to offer, but because his music reminded people of the 50’s and 60’s, when rock seemed more vital than it did in the mid-70’s, or indeed since it has since. Bruce was called “the saviour of rock and roll,” as by this time it was obvious that rock needed saving. Others have had to labour under the same assumption since. But can rock and roll really be saved? And should it be?
Legend has it that rock and roll was formed through a fusion of styles that can essentially be traced back to European folk, mostly from the British Isles, on the one hand, and with African rhythms on the other. It was a combination of musical forms derived from African slaves in the American South and white working class labourers. It is certainly true that rock‘n’roll first came to prominence in the American South, through the music of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and many others. The first wave petered out in the late 50’s and early 60’s, and for a while it seemed as if the short lived phenomenon might die out.
But under their influence new bands were formed in London and Liverpool, and it fell to Britain to revitalise rock and export it back to the USA. This was the first British Invasion. Rock conquered the world, but ever since it has had its twin headquarters in the US and the UK, bouncing back and forth every few years. As the British Invasion petered out in the later 60’s, the West Coast of the United States responded with Acid Rock, then the Brits broke out Glam Rock in the early 70’s. Both New York and London can claim to have spawned punk, if vastly different types of punk. Since then, Rock may not have made as serious an attempt to reinvent itself, but it’s still bands from the US or the UK that keep the cash registers (or the downloaders) busy.
It is not surprising that the United States should be home to the world’s most popular music. In the 50’s, and indeed throughout the latter half of the 20th Century, that is where most of the world looked for their entertainment. This also holds true for most other forms of pop culture, design, art, even literature. Before the Second World War, other countries, particularly Germany, had competed in putting out films, but after 1945 the US hold on our movie and TV screens has been almost complete.
It may be a bit surprising then that Britain has performed so well in music, whereas at the movies they have only occasionally managed to compete with the Americans when it comes to box office success. Perhaps the reason is that as a smaller country they don’t have the money it takes to compete with Hollywood blockbusters, but records are cheaper to make.
In any case, Rock music is a big part of how Britain defines itself, from Swinging London to Cool Britannia. Paul McCartney’s become a Sir, so is Mick Jagger, and it wouldn’t be that surprising if John Lydon were to enter their ranks before too long. Perhaps Oasis are even partially to blame for Tony Blair, who felt compelled to invite Noel Gallahager to his inauguration party.
The Swedes take over
Most of the biggest rock stars to be born outside of the twin towers of the US and the UK hail from other parts of the English speaking world. Canada has given us Leonard Cohen and Neil Young as well as Alanis Morissette; Australia has artists as varied as AC/DC, The Bee Gees and Nick Cave. Ireland as also had a clear avenue to the outside world, U2 being probably the biggest band to be born outside of the US and UK.
The non-English speaking country that has done the best in popular music, however, is Sweden. Abba are no doubt the biggest band ever with a non-native English speaking background, having sold more than 150 million records. In their wake have come a host of others, such as The Cardigans, Ace of Base and The Hives.
Larger European countries have fared worse. Any casual listener would be hard pressed to name many French rock stars, even if Serge Gainsbourg is hugely influential in some circles. Same goes for Germany (Rammstein), Italy (Zucchero) and Spain (Julio Iglesias, perhaps). It seems that being born English speaking is a distinct advantage. And if not, then it is best to come from a country with a small home market and good English proficiency, such as Sweden.
Musicians from further afield have had little luck. Bob Marley was the first major star to emerge from the developing world, but no one of his stature has arrived since. It is mostly the Latin Americans that have managed to produce lesser pop stars, such as Ricky Martin and Shakira.
The Language of Rock
Is it likely, then, that the Anglo-American stranglehold on Rock will be broken? In a word, yes. After the end of the Cold War and with the advent of the internet, more than ever, Rock has become a truly global phenomenon. It is no longer just boys on the Mersey or in the American South who play guitars, even if it has taken them a long time to break into the mainstream.
However, the globalisation of rock has been going on for a long time. What will more likely make the difference is that there is now springing up a generation of people who are non-native English speakers, but who speak the language with both skill and ease. For even if the centre of gravity for popular music will move away from the US-UK axis, it seems almost certain that English, as the lingua franca of the internet age, will remain the voice of rock. This will probably hold true even if the native English speaking countries continue their political decline, in the same way that Latin remained the language of cosmopolitans for a millennium after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
The Decline of the West
Neither London nor New York has come up with anything truly groundbreaking since hiphop, and that was already 25 years ago. Meanwhile, Icelandic artists such as Björk and Sigur Rós are making some of the most innovative music around. The next groundbreaking merger since blues and country might happen in an out of the way place like there.
In any case, it will most likely be a fusion of Anglo-American Rock with local styles. This is already happening in many places, but it will probably be the large countries in Asia that will begin to make themselves felt before too long. No doubt we will at some point have Chinese rockers who fuse their own tonal system with that of the west.
The Bengali Bob Dylan
But it is India that has a distinct advantage, having not only millions of people already proficient in English, but also many contacts in London, which is still the starting point to the rest of Europe when it comes to pop music. In fact, Indian music has influenced rock since early on. The Beatles went to India and even before then the sounds of the sitar started popping up on their albums. In the 90’s, pop stars with Indian roots were heard in Britain, with bands such as Cornershop and Asian Dub Foundation. But, with all due respect to Ravi Shankar, we have yet to see the Indians exporting pop back to Britain, the way Britain did with the US in the 60’s. No doubt it will happen at some point, though. Perhaps the coffee shops of Calcutta are where we should start looking for the next Bob Dylan.