Canon Rebels

A slightly modified version of a comment posted to FreakyTrigger’s canon discussion in March, which I meant to post here but didn’t get around to at the time.

The “what are canons for” angle of this discussion really struck a chord with me, because I spent half of my twenties thinking about what tradition is for, and there’s a close relationship between the concepts. The formation of the rock music canon was essentially an Invention of Tradition moment, when the swirl of formative ideas and narratives solidified into an edifice that successive generations have had to deal with one way or another. That doesn’t mean that successive generations are bound by it—traditions change all the time, are tinkered with, supplemented, and sometimes abandoned and reinvented entirely. But purely because of demographics and where/when we are, the moment of wholesale overthrow of that canon hasn’t quite arrived. Too many older music fans—and perhaps more relevant, too many music buyers—are still too invested in the 1960s and 1970s, because that was their time, their music, and to overwrite it with a bunch of 1990s and 2000s releases would be to sideline them. But they’ll be sidelined eventually, just as we don’t see any Sinatra or Glenn Miller on the list in question.

(On the music buyer angle: the stores selling physical music are naturally still going to push every repackaging of Beatles and Stones albums they can, because the CD buyers walking through the door are 40+, 50+, and are disproportionately interested in them. That’s just business. And perhaps that shapes our perception of the music business still being dominated by the old guard. Anyone can get a sense at a glance of what’s selling in physical format just by wandering around HMV; we can’t do that as easily online, where the teens and 20-somethings are buying—or not buying.)

In the meantime, though, younger music fans have had to deal with and respond to the rock canon much as the baby boomers had to respond to the legacy of the second world war. I grew up having to think and talk about the Vietnam War and its legacy (not least in music) even though I was four when Australia’s troops were pulled out of it. The Thatcher years no doubt cast a similar shadow over today’s UK 20-somethings. We can’t escape what’s gone before us, and we shouldn’t expect to, because it’s how a culture perpetuates itself: by handing on what it values the most, and hoping that later generations will want to preserve it, or some of it. That doesn’t mean that later generations are bound by a tradition or a canon, because we get to pick and choose, to modify, supplement and discard. But that process is a contested one, because you have different generations all taking part, arguing about what’s worth keeping. That argument inevitably involves the exposure of fresh young minds to old ideas (and artifacts), because they have to know what it is they’re rejecting or accepting. I can’t say anything about whether some entries on the list above are still worth exalting, because I haven’t heard them.

So in that light, a debate like this is still valuable, even if it’s an old one. Or is it so old? In Internet years, in pop years, sure; but in generational terms, historical terms? Not that old, really. And we can’t know whether we’re still halfway through it or actually close to the end of it. These may be the last days of the 1970s rock canon, for all we know, and our discussions and polls could be part of the formation of a new one. Look at the bottom ten of that list and we see some once highly venerated albums (Who’s Next, Kind of Blue, Are You Experienced) that are lowly ranked by this audience, either because they haven’t been heard or they’ve been heard and rejected—either way, they’re less likely to form part of the next canon, if this audience has any say in it.

How much of a say we’ll have in shaping the next rock music canon is debatable, though, because many of us come to it as tourists. For some, rock music was never their thing, so it’s no surprise that they don’t express particular love for Hendrix or the Who or whoever. Personally, I don’t think of myself as a tourist when it comes to rock, because rock was where my head was at from ages 16 to about 24, and alternative rock from 24 to 30, and it’s only since then that I’ve woven other musical threads more strongly into my musical tastes, to the point where I no longer think of myself as mainly a rock/alternative-rock guy. That’s why I found this canon poll and discussion so valuable: it gave me a nudge to re-think, re-explore and even explore for the first time some of the “classic” albums, because I value the tangential, rock-outsider take on it all of many Popular readers and know that I’m not getting the same old boring “classic rock is unquestionably good” line that I know all too well from years of reading Rolling Stone. I read far too many words about the genius of Dylan, the Stones and Brian Wilson in RS in my 20s, and none of them spurred me to actually sit down and listen to them the way this thread did, and to determine for myself that: I actually enjoy early Bob Dylan; listening to Beggars Banquet suggests that I might also enjoy 1968-72 Stones; and Pet Sounds hasn’t made a convert of me at all. I used to stand outside the whole process of cultural transmission of those examples, either for or against; now I can and will be a part of it, thanks to this thread.

But I digress. What I really wanted to say was that Popular itself is in the canon-formation business. Here it is, a popular music (not rock music) canon as seen through the lens of UK number one singles. It’s just unfinished business, that’s all; we’re only up to 1987. In ten years’ time, that page will cover everything up to the then-present day, and will continue to evolve as new members sign up and add their votes. I would bet, though, that it will ossify just as the 1970s rock music canon has, because once the initial list is complete only the occasional outstanding later entry will crack the top 20. Even now, while I don’t expect a-ha to hang onto their number 17 position for long, I’d be surprised if any of the top five were knocked out of the eventual top ten; and it would take a truly stunning track to displace the current number one. A track that the entire body of Popular readers to date has ranked so highly has to be a pretty good bet: if new readers don’t know it they’ll be inclined to check it out just because it’s number one, and there’s a strong chance they’ll fall under its sway too, because it’s already demonstrated its ability to transcend the years and convince a newer generation. Unless, that is, the next generation is looking for something else entirely in music, and rejects everything that Popular readers of the 2000s value.

Which brings me back to the 1970s-dominated rock music canon, and Popular’s rejection of it. Out of 100 voters exactly (as of today), only three of these albums are loved by the majority. How many of the fifty will Popular’s readers by enthusiastically promoting in our various spheres of influence in years to come? Just as traditions die when people stop learning about and practising them, albums are forgotten when people stop being told about them and listening to them. Albums drop out of canons when they lose their champions.

Taking the long view, the canon rebels have nothing to worry about.

10 June 2010 · Music