Everyone knows that rock and roll is all about kicking out the jams: ditching uptight squares, taking long rides in the dark of night, and being a street fightin' man -- or woman. As The Who put it, it's about hoping to die before you get old.
But what does rock mean to a new generation of uptight (if updated and wired) squares, afraid of the open road, who have little fight in them? What does rock mean for a generation that has never been allowed to be young -- let alone hope to die before they get old?
For my students, the answer is simple. Rock and roll is about family happiness.
I discovered this disturbing undercurrent of rock-as-the-soundtrack-of-familial-bliss when I began teaching a college writing class this semester. The undergraduates' first assignment was to assess the personal meaning of any song of any genre. I was willing to wade bravely through the melancholy emo, the raging gangsta rap, the whiny indie rock, or even contemporary pop schlock in order to achieve my real agenda: a glimpse into the soul of my students, the inner world of their desire locked in their shiny iPods.
What I read in those papers was as unsettling and unfamiliar as the day Elvis shook it on the Ed Sullivan show -- but hardly as exciting. For my students, rock and roll is not the aural fuel of rebellion but soundtrack of familial love and safety. The essays were not about chillin' with the crew but hangin' with mom and dad; and they were not about cruising into the mystery of the night, but heading off to Cape Cod in the mini van. Rock is no longer about alienation but connection; not about escape but home; not about rebellion but reconciliation. Even bands like Led Zeppelin and The Stones emerged from my students papers in an un-purple haze of family nostalgia.
Turns out that for my elite students -- en route to becoming sharp suits and clever corporate cogs -- rock and roll is simply one more element in the finishing process of becoming just like the folks. Roll over Bob Dylan and tell Norman Rockwell the news. Jack Black's character in School of Rock had to teach his anxious and repressed grade schoolers what he knew viscerally: that the purpose of rock and roll is "Sticking it to The Man." Given that most of my students want to become "the man" (in whatever gender the icon of power might come in today), it's certainly not about sticking it to 'em.
Truth be told, many of these essays pulled at my fatherly heart strings, but I am mostly disturbed by them. I am haunted by the fact that perhaps their parents are so scarred by their own years of boomer alienation that they now feel compelled to crush any sense of rebellion with the weight of a generation's love, coddling friendship, and smothering safety. I could be wrong, but it seems that there ought to be at least an edge of disdain for the SUV-driving, suburban-dwelling, vanilla affluence of their parents, but instead, students remain hopelessly connected to them, not just by their ubiquitous cell phones but also by their parents' record collections.
The collateral damage here has little to do with contemporary debates about politics in the classroom and everything to do with students' ability to live life freely and creatively. There are glimmers of hope, but they're only glimmers. One particularly sharp student trailed me back to the office after an intense discussion about the "authentic" in Bob Dylan’s work. "Why," he asked longingly, "don’t we learn more about this in college?" Honoring the sincerity of his quest, I resisted the retort, "Because you're supposed to be talking about this with your buddies in the dorm."
Ah, you say, but this is the hip hop generation, so why should I worry about rock and roll? Despite explicitly opening the assignment up to any genre, few of my students chose to write about rap, which I found astonishing. Their commitment to most hip hop (except for the lonely black student from Detroit) was very thin and interwoven with ambivalence. Rap simply seems to be what's out there. They know the genre's prime has passed, that the heart has been taken out of it by the record industry.
At the same time, white indie rock has been devoid of soul and blues influences -- drained of the alchemical lifeblood created in the synthesis of white and black musical traditions. Indie is left with a whiny, trebly, irresolute sound that seems to fit the dull green glow of a computer screen in darkened suburban bedrooms. Music today is just another part of the price of America's re-segregation.
My own kids' strange connection to Dylan and the Clash at the tender ages of 7 and 10 suggest that I may be well on my way toward being part of the problem. Am I screwing them up by not adequately screwing them up, softly indoctrinating them into the glory days of rock and roll over family brunch on Sunday? Will they learn about the backbeat of power and rebellion at the displays of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame instead of the more illicit places they ought to be receiving such education?
Of course, the most famous momma's boy of them all was the king of rock n roll himself, Elvis Presley, and in that fact there is home for the youth of America. But that was before cool had become one of the official anchors of consumer capitalism, before the commercialization of dissent had extended into every crevice of American culture. If the reason "Why Johnny Can't Dissent," as Tom Frank put it, is the commodification of resistance, maybe it's also why Johnny doesn't know his rock from his rebellion.
Jefferson Cowie is an associate professor at Cornell University.