Victory and the Damage Done: The Shift in U.S. Rock Music

Posted: August 3, 2013 in Nick's Philosophies on Nirvana, Trends - Hip Hop, Grunge and Alternative


“Is there a clean white shirt ready for the bomb?”

This film will make more sense to those who are aware of a film called The Snowman — it’s a Christmas tradition in U.K., a whimsical and nostalgic piece in which a young boy enters his garden on Christmas Eve to find his snowman has come to life. The piece is wordless, story conveyed in drawn figures and landscapes and a swooning soundtrack; a warm dream. The piece above is by the same author/artist, Raymond Briggs, very familiar drawing style, childhood associations…And naturally disturbing because of the sheer Englishness of the characters’ responses and discussion — the myth of ‘the last war’ circles through the entire piece. The serious point being that in 1983-1984 the Soviet leadership was genuinely of the view that NATO was preparing a strike against the Soviet Union. Rhetoric from the west was sparking a reaction and that, in turn, led to escalating responses. The Able Archer exercise in November 1983 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Able_Archer_83) was the closest the world had come to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis with the Russians genuinely believing the war games were our cover for a pre-emptive strike.

Direct cause-and-effect relationships are hard to find when tracing the interaction of the background scenarios that rule over the lives of entire societies and the cultural outbursts those societies then enact. Musical motion arises on the back of and in relation or reaction to previous music; technological shifts drive changes in instrumentation, sound, style and approach; musicians arise from familial, comradely, educational and psychological advantages, pressures or drivers; scenes arise supported by the emergence of supporting infrastructure whether broadcasting media, means of production, venues for dissemination. Music doesn’t, however, float free of the politics or economics that drive a society and that are so intimately intertwined.

In the glow of victory, and contrary to what one might expect, the crime rate in the U.K. and U.S. after World War Two increased — the Golden Age of Bank Robbery was over the next two decades as demobbed soldiers, trained in the use of weapons and explosives, lucratively deployed their talents. While prefabricated homes spread home ownership across the U.S. and suburbia became a new reality, war industry used to churning out metal was retooled to churning out cars. The massive organisation of society that had arisen as a consequence of war never went away, it shifted objectives, names changes but the new institutions and the accepted levels of their intrusion into the daily lives of people had simply become accepted.


(Threads — 1984)

Rock n’ Roll, then whatever it was that was started by The Beatles in the Sixties and evolved into hard rock, heavy metal, punk and so forth tended toward less emotionally revealing lyrics — artful phrasings or vagueness substituted for stark self-examination. This evolved throughout the seventies and eighties, until the heart of mainstream rock music was a macho, dominant, hyper-masculinity that matched the defiant sense of ‘them and us’ that ruled everyday reality — in the U.S. punk barely made a dent on the mainstream leaving the Seventies rock motif to live on. Remember this was a society living under the very real threat of genuine annihilation not by zombies (heh!) but by nuclear weaponry that would halt real life in its tracks with a four minute warning for the U.K. and not much more for the U.S. The renewal of the core rock image, the penis-centric God figure, fitted like tight blue jeans to the early Eighties when figures within the U.S. military scene, in concert with the conservative figures around Ronald Reagan began focusing not on the megadeath perspective of mutual destruction, but on a belief that even amidst the graves of hundreds of millions, there was such a thing as victory in a nuclear future. There was no reason to relinquish the externally directed aggression inherent in the rock star image when there was a vast existential enemy always present.


(The Day After — 1983)

Nirvana lived out their entire youth in a world where everything was about to be blown to smithereens at any moment. By 1987 when Nirvana became a reality, nothing had yet changed. The Pacific North-West was potentially one of the few places where at least some portion of the outlying population might have made it through — a survivalist community did exist in State of Washington — but the background reality of atomic decimation and the collapse of organised society walked in step with a music culture that leaned toward Superman with a pumped up and screaming wild edge that was simply a demonstration that the superheroes of rock music were meant to show we could survive any excess, any destructive act. The drugs, the sex, the lunacy of the mainstream rock scene was part of showing that America was indomitable, indestructible — its denizens did not die when famous, when centre stage, when flaunting their power before the world. This would change.

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