Wandering Ear - It's Only Rock and Roll

This week, the Wandering Ear that is Nate McKenzie wanders into the need for originality in a modern world ...

As I hear it, rock and roll is dead. As I see it, rock and roll has always been about one thing: originality.

Everyone wants to be a star. Humans are flawed that way. Your dentist thinks he’s going to be a comedian someday. That wild girl you went to high school with, the one that defecated in the lunch room trash can and now owns a salon? She thinks she’s an Instagram model. Your son’s Geometry teacher has an OnlyFans. If you listen carefully to his videos, you can hear the sound of him "squaring his hypotenuse."

Google says that Facebook has almost three billion users but half of those are bots or dupes so we’ll say that roughly 1.5 ba-ba-Billion people on this planet share their idealized daily lives with anyone who will listen. Before the internet, these were the people you’d encounter in a queue and know everything about their sad lives before your latte was sufficiently foamed. Back when I worked in restaurants, I’d meet at least one of these people on every new serving crew. Usually more than one because servers are narcissistic by nature. They love to overshare. On one busy Friday night, I watched a coworker dump all of her personal problems into the laps of a sweet, old couple just trying to enjoy a night out. The song Carried Away by Passion Pit was playing over the dining room speakers. The waitress talked the entire time. Then Grouplove’s Ways to Go came and went. Still, she stood there talking and crying while I watched and laughed from behind the bar. I don’t know how the other servers managed to continue doing their job but I noticed they didn’t stray out of earshot. Even the patrons at nearby tables kept their knife-plate interactions to a minimum. The horror was irresistible. As Seven Nation Army was just wrapping up, our busy manager interjected, saving the couple from their ten-minute crash-course in Stockholm Syndrome. Cold entrees were replaced, a complimentary bottle of (previously uncorked) wine was brought to the table, the manager profusely conveying our sincerest apologies to the lovely couple for having their 40th anniversary so rudely interrupted.

People like that crying waitress have always existed. They wake up every day hoping that someone will listen, maybe even care just a tiny bit. To these people, celebrity is a vaccine against loneliness. They take refuge in the safety of the internet, gobbling up those little red hearts fed to them like food pellets by social look-at-me media. Why? Because Kylie Jenner has 33 Million followers on Twitter and she is a hashtag Girl Boss. You have 5000 followers? Psh. Gotta pump those numbers up, kid! We’re chasing that high! That next haunted fix that comes with finally feeling seen, if only as a flash in someone else’s pan.

I genuinely have no idea what Kylie Jenner does in this world outside of being one of the Klones. Maybe she’s a lovely person, who knows, who fucking cares. All that matters to her is that other people know who she is - one of the Harem Sisters of the reincarnated Cleopatra, Kim Kardashian, Queen of New Egypt, Goddess of the Fractured Oasis. Some people think that Kim Kardashian is empty inside and that’s the source of her insatiable lust for attention. I don’t think she’s empty. I think she’s filled with Nutella and the tortured souls of the men she leaves in her wake. The company of those haunted spirits soothe her to sleep at night. I bet she sleeps great.

Ruby red lips on giant billboards swear to us that we are all God’s special creatures, a plan in Heaven for each of his children. The truth is, most people are actually spectacularly un-special, despite the constant onslaught of factory-farmed positivity reaffirming hidden insecurities. Normal is shunned. Average, functioning, well-adjusted human existence should be a part of the goal. It isn’t. That would be fine but the normies are told by the pretty people that those bad men in Washington are the real reason you can’t be “just like us!” and distract us all from the cold, deflating realization that originality, the essence of cool, reveals itself to those who don’t chase it but rather follow where inspiration leads.

Here’s an indisputable fact for you: Johnny Cash's version of Hurt is every bit as wonderful as Trent Reznor's. Covers are, by nature, unoriginal but Cash molded the song into a piece of art that is unmistakably his own. Could you choose a favorite of the two? Could you choose which Yesterday you prefer: the boys from Liverpool or the Boyz (II Men) from Philly? Does Roberta Flack or Lauryn Hill Kill ‘Em more softly? That’s Rock and Roll. No, Shinedown, that weak, warbling attempt you made at covering Simple Man does not qualify. Ronnie Van Zant deserves better. That song is a great example of trying too hard to be cool. Don’t blame Brent Smith, blame his fans.

The landscape across music may have changed considerably over the last ten to twenty years but the disbursement of talent remains, as always, the purest form of equality that exists on this planet, blossoming in all the random nooks and crannies from a coal mining town to Istanbul (not Constantinople). A blessing, these many voices are that make for a robust chorus singing farewell lullabies to a dying world. This world needs those voices and talents to keep creating these echoes from the past that help us understand our present. Beacons in the darkness we can refer to in our journey forward, backward, around and around. Because time is a flat circle. Because time is irrelevant. Because time no longer exists in the same state it did when we first put a name to the intangible concept of ordering chaos. Time has undulated, evolved, taken on a new form, time is trans - time now defines itself. 

This weekend I re-discovered the greatness of The Black Keys then later that day I arrived late to the PJ Harvey party. When you become familiar with an artist’s work long after their heyday, it has a tinge of something missing, something that doesn’t make the journey through the decades, a relic of the zeitgeist of that particular moment in time weathered against the gritgrind of days. My editor would say that thing is context. Whose context matters though? My core memory of a song isn’t the same as yours, the smell of your mother’s van, the weather between you and the passing telephone poles, the first time you heard Fast Car and felt the relief that comes with understanding that you aren’t the only one. Maybe context matters when you discover a song, maybe it’s something else missing; maybe all that’s missing is the feeling of longing for bygone days, a feeling music can’t conjure if today is that day, the day you rediscover your love for rock and roll, still alive and raging against the death of originality.

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