The risqué performances of Elvis Presley, the screaming crowds that followed the Beatles, the instrument-smashing antics of The Who, and the countless other charismatic and iconic contributions to the music of their day are all defining chapters of rock-n-roll that would shape the outcome of nearly all popular music to follow. Just like the swing-dance halls of the 1920s and 30s, the music would draw the attention of the masses and bring uncountable patrons together for something that can only be described as an experience.
But what is missing from the bandstands of the swing era all the way through early Motown performances was the unruly presentation, where songs and artists went from polished performances by well-dressed professionals into expressions of image from larger-than-life artists. This was the birth of the Rock Star Mentality, and it has changed practically everything in regard to modern popular music.
The cultural, creative mindset rambunctious rock-n-rollers gave birth to is characterized by an uncompromising attitude that made the more refined groups of working musicians turn up their noses. How could they not? This was antithetical to everything they had been taught. Rock stars were rarely educated in music, and aside from knowing a few chords and shapes, often played only by ear and without a deeper musical understanding.
Bands like U2 – who formed with little previous musical training – showed that it was no longer about the strength gained through years of dedication from the individual players, but an ability to connect with an audience regardless of the performer’s knowledge for music. It turned on its head the idea that to be a great musician meant a long, hard road of practice and proficiency.
While there is no need to dramatically insult the now norms of music, there are downsides to the shift in music culture due to the flair of rock and the rock star lifestyle. Popular music has been drifting on a path away from more complex melodies, rhythms, and harmonies, and toward music that is very simple and all relatively similar. A study published in the journal Scientific Reports surveyed over 465,000 songs that spanned over 50 years, and found that “note transition” (note usage with chords and melodies) and “meters” (rhythmic patterns) are all fairly stable and moving toward the direction of homogeny. We cannot expect musicians to be able to create what is new if they don’t know what has been done. Exposure to a vast history of songs and works, either through self-study or by the guiding hand of a mentor, is the best solution. Unfortunately, this solution is regularly overlooked by a culture more centered around here and now, and prioritizes style over content.
However, there is a silver lining that should make even the most staunch of music elitists optimistic. When I was a new teacher in Arizona, most of my middle and high school age students were all brought to me because of the same thing: video games. Their parents all told me, “Yeah, he’s been playing ‘Guitar Hero’ and really likes it, so we figured we’d get him some lessons.” As a music teacher, I want nothing more than my students to enjoy their studies. Rejecting their interests simply because I don’t find them “pure” enough is a mistake. I’m happy to teach students regardless of what it is that brings them to learn, and I think that some music teachers ignore the Rock Star mentality to the detriment of future music.
If popular music is to continue to develop in positive ways, the Rock Star Mentality needs to be understood by teachers as a tool to get students started, and by students and patrons as an imperfect bi-product of the music they love.
Eric M. teaches music recording, music theory, songwriting, ukulele, bass guitar, and guitar lessons in Astoria, NY. He specializes in contemporary styles, including pop/rock, funk, jazz, and metal, and he joined the TakeLessons team in August 2013. Learn more about Eric, or search for a teacher near you!
Photo by Igorza76