What Is Rock? A Personal Take (Part I)



guitarsIn a world filled with gray areas, some big concepts simply elude definition. In his ruling on a 1964 obscenity case, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote that he couldn’t define the meaning of obscenity,  but “I know it when I see it”.

And so it goes when trying to define Rock. There is no clear and easy definition, but at the end of the day, you know it when you hear it.

If I were smart, I would just leave it at that. But no, I want to nail it down a little better, and see if we can’t get a little closer to defining what we mean when we say the word Rock. Personally, I’ve got some ideas, but I don’t have the answers. This site is a great place for a pretension-free discussion about Rock, so I’m hoping we can have one here.

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The Basics

Let’s start with the basics. Most dictionaries define Rock as a music style featuring a predominance of electric guitars, played mostly in 4/4 time, and usually in a setting with three, four or five band members.

This is a good start. It’s a definition that captures a lot of great Rock artists, and it’s also the way that most non-rock fans see the whole of Rock music. But obviously there’s a lot more to the story than that.

A quick scan of this site’s Top 100 Most Impactful Rockers reveals plenty of well-established Rock artists such as Leonard Cohen, or Otis Redding, or Stevie Wonder or Van Morrison who don’t fit the 4-man electric guitar model. So what is it that identifies these artists as rock?

Rock Is More Than A Musical Style

Like Mr. Justice Stewart, I can’t tell you exactly, but three words always come to mind:

  • Freedom
  • Authenticity
  • Power

Freedom is central to the concept of Rock. Rock is an expression of freedom through words and music, unfettered by cultural niceties. The free, unfettered voice is an authentic voice, so we can say that Rock is all about musical and lyrical authenticity.

We are looking for words and music that are a true and genuine representation of an artist, no matter how cynical or self-absorbed or sex-crazed or socially conscious they may be. As long as they’re not phony.

But we want more too. We want power. We want to be moved. We want our head bobbing and our toe tapping. We want to say “oh wow” and “holy shit” or dance around the room like crazy people, and we want to be grabbed and held fast by a lyric or a drum fill or a voice. Power can be extremely loud or extremely quiet. Rock is not just about authenticity, it is about a powerful authenticity.

Rock Is Constantly Growing and Morphing

Rock has always been a shapeshifter, constantly absorbing other styles of music. This is another reason why a definition is so elusive. Rock is and has always been about different musics coming together. R&B and rockabilly gave birth to rock & roll, which brought in folk and blues and the British Invasion to create Rock, which then over the years absorbed elements of psychedelia, jazz, country, funk, reggae, punk, new wave, grunge, electronica, hip hop, and so on.

The basics will always be there. But the basics should not define Rock. Saying Rock is only music from two guitars, bass and drums is like describing a Bentley as four tires with a metal body.

In Part II I will discuss musicianship, live performance, and going back to original sources to help define Rock. So what do you think? Am I completely full of shit? What are the essential elements of Rock to you, other than loud guitars?

Photo Credit: By Derek K. Miller [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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5 comments to “What Is Rock? A Personal Take (Part I)”
  1. Love this definition! Especially the part about authenticity… Rock fans can sniff out a phony 1,000 miles away.

  2. Solid and inclusive take. I would add the following fundamental questions:
    1. Does it have a beat?
    2. Can you dance to it?

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