That don’t mean shit! We’re here, and right now!footnote1

(Attributed to E.L. Glass)

If Hopey said it then she was quite right: it is necessary to insist on the here and the now of rock music in this last decade of the century, to remain sceptical of doom-laden periodizations. For it is becoming orthodox to announce the ending of the history of rock, in terminal decline from its high plateau reached in the 1960s. This prevailing view is that of a descent interrupted only by occasional and transient blips of recovery when musicians plagiarize and recycle sixties-like material. In the rarefied air breathed by those who debate the postmodern condition, the end of rock takes its place alongside the more apocalyptic deaths of ideology, the subject, and even of history itself. So, in an aside to this high-toned discussion, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones are claimed for the high modernism of popular music, against which stand the diminished figures of punk and new-wave music.footnote2 Thus the modernist peak of the cultural-revolutionary past appears now only as pastiche, swept up in a closed circle of signification comprising advertising image, soap opera and tabloid story. The ‘meaningful’ and ‘authentic’ sixties music of protest and challenge to the established order falls under the dominion of a totalizing self-referentiality in the postmodern world of leisure, lifestyle and the televisual mediation of reality. As Dick Hebdige sees it, the combative strategies of modernism analysed by Adorno—negation, estrangement, non-identity thinking—no longer gain a purchase because everything means everything else and hence nothing at all.footnote3

In less exalted terms, the same core assumptions about the present day are commonplace among djs, who speak of ‘classic rock’.footnote4 Here the music industry and daytime pop radio have conspired to define a sixties-based sound as an (ongoing) classic, though since the mid 1970s available only in the most pallid derivatives. In part, classic rock—especially as defined by some us radio stationsfootnote5—reflects the dominance of white adult male definitions of popular music; in part, too, many commentators are of an age that they remember sixties music as a sentimental accompaniment to excursions into adulthood, while many more were swept up at that time by the enthusiasm for cultural revolution. But critics’ biographies apart, this is a case of the marketing by the music industry of a certain kind of rock music to a targeted audience (aged 25–40?) with the willing participation of many radio djs. What is promoted is ‘classic’ precisely in that it is shorn of any potential to subvert the commodification of popular music.

I want to resist both prongs of this attack on rock music’s now: to reject the concept of ‘classic rock’ as being without value, and the postmodernist analysis of recent rock music as misguided, together with their corollary that the music of the 1960s is pre-eminent in its claims on serious cultural analysis. To set the scene requires the separation of all that is entailed in the concept of ‘modernism’ from any simple adjectival form of ‘modern’. In historical discussions of economic, political and social development, modernity has been specified in terms as broad as ‘post-feudal’ or ‘post-traditional’, connected with rationalism and bourgeois revolution,footnote6 and in debates over its purported end in postmodernity it has been taken to be a ‘socialist’ project of the increasing dominance of purposive-instrumental rationality in human social institutions.footnote7

But as a cultural term, modernism is used specifically to refer to artistic movements of the past hundred years or so, and thus has a more restricted sense than that of ‘modernity’. Exactly when modernism began can be disputed, but the canon of its works includes few from before the 1880s, and ‘modern’ architecture and music are, in a populist sense, still controversial in much the same way as when their earliest works were completed.footnote8 In fact, Adorno’s term ‘die neue Musik’ is even more appropriate: concert-going audiences react still to compositions by Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School as if they were new and strange, even though many are three-quarters of a century old. It is clear that, in cultural matters, modernism does not denote the recent but identifies a would-be radical break generally located in the first few decades of the twentieth century. Modernist movements in the arts tried to develop strategies for cultural subversion of the bourgeois art object, at first often in the expectation of social or political revolution: they proposed ‘a new kind of art for a new kind of social and perceptual world’.footnote9 Increasingly in the 1920s and after, modernism was a set of techniques for cultural resistance to the enduring capitalist society. Raymond Williams contends that, for all the difficulties in periodization, we can identify modernist structures of feeling in radical shock-aesthetics throughout this period. One feature of the prototypical modernist work—in spite of Williams’s stress on the diversity of modernism and the avant-garde and its specificity in successive formations—is its attack on commodity fetishism in its peculiar character of the reification of cultural objects. As Adorno and other Frankfurt School thinkers saw it, modernism involved the production of cultural works which embody in their form (not content) the contradictions that may at once represent and criticize those of capitalist social relations.footnote10

Fredric Jameson’s account of the cultural logic of late capitalismfootnote11 adopts a periodization of capitalist developmentfootnote12 in three stages, each with its distinct cultural form. First, from 1848, market capitalism entailed cultural realism; next, from the end of the nineteenth century, monopoly/imperial capitalism is associated with just such modernist movements in the arts I have been referring to; and, finally, ushered in by the machine production of electronic machines in the 1940s, the era of multinational capitalism with its postmodernist cultural phenomena of surface without depth, and the image as the ultimate reified commodity.footnote13 So, we may ask, in the sense of this developmental periodization, where are we in the history of rock music, whose existence is entirely a late-capitalist phenomenon? In what follows I want to reverse the prevalent downgrading of contemporary rock music by sketching in some moments of rock history since its birth as teenage culture more than thirty years ago. In outline what I propose is this: that popular music of the 1960s was not modernist at all (even though it was modern and even modernfootnote14) since it provided no challenge to music as reified commodity. Far from it: many sixties artists presided over an enbourgeoisement of youth culture which greatly extended capitalist penetration of ‘alienated’ youth markets. Though the music may at times have raised the flag of countercultural rebellion against established everyday life, its products were no modernist negations. Save in isolated earlier examples, the first modernist tide rose as punk in 1976 to overflow into our present postpunk era. This is because, in popular music, the youth culture that supported the possibility of a modernist subversion of the products of the music industry did not come into existence until the stage of capitalist development whose logic is postmodern. I believe that the current music scene provides some of the best illustrations of a postpunk aesthetic resistance practised and embodied within products of the music industry—Adorno’s ‘negative dialectic’ in a popular form. It is, I suggest, quite inappropriate to speak of the ‘end’ of anything in rock music—it’s not only much sooner than you thought, but, as the lady (may have) said, ‘We’re here, and right now!’.