In 1958, Danny and the Juniors crooned “Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay,” and they’ve yet to be proved wrong. Rock music has been part of the American pop-culture bedrock from the 1960s heyday of the Beach Boys and the Beatles through the arch ’70s punk of the Ramones and Patti Smith, on through the ’90s alternative rock of Pavement and Liz Phair. Today, thoughtful artists like Mitski, St. Vincent and the Arctic Monkeys keep the torch lit. As long as there have been rock stars, though, there have been misconceptions about the genre. We dispel five of them as a prelude to next weekend’s Grammy Awards.
It’s integral to the romance of rock-and-roll — the idea that in the early ’50s, the nascent genre was too radical for grown-ups, leaving kids as its most fervent proponents. Rolling Stone credited a major part of the music’s appeal to the name “rock-and-roll” itself. It was slang for sex, “a secret shared by the disc jockeys, the performers and the kids” at the expense of “responsible adults.” Time magazine noted in a 2015 article that the Senate was so wary of rock that it established a subcommittee to investigate whether the music encouraged juvenile delinquency. Summarizing the Beatles’ early popularity in an article looking back at the era, the Week wrote, “Teenage girls were most susceptible to the pandemic, and side effects included stamping, weeping, fainting, and screaming.”
But while teenagers were certainly screaming, they weren’t the only ones hip to the sound. When Time covered rock in 1965, it reported that more than 40 percent of the so-called “teen beat” records sold in the United States were bought by people over 20. Time wrote: “The sudden public acceptance of rock ‘n’ roll by so many people who supposedly should know better came as no surprise to the record and radio industries. Their surveys have long shown the existence of a vast underground of adult rock ‘n’ roll fans.” For example, when a rock radio station asked listeners to rate records, it was deluged with 18,000 callers, “all but a few from housewives.”
When it comes to the rock subgenre grunge, certain bands pop up in the discussion as often as plaid flannel: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains. The Washington Post has described them as the scene’s “Big Four,” and they share numerous qualities. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, these bands entwined elements of punk and metal into their scrappy, boisterous rock. They were seen as an antidote to the flamboyant hair metal and new wave dominating MTV. Oh, and they were all men from Seattle and nearby cities, and almost entirely white. Every band mentioned in the introduction to Stereogum’s 2018 list of “essential” grunge songs fit these descriptors, too. The New Republic looked back on grunge in 2017, suggesting, “Perhaps grunge was always the exclusive domain of a certain kind of man, one who is now out of date.” The messy, masculine archetype of the grunge musician is so firmly established by now that Party City sells a “grunge wig” of shaggy, shoulder-length blond locks for $16.99.
But grunge, a catchall term that gobbled up many strains of alternative rock, was hardly homogenous. The scene was also a wellspring of female empowerment, with borders far beyond Washington and many strong feminists at the fore alongside Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder. Many women-led bands were integral to the scene, including L7 (from Los Angeles), Lunachicks (from New York) and Babes in Toyland (from Minneapolis). Karen Schoemer, writing in the New York Times in 1992, described Kat Bjelland, vocalist and guitarist of Babes in Toyland, as having “the kind of voice that would be more suited to a hoary, string-haired death-metal dude than to a cute 28-year-old blonde. Her voice is loud, brutal and vitriolic. It’s not very ladylike, and it’s not at all pretty.” Hole (from Los Angeles), led by Courtney Love, sold more than 3 million albums, according to Billboard. The grunge scene was also meshed with riot grrrl, the feminist punk movement that championed autonomy and resistance to patriarchy and that continues to influence artists today.
Rose-colored glasses are still our go-to for remembering the 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair. Fifty years after the festival was held on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, N.Y. — featuring Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Janis Joplin with the Kozmic Blues Band, and Sly and the Family Stone — it is still celebrated as pop culture’s most iconic weekend of peace and love. Rolling Stone swooned over its “hippie utopian dream” in 2017, and Salon called the free weekend “musical heaven on a hillside” in 2018. The documentary “Woodstock,” released in 1970 and edited in part by a young Martin Scorsese, won an Academy Award for its beatific crowd shots of the swaying, fringed counterculture.
It’s true that Woodstock offered a kind of drug-addled commune for the estimated 400,000 bohemians in attendance, but they thrived despite the conditions around them. Woodstock was so disastrously organized, it was nearly the Fyre Festival of its day. As Rolling Stone initially reported, food and water shortages, fields of mud, and day-long traffic jams created a landscape that resembled “a ravaged refugee camp,” and a 17-year-old boy died after he was run over by a tractor. Entertainment Weekly pointed out that an estimated 5,000 people were treated for medical issues, including heatstroke and drug overdoses. As the Times reported, the site of the “sometimes excruciating, sometimes ecstatic” weekend was even declared a state disaster area. That the music could still transfix the crowd, and the weekend went as peacefully as it did, speaks to the generosity of spirit in its attendees, not any utopia.
Rolling Stone points to “the 27 Club” as “one of the most elusive and remarkably tragic coincidences in rock & roll history” — the idea that more famous, self-destructive musicians die at that age than at any other. Cobain, Joplin, Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Brian Jones and Jim Morrison are the most cited examples. When the Swedish DJ Avicii died in 2018, at age 28, Newsweek opened his obituary by noting that he was “barely older than the members of the notorious ‘27 club.’ ” When Cobain committed suicide in 1994, his mother, Wendy O’Connor, told reporters: “Now he’s gone and joined that stupid club. I told him not to join that stupid club.”
While many talented musicians were lost at 27, the age is meaningless — and focusing on it irresponsibly mythologizes mental illness and the “tortured artist” stereotype. In truth, the most common age for musicians to die is 56, according to the Independent and the Conversation. Also, as many notable musicians have died at ages 26 (Gram Parsons, Otis Redding, Mac Miller, Nick Drake) and 28 (Tim Buckley, Shannon Hoon, Bradley Nowell, Big Pun). And some of the most famous rockers of their time are thriving to this day: Mick Jagger, Debbie Harry, Paul McCartney and Tina Turner are still vital performers well into their eighth decades.
Rock-and-roll was built on cultural appropriation; early white artists did borrow, modify and outright steal from Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters and other black male R&B musicians. Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and the Rolling Stones incorporated R&B songs heavily into their sets and springboarded off them into new directions. The Beatles combined R&B with skiffle, a jazzy folk form. The Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA” is set to the music of Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” but did not originally credit him. There is no shortage of articles that insist Berry, Waters and other black R&B bluesmen are the true, undersung creators of rock; when Berry died in 2017, he was feted as the “inventor” of the genre in Billboard, the Boston Globe and many other publications.
In fact, black women predated Berry in influencing the music we know today as rock-and-roll. Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, a singer-songwriter from Alabama, first recorded “Hound Dog” in 1952, scoring a No. 1 hit — three years before Berry released his first single, “Maybellene.” Sister Rosetta Tharpe from Arkansas combined guitar with gospel in the 1930s, bringing the previously pious form a fresh, fingerpicked style and secular audiences. Presley was an avowed fan of Tharpe’s, as were Berry, Bob Dylan and other rockers. Called the “first guitar heroine of rock” by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Tharpe was finally nominated for induction in 2018.