What Is Rock?
As opposed to reggae, country, rap, classical, jazz, and so on… what is rock?
As a category of music – as one would find in a record shop – there are certain practices and traditions that have come to be associated with rock music, and, if we are to work from the outside in, we could identify them: electric guitars (often distorted), acoustic drum sets, loud electronic and acoustic signals, intense vocals (sometimes to the point of screaming), and lyrics that more or less deal with simple and honest desires (such as sex, love, cars, fun/partying, or what sucks about one’s life or the world). But, as common as these external traits may or may not be, there is always something more to a musical genre (and music, in general, as an expressive language) that connects with us. Yes, the iconography, attitudes, and articulations/valuations of a musical genre have resonance and meaning and are important in conveying the essence of that genre… but what is that essence?
I would submit that it is a frequency or vibration, in the same way that you would change the station on the radio dial and hence find a new vibe, a new music – a different flavor of being. So, from the inside out, what then is rock?
To believe that this essence could satisfactorily be put into words would be to more or less negate its existence as an essence and its manifestation as a species of music. Because, at root, music is not “ideas” or "words." Some species of music have more ideas in them than others (classical, for instance) – which is completely cool and fine. The infinity of musical attitudes, cultures, and flavors exists for and with and because of the infinity of beings. But, if I were to attempt to put into words a signpost pointing to “rock” (which I am), I would say that rock music is a music that celebrates feeling good from a place of (and sonic expression of) power. Oftentimes, rock music seems to be about feeling bad… breakup songs, pining, suffering, protesting, etc. So, how is this feeling good? Because the first step to feeling better when you feel bad is to admit you feel bad, and, therein is the point at which you can begin to feel good. Ownership is an incredibly powerful thing. To feel bad and to do nothing about it is one thing; to feel bad and to own it, exorcise your frustration out of you through expression (verbal, instrumental, artistic, whatever), to play it, to sing it, is quite another. It feels good to own that you feel bad.
While some musics naturally celebrate ideas, sophistication, liberation, sociality, cultural values, lifestyle trends, etc… rock music is a celebration of the power of stepping into ownership of what you feel, and it is a music of passion.
When I was a teenager, my brother, Wes, in an offhand moment, told me that “to rock” was not solely a musical accomplishment, it was a way of being… he specifically said: “It’s about whether you rock as a person.” I believe this to be true. People who have no idea how to play a musical instrument can be some of the hardest rockers out there. It’s a perspective. It’s a place from which to begin. To “rock” is to live from a point of constant lookout for that which will resonate and give passion and power to being, and then to own, celebrate, and express that from one’s heart. Rock is a music of the heart (and often the loins).
In summary, I guess I would submit that rock music is best defined by its intentionality – and, given all that I’ve written above to define the word in this entry, that intention is to rock.