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Ten Years and Out

Posted: May 05, 2005

By Kevin Forest Moreau, Editor-in-Chief

There's far too much nostalgia in rock 'n' roll these days. I'm not talking here about backward-looking trends like the so-called "garage rock" revival of a couple of years back, or the current trend of groups like Interpol, the Killers and Bloc Party taking their musical cues from post-punk pioneers like Joy Division and The Cure. Reaching back a little ways for inspiration is an accepted, and acceptable, part of rock's trajectory, even when it produces a band as ridiculously overpraised as the Strokes.

No, the threat I'm addressing is a corrosive mindset that is, when you get right down to it, completely antithetical to the very roots of rock music. And it's everywhere you look -- in a Rolling Stone cover story on the children of baby-boomer rockers (because we're all on pins and needles to learn what Sean Lennon and Billy Joel's daughter are up to), and in Tracks magazine's recent cover story on how John Lennon's legacy "still endures."

It's also heard in the hundreds of cancerous classic-rock stations that continue to pump royalties into the bank accounts of the Rolling Stones, the Eagles and the Who (as if these guys didn't have enough money), and their insidious insistence on "getting the Led out," which just produces another generation of idiot stoners brainwashed into thinking "Stairway to Heaven" is the single greatest song of all time -- who then proceed to play it (badly) every time they walk into a room with an acoustic guitar. Yeah, you know what I'm talking about.

Now, don't get me wrong: There's nothing necessarily wrong with appreciating John Lennon, or the Who, or artists who hit their creative peak more than a decade before you were born. (The Eagles are another matter.) But there's a fine line between appreciating what has come before and kissing its boots to the exclusion of all else.

History is a continuum, not a pyramid. If the Beatles can be seen as the Founding Fathers of contemporary rock music (or at least a part of that group), it's important to note that American history doesn't end with the guys who signed the Declaration of Independence: There's also Abe Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy -- just as in music, John Lennon is simply part of a long line that also includes the Allman Brothers, AC/DC, the Minutemen, the Replacements, the Clash, the Stooges, Radiohead, Dr. Dre, etc., etc.

Our calcified critical culture has created a canon, a hierarchy, that elevates certain acts and artists as gods, regardless of the erratic quality of their body of work -- that, in short, makes those acts the new establishment. And that canon isn't simply limited to bands from the 1960s and '70s; certain bands still around today -- U2, Pearl Jam, R.E.M. -- inspire the same unquestioning loyalty, resulting in those bands enjoying the spotlight long after they've crested their creative peaks.

Call it Hall of Fame Syndrome, for the most un-rock-'n'-roll institution that exists, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As we worship at the altar of certain bands, we give them less incentive to continue producing quality work, or to quietly step aside before they release their Around the Sun. This goes against the whole rock 'n' roll ethos, which embraces rebellion, change, the new guard elbowing its way onto the stage, even if that means somewhat forcefully shoving the old guard aside.

So what's the answer, you ask? I don't know. But here's one idea: Term limits. Remember when this was all the rage in politics in the '90s? Well, the concept is pretty much the same. Here's how it works: From the date it releases its first album, a band has exactly 10 years in which it may record and tour under its name. After that, it has to gracefully step off the stage.

Now, there are some artists who are capable of creating great music for more than 10 years. And they'd still be able to do so -- just not in their original form. Just as, in politics, a term-limited representative is free to run for a different office, so too would artists be free to seek new creative outlets. After 10 years, the members of Band X are free to work in new configurations: to form new bands, go solo, etc. But they can't write, record, perform or tour under the original name again. Same goes for solo artists; after ten years, they either have to join a band (or a duo or trio or some new configuration) or quietly disappear. Who knows? The new blood would probably do them some good, and produce some really great music.

Hopefully, this would keep a band from doing any serious damage to its legacy after its creative moment has passed. It would spare us such meaningless (and expensive) non-events as the occasional Eagles or Stones tour, which exist solely to gratify the egos of artists whose heydays are decades past. And in the process, all of the unnecessary attention we lavish on such dinosaur acts would go to newer acts. Classic-rock stations would become "oldies" stations (which is going to happen eventually anyway), or hopefully put down those stale Moody Blues records and introduce audiences to other worthwhile music.

Now, I can hear you saying: "But Kevin, there are already term limits in place. They're called our discretionary dollars. Artists get the hint when we stop buying their albums or supporting their tours." That's a valid point: It's also wrong. By that point, said artists are usually already financially well-off enough that declining ticket and album sales don't affect them that much, and they have no incentive to stop on their own. This way, Artist X has to step down after a certain period of time, even if he's made a gajillion dollars.

Now, there would be one exception. After a certain period of time has passed -- say, 15 years; 25 would be better -- the band is free to reunite and cash in on the nostalgia circuit playing its old hits to adoring audiences. But it would not be allowed to create new music. This way, older audiences get to enjoy a blast from the past, but everyone involved is clear that that's exactly what it is: a celebration of the past. Nostalgia isn't always a bad thing, especially if it doesn't get in the way of the present.

Certainly, this plan isn't perfect. If it had been in place since the '60s or '70s, we would today be doing without some great albums created by bands well after their 10-year mark. We'd also be doing without an Elvis Costello or a Richard Thompson or (could it really be true?) a Bob Dylan -- artists who not only produce good music decades into their careers, but actually mature, get better or move into exciting new directions. But we'd survive; this is a small price to pay to avoid a Bridges to Babylon or a Monster. Also, it would not stop a Rob Thomas or an Anthony Keidis from continuing to record and tour, but such is life.

But what it would do is continually clear the decks, to keep bands and artists who are deified out of all proportion to their talent from hogging our cultural and psychic bandwidth. After all, there are plenty of bands who produced work of amazing breadth and depth in less time than 10 years -- the Beatles, for one. If a decade (or less) was good enough for them, it should be more than suitable to the creative desires of a Limp Bizkit. And look on the bright side: We'd only be four years away from never having to hear from Britney Spears ever again. Surely that's worth sacrificing a Time Out of Mind or an Achtung Baby, right?

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Archived Editorials
December 03, 2006: Happy Feet
November 22, 2006: Half Decade Anniversary
October 07, 2006: Jessica Simpson
September 30, 2006: New Orleans and SNL
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November 21, 2005: Fourth Birthday
November 05, 2005: TV Remakes
August 13, 2005: Ten Commandments of Rock
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May 05, 2005: Term Limits (for Rock Stars)
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