I love a good book, but one of my biggest challenges as a thinker is retaining key takeaways from the things that I have read. As a way to better collect my thoughts, I’ve decided to write a few paragraphs after every book I finish in 2019.
I went into Steven Hyden’s Twilight of the Gods expecting to read about death. Hyden can be an engaging thinker, and most of the promotion around his newest work positioned it as the bookend of a musical era, a rumination on what it means when all of the legends of the rock genre are dead or dying. That description actually made me less excited to pick it up at first, thinking that it would ultimately be a downer to read about fading legacies and early graves. I was pleased to discover that this explanation is not entirely true; though the book is subtitled “a journey to the end of classic rock”, Hyden focuses more on the journey rather than the genre’s seemingly inescapable destination. Rather than overly contemplate the end, it’s filled with the passion of a nerdy fan who wants to gather everyone around a fire and celebrate why we loved these larger-than-life figures in the first place.
Throughout the book, Hyden asserts that a lot of classic rock’s power in the public discourse has stemmed from the way larger cultural narratives were built around the genre. These often had mythological overtones, with stories too outlandish to believe and too intoxicating to dismiss. Part of this fascination came from simple posturing and gossip-mongering, such as Jimmy Page’s supposed flirtations with Aleister Crowley and Satanism (which Page now dismisses). At the same time, many of the most well-known artists in the genre found ways of communicating to their audience about what their music meant in a larger sense, beyond melodies and lyrics. Some artists consciously framed their persona to fans, such as Bob Dylan’s various conflicting stories about his upbringing. Others created concept albums that literally gave their songs a narrative throughline. Still others anchored the music to a publicity cycle, like the acrimony and affairs at the heart of the songwriting of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. Regardless of the method used, filling in the margins of the music with extramusical stories helped artists find additional cultural resonance for their art. As someone who has devoured tales about Springsteen and Dylan and The Beatles, I can certainly understand the power of such behind-the-scenes storytelling.
While extramusical storytelling was innovative for its time, classic rock needed a common thread more specific than “its artists harness cultural narratives” for the genre as a whole to have its own personality for listeners. Put another way: artists like Neil Young and AC/DC have very little in common musically, so how can they exist on the same radio dial? Hyden hones in on this broader identity through a series of musical and commercial tropes that seem to echo across the decades and disparate artists. Each chapter highlights one of the building blocks that rock musicians have used to tell their stories — live bootlegs, hedonism, power ballads, good “bad” albums, replacement members — and positions it as a totem of the culture. Rock fans then use these totems to contextualize their conversations, creating a shared language for discourse and debate that expands beyond individual bands or albums. In this way, the tradition of classic rock gets its power from the repeated expression of these cultural symbols.
Every page of Twilight of the Gods is packed with esoteric trivia and fun tangents, but my favorite ongoing conversation is in interplay between art and commerce actively shaped the scene. For example, one section talks about how these album-oriented narratives were driven by the record industry as a marketing tactic to separate it from pop music. It didn’t make sense to compete with singles factories on a song-by-song basis, so “real” fans were encouraged to buy every album by their favorite artists, as each new release was the latest episode in an ongoing narrative. This storytelling is a central part of album rollouts today, from the world-conquering narrative of Beyoncé’s Lemonade to the accompanying stories of an NPR First Listen album. As a marketer in the music industry, it’s fascinating (and in some ways disheartening) to learn that money has always played a role in how fans perceive the art.
While the built-in cultural vocabulary of classic rock helped it establish itself, at the same time that understood language insulated the genre from outside opinions and ultimately hindered its growth. This played a direct role in the death of classic rock. Beyond sex and drugs, the true damning vice of classic rock is that the majority of its artists are white, male, guitar-driven musicians. Hyden suggests that the very mythos the genre cultivated ultimately excluded interested practitioners, which codified racially. He uses Al Green, Funkadelic, and other black artists that have been ghettoized into other genres as a way to show how a lot of greats who would traditionally have fit under the classic rock umbrella were pushed away to maintain the white male as the protagonist of classic rock’s story. Rather than opening rock up for a broader definition, the gatekeepers of the genre helped kill it by suggesting that “real” rock ‘n’ roll was for artists who looked most like the people who were already playing it.