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The Trouble With Rock Songs About Rock

AC/DC. Photo: Clayton Call/Redferns

Recently, while in the pharmacy line at my local CVS, Huey Lewis and the News’ “The Heart of Rock & Roll” made its presence known on the overhead speakers. It immediately stirred up feelings of ambivalence. The reason: Messrs. Lewis and News’ 1984 hit perfectly exemplifies one of popular music’s more frustrating subgenres: the rock n’ roll song about rock n’ roll.

We’re all familiar with rock n’ roll songs about rock n’ roll (or RnRSaRnR, for brevity’s sake). Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music.” Oasis’ “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.” Kiss’ “Rock and Roll All Nite.” Billy Joel’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.” The list is as long as it is relentless. And for those of us who possess a well-calibrated inner Seinfeld, one nagging question bubbles to the surface: What’s the deal with these songs? And what makes them so irksome? Put another way: I like rock n’ roll, but I don’t like “It’s Only Rock N’ Roll (But I Like It).”

Prior to deep-diving into this decades-old trend, let’s establish parameters. First up, the RnRSaRnR subgenre is exclusive to rock songs about rock music, as opposed to songs simply containing the word “rock” in their title. As such, let’s immediately discard everything from the Rolling Stones’ “Rock and a Hard Place” (probably about poverty) to the Scorpions’ “Rock You Like a Hurricane” (probably about fucking) to the B-52’s “Rock Lobster” (probably about crustaceans).

Secondly, there are numerous accepted ways of spelling “rock and roll,” with most variations buzzing like flies around the conjunction “and.” We have the fully spelled-out “rock and roll,” the ampersand-reliant “rock & roll,” “rock n’ roll” (apostrophe to the right), “rock ‘n roll” (apostrophe to the left), “rock n roll” (no apostrophe), rock ‘n’ roll (double apostrophe), and the seldom recommended “rock/roll.” For the sake of continuity and sanity, I’ll commit to using “rock n’ roll” throughout this piece, except where an alternate spelling appears in a song title. (This most certainly will happen.)

Also note: The word “rock” needn’t be listed in the title for a song to be considered a bona fide RnRSaRnR. Perhaps the highest-profile example of this is Starship’s “We Built This City,” a tune often denounced in music-critic circles as the worst thing ever written. Its crimes — and they are myriad — include being (a) a shallow, commercial rock(ish) song that has the cojones to denounce the shallow commercialization of rock songs, (b) the least-enjoyable brain-hijacking earworm since 1982’s Snoopy Brusha Brusha Toothbrush jingle (do not click that link), and (c) just an all-out dreadful achievement from the folks who sort of used to be the Jefferson Airplane.

While Starship earns the distinction of crafting the worst rock n’ roll song about rock n’ roll, we need look no further than AC/DC for sheer RnRSaRnR quantity. Over their decades-spanning career, the Aussie bad boys produced no fewer than 22 songs with “rock” in the title, from the widely known “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)” and “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” to deep cuts like “Can’t Stop Rock ‘n’ Roll,” “Rock ‘n Roll Train,” “She Likes Rock n Roll,” and “Got Some Rock & Roll Thunder.” (As you can see, even AC/DC can’t commit to which letter/word/symbol should be sandwiched between “rock” and “roll.”)

Having now confirmed the identity of history’s most egregious and most prolific RnRSaRnRers, let’s examine the multiple failings that plague the rock n’ roll song about rock n’ roll. First up is the patronizing disrespect it thrusts upon its audience. If it pleases the court, allow us to return to my neighborhood CVS, where “The Heart of Rock & Roll” was holding its drug-seeking listeners captive. Like many rock n’ roll songs about rock n’ roll, “The Heart of Rock & Roll” does a good deal of pandering, with Huey Lewis dutifully tallying the number of American cities still capable of rocking. The lyrical list includes “D.C., San Antone and the Liberty Town, Boston and Baton Rouge, Tulsa, Austin, Oklahoma City, Seattle, San Francisco, too.” Do you live in one of these towns? Guess what: Now you’re better than people who don’t live in one of these towns. The band gains extra pandering points for the Canadian release of the “Heart of Rock & Roll” single, which strategically crams in a shout-out to Toronto and Montreal prior to the obligatory 1980s saxophone solo.

Lewis may not have been the first to navigate the treacherous terrain that is the rock n’ roll song about rock n’ roll, but as it relates to pandering, he was certainly one of the best known. (Point of interest: This draws a parallel to namesake Meriwether Lewis — of “and Clark” fame — whose 19th-century explorations took him through D.C., Seaman’s Creek and the Liberty Town, Bozeman and Bitterroot, Three Forks, Atchison, Ol’ Dakota City, St. Helen’s, Sacagawea too.)

So as we’ve gleaned from Lewis’s antics, a prevalent feature of rock n’ roll songs about rock n’ roll is the explicit need to stroke listeners’ egos, figuratively high-fiving them for doing little more than listening to the music they’re currently listening to. This strategy goes beyond preaching to the choir; it’s akin to taking the stage at a June Cleaver convention and yelling, “Who here loves baking cookies and doling out life lessons to tweens?!”

Next up is the self-aggrandizement that imbues a good number of RnRSaRnR. On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with rock n’ roll taking pride in the musical niche it’s carved into our collective unconscious. Yet once this self-regard is downloaded into song form, we’re left with a product that reeks of neediness and insecurity. Whether you’re a genre of music or a time-released, clinical-strength antacid, when you’re truly great, people know it. Which makes shouting your virtues from the rooftop wholly unnecessary. And a little awkward.

There’s also an inherent bias to this form of musical self-evaluation. As the rock n’ roll artist, you’re simply too close to the subject matter to provide an honest assessment of its merits. Rock n’ roll has not only paid your bills, it’s made you famous. If an old college buddy secured these things for you, your gratitude would — consciously or not — find you glossing over his less desirable traits, from that questionable facial-hair configuration to the fact he pronounces milk as “melk.”

Another fatal RnRSaRnR flaw is is the faux nostalgia in which it often peddles. A significant percentage of rock n’ roll songs about rock n’ roll yearn for rock’s gauzy yesteryears, attempting to celebrate — or even recapture — what was, whether it truly “was” or not. It’s a specious form of sentimentality, and it does more disservice than good to rock’s storied and ongoing history. Elton John begins “Crocodile Rock” with the wistful proclamation, “I remember when rock was young.” A mere two verses later he flips the script, blindsiding us with, “But the years went by and the rock just died.” Ouch. Quality rock music was in no short supply circa 1971, when Led Zeppelin IV hit record stores. Yet 23-year-old Robert Plant longs for its so-called heyday on the album’s second track: “It’s been a long time since I rock n’ rolled / It’s been a long time since I did the stroll /Let me get it back, let me get it back, let me get it back / baby, where I come from.” Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock n’ Roll” flaunts a marked preference for that bygone-era sound, between her desire to be “singin’ that same old song” and her dubious ability to find a jukebox in 1982 that only charges ten cents a play.

An ironic side effect of RnRSaRnR’s nostalgia is that these songs — all “modern” at the time of their release — negate their own relevance by design. In “Old Time Rock n’ Roll,” Bob Seger posits that OG rock is the only music appealing enough to get him out on the dance floor. Which suggests that upon its 1978 release, even “Old Time Rock n’ Roll” would end up on Seger’s “don’t dance to this!” list, having been penned 20 years after rock’s halcyon days. In fact, “Old Time Rock n’ Roll” systematically shits on the entire Seger catalogue, given that none of its songs predate 1969. To use the Grammy winner’s own words against him, “Today’s music [including Seger’s own] ain’t got the same soul.”

Built around a precarious and ramshackle foundation, the RnRSaRnR can’t help but collapse under its own weight. With even the most casual scrutiny applied, the subgenre swiftly veers into the existential: Is a rock n’ roll song about rock n’ roll even a rock n’ roll song at all? Or is it little more than self-reflexive homage — one that seeks relevance by spotlighting (and at its worst, siphoning) the rock n’ roll accomplishments that came before it. All artists are shaped by their influences, so standing on the shoulders of giants is par for the course in the music world. As the old screenwriting adage goes, “Show, don’t tell.” Rock n’ roll excites and inspires us when it walks the walk, not when it talks the talk. To paraphrase AC/DC, “It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock n’ roll and then watch others get rich by writing superfluous tributes to how great you rocked n’ rolled.”

The Trouble With Rock Songs About Rock