At one time, everyone in the media-connected world knew the name “John Lennon,” despite the less famous Harrison fading into obscurity as Lennon’s famous death left Paul McCartney reigning as the most successfully published Beatle. Nobody at the time knew December 8th of 1980 would mean John’s death at the hands of an obsessed fan. The Cranberries would later release a harrowing recount of the killer’s cry in the chilling I Just Shot John Lennon. The lyrics detail the incident, but not the context: the Beatles had become superstars out of nothing. Rising from English suburbs to the top of the American charts, they were more than legends to the young commercial rock-and-roll industry; they were idols, gods, and brilliant supernovas. George Harrison is part of the reason why – he famously incorporated sitar music and Hare Krishna awareness into the Beatles’ persona, transforming them from a bubblegum teen pop group into a psychedelic paragon of multicultural musical origins. Amplified by the talent, songwriting, and charisma of the other three, Harrison imbued the Beatles with the flavor of an entirely foreign culture. Just look at how the early mega-hit I Wanna Hold Your Hand swept teen girl admirers off their feet. Here Comes the Sun represents something else: a sound evolved from years of exposure to a new worldview from the east, brought back in the form of spiritual traditions in the curious Harrison.
In the present day, a much newer song comes up on my Spotify queue. A low chorus of deep resounding notes leads into a single note from a groovy reggae guitar, which is modified to resonate like an echoing wave. The resulting sound lingers just long enough to engage the audience before being lost behind the interjecting drumline. If you’re not sure what kind of musical background could produce such a unique sound, have a listen to this track. 311, a group that has been making music for going on 30 years straight, is rooted in a complex combination of rock with elements of reggae, hip-hop, and funk. “Amber,” perhaps their best-known song, showcases these influences in an almost surrealistic way as the audience is submerged in head-swimming riffs and lyrics that evoke a more free-spirited culture.This kind of syncretism is nothing new. Reggae has been popular in rock circles over the past 50 years, with big-name rock artists like Sting and the Police experimenting in the chill, laid-back sound that is synonymous to many with open-mindedness and relaxation (if also with casual cannabis usage). In much the same way, exposure to the culture of India made a notable mark on Led Zeppelin in the 70s, just as visiting Africa would forever alter Paul Simon’s music. It seems that diverse cultural encounters, often sparked by travel and exposure to the unusual or unfamiliar, made their mark on the aspiring young people whose work would be so widely circulated that it became the most popular music of its entire generation.
Is rock the ideal venue for cross-cultural experimentation, such as the above? A strong case could be made just based on the way that rock came to be so popular. As I have discussed before, rock began as a loose collection of other genres that could use the same set of instruments or shared a vaguely similar worldview or structure. The everyday anxieties embodied in world-weary blues could mesh with the free-flowing creativity of jazz and the lyrical expressiveness of black gospel. With the increasing ubiquity of electric guitars and amplifiers, even relatively unrelated areas of music (such as country) began to border on the fledgling genre of rock. After decades of groups cemented rock as both a mainstream pop genre and a place for outlier outcasts, it became increasingly accessible as a way for new artists to add their own personal flair into the mix, so to speak. A genre that itself was a mixture of others in its fetal stage began to open up for even more fusions. Now it’s common to find rock that incorporates almost any genre imaginable, from the rap lyrics of the Beastie Boys to any number of bluesy underground acts. Country, jazz, electronica, and ambient fusions belong to the rock spectrum just as much as punk and metal do. One challenge for artists in the 2010s is one that invites them to rise to new heights of creative license – how to differentiate themselves from their predecessors. On the one hand, there is no telling how many will stir in a host of other genres, particularly as technology continues to inspire countless sounds that have never existed or been readily available for use in songwriting. On the flip side, a large number of the contemporary rock acts I hear submitting their work to the Appetizer are more in line with a familiar mainline style of rock that is associated with testy lyrics and amped-up instrumentation. “If it ain’t broke,” they seem to say, “why make rock music differently?” While I can’t say I prefer either attitude especially, I am very much looking forward to seeing how rock continues to evolve along these syncretic lines while keeping a current of more traditional music alive – and, of course, seeing what newer genres like electronica are able to do with a synergistic attitude.