Chuck Klosterman asks the wrong question, but comes up with the right answer

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Image from thebits.hu.

Chuck Klosterman wants to know: Who do you love, if you’re living 300 years in the future?

I imagine a college classroom in 300 years, in which a hip instructor is leading a tutorial filled with students. These students relate to rock music with no more fluency than they do the music of Mesopotamia. … (The professor) shows the class a photo, or perhaps a hologram, of an artist who has been intentionally selected to epitomize the entire concept. For these future students, that singular image defines what rock was.

So what’s the image?

Klosterman goes through a number of candidates — the Beatles, Elvis, Dylan, the Rolling Stones — before concluding that Chuck Berry will sum everything up.

Which is exactly what I thought as I began the article. I mean, what other rock ‘n’ roller has a song embedded in an interstellar probe? What other songwriter took the everyday stuff of mid-century America — hamburgers, cars, school days and record hops — and turned them into poetry? Who else has a bedrock riff named for him?

So, though Little Richard might disagree, it had to be Berry.

But I think Klosterman’s premise is wrong. It’s not so much that rock will be insignificant in 2316 — it almost certainly will be. It’s that it will have to be reduced to one person, even for an intro class of teenagers whose knowledge may barely go beyond the Top 10 electronic blurps of 2315.

Klosterman uses John Philip Sousa and marches as an example of a once-popular genre symbolized by one man. But I think of rock as part of the pop music continuum, and with a much broader range than the march. We don’t think of “classical music” as one person — even musical neophytes recognize the names Bach, Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, not to mention Brahms, Wagner and probably Tchaikovsky. Part of Klosterman’s point is that such music will exist only as an intellectual pursuit in centuries to come, but you can probably say the same about what’s broadly called classical now and still know more than one name.

“Rock” — in the hardcore, presumably “Smoke on the Water”/”Louie Louie” way Klosterman is suggesting — may not be that broad, but it’s certainly not as narrow as a military-inflected brass section in 4/4 time.

There’s one point I do wonder about, though. Klosterman talked to jazz writer Ted Gioia, who says — and I’m paraphrasing, and probably misconstruing — that as music becomes canon, the critics and historians dictate what’s important, and therefore what’s remembered. (Gioia’s reference: Ben Selvin outsold Louis Armstrong in the 1920s. Who listens to Ben Selvin anymore? Or even recognizes the name?) Similarly, Klosterman says, for decades the Sex Pistols’ “Never Mind the Bullocks” has outranked “Saturday Night Fever” among critics, though the latter was one of the biggest albums of the ’70s.

Now, you can argue that the Sex Pistols have been far more influential than the Bee Gees, just as, say, “The Velvet Underground and Nico” was far more influential than “More of the Monkees,” the top-selling album of 1967. (And please do argue, pitting “Heroin” against “I’m a Believer.” I’ll wait.)

But, as Klosterman says, it’ll be interesting to see what is remembered centuries hence. After all, among the best-selling writers of the early 20th century were Winston Churchill (not the British prime minister), Booth Tarkington and Fannie Hurst. Maybe people still pick up “The Magnificent Ambersons,” but the rest of their work, for the masses, has vanished into the ether in favor of Dreiser and Wharton.

Fortunately, even if humans don’t remember rock in 300 years at all, Chuck Berry will be out in space for an eternity, spreading the good word. As an old “Saturday Night Live” sketch noted, extraterrestrials had one request when they heard the Voyager record: “Send more Chuck Berry.”

Johnny B. Goode tonight, indeed.

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