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Jewish World Review Sept. 18, 2003 / 21 Elul 5763

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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Rock music appeals to fans' yearnings for mindlessness | The room was rockin'. Guitars wailed, drums flailed, raucous-raspy voices shouted out exploded lyrics, bodies shook. And I wondered why.

I was born before rock 'n' roll existed. The late pioneer rock producer Sam Phillips, legendary owner of Sun Records, thought the phenomenon started with "Rocket 88," a souped-up 1951 rhythm and blues car song that Ike Turner wrote. Phillips called it "the first rock and roll song."

Whether other rock historians agree is really beside my point here, which is that rock 'n' roll is a relatively new creation in human culture, one that really came into its own as I was entering my teenage years. So you'd think that by now I'd have a better fix on why this driving, sensual music has such wide appeal, especially to younger ears.

But I don't. I have only theories, many of which were jangling around in my head recently as I attended a concert in Lawrence by Andrew W.K., a popular band that encourages fans to join it on stage and sing (OK, scream) and dance (OK, undulate). Often, Andrew himself can't even been seen in the crowd.

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The Web site, full of impenetrable prose presumably written by Andrew, tries to explain the W.K. part of the name this way: "The letter 'W' was, is and always will be the world of strength and unity - the shape of 2 arms locked in unyeilding (sic) power. ... The letter 'K' was, is and always will be the consumption of the universe. The contious (sic) symbol of greater than, less than, always level."

Rock 'n' rollers tend to rock better than they spell. To my ancient ears, most hard rock music is merely noise. And I'm probably not alone in that view. One of my stepsons bought me a ticket for the Andrew W.K. concert. Halfway through the performance, one of his college-age friends, watching all the singing and dancing and leaping from the stage, came over to me and confided, "This is just an excuse to act stupid."

Well, maybe. But that explanation simply cannot explain rock 'n' roll's staying power. Admittedly, 50 or so years in the long arc of human history is a mere blink, but the rock phenomenon is international and shows no signs of abating.

So again, the question is why.

There are conventional and historical answers: Rock protests the status quo. It simply evolved naturally out of other musical forms. As such, it was almost inevitable. It meets a deep need for physical release. It resonates with some core rhythm in our souls, saying things to us in right-brained ways similar to the way modern or abstract art does and that more traditional music and art do not. It has proven itself to be an economic powerhouse. It celebrates when so much in our culture denigrates. (This answer, however, ignores the tendency of rock and rap to denigrate much of what they pretend to celebrate.)

Although I've already said that much of hard rock sounds like noise to me, I don't want to suggest that all rock lacks musical sophistication. I recall the first time I heard the Beatles' album "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" in the late 1960s. Although my musical training is terribly modest, I recognized immediately that these rockers were breaking important new ground and possibly even making a lasting contribution to composition.

So there's rock and there's rock. But why do so many people find rock so appealing? Why do they spend so much money to buy recordings and tickets for live performances? Why do they abandon so much inhibition when the beat starts?

My current theory: Part of the reason is that when the music fills their heads, there is no room for much of anything else. The music relieves them of the responsibility to think, to discern, to recognize nuances. At its most extreme, rock crowds out almost all other sensory sources and demands undivided attention.

When employed on an occasional basis, rock can provide a vacation for tired craniums. But my guess is that for many dedicated rock fans, the music is an escape from something they've never learned to use well, something that, in the end, frightens them - their brains.

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JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' latest book is "A Gift of Meaning." To order it, please click on title. To comment on his column, please click here.

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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2002. All rights reserved