But is it garbage? The theme of trash in rock and roll criticism

But is it garbage? The theme of trash in rock and roll criticismWe reap what we sow, and if we're filling our kids' heads with this garbage ... what comes out is what you put in.

(1999, "Marilyn Manson Postpones Concerts: Claims Respect for Victims, But Denies Blame." The Repository 29 Apr.)

Millions and millions trashed

The criticism of rock and roll is a well-documented body of work. Upon its appearance in the mid-1950s, this new "teen" music was subjected to attacks from the obvious sources: ministers, politicians, parents, teachers, promoters, and even entertainers (like jazz musicians or Tin Pan Alley songbirds) who felt threatened or disgusted by what they heard. Although rock had become mainstream by the early 1970s, it continued to arouse resistance and to elicit reproach--and continues, indeed, to this day. Anyone wishing to learn more about the backlash against rock and roll can get a crash course by reading Anti-Rock: The Opposition to Rock'n'Roll, a fine study of this theme by Linda Martin and Kerry Segrave published in 1988.

In my approach to the criticism of rock music, I diverge from previous scholarship in three important ways. First, I focus exclusively on the concept of waste--or its synonyms garbage, trash, debris, and so on--and how it pervades rock commentary. Second, I look at the trashing of rock from the inside, not the outside, showing that some of rock's harshest critics function in the rock press. Finally, I explain how the metaphor of trash is volatile and multivalent. That is, in the realm of rock and roll, evidence of garbage, trash, and waste isn't always meant to convey low quality. Implicit in my thesis is the idea that rock music reflects a culture suffocating on its own waste.

Specifically, American civilization (and the West in general) is predicated on an ethos of disposability. The Environmental Protection Agency's figures for 1996 conclude that American "residents, businesses, and institutions produced more than 209 million tons of [municipal solid waste], which is approximately 4.3 pounds of waste per person per day." In 1999, G. W. Dickerson reported that "the average American generates approximately 4.5 pounds of garbage per day for a total of 196 million tons of trash per year, most of which ends up in landfills" (166). From discarded tires (300 million annually) to unsold magazines (40 million tons of paper monthly), and from retired computers (20 million a year) to empty plastic bottles (2.5 million an hour), the catalog of waste in the United States is inconceivably vast. (1)

In her "social history" of trash, Susan Strasser identifies the core of the problem of disposability in the United States:

The new [post-war] consumer culture changed ideas about throwing
things away, creating a way of life that incorporated technological
advances, organizational changes, and new perspectives, a lifestyle
that linked products made for one-time use, municipal trash
collection, and the association of traditional reuse and recycling
with poverty and backwardness. Packaging taught people the
throwaway habit, and new ideals of cleanliness emphasized swift and
complete disposal. Paper cups, towels, and straws in public places,
and Kleenex and commercial toilet paper at home, reinforced that
habit. Nor could the new throwaways serve as fuel in houses with
radiators and gas furnaces; they went in the trash, along with the
lightbulbs. (Strasser 199-200)

Since the 1950s, the "one-way" flow described by Strasser is perpetuated by a consumer ideology where disposability has been presented as a virtue. This flow means that waste products are returned to landfills, toxic dumps, and other treatment centers without nourishing the ecosystem from which the raw materials that led to this waste were extracted in the first place (Strasser 14-15). As we swim in consumer goods, we drown in the trash that the consumption of them necessitates.

In concrete terms, the one-way flow principle relates to rock and roll insofar as this music is inseparable from CDs packaged in wasteful "jewel boxes." (2) In other words, rock is more than just the soundtrack of modern life playing in our heads, more than just an abstraction or pleasant diversion. As plastic objects manufactured and distributed by the millions, rock and roll CDs and their containers are implicated in the process of waste disposal. How many millions? In the year 2000, global sales of full-length CDs surpassed 800 million units; singles totaled about 40 million units ("First-half"). In the last twenty years, billions of CDs have been manufactured. The pleasure derived from rock and roll music can prevent even its greenest fans from gauging the scope of its materiality, thus its disposability, making buyers forget that to acquire CDs is to contribute to a crisis of trash--literally.

Not all the discs that reach warehouses and store shelves are sold. The recording industry must contend with the millions of jewel boxes and CDs that are annually returned to distributors. Billboard reported in 1993 that a fraction of these ended up at a processor in Atlanta, which was taking in 100,000 pounds of scrap discs per month. Today, the industry is engaged in finding "methods of reducing landfill waste from rejected or returned discs and jewel boxes ... at a number of manufacturing facilities" in Europe and the United States (Gillen 12). The recycled remains are used in the production of disc cases, disc trays, and--an item unrelated to music--asphalt.

Given these numbers, it's inevitable that signs of trash should permeate rock lyrics, rock criticism, and the lives of rock musicians. Rock and roll is the dominant art form and thus mirror of a throwaway society. Consistent with this fact, when one listens to rock music, two questions invariably arise: Is it garbage--disposable, bad? Or is it art--durable, good? The answer to each question can be, and often is, "Yes." Whereas logicians might insist on the mutual exclusiveness of such a proposition, students of rock and roll see no fallacy at all.

For instance, at least one professional listener, Frank Zappa, has claimed that the Shaggs are greater than the Beatles; many others have been content simply to applaud this band's greatness. (3) That few people have heard, or heard of, the Shaggs, or that the Shaggs can't sing in tune, can't play in tune (or play at all), can't write a melody, and can't put together records like Rubber Soul or A Hard Day's Night doesn't necessarily render the judgment that the Shaggs are greater than the Beatles, untenable, or perverse. A leading expert on "outsider music," Irwin Chuswid, suggests that the Shaggs are marvelous despite and because of the "[h]acked-at chords, missed downbeats, out-of-socket transitions, blown accents, and accidental convergences" (1-2) immortalized on Philosophy of the World. The Shaggs are fantastically good at being spellbindingly bad, and their one album places them apart from their peers. The Shaggs exemplify garbage as art. And, like the Beatles, the Shaggs are incomparable.

What makes the Beatles/Shaggs comparison possible is that the vitality of rock and roll, which vacillates between silliness and gravity, ribaldry and innocence, and anguish and effervescence, pivots on the push-pull forces of disposability and durability. The best rock simultaneously represents a synthesis of, and a tension between, evanescent junk and lasting beauty. The worst rock is just garbage.

Another case in point: that Jimmy Guterman and Owen O'Donnell rate Billy Joel "the worst rock and roller of all time" (249) doesn't alter the fact that Joel's multiplatinum sales have secured him a spot in the stratosphere of rock and roll (some would say "pop") superstars and that many of his songs are irresistibly hummable and thought-provoking. In other words, that the works of Billy Joel, a piano virtuoso and a master of songwriting with three greatest hits albums under his belt, strike some listeners as garbage may partially explain why The Stranger and Joel's other albums are addictive to the millions of other people who view him as a demigod, and as such gobble up his records and concert tickets. One could argue the not original idea that this over-the-top performer inspires such immense popularity precisely because he's so good at being bad and that the masses cannot now nor ever have been able to tell the difference between quality and trash. Rather than belaboring this platitude and the related point that esthetic absolutes don't and never did exist, I wish to shift the focus away from subjectivity as an end unto itself in order to study the trope of garbage, waste, junk, and trash vis-a-vis the meaning, content, and quality of rock music. Doing this will teach us that the concept of trash in rock music is equally capable of undermining and reaffirming conventional ideas of excellence or inferiority.