A critique of Rock School

Ed. note: After seeing this thread about a student’s unhappy experience with a class on rock and roll, I started a discussion with Seamus McGee, who has academic experience of his own in this area. He shared the following thoughts.

I’m curious about the department through which the course is offered, because that would strongly affect the approach. To be honest, most of these complaints seem trivial, but that’s only because I don’t have a sense of the larger methodological approach for the course, and so I don’t know if the complaints are grounded on the kinds of expectations that might be legitimate to have for this kind of class. Assuming it’s some general history of rock class, I don’t think the history of the formation of the Pistols is particularly important, even though it’s more complicated than either the student or professor seem to realize. On the other hand, it would be extremely important in a course taught through a different field, like, say, cultural studies, where most scholarship on punk takes place. I honestly don’t know why you’d want to spend much time on Zappa, though at the same time using Bizarre as your example for indie labels’ move into major label relationships doesn’t seem like a very good choice to me, although again, it depends on why and how you’re discussing that issue (i.e. whether you care about the politics of indie labels, which you usually wouldn’t for this kind of class).

The women of every genre thing isn’t necessarily surprising, and I personally like a little revisionist historiography in that arena, because I’m not sure there is a single movement/genre in rock n roll in which there weren’t important women who often get overlooked (though you can certainly overdo it–no one needs to know about the GTOs, for instance). And I thought everyone knew there was a genre called “women’s music,” and that most of it sucks.

The L.A. punk thing does seem like a problem, though it depends on how far you want to go with punk–in that kind of conversation, hardcore seems more important than 70s L.A. punk, but I don’t know how the class is structured. The claim that L.A. metal bands were heavily influenced by punk is sort of inaccurate, and makes it seem like the course skips glam altogether, which is a big problem.

Lack of familiarity with Lester Bangs is a crime, and teaching American punk without referring to him is grounds for being fired.

Ultimately, the concept of a general history of rock class isn’t something I care for. There’s just too much–we did screenings last year in a room right after a similar class, and it was always interesting to look at the notes the professor had left on the board. Steely Dan, Yes, Pink Floyd, and Fleetwood Mac seemed to show up a lot, though Wire made an appearance. I wonder if this course dealt at all with 70s bloat bands, art rock, or stuff like Journey, or disco, all of which _should_ be included in such a class. People tend to leave them out ’cause everybody wants to talk about punk, but then you get a really skewed image of the social/cultural history of rock and roll. Hell, even using the term “rock and roll” is a problem, unless the course stops at 1964.

You see a similar problem in film studies survey courses, where an intro to Hollywood course teaches Citizen Kane, Double Indemnity, and Vertigo, but leaves out stuff that was actually really popular, like Andy Hardy movies or Hope/Crosby road movies. Sure, I like Double Indemnity a lot more than Road to Morocco, but the latter is more important in thinking about the history of Hollywood and its spectatorship, even if Double Indemnity is stylistically influential. Basically, the question of whether to teach some received canon that has been assembled based on some set of aesthetic criteria, or to teach kids that people loved the shit out of Herman’s Hermits, even though everyone now thinks they suck, is a crucial one that most people (unfortunately, in my view) answer by selecting the canon. A much better choice, I think, is to write/tell this history more reflexively, to delve into how a certain notion of “rock” or “rock and roll” got/gets constructed in the first place, and why the specific artists/songs being taught in the class made it on to the syllabus in the first place.