From jailhouse to suburban rock: music once had the ability to appal and shock. Now the most radical symbol worn by fans on the streets is the iPod. As rock'n'roll reaches its 50th birthday, it has become unbearably middle-of-the-road, writes Sarfraz Manzoor
Fifty years ago, a 19-year-old truck driver walked into a Memphis recording studio and changed the world. There are, inevitably, furious arguments over the precise details of where and when rock'n'roll was born. While some maintain that the date was 5 July 1954, with the recording of "That's All Right", there is an equally persuasive argument that it was 19 July 1954, when the song was released on Sun Records as the first single from Elvis Presley. The anniversary has been marked as a musical milestone. What has been less remarked upon is the arrival of rock'n'roll as a cultural phenomenon: revolutionary and dangerous.
Only three months before Elvis made his landmark recording, the United States Supreme Court had outlawed segregation in schools, in a ruling that provided the legal foundation of the civil rights movement. By borrowing--or stealing--the black sound of rhythm and blues, and adding his own distinct sexual energy, Elvis turned whites on to the feared "Negro sound", unleashing a cultural earthquake that shocked the older generation even as it delighted the newly invented teenagers.
Suddenly, even Frank Sinatra was not cool any more. He famously attacked rock'n'roll: "It is sung, played and written for the most part by cretinous goons, and by means of its almost imbecilic reiteration and sly, lewd, in plain fact, dirty, lyrics ... it manages to be the martial music of every side-burned delinquent on the face of the earth." Sinatra didn't get it. Rock 'n'roll was not just the sound of drums and guitars; it was the sound of youth and freedom, subversion and self-expression.
As it celebrates its 50th year, rock music is enjoying something of a revival. Having ceded the past decade to electronic dance music, guitar bands such as the Strokes, the White Stripes and the Killers are now in fashion. And concert tours by rock's original greats such as the Rolling Stones, the Who and Bruce Springsteen continue to attract millions.
No one can reasonably expect the Stones or the Who to shock as they did 40 years ago. What is more disappointing is how many of today's bands lack the ambitions that made rock music so glorious. Guitar music may be back in vogue, but the bands making it are not even pretending to be dangerous. While they have borrowed the chord progressions, they have discarded the attitude. Consequently, much of today's rock music is worse than a pale imitation of what went before; it is something akin to musical necrophilia.
There is nothing remotely dangerous or subversive about modern bands. Once rock'n'roll channelled generational conflict: it appalled parents, who feared their children were being corrupted. But music no longer splits generations. The new bands are enjoyed by parents and children alike. Teenagers find that, rather than outraging their parents, they are borrowing their albums. Indeed, the middle-aged buy more albums than any other age group and therefore influence which bands are given exposure. All that might be good for generational harmony, but it's hardly the spirit of rock'n'roll.
Even the notion that music could be subversive now sounds outdated. In the Sixties, there was the protest folk of Bob Dylan; in the Seventies, there was the punk of the Sex Pistols; more recently, there was the nihilistic grunge of Nirvana. In each case, the music was denounced by those who didn't understand it; it had its own iconography--from safety pins to trainers--and it was feared by the mainstream. The most recent genre to appal and shock was hip-hop. But hip-hop has been absorbed into the mainstream, and is now about as dangerous as Peter Andre. Even Eminem has become more of a pantomime act than a genuinely subversive artist.
Fifty years ago, Elvis could be filmed only from the waist up because he was considered so sexually potent; 25 years ago, the Sex Pistols outraged Britain by swearing on national television. The biggest song of this year so far is a profanity-strewn rap song called "Fuck It (I Don't Want You Back)" by Eamon. The idea of the mainstream fearing anything seems ridiculous.
That is not to say there is not good, even great, music being made today. What separates contemporary music from that of previous decades is not quality but meaning: the notion that music could be a revolutionary and revelatory experience belongs to another world. The idea that music is more than entertainment, more than something to be turned into a polyphonic ringtone, seems hopelessly naive.
Paul Simon sang that "every generation throws a hero up the pop charts", but music does not seem to occupy the same space in the hearts and minds of today's listeners as it did for those who grew up with Simon and Garfunkel.
And so, in this golden anniversary month, it is tempting to ask what has happened to the original impulses of rock'n'roll--those notions of freedom and awkwardness, of pissing people off and expressing yourself, that have been the motivation for so much great music in the past. It is hard not to conclude that despite (or maybe because of) the dozens of television channels and radio stations, music in general, and rock'n'roll in particular, means less than at any time since Elvis Presley launched his cultural revolution.
Music is now just another form of entertainment and distraction alongside computer games and DVD box sets. We expect less and we are not disappointed. It is telling that, in the month of rock'n'roll's 50th birthday, Radio I has announced that its singles charts will begin to take account of tracks that have been downloaded by computer. It is evident that the most radical development in music in the past few years is not from a group but the emergence of Apple's iPod.
As for subversion and anger, things that shock and shake the establishment, it seems far better to visit the cinema and see documentary films such as The Corporation and Fahrenheit 9/11. He might not look it with his baggy jeans, shabby baseball cap and bulky frame, but it is just possible that the most rock'n'roll person on the planet, the man who best embodies the spirit of what Elvis unleashed, is Michael Moore.