The term ‘classic’ in reference to deodorant means something completely different compared to its use when talking about cars or iPods*. And when it comes to rock music, at first the term seems uniquely inconsistent.
Popular music from the seventies of the sort found on LP records is termed classic. But then, so is music from the 90’s, particularly if originated in Seattle. Classic rock is a bit of an ill-defined, oddball collection.
“It’s classic,” the listener may say, meaning one or more of any number of things. It features electric guitars, chords of a certain style, perhaps a period electric organ, definitely big drums. There’s a singer — usually a man — singing at the extremes of his range or ability. Lyrics rarely make any sense, and may well feature vague references to works of history or fantasy. Or they refer more or less directly to prior art, reworking blues pieces originally performed in in a very different time and place.
It may verge on the orchestral, with lush themes carried by synthesized strings and dramatic percussion. It could even veer into jazz, just a little, when harmonies get more complex and time signatures start to use odd numbers. Hard in some cases to distinguish influence from pretension, but it can still be called classic rock even if the album only had one track each side. A key characteristic is that music from other genres can be regarded as classic rock, but less so vice-versa. If you’re progressive rock, for example, you can check into classic rock but you can never leave.
There are radio stations that profess to be characterized by ‘classic rock’ that may play a selection of any and all of this stuff in order to snag a ready-made audience, but the narrowness of their playlists inevitably disappoints those classic rock afficianados looking for a more inclusive experience. Those listeners are as quick to say ‘Why don’t they play x” as they are “Y is definitely not classic rock”. So the State of classic rock, democratic at its core, is also beset by debate as to its rightful constituents.
After thinking about this for a good while — years, in fact — and listening to a fair amount of music, I’ve come to the conclusion that the reason for the controversy or at least the uncertainty around classic rock is that it refers not so much to a body of music, as it does to the experience of a body of listeners.
As with all pop music, the period during which people listen to classic rock is very important, as is the period in which it was produced and with which it remains associated. Pop music in general jives or does not with whatever is going on at the time, and we classify it according to features that connect or contrast with elements of a certain lifestyle. And before listeners can make a definitive judgement on what is and what isn’t classic rock, they have to have developed an appreciation for the collection of features that comprise the lifestyle associated with it.
So in the 90’s and early 2000’s teenagers listened to music from the 70’s — what we might call classic rock — because it looked, walked, and talked a lot on terms they understood or could identify with.
Classic rock isn’t so much a thing as an experience, something listeners can rally around regardless of when or why it was produced. New music that fits with that experience slips easily into the classic rock genre, and as such the genre is dynamic and defies any sort of categorization by artist, age, or even style. Eclectic like a 70’s mixtape.
*It was jazz that Frank Zappa said smelt funny.