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Art rock

Parent categories: art music - rock music

Related: avant-garde music - experimental music - KrautRock - progressive rock

Bands: Beatles - Brian Eno - Frank Zappa - Pink Floyd - Sonic Youth - Talking Heads - Velvet Underground

Though technically one might think of art rock as the antithesis of punk's straightforwardness, most well respected art rock bands of the last 30 years made music influenced by the punk ethic, if not the sound, in some regard. In fact, the webs of connections are so twisted that progressive rockers King Crimson and art-punks Talking Heads actually converged on very similar styles of music in the 1980s, even sharing the same guitarist (Adrian Belew). [Jan 2006]


Art rock is a sub-genre of rock music that is characterized by ambitious lyrical themes and melodic or rhythmic experimentation, often extending beyond standard pop song forms and toward influences in jazz, classical, or the avant-garde. The art rock designation is a vague one since few of today's rock and pop artists openly aspire to the title.

Taken subjectively, art rock is a term that can encompass just about any style within the rock n' roll umbrella. To name just a few: Brian Eno's ambient music; the avant-garde experimental proto-punk of the Velvet Underground while John Cale was present in the lineup; the electronica and musique concrete of German "Krautrock" bands like Can (band) and Neu!; Peter Gabriel's world music-influenced pop; Tool's textured heavy metal; Joni Mitchell's jazz-infused folk rock; and the sonic experimentation and/or abrasive noise common to many of the so-called "post punk," "indie," and "alternative rock" bands of the past 25 years. Radiohead, for example, is often known as an "alternative rock" band because it arose in the wake of the 1991 grunge explosion, but Radiohead's influences range far beyond those of most bands one hears on alternative rock radio stations, and with acclaimed albums like OK Computer and Kid A they have become by far the most popular current act to embrace the art rock aesthetic. Around 2004, the phrase "art rock" has been popularly used to describe a movement of bands influenced by the 1970s/1980s work of artists such as David Bowie and Brian Eno, such as Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene and Wolf Parade.

Critics and fans sometimes use the term "art rock" to make a cultural statement about the state of popular music. Artists whose sound is based in the rock and pop forms first established in the 1960s -- even those who clearly transcend these forms -- are still viewed by some members of the elite, particularly classical or jazz critics, as mere peddlers of product, and thus 'low art'. Identifying certain popular music as 'art rock' makes a claim both for the integrity of the specified work or artist and for the serious artistic potential of rock and pop music in general.

Art rock did reach its commercial height with the popularity of the aforementioned "progressive rock" bands, such as King Crimson, Yes, and especially Pink Floyd, whose mix of jazz and blues influences, smooth psychedelic soundscapes, and anti-establishment lyrics proved to be just as influential and commercially viable as any "mainstream" music. After the punk revolution of the late '70s put simplicity back in style, and as openly philosophical bands like Pink Floyd drifted toward the mainstream with hit singles and more commercial productions, their "art rock" designation fell away, and a new breed of artists with influences in noisy punk and minimalist electronic music took their place on the cutting edge of "art rock."

Though technically one might think of art rock as the antithesis of punk's straightforwardness, most well respected art rock bands of the last 30 years made music influenced by the punk ethic, if not the sound, in some regard. In fact, the webs of connections are so twisted that progressive rockers King Crimson and art-punks Talking Heads actually converged on very similar styles of music in the 1980s, even sharing the same guitarist (Adrian Belew).

Both groups are considered by many to be Art Rock, as the term refers to an aesthtic rather than a specific style . The Cure began as a loud, raw punk band, had a series of electronic romantic pop hits, and now gets played on alternative rock stations, but throughout it all held to an atmospheric, edgy style that cannot be put into a single bracket. Sonic Youth began as a wildly experimental venture, influenced by the noisiest fringes of punk and the classical avant-garde especially the guitar works of Glenn Branca; by the late 1980s, their music was accessible enough to influence a new generation of alt rock and grunge bands, like Nirvana. The Police began as a reggae band, incorporated punk's energy and jazzy drumming, then adopting softer world music textures, and now their hits are played on classic rock or adult contemporary stations. All three of these bands, and many more, are luminaries of art rock, in their own wildly divergent ways.

Though each generation of artists spawns its own set of quickly abandoned labels-- prog, new wave, grunge, alternative-- perhaps in this age of low expectations and cookie cutter radio playlists, "art rock" is the only term that can accurately hint at the variety of influences and unbridled creativity that the most unique bands of any genre aspire to.

The use of art in art rock should not be confused with its use in art music, which generally connotes classical music, not "arty" popular music. However, it must be noted that late 20th-century "classical" composers such as John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Philip Glass, with their interest in rhythm, repetition, and texture, have come ever closer to bridging the gap with popular music. The only remaining line between art rock and avant-garde classical is a vague one: avant-garde, like other classical music, is still usually composed and written down so that it can be played in concert by various performers, while in art rock, like any other modern pop music, the music is not written down because the primary medium is the original recording, and subsequent live performances are usually done by the songwriters/composers themselves. But even here the line is blurred, since many of these same avant-garde "classical" composer have relied on recorded sound and tape loop manipulation just as much as any art rock band. At the same time, rock artists like Frank Zappa have composed well respected works of avant-garde classical music. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_rock [Jan 2006]

Rock as Art

by Camille Paglia
Originally printed in the New York Times , April 16, 1992.

Rock is eating its young. Rock musicians are America's most wasted natural resource.

Popular music and film are the two great art forms of the twentieth century. In the past twenty-five years, cinema has gained academic prestige. Film courses are now a standard part of the college curriculum and grants are routinely available to noncommercial directors.

But rock music has yet to win the respect it deserves as the authentic voice of our time. Where rock goes, democracy follows. The dark poetry and surging Dionysian rhythms of rock have transformed the consciousness and permanently altered the sensoriums of two generations of Americans born after World War Two.

Rock music should not be left to the Darwinian laws of the marketplace. This natively American art form deserves national support. Foundations, corporations and Federal and state agencies that award grants in the arts should take rock musicians as seriously as composers and sculptors. Colleges and universities should designate special scholarships for Wented rock musicians. Performers who have made fortunes out of rock are ethically obligated to finance such scholarships or to underwrite independent agencies to support needy musicians.

In rock, Romanticism still flourishes, All the Romantic archetypes of energy, passion, rebellion and demonism are still evident in the brawling, boozing bad boys of rock, storming from city to city on their lusty, groupie-dogged trail.

But the Romantic outlaw must have something to rebel against. The pioneers of rock were freaks, dreamers and malcontents who drew their lyricism and emotional power from the gritty rural traditions of white folk music and African-American blues.

Rock is a victim of its own success. What once signified rebellion is now only a high-school affectation. White suburban youth, rock's main audience, is trapped in creature comforts. Everything comes to them secondhand, through TV. And they no longer have direct contact with folk music and blues, the oral repository of centuries of love, hate, suffering and redemption.

In the Sixties, rock became the dominant musical form in America. And with the shift from singles to albums, which al- lowed for the marketing of personalities, it also became big business. The gilded formula froze into place. Today, scouts beat the bushes for young talent, squeeze a quick album out of the band, and put them on the road. "New" material is stressed. Albums featuring cover tunes of classics, as in the early Rolling Stones records, are discouraged.

From the moment the Beatles could not hear themselves sing over the shrieking at Shea Stadium in the mid-Sixties, the rock concert format has become progressively less conducive to music-making. The enormous expense of huge sound systems and grandiose special effects has left no room for individualism and improvisation, no opportunity for the performers to respond to a particular audience or to their own moods. The show, with its army of technicians, is as fixed and rehearsed as the Ziegfeld Follies. Furthermore, the concert experience has degenerated. The focus has switched from the performance to raucous partying in the audience.

These days, rock musicians are set upon by vulture managers, who sanitize and repackage them and strip them of their unruly free will. Like sports stars, musicians are milked to the max, then dropped and cast aside when their first album doesn't sell.

Managers offer all the temptations of Mammon to young rock bands: wealth, fame, and easy sex. There is not a single public voice in the culture to say to the musician: You are an artist, not a money machine. Don't sign the contract. Don't tour. Record only when you are ready. Go off on your own, like Jimi Hendrix, and live with your guitar until it becomes part of your body.

How should an artist he trained? Many English rock musicians in the Sixties and early Seventies, including John Lennon and Keith Richards, emerged from art schools. We must tell the young musician: Your peers are other artists, past and future. Don't become a slave to the audience, with its smug hedonism, short attention span and hunger for hits.

Artists should immerse themselves in art. Two decades ago, rock musicians read poetry, studied Hinduism, and drew psychedelic visions in watercolors. For rock to move forward as an art form, our musicians must be given the opportunity for spiritual development. They should be encouraged to read, to look at paintings and foreign films, to listen to jazz and classical music.

Artists with a strong sense of vocation can survive life's disasters and triumphs with their inner lives intact. Our musicians need to be rescued from the carpetbaggers and gold-diggers who attack them when they are young and naive. Long, productive careers don't happen by chance.

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