Gene Simmons: “Rock Is Finally Dead”
The Parable of the Madman from The Gay Science might seem a strange partner for a Gene Simmons interview, but the latter made me think of the former. Of course, both of them deal with moments of cultural transition, the sorts of things about which historians argue and philosophers speculate and interview subjects pontificate. But beyond that, both bring a striking metaphor, murder to be precise, to bear on phenomena that, in the way I normally think of things, aren’t vulnerable to murder. And in both cases, I’m not sure what I should make of the metaphor, whether I should scoff along with the crowds or begin to write my dirge for the murdered. Either way I don’t come out liking Gene Simmons any more than I did before I read the interview. (A hint for the reader: that wasn’t much.)
A Culture Killed
If you’ve not listened to our podcast episode on the clause “God Is Dead,” you should, but I don’t want to make you listen to it before you finish this post, so I’ll provide the beginning of the text of the rightly-famous parable:
Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!”—As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?—Thus they yelled and laughed.
The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.
I found the Simmons interview fascinating because, unlike the madman in Nietzsche’s parable, who acknowledges his own part in things, Simmons seems to be saying that Rock is dead, and you have killed him–you but not I. For Simmons, file-sharing software–and Napster serves as the synechdoche for a whole array of software–is the culprit in this murder case. The verdict is simple and not examined for too long.
One needn’t look beyond those programs to see what killed rock ‘n roll. It’s not the evolution of arena-rock, which funneled people who might have been in small clubs paying to see a larger number of bands into football stadiums, where everyone pays to see the same band. It’s not the record industry, which replaced “live entertainment” (which used to be simply “entertainment”), which required each location to have its own band, with privately-accessible simulacra of musical performances listened to over headphones in isolation or, if in groups, via reproductions of performances rather than performances. And certainly it’s not the cult of the international rock superstar, which gave singers license to be sexual predators for a few decades, casting them beyond the reach of the larger culture’s structures of accountability and become embarrassingly wealthy because of it, alienating the masses even as the masses can’t get enough of their guitar gods. Nope, I’m pretty sure it all died with the advent of Napster.
Now I’ll go ahead and say here that not one of Gene Simmons’s responses surprises me. Breadth of historical vision is not what makes someone the front-man of KISS, and the ability to acknowledge one’s own contribution to bad things in the world is not a curse I’ve ever seen Simmons burdened with. But I do want to note here that Simmons laments that the kids learning to play guitar now will never be as big as Gene Simmons, and he blames Napster and other file-sharing services for that fact.
I wonder, though whether Gene Simmons laments, or has ever lamented, the folks of his own generation who never became KISS.
After all, he seems quite concerned with the kid who’s fifteen now, plugging his guitar into an amp, who will not have the structure of the mid-twentieth-century music industry to propel his dreams. But on the other hand, he seems unaware that kids in 1967 had just as little chance of making it in rock music, in those “iconic” times, as they do now. To make a living playing rock music was still about as rare as making it in the NBA or onto the faculty of Harvard Medical School. Many tried, few succeeded, and the rest of the folks moved on. And what might be even more important, the rise of radio and television, and the subsequent ascendancy of institutions like Billboard‘s charts and ESPN, likely caused many more aspiring musicians and actors and athletes to quit doing what they do than Napster ever did.
To put things another way, if you read Gene Simmons in the interview, you might get the impression that, at one point, many became “iconic” for recording music, then file-sharing come along, now almost nobody does. The reality, as I understand it, is that the existence of the “iconic,” on a national scale, itself reduced the number of people actually producing entertainment, shifting the media ecostem towards passive consumers instead. Or, to put it one more way, in Simmons’s golden age of the sixties and seventies, most of the English-speaking world remained among those who bought records with their day-job paychecks, and now relatively fewer, but not much more minuscule a sliver of society, can do that.
In other words, for most of us, no big loss.
As far as I can tell, Capitalism has been limiting the ability of rock fans to become rock stars since the beginning. Those who pull the strings in whatever business model dominates (the record labels that Simmons lionizes as well as Apple and Amazon, the new dominant distribution channels for recorded music) know that people will buy the dream of stardom from whoever sells it, that there’s no money in making that democratic. What Simmons holds up as the system that gave him the chance to be the face of KISS is the same system that only thrives if there aren’t too many creative-types getting big and thus diluting the market.
What I wonder is whether the proliferation of production software and distribution vehicles that came along with Napster, towards the turn of the millennium, might actually be the signs of a time to come that returns the Capitalist world to something more like life before arena rock, when bigger isn’t better any more and when “iconic” is something for which the youngsters mock their grandparents’ nostalgia. My hunch, though it’s destined to remain a hunch, is that, a hundred years or so from now, there will be as much lamentation for the rock stars of the nineteen-seventies as there are now for the really grand Vaudeville personalities put out of work by the rise of radio and television. Perhaps there will be graduate students presenting papers on why there was no Gene Simmons in the mid-twenty-first-century, but there won’t be a great sense of cultural loss because of such things.
Living the Funeral of Rock
Now that doesn’t mean I won’t get nostalgic; after all, as I pass from my current middle-age into the ranks of the grumpy old men (right now I’m just a grumpy man, thank you), I’ll be among those who remember being able to talk about a half dozen bands with anyone from the English-speaking world, knowing that folks from Texas and New York and Scotland would all have a basic notion of who the Beatles and the Stones are and why the fan-base tensions between the two are important. I’ll remember my friends’ stories from big rock concerts (I don’t go to many, because I don’t like big crowds), the buzz that arose when a big show came to Atlanta or Indianapolis. I’ll still remember watching music videos on MTV rather than on YouTube, for pity’s sake!
With all that, I think that this lament of the “murder of rock” sheds some light on Nietzsche’s parable. To be sure, the Church had a longer shelf life than the rock star seems destined to have, but the sociological weight of one “murder” sheds light on the other. Even Gene Simmons isn’t dumb enough to think that nobody will own guitars, play live shows at birthday parties, and perhaps even spawn university graduate programs in rock-and-roll composition-and-performance. And certainly Nietzsche wasn’t dumb enough to think that there wouldn’t be any Christians after he died. But both were noting a different sort of passing, a move from a world dominated by one sort of public event into a future in which the public was going to take on a very different cast. Generations later, there still might be Christians, and generations later, there still might be rockers, but they’ll be of a different sort, a remnant that holds on, remembering and repeating what they hold to be a better way to be human. The world will change, and so will the Christians and the rockers, and the interesting intersections will happen precisely where the followers of the old traditions articulate and live new ways to do so.
And like Nietzsche’s parable, Simmons’s interview makes me realize just how interesting and just how futile speculating about such a future can be. Who knew, after all, that the decline of state Christianity in Europe would give way to the Anglican and the Pentecostal expansion of Christianity in the Global South? That Christianity would rocket out of the tent revivals of Nietzsche’s day in North America and end up becoming megachurches? That the technologies as yet unimagined by Nietzsche would create the conditions in which something like our little Internet project would be intelligible? My hunch is that, just as Vaudeville gave way to big-venue concert tours and club-based standup comedy, that rock itself has already provided the seeds for whatever comes next.
The cool part, if you dig watching cultural trends as I do, will be to see where they sprout up.