James Brown is Dead Michael Dunaway Essay

person_pin James Brown is Dead

by Michael Dunaway

Published in Issue No. 20 ~ January, 1999

I don’t care what people say
Rock and roll is here to stay
– Sha Na Na, 1956
James Brown is dead
– LA Style, 1992

Way back in the seemingly prehistoric year of 1992, a minor early techno “band” with the unfortunate name of L.A. Style recorded an eminently danceable tune bearing the name (and the message) “James Brown is Dead.” While most of the party boys and girls getting down late night in the clubs cared only that the beat was good and that the lyric had a suitably vague, detached, cynical feel, those words stood as a kind of manifesto for many on the vanguard of the burgeoning techno scene – namely that rock and roll has had its day, but now we’re taking over. Techno is the wave of the future; rock and roll is a museum piece. James Brown is dead.

Now, a mere six years later, what sounded then like charmingly ambitious bravado is beginning to look more and more like prophecy. In the ’90s, the creativity, the brashness – really, the greatness – in music has come not from rock and roll but from two upstarts: techno and hip-hop. Go ahead and name the top ten artists of the ’90s. Be honest; don’t choose only your favorites, but the bands you think qualify as truly great. How many are rock and roll artists? Public Enemy? Hip-hop. Prodigy? Techno. Beck? Hip-hop (especially when you look at the underlying structure of his music). Radiohead? Okay, I’ll give you one. One.

Let me approach from another angle. Look at the number of truly great rock and roll artists that emerged in the ’50s. Let’s put together a basketball team. James Brown. Chuck Berry. Elvis Presley. Roy Orbison. Buddy Holly. That’s a pretty formidable starting five, and the bench strength – Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash – is darned impressive as well. Okay, how about the ’60s? Bob Dylan. The Beatles. The Rolling Stones. Jimi Hendrix. Eric Clapton. On the bench – Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, The Beach Boys. You could argue all day about whether this team is a step up or down from the ’50s, but at the very least it’s a worthy competitor.

Now move on to the much-maligned ’70s. Let’s go with Neil Young, The Sex Pistols, David Bowie, Talking Heads, and Led Zeppelin, with a bench that includes The Velvet Underground, Paul Simon (c’mon, he’s a ’70s man…an utterly different artist apart from Arty), and Bruce Springsteen. Probably somewhat of a step down, but definitely in the same league. And the ’80s? I’ll go with a starting lineup of Prince, The Police, U2, REM, and Elvis Costello, with a bench of Tom Petty, Peter Gabriel, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and I won’t feel I have to hang my head.

But now let’s move on to the ’90s.

Is the silence deafening yet?

Radiohead is a good start, I suppose. Nirvana I have problems with, but I’ll give them to you to make things simpler. Anyone else? Anyone? I’m sorry, but I draw the line at Marilyn Manson, a ’90s version of Kiss, but without the talent (or sense of fun). If you’re claiming Marilyn Manson, I’d respectfully suggest that I’ll scribble QED at the bottom of your list and call it a day. But since we have to have five players, let’s say, for the sake of argument, Radiohead, Nirvana, Lenny Kravitz, Pearl Jam, and Nine Inch Nails. On the bench, let’s put – well – let’s go with Dave Matthews, Soundgarden, and Garbage.

Now step back and take a good, long, honest look. No matter how much you like some of these bands (and believe me, I really like Radiohead, NIN, and Lenny), it’s hard to keep a straight face and say they stand up to James Brown and Elvis, or to Dylan and the Beatles, or even to Prince and Elvis Costello. Put another way, in 200 years, I have no doubt people will still listen to, and study, “Johnny B. Goode,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” and “Watching the Detectives.” Can you really say the same for “Smells Like Teen Spirit”?

I realize that by this point many of you are pounding the tables and screaming various objections at your computer screen, so I’ll address some possible arguments against my case:

1. How can you choose X and leave out Y? My point lies not in the specific artists listed for each decade (except possibly for the ’90s), but in overall trend. Quibbles like these may be an interesting sideline, but they don’t address the issue at hand.

2. We can’t know which artists are truly great until time gives us a better perspective. True to some extent, but not enough to damage the hypothesis. This is 1999. Did we know in 1989 that U2 and The Police had the requisite greatness to make the list? Of course we did. Ditto 1979 for Neil Young and Paul Simon, and on down the line. The relative fortunes of some artists will rise and fall over time, but we’re certainly far enough into the decade to take inventory and make some preliminary judgments.

3. You’re just one of those old farts that think everything new is crap. Absolutely not. I’ll put Scorcese up against D.W. Griffith any day. I think Faulkner’s novels surpass any written in the 19th century. And, at any rate, I find both techno and hip-hop incredibly exciting and vital. I’d readily put Beck in the same league as Dylan. I’m down with the new scene, baby, yeah.

4. Techno and hip-hop are just movements within rock and roll that will eventually be assimilated into it. Ah, there’s the rub. These two upstart genres are, by their nature, even by their very purpose, not rock and roll. All of the other upheavals – the British invasion, the rise of dance music, the advent of punk, the grunge scene – were all designed to alter the course of rock and roll. Techno and hip-hop are, I would suggest, the first forms that reject the rock paradigm completely and move into truly new ground. The mentality that underlies techno and hip-hop is utterly different from that of rock and roll. They are postmodern and deconstructionist, each taking bits and pieces from many sources (including, ironically, rock and roll), throwing them all into a blender and reconfiguring them for the form’s own purposes. “B-Boy Bouillabaisse,” the Beastie Boys aptly called it in their seminal Paul’s Boutique.

Which begs the question, are we entering a new, post-rock era in music? I’m not suggesting that rock will die out, only that it is ceasing to be the primary creative force in popular music. In fact, it’s already given up the crown and is rapidly sliding down in the rankings. As a comparison, look at, say, Romantic poetry. I’m sure that Keats and Shelley (and especially Wordsworth) probably thought that they were creating new forms through which all poetry would eventually be expressed, but today, not two hundred years later, there are no major contemporary poets that could be classified as strictly Romantic, at least not in the same way as those three. Did the Romantic movement shape every poet that came after it? Of course…in both conscious and unconscious ways. The influence of Romantic poetry can be seen everywhere in contemporary poetry. And I’m sure there are plenty of (decidedly minor) poets out there still writing in that style. But the really important work is being done elsewhere, with Romanticism as a backdrop, if that.

The same thing could happen, is happening, to rock and roll. There are a handful, a tiny handful, of really creative rock bands still there, but for the most part the original, exciting music of our day comes from techno and hip-hop. Of course rock will continue to affect both forms, and any forms that emerge afterwards. Of course bands will continue to play rock and roll. Perfectly acceptable rock and roll. But it may be all Aerosmith and no Beatles. Derivative, predictable, and fun. But not truly great.

I remember, in college, hearing Bono, being interviewed when The Joshua Tree was first released, saying something about “showing people that this old corpse called rock and roll still has a little bit of life in it.” At the time, I thought it sounded cool, but I didn’t really understand what he meant. Now I see that he saw U2 as fighting for the vitality of rock as a form. But now even Bono has given up the fight. What is U2 playing these days? Rock-tinged techno.

The new direction in music is embodied by artists like Beck, the Beastie Boys, and Prodigy. Children of a rock and roll world, they subvert the form by slicing, dicing, and rearranging it in the service of techno, hip-hop, a hundred other forms, and a thousand combinations of those forms. Our grandparents saw the birth of swing, our parents the birth of rock and roll. We’re witnessing the birth of two brand new forms that are sending rock and roll to the grave. Beck captures the direction of music in the nineties in one line: “Where it’s at – I got two turntables and a microphone.”

Roll over, Chuck Berry, and tell the Beatles the news.

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MICHAEL DUNAWAY commended a biographer in the July issue of Pif for "Letting Janis be Janis." He is a Georgian by origin, a New Yorker by residence, a hero by night, and a smartass by nature. He miraculously received a BA in English from The University of The South and an MBA in Finance from Cornell University. He may be the only person in the world who's a fan of Beck, Francis Schaeffer, Dante, and the Blue Devils. When he was a kid, he wanted to be just like his daddy. He still does.