In 50 or 100 years from now, no one will remember rock ’n roll, according to Chuck Klosterman, a man who’s made a career out of thinking too much about rock music (among other pop culture topics). Rock has been dying a slow cultural death in recent decades, with hip-hop and, more recently, EDM supplanting it as the prevailing music genres, Klosterman claims in his new book But What if We’re Wrong?. This process will only accelerate, he writes, until the entirety of rock music is remembered through a lone figure: Chuck Berry.
The culture will eventually forget about Led Zeppelin and Robert Plant’s wailing and Jimmy Page’s obsession with the occult, Klosterman writes. People will not remember Mick Jagger’s bravado or Keith Richards’ constitution for drugs. Bob Dylan will not be known as the most culturally resonant songwriter in American music history. Subsequent generations will not even remember The Beatles, the band that set the mold for what a rock band should be. Instead, they will only remember Berry: the guy responsible for “Johnny B. Goode” (for all the millennials out there, it’s the song that plays a prominent role in the film Back to the Future).
Klosterman’s theory about the history of rock music is one of the many thought experiments in But What if We’re Wrong?, which tries to imagine how future generations will perceive the present.
If Klosterman is right, dozens of seminal rock bands will be lost to the cultural memory, and that didn’t quite sit well with MEL. So MEL presented Klosterman with a small, unscientific list of its most beloved rock artists, challenging Klosterman to explain why each artist will be forgotten and not be remembered as rock ’n roll’s quintessential figure.
Klosterman: Bowie has a chance [to be rock’s historical representative]. The fact of the matter is he’s not one of the progenitors of rock. He came right at the tail end of when rock was being invented. His greatest gift was his ability to transform and evolve. And if Bowie were to be the defining person of rock, it would have to be because the main thing that we think about rock music is that it’s this evolving, ever-changing idea, and I don’t think that’s happened. For the most part, rock is fundamentally conservative in its structure — it fights change and evolution. Bowie’s story might actually contradict the way we remember rock as a whole.
CK: The Who are going to be matched up with the bands that existed alongside of them, which means The Beatles and The [Rolling] Stones. It’s hard to argue why The Who would ever be perceived as better than those two bands. The only way possible would be if the defining thing about rock music ended up being punk rock. Because it’s become popular to cite The Who as the first punk band. “Can’t Explain” is really the first punk song.
CK: To Queen’s benefit, they exist on the idea of being both a big live band and a studio-based band. Their records sound great and they have this great vocalist. Another point in their favor would be if, somehow in the future, the caricature of rock fans is Wayne and Garth, and Wayne’s World becomes the visual incarnation of what rock fans were once like. And because they sing “Bohemian Rhapsody,” people will be like, That’s what rock music was! A lot of dominoes would have to line up.
CK: She was just a blues singer, not that great.
CK: Neil Young wouldn’t be a terrible answer, except why would it be Neil Young instead of Bob Dylan? In some ways their careers are similar: They’re both constantly changing; they’re both, fundamentally, singer-songwriters; and that there’s a political nature to their music (although with Neil Young, it’s more direct). But there would have to be some reason to pick Young over Dylan, and I cannot possibly imagine what that would be. He’s too similar to Dylan, who’s more important.
CK: His assassination definitely helps [his chances of being remembered], although any sort of cursory, rudimentary examination of his catalogue would lead future people to see he wrote most of his best songs with another guy, Paul McCartney (even though, in practice, they wrote autonomously). All those Beatles songs are Lennon-McCartney songs. Simply the length of McCartney’s career might give him a slight edge.
CK: If the answer were to be Elton John, the perception of rock, historically, is kind of weak. He didn’t write lyrics. He’ll only be remembered if something goes really wrong and the idea of rock music is that it’s purely performative, and songwriting doesn’t matter at all. I’m not saying Elton John isn’t talented — he’s super talented. But he’s a piano player and singer who’s handed a sheet of paper with words and behaves like he cares what they mean. That’s like acting.
CK: U2 came too late in the game. If they were to be rock’s historical representatives, Bono would have to become this major political figure in Ireland, and Ireland would have to become this major force in world politics. Kind of like Janis Joplin, U2’s records are not that good. There’s a handful of good U2 records. Musically, they’re pretty overrated.
CK: It’s very possible that Nirvana might be remembered as the last meaningful rock band. In a long-term portrait of rock, there might be some recency bias, [which would work in Nirvana’s favor]. Nirvana emerged in the early 90s we have so much more media on them. Nirvana was on television more in their short lifespan than The Beatles were in the ’60s.
So why Chuck Berry?
From But What if We’re Wrong?:
Rock music is simple, direct, rhythm‑based music. Berry made simple, direct, rhythm‑based music.
Rock music is black music mainstreamed by white musicians, particularly white musicians from England. Berry is a black man who directly influenced Keith Richards and Jimmy Page.
Rock music is preoccupied with sex. Berry was a sex addict whose only American No. 1 single was about playing with his penis.
Rock music is lawless. Berry went to prison twice before he turned 40.
Rock music is tied to myth and legend (so much so that the decline of rock’s prominence coincides with the rise of the Internet and the destruction of anecdotal storytelling). Berry is the subject of multiple urban legends, several of which might actually be true and which often seem to involve cheapness, violence and sexual defecation.
John is a staff writer at MEL, where he last wrote about why straight men leave a “buffer seat” between them when they go to the movies together.