Things That Annoy Me, Part One in a Continuing Series: Meta-Rock

I hate rock ‘n roll songs that are about rock ‘n roll. Meta-rock. By this I don’t mean songs that merely express a desire to rock (Kiss, “[I Wanna] Rock and Roll All Nite”) or announce the band’s intention to rock in the immediate future (Queen, “We Will Rock You”). Exhortations to rock, claims of having rocked in the recent past, narrative statements indicating that the singer is currently in the process of rocking: these are all fine. I also give a pass to songs that express simple enthusiasm for rock music (Joan Jett, “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,”—yes, she didn’t write the song, but nobody associates it with The Arrows). Rock music is about immediacy and passion: it’s well-suited to songs that purely take joy in the act of rocking out.

I don’t even mind songs that tell us how the rocking is in a particular place or time. The Ramones, “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” Elvis Presley doing “Jailhouse Rock”—we’re still cool. One of the things a good rock song can do is tell a story. I don’t mind a little scene-setting mixed in with my rock ‘n roll.

Where I get itchy is with a song like Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll.” Here the singer is no longer expressing a simple and pure emotion, as Joan Jett did: he’s commenting on the state of rock and roll in general. This is meta-rock territory, and it irritates me. It’s a violation of the genre. Rock songs encapsulate the feeling of a single moment; I don’t care whether it’s driven by a primal and timeless urge or whether it’s set in a very particular place and time, but I do care that the emotion evoked by the song be immediate and unadulterated. When rock songs twist in on themselves to become reflective, self-referential commentaries, they cease to work for me.

Exultation, despair, anger, need, sexual yearning and the wild aimless energy of youth: these things are the proper subject matter for rock ‘n roll. “Bob Seger is cranky about the albums the kids are making these days” doesn’t cut it. He might as well have written a song called “Get Off My Lawn.” It probably would have made for better rock music.

And Huey Lewis, this goes double for you and The News. “The Heart of Rock & Roll” is a terrible song. If you have some critical insights about the state of the industry, write an essay. Give an interview. Start a blog. Don’t make me listen to your stupid whimpering meta-rock.

I could think of other examples, but I don’t want to. I realize this pet peeve of mine is fairly crazy; I have others that are equally crazy, and I figured I could amuse you, The Internet, with a catalog. Next up: Cars That End Up in the Crosswalk After the Light Changes.

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