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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Falling rock

Music | Phil Spector symbolizes a genre that is past its prime

Issue: "On the road again," May 9, 2009

"Rock and roll is here to stay," sang Danny and the Juniors in 1958, and for years their proclamation rang true. A spate of recent articles, however, suggests that, like its king, rock may have left the building.

"Little Steven" Van Zandt (of Bruce Springsteen's E-Street Band) gave the first eulogy at the South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival in March. Bands, he said, used to hone their craft by learning other people's songs, playing them in clubs, competing for contracts, and working with creative producers to achieve a distinct sound. If they were especially talented, they turned that experience into writing good songs of their own.

But now digital technology and internet distribution have convinced bands that they can skip the school of hard knocks and immediately graduate with a Sgt. Pepper degree. "The Beatles," said Van Zandt, "were a club and bar band for five years, and then continued playing covers for five albums. . . . All of a sudden, we think we're better than them?"

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Days later, John Mellencamp published "On My Mind: The State of the Music Business" on the Huffington Post. He blamed rock's death on Broadcast Data Systems (which disproportionately skews airplay data), Soundscan (which disproportionately skews a song's chart showing) and record companies that "no longer viewed themselves as conduits for music but as functions of the manipulations of Wall Street" (which, as a good liberal, he disproportionately skewed toward being the fault of Ronald Reagan).

Neil McCormick of the (U.K.) Telegraph chimed in next with an April piece ruefully titled "Is There Too Much Music?" "Contemplating the vast array of music on sites such as YouTube, iTunes, MySpace and Spotify," he wrote, "and the huge number of musicians competing for attention in live marketplaces such as SXSW, I wonder if the sheer amount of music being unleashed is beginning to overwhelm us."

In "Digital Killed the Radio Star," Bighollywood.com's Matt Patterson did more than wonder. He concluded that rock had not only dug its own grave but was already lying in it. "The technology to create and compose music," he wrote, "has become idiot proof and dirt cheap. . . . As a result, the quantity of music has risen to choke the fiber cables and wi-fi networks encircling the globe, just as the quality has suffered a corresponding and predictable degradation."

But nothing united the concepts of "death" and "rock" like the stories reporting the April 13 murder conviction of the iconic producer Phil Spector. Between 1958 and 1966, Spector revolutionized pop music with imaginative arrangements and his "wall of sound" recording technique. Eccentric from the start, he channeled his obsessiveness into a sonic quest that resulted in dozens of hits and spurred the Beatles and the Beach Boys to their greatest achievements.

By 1967, however, he'd seen the end of the music business as he'd known it, and when he went into seclusion, he succumbed to paranoia. Accounts of his gun-wielding wound through everything from his late-'70s "comeback" sessions (with Leonard Cohen and the Ramones) to his relationships with women, leading many to assume that he would inevitably kill someone and thereby become a symbol of rock's inherent fragility. (Coincidentally, Danny Rapp, who sang lead on "Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay," also met his demise at the barrel of a gun: He shot himself in 1983.)

Recently, a ninth-grade student of mine asked me whether people still bought CDs. I said, "Obviously, because Best Buy stocks them." Then I realized what feeble evidence that was-and that the question even occurred to her was, in a way, an answer in itself.

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