On the impossibility of the rock novel

There’s been something of a resurgence of rock music narratives of late. Taylor Jenkin Reid’s Daisy Jones and the Six has perhaps been the most visible recent example but in fiction, we’ve also had David Mitchell’s Utopia Street and on TV we’ve had Danny Boyle’s The Pistols and Sam Levison’s The Idols, among others. All of these have transcended period, style and genre but all have in common that they’ve been met with various degrees of diffidence.

It’s a matter of individual taste, of course, just how much that ambivalence is deserved but it is nevertheless safe to say that the as a genre rock narratives are bloody hard to get right. Not that this should come as massive news to anyone. The rock novel (or film or TV show) has a pedigree pretty much going back to the form’s birth in the 1950s but almost all of them have been met with similar levels of reserve.

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But what’s the reason for this? And why has there been a sudden surge in interest now. I know I found myself interested enough to want my DFA thesis to be on this subject and my theory was that the growing embeddedness of the internet, of streaming services, of the dissipation of the influence of the old media edifices of the 20th century meant that the monolithic figure of the rock star had lost their cultural currency, had slipped into becoming a figure rooted in a particular historical time, like the cowboy or the fedora’d private eye.

Yet the problem remains why is it so hard to capture what was once, at least, a pivotal aspect of culture. Perhaps the old adage of ‘dancing about architecture’ was right, after all. Personally, I think the main problem is that it is an area of culture that is actually far more cartoonish than we’d like to admit. However we might have once bought into the mock-heroism of anyone from Elvis to Beyonce, we were buying into an illusion, a fantasy. Nothing wrong with that in itself, of course, and it’s something we do to an extent every time we watch a movie, or a TV show, or even fall in love. But in true postmodernist style, the rock star never points to anything other than itself. It has no plot, as it were, no story, no theme, no message. It’s a signifier without a signified, or at least only one of the most free-floating kind. It’s the ultimate meme – one only concerned with the replication of itself.

This is why, no matter how hard we try to fool ourselves, we never stood a chance of really knowing Bowie, or Lennon, or Hendrix. Because there was nothing there to know. The act of becoming a rock star was the act of the complete erasure of the human being at its conceptual centre. This is perhaps the reason why rock biopics seem to be even more hollow than those of other public or historical figures. It’s also the reason why, for my money, the most creatively successful rock novel is Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street – because its Dylan-analogue central character Bucky Wunderlick has no inherent reality, nor does DeLillo waste even a moment trying to convince us of one. And there’s perhaps an irony here in that the popular musicians of today have to have a far more intimate and symbiotic relationship with their audiences, largely through social media in its various forms.

So, knowing this, why even bother writing a rock novel? Because amid all the digital anxiety around the impossibility of creative artists of any kind, there was a point worth making – that the art itself endures. There’s no such thing as a dead art form and there’s pretty much someone, somewhere keeping alive every mode of expression from epic poetry to woodcuts. The real question is a socio-economic one – will we still get the art we want and need when it becomes the sole preserve of the rich and the already privileged? The short answer to that is ‘no, of course not. That’s why the whole current system of cultural distribution and consumption has to be challenged.’ (But this is perhaps a question to be raised in more detail at another time.) The point for now being that popular music makes an effective case study for all the other contemporary artforms. And it’s a process that’s accelerating with the onset of AI – the current strike action by Hollywood screenwriters and actors must surely illustrate how deeply the times are changing for artists when even this, perhaps ostensibly the most privileged area of cultural production, feels the need for direct action.

The real question (for me, anyway) is did Elegie ultimately address these wider issues successfully? And the honest answer is that I’m not sure that it did. To make this kind of confession might be a weirdly self-defeating type of marketing (because I’d still like people to read it) and certainly if were embarking on the same subject matter now it would look very different. But that’s the nature of Art, I suppose. It captures a certain combinations of events and attitudes, including those of the author at that particular time, and any future utility must come from how useful these might be to future discourses around the subject.

Elegie is available now in paperback and ebook.