Rock Music as a Form of Art
As a genre of popular music, rock music takes its origin from American rock and roll music of the 1950s. It drew strongly on several other genres such as country and blues; rock music incorporated influences from classical, jazz and other musical genres. Rock music developed into a number of different styles, starting from the 1960s, particularly in the United States and the United Kingdom. In fact, rock music has served as the vehicle for social and cultural movements. Rock music’s connection to art became clear in the 1960s, when musicians began to seek for experiments in their music and inspiration in classics. The Velvet Underground and their album called The Velvet Underground & Nico is a great example of mixing rock and art. The overall unique sound of The Velvet Underground & Nico was propelled by deadpan vocals of Reed and Nico, the droning viola of Cale, Morrison’s rhythm and blues guitar, and the steady beat of Tucker as well as the “drone strum” guitar style used in many albums’ songs by Reed. In spite of rising controversies within society due to its provocative messages, rock music is a form of art and should not be judged as controversy.
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Similar to art, rock music is often viewed as a form of protest. Rock music inherited the tradition of the protest song from folk music and that is why it has been arising in associations with political activism. This music genre is often viewed as an expression of revolt of youth against conformity and consumerism of adulthood. A great number of sub-cultures adopted various sub-genres of rock, and considered them to be central to their sub-culture.
The social and cultural influence of rock music is often viewed either positively or negatively. Rock music is known for its touching the themes that concern the changes in social attitudes to sex, race, as well as use of drugs. Rock has changed attitudes to race, as they opened up African-American culture to the white part of American audience; however, rock has been accused of exploitation and appropriation of that culture at the same time.
Rock influenced the culture of the United States and the United Kingdom greatly. Rock fashions have been viewed as a combination of elements of different periods and cultures, and as an expression of divergent views on gender and sexuality as well. In general, rock music has been criticized for facilitation of greater sexual freedom. This genre of music has been associated with different forms of drug usages that include the stimulants before the mid-1960s; 1960s and early 1970s psychedelic rock was linked to the use of LSD. Rock musicians also used cocaine, cannabis and heroin, which they eulogized in their songs. Thus, the cultural influence of rock music is still controversial.
The period of art rock was rising controversies within English-speaking world. Art rock, a sub-genre of rock music, takes its origin in the 1960s. It was influenced by art music that includes such genres as avant-garde and classical music. Art rock music is known for its mix of classic and experimental nature. Art rock music may be considered to be “arty” through its incorporation of some elements from classical music or literature. The lyrical themes of art rock music tended to be philosophical, imaginative and politically oriented. However, many musicians were attempting to broaden the boundaries of art rock, and The Velvet Underground was one of them.
An American rock band called The Velvet Underground was a great example of art rock music band. It was directly connected to art, as the band was managed by a famous American artist Andy Warhol. The Velvet Underground was active for a short period between 1964 and 1973. Their debut album called The Velvet Underground & Nico was recorded in 1966 during multimedia event tour “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” initiated by Andy Warhol. It was a series of multimedia events featuring the band’s musical performances, screenings of films by Warhol, as well as performances and dancing by regulars of famous “Factory”, Warhol’s studio serving as the hip hangout for artist, Warhol superstars as well as amphetamine users. The artist’s influence can be seen on album cover; it is truly recognizable, as it features a print of a banana created by Warhol. Thus, The Velvet Underground & Nico was experimental and “arty” from its very beginning.
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The experimentalist performance of The Velvet Underground & Nico would result in notoriety. The album focuses on controversial subjects expressed in its songs, which include the themes of prostitution, drug abuse, masochism, sadism as well as sexual deviancy. The record was a critical and commercial failure upon its release. However, it became one of the most influential albums in history of rock music, constantly appearing in the list of the greatest albums of all time, initiated by rock music magazines. The dark subject matter of the album is considered to be revolutionary today.
The professionalism expressed in recording of The Velvet Underground & Nico can be explained by that the album was recorded by the first professional line-up of the band that included John Cale, Lou Reed, Maureen Tucker and Sterling Morrison. The recording also featured German singer Nico who sang lead on three tracks of The Velvet Underground & Nico (“Femme Fatale”, “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties”) and on back vocal on “Sunday Morning.” “Sunday Morning” seems to be a dreamy pop song. The song “I’ll Be Your Mirror” was inspired by Nico (Bockris, 1994, p. 106). It is an affectionate and tender song starkly contrasting with the song called “Heroin”. The note of dark subject matter can be found in majority of album’s lyrics. The song called “Heroin” falls into details of the drug use of an individual and the experience of its effects. “Heroin” is characterized by its expressive dynamics. The efforts of a man who tries to obtain heroin are described in “I’m Waiting for the Man”. “I’m Waiting for the Man” reminds tough garage rock. The musicians use bracing discord in “European Son”. The elements of classical literature can be found in “Venus in Furs”, which is influenced by the 19th century novel of the same name prominently featuring accounts of BDSM. However, not only lyrics of the album are controversial. The music of The Velvet Underground & Nico rises controversies as well.
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The musicians of the band were encouraged to use the alternative ways of producing sound in their album. The members of The Velvet Underground were truly talented in their experiments and even invented new instruments. For instance, Reed had “invented” the ostrich guitar before entering The Velvet Underground. The tuning of this guitar consists of all strings to be tuned to the similar note. The band utilized this method in songs “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and “Venus in Furs”. The Velvet Underground often tuned the guitars down to a whole step in order to make the guitars to produce a lower sound that was considered “sexy” by Cale (Harvard, 2007). In his turn, Cale used his viola on several of songs from the album, notably on “Black Angel’s Death Song” and “Venus in Furs”. Cale’s viola used mandolin and guitar strings. Cale compared the loud sound of this violin to the sound of an airplane engine (Heylin, 2009). As usual, his viola technique involved drones (single notes are sustained over long time). However, the attack, speed varies, and the other notes added on top create differing tones and, at the same time, maintaining a consistent pitch. Thus, summing up all the controversies and experimental nature of the album, it becomes obvious that the music and lyrics of The Velvet Underground & Nico were too daring and controversial to fit onto commercial radio at that time. However, the music of The Velvet Underground is not supposed to be good as it is truly rock music.
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Despite rising controversies within society due to its provocative messages concerning drug use, sexuality and rebellion among others, rock music is a form of art and should not be judged as controversy; it is an inevitable part of an art product. As a form of art, rock music is characterized by experimenting with sound, rhythm and lyrics as well. The learning of the history of rock music helps people to come away with much better understanding of this music genre. Through the study of such bands as The Velvet Underground and their albums, one can become familiar with several important styles and sub-styles of the period. The learning allows students to use terms, enabling them to describe and conceptualize musical events and features. At the end of the course, it becomes easier to recognize styles and artists who were active during certain period, as well as develop the ability of identifying and describing the music, which was not presented in the course. Learning of the history of rock music allows one to see how the music communicates the message of a song or a whole style.