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Alice Cooper’s Mumford & Sons rant: Right conclusion, wrong evidence

Jul 16, 2013

Anyone who pays attention to the world of music has no doubt spent a fair amount of the past week going through re-postings and endless fanboy debates over the worth of Alice Cooper’s pointed statements to FuseTV. For those who missed it, the legendary rocker basically said that bands like Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers should not be branded as “rock,” and that a majority of current bands falling under the umbrella of rock need to get angrier and more aggressive.

While the core of his argument is absolutely correct, as Mumford and The Lumineers are certainly not rock bands, once you take an honest look at his reasoning and support for this statement, things turn disastrously wrong.

Shortly after calling out the two bands, Cooper states that “rock and roll is not about happy happy happy, let’s clog dance.” From this, one can interpret that he is implying there is no place for upbeat, bouncy songs within the world of “real” rock and roll. Obviously, one need look no further than songs like Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” Van Halen’s “Hot For Teacher,” or ZZ Top’s “La Grange” among thousands of others to see where that line of thinking falls apart. Even in more modern times, look at a songs like “Big Me” from Foo Fighters (a band Cooper names in the interview as the modern representation of “real” rock), and it’s clear that the statement holds no water.

A bit later in the interview, he goes back to the songs themselves, slamming bands for writing lyrics that rally against things like oil and war, finishing with a scoff at “be my girl” type songs. Rock music has always been a vehicle for social change, from “Fortunate Son” to “Born In The USA,” and to the latter sentiment, perhaps Cooper forgot one of his own amazing tracks, 1971 song, “Be My Lover.”

Alice finishes off his indictment of the wrongs of these bands with the simple statement that “rock bands don’t have accordions.” This is really nothing more than taking a hopeful shot at low-hanging musical fruit, but from The Who’s “Squeeze Box” to The Rolling Stones “Back Street Girl,” and many others, a number of the biggest names in the entire history of rock and roll music have seamlessly integrated the instrument into their songs.

The root of the misunderstanding that Alice Cooper displays throughout the interview becomes clear in a pair of statements near the end of the segment, when he states that “if you’re in a band, you’re an outlaw…you don’t play by those rules” and soon after names Green Day as a “real” rock band of the current era. Sadly, the idea of the rock musician as the outlaw or outcast from society is a romantic vision that ceased to exist the better part of four decades ago. Rock and roll is frighteningly mainstream, and when bands ranging from Metallica to Red Hot Chili Peppers to the aforementioned Foo Fighters and Green Day are selling out arenas across the globe, along with being amongst the wealthiest people on the planet, defining them as “outlaws” is laughably inaccurate.

The question becomes, “where did Alice Cooper’s line of thinking go so astray, and why do most people instinctively agree with everything he said?” It all comes down to a simple question of terminology, and how the music industry has quietly played with the minds of the general public to pad their own wallet.

“Webster’s Dictonary” and “The American Heritage Dictionary” define “rock and roll” as “popular music usually played on electronically amplified instruments and characterized by a persistent heavily accented beat, repetition of simple phrases, and based primarily on rhythm and blues and country elements,” and when you break this definition down, it matches quite well with the more commonly used assumptions of the style.

If we apply this idea to Mumford & Sons or The Lumineers, clearly they don’t fit the definition very well, as their sounds are based in the world of folk music, which while it did influence rock and roll, presents an entirely different musical lineage and roots system. It is very much the separation between the worlds of folk and rock that caused the legendary backlash at “Dylan going electric,” and very few fans of the bands in question will likely argue their place as “rock acts.” This is also the reason that a term like “folk-rock” is as much as an impossibility as “pop-punk,” as both are complete oxymorons.

The difference here is the term “rock music” being used instead of what these bands actually are: POP music. The term “pop music” is short for “popular music,” and whether the sounds are based in blues, country, folk or any other style, it is a catch-all term that has worked for decades. The music industry simply pulled a fast one, stamping these bands with the term “rock” so that they could be marketed in a far easier manner, as telling the general public to listen to the new, hot “rock” band has a far wider appeal than trying to say this “folk” band is going to be the next big thing. Folk still carries with it many of the “uncool” assumptions from decades long ago, and the term “rock” brings with it certain credibility about the music therein.

In the entire two-and-a-half minute clip, the most accurate statement Alice Cooper makes is when he says, “Mumford & Son are great at what they do, but it’s not rock and roll.” Whether or not you’re a fan of the band, they are technically gifted musicians, but the music they play is far from any accurate definition of rock and roll music. So while the driving sentiment behind Cooper’s argument is on point, the reasoning he uses to support it is both contradictory and massively inaccurate.

On a side note, anyone who loves real rock music should own Cooper’s stunning quartet of consecutive albums: “Love It To Death”, “Killer”, “School’s Out”, and “Billion Dollar Babies.” You’re welcome.

Image: Bob Gruen

 

Joel Freimark hosts a daily music-related webseries HERE and you can follow his daily music musings and suggestions HERE as well.


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