Bob Seger and the sort of classic rock he performs, embodies and represents, for me (and apparently many others), the relentlessly uncool. Youth, drugs and nonconformity have long been my standards of “rock,” and within this triad, Bob Seger’s formal, cinematic songs, have always come across as a little tired. Osvaldo Oyola wrote specifically last week about these foibles: the stilted piano and canned Chuck Berry riffs sound more like parody than gospel, while the parade of effects on Seger’s voice, also quite derivative, could have also fit on a Bruce Springsteen album (although you could replace the influence of Chuck Berry with that of the quintessentially less cool Phil Spector). Problematically, even though I loathe Seger’s catalog, I love Springsteen’s, this of course has made for some very popular conversations at the bar. In fact, it was last July at a local New Brunswick haunt that I had this conversation last. My friend, who will remain nameless, completely disagreed: Seger was cool, I just couldn’t hear it, in fact I had to see it to believe it.
In order to understand Bob Seger, I needed to watch Mask, a 1985 retelling of The Elephant Man starring Eric Stoltz as the deformed Rocky Dennis and Cher as his mother Rusty Dennis. Mask was released two years after Risky Business, and featured a number of Bob Seger songs predominantly in the soundtrack. These songs uniformly mixed to the foreground, often serving as Rocky’s theme, juxtaposed against an ambient soundtrack of songs by black musicians like Little Richard and Gary US Bonds. These black oldies, “Tutti Frutti” and “Quarter to Three,” are used thematically when Rusty’s friends, a bunch of guys in a motorcycle gang, are partying. Not only is Rocky othered from the kids at school because he is ugly, he is poor, raised by a single mother with a drug addiction. Although whiteness takes center stage in this film, it holds a complex relationship to blackness. Rocky and Rusty are atypically white, finding community only with each other and a super-masculine network of bikers; they are misfits, doing their best to pass in a mainstream and affluent white society.
Bob Seger’s “Katmandu,” is the song which introduces Rocky in the opening credits. It is guilty of the trademark Bob Seger whiteness: more refurbished Chuck Berry and piano so droll it could have been played by a metronome. In the context of Rocky and his struggle to identify with white society however, it paints Seger in a different light. Bob Seger’s uncoolness can be read as a failed attempt to pay homage to black musicians like the aforementioned Little Richard and Gary US Bonds. Instead of suggesting a totalizing narrative of white appropriation, I argue that Bob Seger can be understood as a musician who would never be completely accepted by his heroes or critics. Reflected in the posters on Rocky’s wall and Universal’s contract negotiations with Columbia Records (Bruce Springsteen had been first choice for the soundtrack), Seger was not even cool to the director of the film, Peter Bogdanovich, who refered to his music as “inappropriate.”
Toward the end of the movie, Rocky holds his blind girlfriend for the last time. Her parents, disgusted by his face (but probably also by his shabby clothing), keep the two separate. Contradicting the escape narrative of Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” Rocky evinces the power of fantasy toward coping with discrimination: “We can’t run away Diana. But we can sort of run away in our minds. We can remember camp, the mountains and the Ocean…especially New Year’s Eve” (Mask Part 11 4:40). Like Rocky, Seger can’t run away from his whiteness, even though he may not relate to it, or fully embrace it, it is ever present in his recordings. Songs like “Old Time Rock and Roll,” “Katmandu,” and even “Night Moves” are celebrations of music as a forum of imagination – one where identity, be it black or white, can be reimagined as something else. Though “Old Time Rock and Roll,” will sound forever white, it relates the experience of otherness. Try as he might, Seger has no idea how to sound authentically black, and this is evident through both its celebratory lyrics and contrived arrangement.
Growing up in a bi-racial household, where, depending on the holiday, my Jewishness could be as visible as my blackness, I feel a strong kinship to figures like Rocky, not completely belonging to any ethnic community. Perhaps this led to a juvenile obsession with Springsteen, who, according to my father, everyone could relate to, regardless of color (he worked at an all-night Jersey Shore diner, the Inkwell, in the early 1970s). Bruce though, was never really misfit, mulatto or poor; whether discussing his working class freehold roots, or his first guitar, his music epitomizes white privilege. Even his stage shows feature Clarence Clemons, The Big (Black) Man, notably subordinate to Bruce, or “The Boss.” Although now, my Bruce phase seems laughable, I wonder if it was also a fantasy of fitting in, of recovering a fantastic and invisible whiteness deep within myself. When he wrote “Old Time Rock and Roll,” was Bob Seger trying to do the same and recover a font of blackness deep within himself? I now see a complex web of identity politics informed by an economic and social history of Rock and Roll, but this holds an uneasy and complex relationship with the part of me that still believes in rock and roll. I was, am, and forever will be the misfit who found an identity in the church of rock and roll. Though the sermons have changed, in high school, Springsteen was the pastor, and I suspect that for my friend at the bar, Seger also conducted service. Even though I could never completely fit in to the rich white world of these artists, I wonder if this speaks to a fundamental affinity. Did Springsteen and Seger ever feel like outcasts, later to find solace in the black cool of Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Fats Domino? In the context of these figures and their music, how could whiteness seem anything but contrived, misfit and ugly – or in truth, is this dialectic really the beat which pushes rock and roll forward?
Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock n’ Roll” has bothered me for a long time. I first heard it in Risky Business in 1983, four years after its initial release, as the soundtrack to a young Tom Cruise frolicking in his tightie-whities to his father’s sacrosanct (and expensive) hi-fi, expressing his repressed white suburban middle-class masculinity and sexuality. It was the song’s vague appeal that got me wondering even back then, how Cruise’s character was even old enough to remember the “old times” that Seger sang of. Hearing it on a “classic rock” station on a recent drive, it suddenly hit me – for many young people the song is a representation of what it clearly isn’t: “old time” rock n’ roll itself.
The song performs a form of hyper-nostalgia, not only eliding all potentially negative aspects of the “old times”—such as the racial erasure at rock n’ roll’s emergence into the mainstream—but eschewing any kind of specificity about “old time rock n’ roll” altogether. The song’s lyrical and sonic vagueness, punctuated by bland guitar solos and cheesy piano rolls, hearkens to an undefined sense of authenticity that casts doubt on other musical forms and implicitly marks itself as legitimate and authentic – laying a kind of homogeneous claim on rock itself.
The key phrase to Seger’s song, “Today’s music ain’t got the same soul / I like that old time rock n’ roll,” is leavened with irony, because it could be used as an example of “today’s music” itself – at least contemporary to the release of the song in 1979. And let’s face it, “Old Time Rock ‘n Roll” itself seems to be lacking in the soul department. Now, “soul” is a shibboleth. It is a call to a form of racial authenticity that many assume blacks have a natural, essential access to. When whites allegedly have it–it is something worthy of a NY Times article. However, when used by Seger, “soul” becomes a way of defining authentic music as having an unchanging “feel” anchored in a particular vision of the past. So distant it seems, that the lyrics can give us no real hint as to what constitutes “soul”; listeners are just supposed to know it when they feel it.
And yet, “Old Time Rock n’ Roll” arguably lacks that feel; leaving aside the happy accident of the repeated piano intro and the grain of Bob Seger’s voice, I’d make the argument that any close listening to the musical portions themselves makes the lack of “feeling” in the song evident. The song’s music can only be described as an attempt to present a generic portrait of rock n’ roll sounds, with Chuck Berry guitar licks deprived of all gusto and a sax so filtered it may have come from a late seventies synth. This could be attributable to the fact that Seger is singing over a demo meant as a model for his band to record its own version, but the fact remains that is the cut that was kept and that we all know.
The questions then arise: why so generic? Why the lack of specificity in sound and content?
The answer, I feel, can be found in the two listening practices described in the song and the preference of one over the other. The speaker’s unwillingness to be taken “to a disco / you’ll never even get [him] out on the floor” seems to be putting down a genre of music that emerges from a line of descent in the development of popular music in America that can be traced from the “blues and funky old soul” he claims he’d rather hear – Black American music. “Old Time Rock n’ Roll” can be seen as a kind of anthem of the disco wars, where rock fans violently objected to disco.
The rejection of disco then becomes part of a conflict at the time between “rock” as a dominant mainstream white musical form and disco, which Alice Echols has described in her recent book, Hot Stuff: The Remaking of American Culture, as a heterogeneous site that was black, queer, women-friendly and social and that eschewed the centrality of a ineffable “authenticity” that rock n’ roll always strove for. In order for Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock n’ Roll” to establish its authenticity, it must contrast itself to disco, accomplishing this not only by pulling rock n’ roll into a personal listening sphere, but by eliding the sexual energy present in early rock n’ roll and still evident in the disco of the 70s. To heap upon this irony, the fact the high-hat cymbal moves into a disco off-time beat at several points in the song provides “Old Time Rock n’ Roll” with what catchy-rhythm it does have.
Leaving the disco after 10 minutes along with the opening lines of the song “Just take those old records off the shelf / I sit and listen to them by myself” one gets a sense of an anti-social listening practice that divorces the music he claims to love from its cultural context and transform it into a solitary act. Like nearly all forms of nostalgia, Seger’s view of the past of the music is problematic in its glossing over the complexities and specificities of the time he is ostensibly singing about.
Another one of Seger’s hits may claim that “rock n’ roll never forgets,” but it seems like forgetting might be what it does best. Looking at Bob Seger’s professed influences— Little Richard and Elvis — we can see some of that forgetting in action. If the former suggests that the shifting, slippery, and flamboyant sexuality of disco has been present from rock’s very beginning, then the crowning of the latter as the “King of Rock n’ Roll” highlights just the kind of erasure that allows for a song like “Old Time Rock n’ Roll” to make sense as an anthem of whitewashed “heartland” rock. Seger’s clarion call to old timey-ness strips it of its sex even as he evokes a particular kind of “blackness” through the grain of his voice – a throaty howl full of a representation of sonic authenticity profiting of a vague sense of racial marking. In other words, Seger’s voice performs soulfulness through a growly working-class sound (typified in his “Like a Rock” Chevy commercials), itself a placeholder for race which is verboten in this construction of rock n’ roll. This kind of rock star class passing functions because of the racial erasure the songs enacts by means of white privilege.
Richard’s slippery sexuality and the way in which his most famous songs, like “Tutti Frutti” emphasize dance–and dancing as a euphemism for sex: “she rocks it to the east/she rocks it to the west/but she’s the girl that I know best”–brings me back to Seger’s denial of dance and the solitude of his idealized rock n’ roll, and thus back to Tom Cruise in his tightie-whities dancing around by himself in his parents’ fancy suburban Chicago house.
It makes sense that the scene in Risky Business is so isolated, middle-class and white – idealized rock n’ roll has been hijacked out of the heterogeneity of urban centers, and into the mythic American Heartland where white masculine sexuality can be extolled without threat. Seger’s reactionary song makes a world where it is safe for a teen-aged Cruise to enact his youthful rebellion by unproblematically participating in a form of class-passing of his own – lest we forget, the plot of Risky Business has his character playing the part of pimp to earn his way into Princeton – and yet retain his privileged position insulated from further influence of Black America on his music and on his life.