At the conference “Re•pre•sent•ing Rock,” held at Duke University in the spring of 1997, Lawrence Grossberg, the Morris Davis Distinguished Professor of Communication Studies and Cultural Studies at the University of North Carolina, made in person the claim that he had been making more and more forcefully in print since 1984: that “rock’s conditions of possibility have been transformed so radically as to suggest that rock’s operating logic might no longer be either effective or possible”—that is, in vernacular terms, “rock & roll is dead.”1 To say that this verdict surprised his audience would be a gross understatement; various attendees of the conference had come by plane, train, and automobile to discuss their research on Stereolab, U2, Fugazi, Polly Jean Harvey, Radiohead-artists and bands generally thought not to be quite dead yet. Indeed, the first night of the conference featured a gig by the Chapel Hill band and indie sweethearts Superchunk, and the closing night featured a performance by a clearly undead Jon Langford, founding member of the British punk band the Mekons. (Sandwiched in between these was a reading by late-’70s New York punk figure Richard Hell; now, he might actually have been dead.)
Grossberg’s evidence for rock & roll’s morbidity was entirely anecdotal, which he passed off as “ethnographic.” His “study” consisted of spending a good deal of time “hanging out” with high-school students during the summer two years earlier, and he could find no commonality in their listening habits or their tastes. And worse: he couldn’t find anything to listen to in their music. In the published version of these remarks, Grossberg writes,
What Grossberg did, in effect, was to suggest (without stating it quite explicitly) that rock & roll was dead because he had stopped listening to it. Surely it’s a rather remarkable-as well as imperial and imperiousgesture to suggest that something has died because one has lost interest in it, stopped paying careful attention. It’s different in degree, perhaps, but not in kind from what Nick Hornby has been doing ever since High Fidelity hit the big screen.