From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Art rock is a term used by some to describe rock music that is characterized by ambitious or avant-garde lyrical themes and/or melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic experimentation, often extending beyond standard modern popular music forms and genres, toward influences in jazz, classical, world music or the experimental avant-garde.
The concept of "art rock" has also sometimes been conflated with the "progressive rock" bands which attained mainstream popularity in the 1970s, but today the terms are usually used differently. Progressive rock eventually stuck as a label for a specific genre of rock music, while art rock remained a wider, more subjective and uncategorisable idea.
The first album generally cited in this category is often the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), although it should be noted that Frank Zappa released Freak Out!, the first concept album, in 1966.
The art rock designation is a vague one, since few rock and pop musicians openly aspire to the title. The idea of "art rock" may have arisen in the 1960s when a series of primarily British bands, some of whose members had attended art school, attained popularity (among them were The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who and Pink Floyd). These bands were seen by some to put contemporary ideals of "art" into practice, and many, though certainly not all, "art rock" bands have such a background.
Often bands have been grouped as "art rock" for aesthetic reasons, having to do with fashion, the style of visual artwork on their record covers, or even the names they give to songs. At other times, the designation persists simply because other more specific standard genre labels are felt to be inadequate or misleading as a description of their music.
For example, rock critics often must specify a "genre" for each song and musical performer, by way of description for those who have not heard the music. For modern "rock" songs that draw influence from multiple genres or did not have success in one particular niche, this can be easier with recourse to the "art rock" label, regardless of whether the performer thinks of their own music as "art rock", and regardless of whether "art rock" can be considered a genre at all. This can be compared to the use of "art film" or "arthouse" to designate films that are unable to be categorized according to dominant commercial genres. However, these "art" films, like so-called "art" rock, may have huge range in their audience, tone, style, complexity and artistic intentions. In the same way that a movie which is called "arthouse" in one country may be a mainstream hit in another, a musical artist classified as art rock by the media may be considered "generic" rock by progressive or underground rock musicians or listeners. What is taken for "artfulness" by some may not be considered legitimately artistic by others.
Taken subjectively, art rock is a term that can encompass just about any style within the rock n' roll umbrella. To name just a few popular examples of "art rock":
- The use of concept albums and rock operas
- The avant-garde protopunk of The Velvet Underground while John Cale was present in the lineup
- The electronically manipulated music of Krautrock bands like Can and Neu!
- The complex, "spacey" style of production and the non-Western musical influences common to many psychedelic rock bands, both underground and popular, beginning in the mid 1960s
- The aesthetic sensibility, sexual attitudes and technical innovations of many glam rock and synth pop acts beginning in the 1970s
- The expansive song structures, ambitious lyrics, and/or complex musicianship common to many progressive rock bands since the 1960s
- The sonic experimentation and/or abrasive noise common to many post-punk and alternative rock performers of the past 30 years
Critics and fans sometimes use the term 'art rock' to make a cultural statement about the state of popular music. Artists whose sound is based in the rock and pop forms first established in the 1950s and 1960s -- even those who clearly transcend these forms -- are still viewed by certain members of the elite, particularly classical or jazz critics, as mere peddlers of product, and thus 'low art'.
Identifying certain popular music as 'art rock' makes a claim both for the integrity of the specified work or artist, and for the serious artistic potential of rock and pop music in general. The term has never come into wide use beyond the world of rock criticism, for perhaps the same reason; most creative bands and popular music artists have no interest themselves in claiming adherence to the rigid standards of those who find little of value in pop music. In fact since the 1960s and 1970s, many of the artists one might class as 'art rock' (along with an increasing consensus among modern cultural elites themselves), actively resist the idea any such thing as 'high art' exists at all, at least as it was formerly defined to exclude most rock and pop music.
The prefix "Art-" indicates a re-appropriation and subversion of the original (now mainstream) genre. The outcome is a genre which although appearing similar to the mainstream form has now become "alternative". This re-appropriation is an intrinsically post-modern idea.
The record often cited as the first step towards mass acceptance of such experimentation is the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), it being an "unabashedly eclectic, musically clever (harmonies, rhythms and, above all, arrangements) melange that could only have been created in the modern recording studio." It was also the most popular and influential rock album in the world at the time. Indeed, along with defining the idea of "art rock" through their musical evolution, the Beatles have also been credited by some with severing "rock music" as a genre from the confines of primarily blues influenced rock n' roll, opening up wider sonic possibilities.
Art rock may be considered "arty" through imitation of classical "art" music or literature, or simply through eclecticism. Examples of the former include The Moody Blues, The Who, the original 1960s band named Nirvana, Pink Floyd, The Nice, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and Love (which exploded into art rock with their seminal album Forever Changes) and examples of the latter include Queen, Roxy Music, Genesis, Yes, Audience, 10cc, Supertramp, Split Enz and Electric Light Orchestra. (Rockwell 1992, p.492-494)
Art rock in the mainstream
Art rock reached its commercial height with the popularity of the aforementioned progressive rock bands, such as King Crimson, Yes, Rush and especially Pink Floyd, whose mix of jazz, classical and blues influences, smooth psychedelic soundscapes, and anti-establishment lyrics proved to be commercially viable as mainstream pop music, and very influential. For instance, Pink Floyd's 1979 Double album The Wall shows heavy experimentation and avant-garde music passages unusual even for them. After the punk rock revolution of the late '70s put simplicity back in style, and as openly 'progressive' bands drifted toward the mainstream with hit singles and more commercial productions, their 'art rock' designation fell away, and a new breed of artists took their place on the cutting edge of 'art rock'.
Art rock, punk and new wave
Though technically one might think of art rock as the antithesis of punk rock's straightforwardness, most well respected so-called art rock bands of the last 30 years made music influenced by the punk rock ethic, if not the sound, in some regard. Sonic Youth began as a wildly experimental venture, influenced by the noisiest fringes of punk rock and the classical avant-garde — especially the guitar works of Glenn Branca; by the late 1980s, their music was accessible enough to influence a new generation of alt rock and grunge bands, like Nirvana.
In fact, the webs of connections are so twisted that original progressive rockers King Crimson and New Wave punk rocks Talking Heads actually converged on very similar styles of music in the 1980s, even sharing the same guitarist (Adrian Belew). But both groups throughout their varied careers are considered by many to epitomize art rock, as the term refers to a perceived aesthetic or ideology of pop music, rather than a specific musical style.
Art rock and avant-garde
The use of art in art rock should not be confused with its use in art music, which generally connotes western classical music, not "arty" popular music. However, it must be noted that late 20th-century "classical" composers such as John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Philip Glass, with their interest in rhythm, repetition, and texture, have come ever closer to bridging the gap with popular music.
The only remaining line between certain forms of "art rock" and avant-garde classical is a vague one, with some artists, such as Laurie Anderson, existing right on the boundary. Avant-garde and minimalist music, like other classical music, is still usually composed and written down so that it can be played in concert by various performers, while in art rock, like any other modern pop music, the music is not written down because the primary medium is the original recording, and subsequent live performances are usually done by the songwriters/composers themselves. But even here the line is blurred, since many of these same avant-garde "classical" composers have relied on recorded sound and tape loop or electronic manipulation just as much as any art rock band, or indeed, originated the forms or technologies that were later adopted by these bands. Glenn Branca was at first a punk rocker who became more and more involved with 20th century "classical" composers.
At the same time, rock artists like Frank Zappa have composed well respected works of avant-garde classical music and jazz. Likewise, some art rock is written down. Robby Steinhardt, violinist for Kansas, has said that any song he performs on without a writing credit (he has only four writing credits in the Kansas catalog) had a violin part written out and handed to him.
Art rock in the 21st century
Around 2004, the phrase "art rock" has been popularly used in the British music press (i.e. NME) to somewhat loosely describe a movement of mostly "indie" bands influenced by the 1970s/1980s work of artists like David Bowie, David Byrne, Tom Verlaine, Peter Gabriel, and Brian Eno, and by the post punk scene in general. These new "art rock" bands included Tool, The Mars Volta, Art Rock Circus, Radiohead, Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, Bloc Party, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Secret Machines, Queens of The Stone Age, ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Wilderness, Interpol, Wolf Parade, Cambiata, Maxïmo Park, The Red Paintings and Klaxons. A recent music magazine focusing on the rock scene in London even took the name Artrocker.
Though they generally eschew self-conscious descriptions as "art rock", there's also a continuing subcultural movement of underground, sometimes highly uncommercial music with original roots in punk rock, post punk or the radical avant garde whose style or philosophy would fall under common definitions of "art rock". Some of these bands - well known examples of which include Liars, Deerhoof, Sonic Youth, Melt Banana and Lightning Bolt - may also be described as experimental rock, while the even more abrasive and abstract acts such as Wolf Eyes and Merzbow may be described as noise music.
However, due to their existence on the fringe of popular success, and the resulting disconnect from the most mainstream styles, nearly all independent music performers, subgenres or scenes of rock music may be considered as "art rock" by some of their adherents who have an interest in seeing them as such. Indeed, much like the idea of art itself, the idea of art rock is amorphous and practically any practitioner of rock or pop music, no matter how seemingly "generic", may be considered as "art rock" if someone is willing to mount a defense on their behalf. However, in the early 2000s, use of the terms remains quite uncommon outside of music journalists, and is not especially common in serious popular music criticism either, as the term, while convenient, is often seen to be pretentious and lacking in clarity.