All this week, the White House will go electric. The 11 inaugural balls and concerts heralding the Clinton years will be in full swing, and in addition to marching bands, Latin jazz combos, and Jewish klezmer groups, the participants will include, in accordance with Clinton’s baby-boomer tastes, the jaw-dropping likes of Los Lobos, Little Feat, Chuck Berry, Elton John, and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead and various members of the extended Dead family. As a friend said with an appreciative laugh a few weeks before the events, ”The Dead followed by Barbra Streisand — now that’s a double bill.”
But to quote another baby-boom rocker, how does it feel? Anyone who has come of age with rock, particularly in the ’60s and ’70s, must be fascinated by the prospect of any of the above — plus Aretha Franklin, Judy Collins, the Band, Booker T. and the MG’s, Linda Ronstadt, Peter, Paul & Mary, and two Elvis impersonators — playing at a presidential inaugural, where they will be treated not as proponents of satanic rituals designed to corrupt innocent youth but as vital parts of American culture. Yet anyone who has associated rock (and its offshoots, which now include rap and alternative rock) with some increasingly vague antiauthoritarian stance has to have mixed feelings, too. Is the sight of classic-rock gods entertaining a bunch of tuxedoed politicians a victory for the music? Or is it finally the much-ballyhooed Death of Rock that has been predicted for two decades? What happens when the counterculture becomes the culture?
Certainly rock & roll fans have reason to feel triumphant. Practically anyone with a guitar has been kept at suited arm’s length from past presidential inaugurals; John Kennedy was serenaded by Frank Sinatra and Nat ”King” Cole, George Bush by Sinatra, Julio Iglesias, and Anita Baker. Even Jimmy Carter, a man equally versed in SALT treaties and ”Ramblin’ Man,” got only as hip as recruiting obscure Southern singer-songwriter James Talley. And this week’s planned festivities sound nowhere near as horrific as the spectacle of the late Republican National Committee chairman Lee Atwater playing white-boy-bluesman in front of a gaggle of humbled R&B legends during one of the 1989 inaugural balls.
Yet the incorporation of rock into the Clinton inaugural also feels like the culmination of an unsettling process that has been going on for at least a decade. By now, we’ve grown accustomed to hearing rock songs of the ’50s through the ’70s reduced to TV commercials and played on airline music channels. It’s not unusual to hear a wedding band play the Ramones’ ”I Wanna Be Sedated” or Bruce Springsteen’s ”Pink Cadillac” alongside standards like ”Unforgettable.” The leading radio format of the ’90s, Adult Contemporary, reduces old rock hits to innocuous background music; it is a place where John Lennon’s ”Imagine” is just another pretty ballad.
Given that landscape, it’s ridiculous to continue thinking of rock as standing for anything it once did — rebellion, anxiety, teen hormonal frenzy, distrust of authority. And the rock inaugural is also definitive, saddening proof that rock & roll (in the old sense of the phrase) is now merely music, merely entertainment. Combined with dubious endeavors like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the event also signals that what Casey Kasem unctuously calls ”The Rock Era” (roughly 1955-80) is now in the history books-ready to be stuffed, mounted, and enshrined as feel-good nostalgia for baby boomers. A style of music that once lived off its image as being rebellious now is the establishment — the much-debated passing of the torch, indeed.
The aging of rock is an inevitable process, and as some reassurance, at least we have rap, assorted forms of underground rock, and occasionally metal to put a bit of the tension and unpredictability back into the music. (It is telling that hip-hop-based performers like Boyz II Men, En Vogue, and Will Smith, a.k.a. the Fresh Prince, have been relegated to inaugural ”youth” concerts.) Still, the sight of veteran rockers playing at the inaugural — as logical and progressive as that sounds, all for a President-elect raised on the music — can’t help but make watching the concerts bittersweet and elegiac, like bidding adieu to an old, treasured, but worn-out 45 of ”Brown Sugar.” At the very least, let’s try not to grimace when someone inevitably yells out, ”’Whipping Post’!”