Rock isn’t just dead; if only it were. In 2013, rock ‘n’ roll is a bloated, stinking corpse, reanimated over and over again by people who have no compelling ideas with which to fill its hard-wiped brain. We’ve got the Americana zombies, the alt-rock rehash zombies, the precious bearded zombies of indie rock. With Fall Out Boy and Paramore nowhere near the most disappointing names on Billboard’s most recent Hot Rock top ten, we’ve reached a moment when decade-old emo bands seem like a reprieve from the latest wave of acts that could be described as “rock.”
Some would argue that this is all the evidence we need to take one final mercy shot at rock ‘n’ roll and then tuck it into its grave for eternity. Other, more optimistic folk would say that what it needs — and inevitably will get— are some honest-to-goodness new ideas. Me? At the risk of opening up yet another can of retromania, I prescribe a glam rock revival.
The biggest problem with rock right now is that it’s boring. While pop singers from Lady Gaga to Nicki Minaj to Justin Timberlake can’t show up on a red carpet without inventing a new visual aesthetic (never mind that their actual music often leaves something to be desired), it’s hip-hop stars like Kanye West and Jay Z who are bringing musical futurism to the mainstream. Hell, teenage girls don’t even have crushes on rock stars anymore— and who could blame them for ignoring the Mumford clan when there’s One Direction, a pretty boy band that famously isn’t averse to the occasional homoerotic photo op?
Rock in its current incarnations isn’t giving us any of those things, but glam rock once checked all of the above boxes— spectacle, musical innovation, frisson. (Just to be clear, by “glam rock” I mean the original, largely British 1970s movement — not the spandex-and-hairspray action figures of the next decade’s American pop-metal scene. I would like to track down and smack whoever first conflated the two.) It described a fantastical aesthetic and a decadent ethos more than the particular sound profiles that have defined so many 21st-century musical subcultures, from freak-folk to chillwave. And most importantly, it injected a bit of stars-in-eyes idealism into a genre that his since fallen into quotidian, T-shirt-and-jeans earthiness.
Just as its practitioners’ androgynous fashions and (often) omnisexual orientations were sexually liberating, that lack of a fixed sound was musically liberating. Whereas David Bowie “tarted up” classic rock riffs in the service of sci-fi melodrama and Marc Bolan’s T. Rex poured fairy dust on hippie folk, Brian Eno blasted off from the dark cabaret of Roxy Music into the stratosphere of spacey minimalism and lyrical non sequitur. On this side of the Atlantic, the New York Dolls and glam godfather Iggy Pop helped invent punk.
That glam is more an idea than a sound makes it perfect for a comeback that transcends the typical sonic rehash. Although I’m always excited to hear a new band whose music reminds me of any of the above acts, a revival that’s true to the original movement’s experimental, rule-breaking spirit would be entirely uninterested in treading old ground. The glam rock of 2014 might well sound totally different from the glam rock of 1972.
It’s not like glam has thus far been immune to the nostalgia cycle, anyway, despite the fact that it doesn’t have much current relevance in the world of music. The fashion realm has been plundering its baroque-extraterrestrial style for decades, and just this month, Lady Gaga — who can thank glam and Andy Warhol for most of her occasionally delightful schtick — released a single that looks a whole lot like the cover of Bowie’s 1980 album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). But why do we insist on treating glam rock like a dead thing, to be referenced and plagiarized, when its aesthetic remains as adaptable and appealing as ever?
In fact, glam rock’s vision of sexual liberation is even more relevant— and realistic — today than it was in the 1970s. A rejoinder, at the time, to the comparatively vanilla radicalism of the ‘60s (“My brother’s back at home with his Beatles and his Stones / We never got it off on that revolution stuff,” Mott the Hoople’s Ian Hunter drawled on “All the Young Dudes,” a song Bowie wrote for the band), it never quite followed through on its own utopian freak-liberation grandstanding. As androgynous as its icons were, they were also disappointingly homogenous: all white men, many of whom eventually abandoned the practice or posture of bisexuality. While they succeeded in bringing certain elements of queer culture into the mainstream, their long-term commitment to representing it— or making rock more diverse in any way at all — was minimal.
But the landscape looks a whole lot different for sexual and, increasingly, gender minorities in the US and UK now than it did in glam’s original heyday, just after the Stonewall riots. LGBT people have made great strides towards political equality and mainstream representation over the past few decades, and yet they can still rarely see themselves reflected on rock singles charts dominated — to an embarrassing extent — by straight, white men. Although female pop singers gigglingly hint at their bisexuality, openly, brazenly queer and gender non-normative rock stars are fewer and farther between now than they were in the ‘70s or ‘80s.
Pushed to its most thrilling extreme, glam’s unifying, boundary-breaking impulse even goes beyond making a place for LGBT artists in the bafflingly heterosexual world of rock. Get past the simultaneously ancient and frustratingly recent idea that a rock star should look or act a certain way, should have one specific skin color or body part or sexual identity, and I suspect we’ll start to see a whole lot of famous people with guitars who don’t resemble Pete Wentz or any given King of Leon. And in 2013, that may be just about the only thing capable of saving rock ‘n’ roll.