How ‘Real’ Does Rock & Roll Have to Be?

Rock At Night Editorial

By “Tampa Earl” Burton

One of the big news stories of late has been the advent of ChatGPT, the software program which will, when prompted with a few bits of information, write a complete article, short story, or longer essay or book on a particular topic. It is scaring the hell out of the academic world, which now must contend with this new threat to academic integrity (along with plagiarism), and it is making some wonder (AKA journalists, songwriters, poets, etc.) if they will be viable as the Computer Age goes into hyperspace. This is something that the music world has had to contend with since Beethoven first put quill to parchment and wrote his first symphony – the advancements of musical instruments and “enhanced” techniques.

One particular situation seems to have sparked the current discussion. Last fall, the hard rock band Falling in Reverse had to cancel a performance at a festival because the band’s laptop computers had been misplaced or stolen on the way to the venue. Without the programming that was on those computers – and not just instrumental pieces, by the way, but other useful information for the show’s lighting and other details – the band couldn’t take the stage.

The resulting controversy saw several other artists, journalists, and DJs make comments about the situation. Fozzy frontman Chris Jericho (who stated that the usage of enhanced backing vocals “wasn’t a big deal”), noted journalist Eddie Trunk (who is about as much a rock “purist” as you can get), and others sounded off on the subject, leading to what is the basis of this essay. Just how “real” does rock and roll have to be?

Advancements in Technology Have ALWAYS Changed Rock & Roll

Up front, we have to be honest. Anything beyond an acoustic instrument – a piano, a guitar, even a flute or brass instrument – is an advancement in technology that means it is not a natural occurrence. The very nature of “rock and roll” is that there is an electrified element to the guitars, bass, and vocals. Those instruments have been run through processors to enhance or alter their sounds and sometimes the voice is even changed (Peter Frampton’s talk box is a particularly notable enhancement).

But when do those advancements change the inherent nature of “rock and roll?” When does the lack of human creation change what you are hearing? Just how “real” does rock and roll have to be?

We live in the advent of the “bedroom studio.” Because of the advancements in software programs, digitized instrumentation, and that old “evil” Autotune, pretty much anyone can craft a reasonably good facsimile of a song with a minimum of skill or talent. Change in the music industry makes it so that you don’t have to go through the record labels anymore to get your tunes heard – all you have to do is upload them to Spotify or TikTok and voila!, you’re a “rock star!” (Ask Billie Eilish about this…)

This change isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, however. Most musicians are hard-working, creative individuals who attempt to put their heart and soul into the music they are crafting, and, as such, it takes years, if not decades, for them to prove themselves. In bars from Boston to

Bermuda and festivals from Miami to Malibu, these consummate professionals perform, often for little profit, their music. Thus, when someone punches a couple of buttons or loops a vocal track and has listeners proclaiming them to be “the future of music,” the skills of these professionals are shit on.

Where is the Line Drawn?

One of the things that I am noticing in rock recently is the overuse of drum machines. You can usually tell these devices – instead of a “thump” or “rap” of a snare drum, you get a “tick” that sounds like a metronome running. As previously stated, Falling in Reverse is particularly guilty of this, with the drum machines lending backing to frontman Ronnie Radke’s performance. That doesn’t mean it is awful, just different.

In the studios, you should be able to use whatever tools you want to create your music. One of the greatest debut albums of all time was from the band Boston, and guitarist/maestro Tom Scholz entirely created that album in the studio through his special techniques (Scholz’s technical mastery has never been credited properly). To be a real band, for most people, you have to be able to take that show on the road.

That was one of Boston’s downfalls. With Scholz’s mastery, they were creating excellent studio releases. When they tried to take it on the road, however, they were unable to recreate the experience. “Rock and roll” isn’t about doing a note-for-note recitation of what you hear on a record – you’re supposed to feel something through the effort – but you do have to at least show up, play your instruments, and be able to entertain the fans. While Boston did that, the technology restrictions – they couldn’t bring ALL of Scholz’s wizardry on the road – left fans wanting more.

Perhaps that is the bottom line. If fans are entertained by the computerization of music, if they still enjoy it (whether it is rock, pop, or otherwise), then does it matter how “real” it is? For some, we will always enjoy the sonic bombast of a wailing guitar, or a thunderous bass and drums, but “rock and roll” don’t necessarily have to be the same thing for everyone. Sometimes, technological enhancements are a necessity for something to grow – as it has been since the guitar was electrified.

Tampa Earl