“Rock and Roll” is a surprisingly flexible term in the modern day. While the simple chord structures and driving rhythms of 1950s genre stars like Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley were instantly identifiable, rock music has gone through so many evolutions that the number of sub-genres that exist today is ludicrous. Thanks to the diluted use of the tag from the likes of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and ironically named Daft Punk songs, “rock and roll” is more challenging to pin down than ever before.
If you’re looking for some guidance, why not turn to an expert on the form like Mick Jagger? Through his six decades as the lead singer of The Rolling Stones, Jagger had participated in his transformation from a blues-obsessed teenager to a global pop star to an iconic rock and roll frontman. Having lived through more changes in style and culture than just about any modern musician, Jagger has seen enough to be a reliable source to decipher what rock and roll truly is.
Somewhat surprisingly, when Jagger was interviewed by Rolling Stone in 1995, he insisted that rock and roll wasn’t just about attitude. Instead, in order for music to truly be rock and roll, it has to follow some specific parameters to qualify.
“All those things: energy, anger, angst, enthusiasm, a certain spontaneity,” Jagger explained. “It’s very emotional. It’s very traditional. It can’t break too many rules. You have certain set rules, certain forms, which are traditionally folk-based, blues-based forms. But they’ve got to be sung with this youthful energy. Or youthful lethargy, because youth has this languorous, lethargic, rebellious side to it as well.”
Jagger insisted that youth, or at least the appearance of youth, is what gives rock and roll its vital edge, something that he and the rest of the Stones have completely ignored for a number of decades. “So they can be sung as an alternate mode of thrashing. This slightly feminine languor, the boredom of youth as well as the anger, because youth has those two things. To represent those emotions, this form seems to work very well.”
It’s important to remember the climate that Jagger was taking in at the time: the first wave of grunge had officially burned out, while Britpop and punk were starting to break big. Traditional rock and roll music wasn’t exactly thriving, but some originators like The Rolling Stones were still spreading the gospel on massive stages.
Jagger might have thought that rock and roll was a young man’s game, but few figures have embodied the genre quite like Jagger has as an older man.