The relationship between popular art and “real” art has always been a tricky tightrope to walk. On the one hand, deriding works as not being “real” art is a fast track to coming off as a snob, and while there’s something to be said for being a discerning consumer of art, you don’t want to be prematurely dismissive, either. On the other hand, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who thought that every last Hollywood sequel and focus-group-tested lowest common denominator-catering rom-com was “art.”
Even so, it’s important to note that “art” doesn’t mean “obscure.” While that can be a popular position to take in a post-Romanticism, hipster-heavy critical zeitgeist, it’s important to remember that Shakespeare, Dickens, Tarantino, Kubrick, David Bowie, the Beatles, and countless other artists of all stripes enjoyed vast commercial, as well as critical success.
So, what is “art rock,” and what does it mean?
A Classical Edge
“Art rock” as a concept is less a comprehensive definition and more a grab bag of different attributes, one of which is a more “classical” edge. Rock Us, Amadeus indeed – including string sections, horns, piano, and other classical flourishes can be a quick way to earn a song the “art rock” moniker. Operatic flourishes can go a long way as well. Freddie Mercury had a vocal range that allowed him to carry out not just the rhapsodic shifts in mood of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and operatic touches of Queen’s Night at the Opera, but actual opera alongside Montserrat Caballé.
It isn’t just classical music. George Harrison famously added sitar and Indian influences to the Beatles’ sound, while blending folk and rock musical traditions furthered the careers of Bob Dylan and countless others in the Folk Revival of the 60s.
Pop, Punk, and Progress
Of course, also furthering that movement was the social progressivism at play in the music of the 60s and 70s. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and other big hitters of the 60s all tapped into the Vietnam-era counterculture with astounding success.
From punk and The Sex Pistols to grunge and Nirvana to the great rappers of the past two decades, awareness and successfully commenting on an era’s social and political issues and ennui can earn a singer or band the “art rock” title.
For art to remain exciting, it must evolve. The sound mixing and editing tricks in the Beatles’ later records, as well as those of Pink Floyd, show experimentation with how pop songs can sound. Other artists, such as David Bowie, Madonna, and Lady Gaga, went the image route, making their personal appearance part of their “character” and thus performance.
Ultimately, art is by acclimation. What makes something “art rock?” Enough people calling it so.