As I write this sentence, the social stature of Elvis and Dylan feels similar—perhaps even identical. But it’s entirely possible that one of those people will get dropped as time plods forward. And if that happens, the consequence will be huge. If we concede that the “hero’s journey” is the de facto story through which we understand history, the differences between these two heroes would profoundly alter the description of what rock music supposedly was.
If Elvis (minus Dylan) is the definition of rock, then rock is remebered as showbiz. Like Frank Sinatra, Elvis did not write songs; he interpreted songs that were written by other people (and like Sinatra, he did this brilliantly). But removing the essentialism of songwriting from the rock equation radically alters the context of its social value. It becomes a solely performative art form, where the meaning of a song matters less than the person singing it. It becomes personality music, and the dominant qualities of Presley’s persona—his sexuality, his masculinity, his larger-than-life charisma—become the dominant signifiers of what rock was. His physical decline and reclusive death become an allegory for the entire culture. The reminiscence of the rock genre adopts a tragic hue, punctuated by gluttony, drugs, and the conscious theft of black culture by white opportunists. But if Dylan (minus Elvis) becomes the definition of rock, everything reverses. In this contingency, lyrical authenticity becomes everything: rock is galvanized as an intellectual craft, interlocked with the folk tradition. It would be remembered as far more political than it actually was, and significantly more political than Dylan himself. The fact that Dylan does not have a conventionally “good” singing voice becomes retrospective proof that rock audiences prioritized substance over style, and the portrait of his seven-decade voyage would align with the most romantic version of how an eclectic collection of fifty autonomous states eventually became a place called “America”.
These are the two best versions of this potential process. And both are flawed.
— Chuck Klosterman
The flaw he mentions is not only with the false dichotomy we face, but that the thought experiment itself may be wrong. For example, it’s just as likely that people of the future will decide what rock and roll music ‘was’ first, and then choose a representative artist to be the archetypal rock musician.