Rock and roll. It’s all about a sound and a feeling. Why is it, then, that when we think about some of the most iconic rock and roll artists – Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and many, many more – the first sensation that comes to mind isn’t necessarily a sound, but the famous rock and roll images that have come to represent them. In many cases, the images wound up being just as famous as the music and the musicians themselves.
It is often said that smell is the sense most closely linked to memory, but since its not common practice to smell a rock star (well, not for most of us anyway. But hey, no judging), we often rely on rock and roll images as a mechanism to generate our memories of music, parties, and the general culture of our time. These images often represent more than just the stars pictured in them. They also serve as a stand-in for everything happening culturally at a certain time. Think about all of the rock and roll images taken at the Woodstock music festival in 1969. Iconic photos of Jimi Hendrix with the fringes of his jacket whipping and spraying about him like a burst of psychedelic fireworks, Joe Cocker poised of the crowd in a tie dyed shirt, Janis Joplin barefoot and wailing soulfully into the microphone – all of these images have come to define the experience, even for those who weren’t there. In fact, the shots of the attending crowd, packed with flower children dancing freely, have become equally iconic. These images give you a sense of what the audience experienced and felt at the time, and that connects even non-attendees to the festival. Rock and roll images have the power to turn an experience from a memory for some to a moment that defined an entire generation, available for everyone to share. You needn’t have heard the sounds of Woodstock to feel like you were there, and to know what it was like to have experienced it.
In a lot of ways, music videos have become the descendants of still rock and roll images. Still images are still relevant – there are many from the past decade that are just as iconic as those of the past – but music videos are an evolution or extension of the notion. Kurt Cobain thrashing away through “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with punk rock, anarchist cheerleaders rooting him on; Britney Spears dancing through a high school’s hallways in a schoolgirl uniform; the White Stripes, in their Lego manifestations, confessing to having fallen in love with a girl; scenes from these videos will forever live in our minds and remind us of the sounds of a generation, often more so than the music itself.
Whether you experienced the melodies of a given decade, or lived through the sounds of a generation, you can have access to the music and everything it represented through rock and roll images. Bands don’t stay together forever, artists lose their popularity, and performers eventually leave us, but thanks to powerful, iconic, rock and roll images, the music never really dies. It has the power to live forever and inspire a new generation.