One of the first things a visitor to Chile might be surprised at is the large numbers of Classic Rock and Heavy Metal t-shirts. In contrast with stereotypes of Latin Americans liking bright colors and fun, sexy, danceable music, Chilenos are big on Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Megadeth, Slayer (a partly Chilean band!) and Guns N Roses. The other day, while waiting in line to buy bread at Wal-Mart, I was standing in line next to a guy wearing a long sleeve Slayer shirt with the Slayer logo on the sleeve...and a Motorhead t-shirt over it. The historical reasons that Chile adopted Classic Rock/Heavy Metal are interesting, and a question that I don't know the answer to. But for whatever reason, Chileans across the social spectrum grow up with an encyclopedic knowledge of bands both famous and obscure. When I meet with a top executive in a company here, I can always rely on them talking about playing in a Slayer cover band or showing me their Megadeth bootlegs.
So my first reaction when I saw this, was to think it was odd that these people were copying our popular culture, and were also so behind the times in doing it. Didn't they know that in the United States, we had moved on, and Guns N Roses hadn't been cool for almost 30 years? And that no one really ever cared about niche progrock act Marillion, so why were they still playing shows here? And, I thought, how could all these people with their little towns, filled with churches and sidewalk vegetable markets, and such a separate language and culture, even understand why Classic Rock was.
I grew up listening to Classic Rock, mostly while my mother was driving me around. We drove a lot, back in the early and mid 1990s, when gas was cheap and plentiful. Those were the days of the wide, straight freeways that you could drive for 30 miles. And we would do that, switching between Oldies and Classic Rock. My mother would, when the music got too tedious, yell out "Crispy", which meant I was to switch to another station, finding a song that was uptempo and bouncy, avoiding the extremes of being too whiny, droning or confrontational. This was the normal way to listen to music: sometimes we would go for Sunday drives around our home, on country roads, just to listen to the radio. And the marketers of rock radio certainly knew this: the playlists of rock and contemporary stations were shaped, even before Clear Channel, by the need to appeal to commuters. So to me, the image of classic rock is raised by my experience in those formative tween years: classic rock, in my mind, goes with the sound of wind whooshing past an open window, the sound of the radio being tuned and maybe crackling with static, and with the feeling of expansiveness as we cruised through six lane freeways and quarter mile interchanges.
All of which, of course, is just as far out of the context of how classic rock was created as the people wearing Led Zeppelin t-shirts on the Santiago Metro. Of course, there is a long history of classic rock songs written as paens to the American highway: Tom Petty singing about cars rolling down on 441 or Dicky Betts being born in the back seat of a Greyhound bus, or of Jim Morrison riding down that freeway. But most of the classic rock canon comes from a different time and place. Rock was started in the south in the 1950s by African Americans, was briefly adopted by white people in the south, went to England and returned to the United States, where it wasn't until the late 1960s and perhaps the 1970s that a style of rock emerged that was designed by, and for people, who were part of the great suburban baby boom. I can listen to the Rolling Stones singing Satisfaction while riding in a car down I-5, and it seems to fit perfectly, but that song was written by people in the narrow streets of London, interfacing with a specific community, and coming from a specific background (England's post-war rebuilding and search for a post-imperial identity, I guess?) that I can only write down in the broadest strokes. Jimi Hendrix, who wrote a song about a roadhouse in South King County whose location I used to drive by, lived a half a day's travel by dragonfly from where I grew up, but learned to play guitar in small clubs in the American south, and had to go to London to find his artistic voice. Even Led Zeppelin's ode to the open road had more to do with English Manor life than the wide open endless roads of the American west. All of these songs were immediately repurposed in my mind to resonate with my cultural surroundings. One of the greatest examples is The Boys Are Back In Town, a staple of classic rock radio that seems to be custom made for the guys at the local office park getting off work and going to the local Applebee's to unwind. But it was written by an Irish band, and their context for "Dino's Bar and Grill" was probably walking down to the neighborhood pub and saying hello in passing to Misses Murphy and seeing Patrick and Michael discussing football in the town square (sorry for the overly broad stereotypes), not driving their cars through the endless maze of American retail sprawl. And yet all of these things can, through time, be reimagined into our own cultural context without even thinking about the obvious gaps in fact and meaning.
This is not the most dramatic or most obvious example of cultural reimagining possible: we have, after all, hundreds of years of Renaissance art where Jesus, Mary and company were dressed like 16th century Italian nobles. But it is one of the ones that is most important for me. And, of course, I now know that the people of Chile have as much title to classic rock as I do.