Dan Yarosh

The Evolutionary Biology

of Rock and Roll - Part II

Attitude, Deception and

Daniel B. ​Yarosh, Ph.D. © 2014, all rights reserved

The dress code for Rock has always been swagger and more than a little aggressive. From Rebel Without a Cause, to Streetfightin’ Man, to Punk, Metal and Grunge, a band’s look conveyed as much as their music.  An essential element is a confident, careless attitude.

“Clean shirt, new shoes, And I don't know where I am goin' to.
Silk suit, black tie, I don't need a reason why.
Gold watch, diamond ring, I ain't missin' not a single thing.
And cuff links, stick pin, When I step out I'm gonna do you in.
Top coat, top hat, I don't worry 'cause my wallet's fat.
Black shades, white gloves, Lookin' sharp and lookin' for love.
They come runnin' just as fast as they can
'Cause every girl crazy 'bout a sharp dressed man.” – ZZ Top, Sharped Dressed Man

It’s not just the men.  Women, too, have a look to kill.

“My sister looks cute in her bracelets and boots, A handful of grease in her hair…
Saturday night’s alright for fighting, get a little action in.” – Elton John, Saturday Night’s Alright (for fighting)

Dressing to impress is widespread in the animal kingdom.  Many animals use their teeth, feathers and legs to make themselves larger in aggressive displays – either to attract mates or ward off competitors.  Often these displays are way out ahead of the animal’s real intention to use force.  So it is with people, and that includes musicians.  We’ve all had that moment when we wonder after we’ve thrown down if we are really ready to back it up. 

“Zoot suit, white jacket with side vents five inches long.
I’m out on the street again and I’m leaping along.
I’m dressed right for a beachfight, but I just can’t explain
Why the uncertain feeling is still here in my brain.” – The Who, Quadrophenia

The danger, of course, is that other people will recognize the doubt.  That would undermine the whole benefit of the display, and may cost you your mate or even your life.  Rock n’ rollers have written about that anxiety.

“I’m a loser – and I am not what I appear to be”- The Beatles, I’m a Loser

“They’re on to me, and I am scared to no end.
Once I had the control, rules were there to bend.
But now they’re on to me, and I don’t know how to get out.” – Ari Hest, They’re On to Me

“When she goes, she’s gone, if she stays, she stays here.
The girl does what she wants to do, she knows what she wants to do.
And I know I’m, fakin’ it, I’m not really makin’ it…
Takin’ time to treat your friendly neighbors honestly.
I’ve just been fakin’it, I’m not really makin’ it.
This feeling of fakin’it – I still haven’t shaken it.” – Simon and Garfunkle, Fakin’ It

The key adaptation, then, is to believe your own lies.  People do in fact convince themselves of the most incredible falsehoods, which help them get what they want in life. It’s an amazing ability to know in one part of your mind that something is false, and in another part to believe its true. Brain scanning studies show that the anterior cingulate portion of the brain is a key structure involved in this talent.  MIT Professor and Neuroeconomist Drazen Prelec has studied the behavioral economics of self-deception and self-signaling.  Rock knew it all along.

“And they're scared that we know, All the crimes they'll commit, Who they'll kiss before they get home.
I will lie awake, Lie for fun and fake the way I hold you, Let you fall for every empty word I say” - Brand New, Me v Maradona v Elvis

The answer to this self-deception is to have better methods of detecting lies, even when the perpetrator is very convincing.  This is a skill especially necessary for women, where a mistake in interpreting intentions can be life-altering. 

“Does he love me? I want to know. How can I tell if he loves me so?
(Is it in his eyes?) Oh no, you’ll be deceived
(Is it in his eyes?) Oh no, he’ll make believe
If you want to know if he loves you so its in his kiss (Thats where it is) - Betty Everett, Its in His Kiss

This evolutionary arms race of display, deception, self-deception and detection was captured by The Boss.

 “So tell me what I see when I look in your eyes.
Is that you baby or just a brilliant disguise?
So when you look at me you better look hard and look twice. 
Is that me baby or just a brilliant disguise?” - Bruce Springsteen, Brilliant Disguise


The swagger of Rock is a show, a statement and an act of self-deception, all rolled into one.

“There’s nothing in the way I walk that could tell you where I’m going
There’s nothing in the words I speak that can betray anything I’m knowing
Don’t think about the way I dress, you can fit me on a labeled shelf
Don’t pretend that you know me ‘cause I don’t even know myself.” – The Who, I Don’t Even Know Myself