The State of Rock Today

“Yeah, rock is dead. Not that it can’t come back to life, but the business is dead. If the business is dead, rock is dead. 
—-Gene Simmons in Rolling Stone

I’m not a Kiss fan but I quote Simmons here because A) his thoughts mirror a lot of other people’s beliefs and B) the dude has been in the business a long time and so doubtless has a valid viewpoint.

Reading his quote in a recent Rolling Stone triggered this post that I’ve actually been wanting to write for a while which is, what exactly IS the state of rock today?

I guess if one is to claim that rock is dead, we have to define what it means to be alive. And I think those who say it’s dead conflate an art form being central to the culture with just existing at all. In other words, if there aren’t bands some of us grew up with like The Beatles or Beach Boys dominating the Top 40, rock must be dead.

Or if bands like Kings of Leon or Queens of the Stone Age or Alabama Shakes or the Hold Steady aren’t topping the charts, rock must be dead.

A look at the Billboard charts through the years is instructive. Billboard was never exactly very reflective of rock and roll. But there was always a rock album or two that ascended the heights whether it was the Eagles in one era or Nirvana in another.

Now consider the Top 100 Billboard albums of 2016. I’ll gave you a taste of that: Adele, Drake, Bieber and Beyoncé are the top 4. The only recognizable rock band in the top 20 is Coldplay. (Are Twenty One Pilots a rock band?)

In fact in that whole top 100 from that year, the only other current rock band that I would recognize is Radiohead and they’re down at 83. Bowie and Prince are on there for, I think, obvious reasons. (Although my guess is that Blackstar would have done well anyway.) Any other rock albums are, for the most part, Greatest Hits collections.

And so if one were to gauge the “deadness” of rock solely by the charts and its influence on popular culture, then yeah, order the casket. If you’re looking for a Golden Age as we had from the mid-’50’s to the mid-70’s or early ’80’s, (The Wall was dominant), well, get over it. Ain’t gonna happen.

So if rock is barely on the Billboard charts, hardly at the TV awards shows, makes a token appearance at the Grammys and seems to be entombed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame museum, is it dead?

My thought is that the thing that would make rock dead is not its centrality to the culture but whether it’s being played (and recorded) at all anywhere. For comparison, let’s look at big band music.

In the Forties, this music was everywhere – Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, the Andrews Sisters. Much of it was quite good and it was literally the soundtrack of a generation.

But where is it today? I’m certain there are big bands around today that play concerts, maybe even make records. But other than that, can one say that big band music is alive? In the hearts and minds of (especially) that generation, yes, but otherwise, they have to go back to their records. Big band music, as a current vital art form, is effectively dead.

Well, the only metric we have left to determine the health of rock is to compare it, in some way, to big band music. Is it a form of music that is, with few exceptions, largely relegated only to record? Is it listened to only by the generation that grew up with it? Does every record being made sound like what’s on the Top 40 with no new rock being made?

My answer – hell no! I’m a total rock junkie so yeah, it’s impossible for me to consider this objectively. And truthfully, my own site is much more freighted to the music of “then” than it is the music of “now.”

But I’ve been on the blogosphere for two years now and I can say without reservation that I cannot keep up with the recommendations for good rock music that I get on a regular basis.

Here’s a short list of bands I’ve recently listened to, some on recommendation of my fellow bloggers, some I discovered myself:

  • The Hold Steady
  • The Strypes
  • Ryan Adams
  • Gentle Knife
  • Anthemic
  • Southern Avenue
  • James Holt

You might think that the younger generation is going lockstep toward the Top 40 genre. Well, not necessarily. My son is twenty-four years old and he is in two bands, one a post-rock, one a post-punk. Both of them rock and have no time or interest for any bullshit. They appreciate “classic rock” but are not means slavish to it nor do they sound anything like it. They don’t hate Top 40. I remember my son playing Gaga’s “Bad Romance” at some point.

And that picture on top of my post? (Apologies for it being all white dudes but I dug the picture.) Well, aren’t Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age, Flaming Lips, Jack White and Drive-By Truckers not all kicking ass and taking no prisoners?

Yes they are. As are Kings of Leon, My Morning Jacket, Chris Robinson, Gary Clark Jr., the Black Keys, Radiohead and any number of lesser-known bands. My son played at a post-rock festival in Belgium earlier this year and he’s playing at another one this month in Vermont. (Check out the line-ups of Coachella or Bonaroo sometime. They tend to actually be a nice mix of the rock and popular music worlds.)

While writing this, I was reminded of the famous letter that a girl named Virginia wrote to a newspaper over a hundred years ago, wondering whether there was a Santa Claus. With apologies to the New York Sun (dead). I here paraphrase:

Dear New York Sun

I am known as the Music Enthusiast. My friends (and Gene fucking Simmons), tell me rock is dead. Say it ain’t so, oh fake media:

Dear ME:

Your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. No, ME, rock is NOT dead. Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no rock ‘n roll. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.

No rock and roll! Thank God! It lives, and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Mr. Enthusiast or whatever the fuck your real name is, nay ten times ten thousand years from now, it will continue to make glad the heart of rockers everywhere. As for Gene Simmons, well, consider the source.

And as far as the old guard, well, all our rockers who said they hoped they died before they get old are still out there doing it. The Who, Neil Young, Rolling Stones (YOU try to keep up with Mick), Roger Waters, Fleetwood Mac, U2, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney. Go to a Bruce Springsteen concert some time. It will take him 3 – 4 hours to demonstrate to you exactly how dead rock is. And then he will do it again. And again. And again.

Rock is by no means dead nor is it some sort of museum artifact. It may not be in its ascendancy, it may not be the driver of culture that it used to be. But it’s there. It’s just gone back underground. You just gotta know where to look for it.

Keep on rockin’ in the free (and not so free) world!

Spotify link

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

18 thoughts on “The State of Rock Today

    1. You mean the free world thing? That, of course, is from Neil’s song. I like it but I never liked how he disincluded (is that a word?) the non-free world. So I threw it in there. But really, it doesn’t bother me at all that rock doesn’t drive the culture. It’s never been driven by rock as emphatically as it was by the Beatles. I’m just happy rock’s still chugging away! I can listen to it and/or go hear it just about every day of the week (money permitting.) And it’s all over cable. So, yay.

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  1. I am in agreement. Rock is not dead. On life support, maybe. My daughter’s version of Rock are bands like Panic at the Disco and Saint Motel. For me, there have been some newer bands that excite me such as Greta Van Fleet and Monster Truck that bring the classic rock sound back in a big way. It will never die for me…thank goodness or I would have nothing to write about.

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    1. I heard Greta on the radio. A song called ‘Highway Tune.’ Bitchin.’ Reminded me of Zep. I was gonna add them in to a post at some point. Monster Truck I haven’t heard but that’s a great name for a band. As to having nothing to write about, yes I would totally have to get a life. 😀

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  2. That was worth the read just for the reply from The New York Sun. A small quote : “Mr Enthusiast or whatever the fuck your real name is”. You stole my thunder with the Who song. That was my next take. Maybe that Simmons guy can give me an idea. Forget it I’ll do it myself.

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  3. Wisely observed, Jim, as usually. Here’s another take about the state of rock from the never dull Steven Van Zandt who told Billboard earlier this year:

    “I call it an endangered species. The rock era is over. I clock it from [Bob Dylan’s] “Like a Rolling Stone” [1965, added for context] to the death of Kurt Cobain [1994, added for context], which was almost exactly 30 years. At that point we returned to a pop era and rock returned to being a cult, which, to be honest, is probably where it belongs. It was never meant to really be the mainstream. We just staged a coup d’état on the charts in the mid-’60s.”

    While as a big fan of British invasion acts like The Beatles, The Stones, The Who or The Kinks, I would respectfully put the start of the rock era earlier than 1965, I think Little Steven’s bigger point is spot on. Rock is no longer in the mainstream, so in that sense it’s “an endangered species.” However, this doesn’t mean it’s dead, and I don’t think that’s why he is saying.

    If I have learned anything over the past few months, during which I must have seen 30-plus bands live that mostly play rock – young and not so young, famous and not so famous – it’s that rock is far from being dead. Yes, many of the acts I have seen are tribute bands playing old stuff. My point is that while it no longer dominates the charts, rock music continues to be played in many places, and there is still an audience for it.

    I think when musicians like Gene Simmons state ‘rock is dead,’ what they really mean is that the music business has changed dramatically since the days when they became big. In the era of digital downloads, albums simply no longer sell in numbers they used to. And the royalties musicians get from digital downloads supposedly are a joke. Concerts are pretty much the only area where musicians can make some money nowadays, together with merchandise and endorsements. To me this has got to be part of the reason why tickets for many shows have gone through the roof.

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    1. I think you and I might have chatted about the Van Zandt thing before. In fact I was actually going to bring up his Nirvana reference but never got around to it. To your larger point, yeah there is not only an audience for rock but even a hunger for it. When people are fed junk and then hear the good stuff, they naturally gravitate toward it.

      Your last paragraph about Simmons is spot on. Absolutely the fucking truth. Damn shame is what it is. My son’s bands royalties from Spotify are pathetic. Somebody’s raking up all that dough but it ain’t them. The music business is full of liars and thieves.

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  4. Rock music’s there, but it’s just not a dominant cultural paradigm any more. It feels like some guitar rock like The White Stripes and Franz Ferdinand was big in the mainstream around 2005, but I can’t think of much after that. I don’t know if the genre has exhausted its mainstream ideas and what’s left is too out there for the mainstream, or if raw, organic music is just too out of step for the current top 40.

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    1. Or if more to the point, many kids today just don’t give a damn about it. I was reading an interview in a previous Rolling Stone with the guys from Foo Fighters. They very much realize that while still popular, they are not what’s happening with kids today. Their drummer said, sure, why would a 17-year-old want to go see a band with a bunch of mid-40’s guys?

      The seeds of this change go back a long way. Disco came in the late ’70’s, then rap and hip-hop. Dance music and rhythm became popular. It wasn’t necessary – or even desirable – to play in instrument in rap. And yet it was – and is – wildly popular. Stuff like that is the soundtrack now. I remember watching the show ‘Entourage’ and all the music was hip-hop. All the athletes I know of listen to Top 40 or hip-hop before they go on the field. People actually go see DJ’s!

      So yeah, rock is there and is not going away. But for every kid I meet who loves rock or classic rock, there are several more who do not give a shit about it. Unfortunate but true. The wheel turns.

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      1. It’s probably unrealistic to expect your generation’s music to remain the dominant cultural force – it’s already had quite a lot of staying power.

        It is a bit frustrating – I guess it’s often true that the most creative music is pushed to the margins, and the mainstream is relatively uninteresting, but it’s more pronounced now than it usually is.

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        1. Yes, I’m a baby boomer and now the millennials have overtaken us, numbers-wise. So they will eventually push the culture. Expect much kale. 😀

          Interestingly, I liken the music scene now to what it was like in the early ’70’s. Rock was out there and very, very popular but very, very underground. FM was even referred to as underground radio. You had to look far and wide to hear or see any rock on TV and it was practically non-existent at the Grammys. And the charts were filled with pap. We’ve come full circle.

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  5. I think you first have to define what you mean by “rock.” Should the term apply to Top 40 pop(ular) music, to contemporary soul, to rap/hip-hop, to industrial noise, to electronica, etc. etc.? Little Steven obviously doesn’t think so, otherwise he’d include pre-1965 people like Elvis, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley and the Comets, Shangri-Las, Neil Sedaka, etc., and post-Nirvana people like Sheryl Crow and Vanilla-Ice-T-Jay-Z (or whomever). Then you have to define what you mean by “dead.” Is the music never played, or is it only played occasionally, and if so, is that considered “dead”? And unlike Gene Simmons, I don’t think it has anything to do with business (money-making). Rock music can still thrive underground, and the best rock music usually does.

    For me, rock music began “dying” around the time of the arena acts (mid-1970s), once big business got its claws into things. Bands like Kiss helped kill rock music. Punk rock was a last, futile gasp. Everything since then, although some of it’s good, has been a retread.

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    1. You raise a good point. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum has defined rock to be anything from Chuck Berry to Madonna to the Beastie Boys to Donna Summer. So if I were to further refine it, I would say it’s the rock that started (Van Zandt notwithstanding) in the mid-50’s and went through the late ‘70’s, maybe early 80’s. (You almost have to stretch it past that, though, because bands like Guns N’ Roses, Nirvana and Pearl Jam came later.)

      But I think of that period as the Golden Age of Rock. So that music was not only largely good but was also predominant in the culture and on the charts. So if just for the sake of discussion we accept those boundaries, then really my question was “What is the State of It?” rather than “Is it Dead?”
      To me, “dead” would be as I mentioned, the state as with big band. People still listen to it as it’s still very much available. My millennial daughter loves it. But it has virtually zero impact on the culture today, is nowhere to be seen on the popular charts and there are few real practitioners of it. It is effectively dying off with the WWII generation as a vital force.

      I agree to some extent with your statement about much rock being a retread. But what’s missing today is, I think, any real band that is driving popular music forward in the way the Beatles did. Or how Brian Wilson heard the Beatles and upped his game. Forcing the Beatles to up their game. For all I know, that exact thing is happening in, say, hip-hop and I’m clueless. .

      Lastly – and this is something I didn’t really take into consideration – one question is whether rock is largely “spent?” How much more can be done within the bass-guitar-drums format that hasn’t already been done? I can hear a song (bet you can do) and within a minute say, “Been there, done that.”

      BTW, I am going to have a part II of this sooner rather than later which considers it from a somewhat different angle.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Jim
    If you look at the difference between the U.K album charts for the last week compared to the US. Rock is not dead. maybe on life support in the States but in the U.K at number 3 we have David Gilmour, At # 6 Foo Fighters and some others.
    U.K http://www.officialcharts.com/charts/albums-chart/
    Billboard http://www.officialcharts.com/charts/billboard-hot-100-chart/
    Last I had the unfortunate chance to see 21 Pilots one night because of my daughter. The headliner Fall Out Boy is prove Rock is not dead and 21 Pilots proves that now days kids will think anything is good even when it sucks. A drummer who really drums and a guy who sometimes plays piano but mostly just sings to pre-recorded music

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    1. I looked at the lists. On the one hand, it’s good to see rock on there. On the other, it’s all bands from the days of yore. Gilmour. Foo Fighters and of course Petty. Sigh. As to that concert you went to, just glad my kids are old enough to go to their own stuff. 😀

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