“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
- 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:
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!