For The Last Time: Rock Is Not Dead, You’re Just Not Paying Attention
For as long as I have been listening to rock ‘n’ roll, people have been telling me that the music I love is dead.
When I was a grade-schooler in the late ’80s, people told me rock was dead because of the preponderance of hair-metal bands on MTV. A few years later, I heard rock was dead because white suburban kids had finally embraced hip-hop. After that, rock died because Kurt Cobain committed suicide. And then rock died again because Rolling Stone decided in the mid-’90s to put an electro-punk band from England that nobody remembers called The Prodigy on the cover. And then there was the rise of boy bands in the late ’90s. And the riots at Woodstock ’99. And then there were the Strokes, who some people believed signaled that “rock was back!” while others insisted that, no, the Strokes were derivative and therefore represented rock’s death. And on and on and on.
Of course, there were those who argued that rock died before I was even born. In the late ’60s, rock critics like Richard Meltzer and Nic Cohn believed that rock’s evolution from the wild-eyed innocence of early rock ‘n’ roll in the ’50s to the druggy self-indulgence of the late ’60s killed the music’s original outlaw spirit. In 1971, folk singer Don McLean echoed these sentiments in the corny FM radio staple “American Pie,” in which he coined the phrase “the day the music died” to signify the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper 58 years ago this week. 58 years ago! Rock apparently died almost immediately after it was invented.
By now, I should probably be used to “rock is dead!” thinkpieces. And yet, I must admit to feeling bewildered by the latest rash of amateur coroners eager to perform last rites on rock’s corpse. In recent months, there’s been a new “rock is dead!” thinkpiece seemingly every other week. “Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Dead, or Just Old?” pondered The New York Times. “What Happened to Rock Music?” mused The New Republic. “Is Rock Still Relevant in 2016?” wondered Billboard. (Full disclosure: I was quoted as a source in the Billboard story.) Some outlets haven’t even bothered to frame rock’s health in the form of a question. “The Demise of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” indie music site Consequence of Sound declaredominously last week.
Returning to my Apple Music queue after reading these stories gave me a serious case of cognitive dissonance. Am I crazy, or are these reports of rock’s death an “alternative facts” situation?
My recent listening includes the whisper-to-a-scream confessionals of Vagabon’s Lætitia Tamko, the brawny bar-band anthems of the Menzingers, the otherworldly indie-rock mini-epics of Jay Som, the trance-inducing desert jams of Tinariwen, the bluesy alt-country of veteran outfit Son Volt, the bonkers instrumentals of Delicate Steve, the bottomless doom-metal of Pallbearer, the catchy-as-hell emo of Sorority Noise, the gorgeous psych-folk of Wooden Wand, the exhilarating noise riffs of Pile, and the knowing singer-songwriter pop of Allison Crutchfield. And that’s just drawing from a relatively small sample size of albums that have come out this month, or will be out in the coming weeks. None of these records are masterpieces, but they’re all worth hearing, and reflect the impressive range of music that currently sits under the “rock” umbrella.
Here are the facts as I see them: There have never been as many rock bands in as many different subgenres making as many good to great records as there are at this very moment. Check out the live music listings in your town, and you’ll see that the majority of the acts playing local bars, clubs, halls, and theaters play music that is at least tangentially related to rock. Should you decide to attend one of those shows, you’ll find that today’s best emerging bands often feature women and people of color, as well as lesbian, gay, and transgender musicians. Best of all, these bands are young — some of them are just a few years out of high school, and they epitomize the younger generation’s values. Rock shows, once associated with macho danger, have increasingly become designated as safe spaces for all kinds of people to gather, where beefy guys who just want to mosh are no longer tolerated if they can’t make room for women.
If there’s a common thread in rock history, it’s that each generation of artists and bands is inspired (sometimes consciously, more often subliminally) by the bedrock roots that rock music sprang from — the gut-level power of blues, the high-lonesome beauty of country, and the quirky eccentricity of folk. You can transform these raw materials into something poppier, weirder, prettier, or louder. You can simplify them or complicate them, until they become punk rock, death metal, or bro country. But all rock music derives from the same well.
The best rock artists implant these elemental sounds with a new, contemporary sensibility. This push-pull between tradition and modernity has defined rock from the beginning. For rock music in the ’10s, forward-thinking and inclusive millennials are systematically deconstructing the old white-male power structure that defined the genre for decades, effectively re-inventing rock in the 21st century as a form that’s more open and sonically malleable. For those of us who have followed rock for most of our lives, this latest evolution has been exciting to witness.
However, the frankly tiresome conversation about whether rock is, in fact, deceased isn’t all that concerned with artistic evolution, or with cultural shifts that have occurred in the rock underground. Instead, reports of rock’s death stem from a preoccupation with commerciality and celebrity as the defining metrics for which musical artists are considered worthy or “relevant” in 2017.
Essentially, the argument forwarded by these “rock is dead!’ thinkpieces goes like this: Because there are currently no rock bands as famous as Beyonce or Taylor Swift or Adele, the entire genre is in a death spiral. Whether the music is actually, you know, good doesn’t seem to matter.
There’s no disputing that rock for the most part has retreated from pop music. Which means that the sorts of mega-selling arena bands that defined rock in the popular consciousness from the late ’60s to the late ’90s probably aren’t coming back. And that makes me sad, because I like those kinds of bands — the Led Zeppelins, the Metallicas, the Pearl Jams. But this is hardly a new development. In fact, it’s been happening since at least the early ’00s.
Back then, rock radio essentially collapsed — stations in major markets either changed formats or they filtered out emerging bands in favor of established names and oldies from the ’90s. Today, the best new bands have virtually no shot at exposure via radio, which is still vitally important for breaking new artists. The best bet for a rock band in the mainstream is to play down the “rock” aspects of their music in favor of more pop-friendly sounds, an approach favored by outliers such as Twenty One Pilots and The 1975. (Both of those bands are currently playing arenas.)
But again, this is unrelated to the artistic quality of modern rock bands, or their ability to persevere in spite of considerable challenges. Rock bands have proven amazingly resilient as the music industry has reverted — as it always does — to a pop-centric focus in response to prolonged economic hardship. One only has to do a cursory search on Bandcamp to find literally thousands of rock bands that have taken it upon themselves to distribute their music directly to fans. And those fans, in turn, have started up their own websites to cover punk, emo, and metal acts in spite of mainstream media indifference, and even established DIY music venues to host live performances for kids who can’t afford to attend expensive music festivals like Coachella and Lollapalooza. Rock, which is frequently dismissed as nostalgia-obsessed and geared toward senior citizens, has endured precisely because passionate teens and twenty-somethings have fought to carve out their own spaces for the music that moves them, media-driven cultural trends be damned.
While no rock band currently rests with pop’s top one-percent, rock is arguably the only genre left with a sizable middle class, where you can make a living without having to compete against one-person multi-national corporations like Taylor Swift and Adele, the Wal-Mart and Target of popular music. Only a fool picks up a guitar in 2017 with the expectation that fame and fortune is around the corner. However, for many rock musicians, there’s value in the personal connections that artists and fans can only forge during a live gig in a 500-person club, or from selling a record by hand at the merch table (or electronically via Bandcamp, where fans be assured that artists are actually being paid, unlike pop stars racking up millions of spins on Spotify). From those personal connections spring devoted followings and enduring careers that often outlast the average pop-career cycle. So, while Mitski might not be a superstar in 2017, I would bet on her still making albums that people care about in 2027.
In a different time, perhaps, these efforts would be more widely applauded. Instead, opting to making art outside of the industrial-celebrity complex seems to be regarded more often than not with suspicion by the music press. It’s this suspicion that lurks behind every “rock is dead!” thinkpiece. For many critics, it’s become de rigueur to equate existing outside of the mainstream with cultural insignificance or even (here’s that word again) death.
While “rock is dead!” declarations are nothing new, this intense focus on pop’s one-percent at the expense of all other artists seems unique to the current moment. When I was growing up in the alt-rock era, pop music was the opposite of cool. “If you’re popular, you must suck” was considered conventional wisdom. Clearly, this was very little actual wisdom in this sentiment. It was only a matter of time before the authenticity politics of the ’90s triggered a backlash.
That backlash finally arrived in 2004, when The New York Times music critic Kelefa Sanneh wrote a hugely influential piece about “rockism,” which he defined thusly: A rockist isn’t just someone who loves rock ‘n’ roll, who goes on and on about Bruce Springsteen, who champions ragged-voiced singer-songwriters no one has ever heard of. A rockist is someone who reduces rock ‘n’ roll to a caricature, then uses that caricature as a weapon. Rockism means idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; lionizing punk while barely tolerating disco; loving the live show and hating the music video; extolling the growling performer while hating the lip-syncher.
In 2004, this point of view was refreshing. Sanneh argued that different kinds of music are good for different reasons, and chastised rock critics for applying established standards for “real” rock to other genres, where those codes might seem limiting or even nonsensical. In essence, Sanneh made a convincing case to open up the critical canon beyond traditional “white guy with a guitar” music. An enjoyably trashy pop single shouldn’t be slighted for not having the pretensions of a U2 album; in fact, maybe a U2 album should be slighted for being less fun than a trashy pop single. This swiftly became the new normal in critical circles.
Thirteen years later, the critical community is quick to idolize the latest pop star, lionize disco, love the music video, and extol (or defend, in the case of Mariah Carey) the lip-syncher. Unfortunately, every revolution has collateral damage. Back in 2004, Sanneh was reacting against the ingrained elitism of music critics who were biased in favor of obscure artists as a stand against public taste. He couldn’t have foreseen how the internet’s attention economy would eventually give pop stars a huge promotional advantage while disenfranchising the “underground hero.” Because in 2017, music critics are inclined to favor pop stars, too. Meanwhile, the underground hero is being written out of the narrative.
A good way to illustrate this change is to consider The Village Voice‘s annual Pazz & Jop critics poll, still the most comprehensive measure of critical opinion in a given year. In 2011, the albums list was topped by tUnE-yArDs, an adventurous indie-pop project headed up by singer and instrumentalist Merrill Garbus, whose album whokill was the lowest selling and lowest charting record to ever top the Pazz & Jop list in the poll’s 46-year history. Joining Garbus at the top of the list were other cult favorites such as PJ Harvey, Wild Flag, Tom Waits, Destroyer, and Shabazz Palaces. The remaining artists in the top 10 — Jay-Z and Kanye West, Adele, Bon Iver, and Drake — added up to a list that struck a balance between the underground and the pop mainstream.
Just five years later, in 2016, the Pazz & Jop list was dramatically different. Now, just one artist, Car Seat Headrest — who had put out 11 albums on Bandcamp before signing to Matador in 2015 — didn’t debut in the BillboardTop 10. The rest was the same mix of established superstars and beloved icons that appeared on countless other year-end lists: David Bowie, Beyonce, A Tribe Called Quest, Chance The Rapper, Solange, Frank Ocean, Radiohead, Leonard Cohen, and Kanye West.
Year-end lists once acted as an avenue for critics to stump for under-appreciated artists. Critics were part of a system of checks and balances on the marketplace, ensuring that worthy artists outside the mainstream weren’t forgotten. Now, these lists seem to merely re-iterate the greatness of artists that a whole lot of people already love. What was once necessary now seems a little redundant.
Only a severe anti-pop crank would argue that Beyonce doesn’t make great albums. The problem is when critics focus predominantly on giants and disregard midlevel artists due, in part, to their “irrelevant” smallness. An inversion of Sanneh’s rockist critique has taken hold, where the standards of pop music are now being used to punish artists who never intended to make pop music. This thinking has even filtered down to indie outlets that have typically championed underground bands.
In Consequence of Sound’s “rock is dead!” story, Dylan Baldi of the fine grunge-punk band Cloud Nothings is curiously compared in an unfavorable light to Justin Bieber. In the writer’s view, contemporary rock musicians don’t have the sort of outsized personalities that “causes [internet] traffic to spike.” Instead, Baldi is a self-described “modest” pragmatist who seems fine with the size of Cloud Nothings’ audience. In the context of a “rock is dead!” thinkpiece, this is supposed to be an indictment, no matter Baldi’s apparent contentment with his career.
Meanwhile, what isn’t discussed is Cloud Nothings’ recent single, “Enter Entirely,” which is one of the best songs of early 2017. Seriously, check it out. It’s awesome.
Last weekend, I watched Gimme Danger, Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 documentary about legendary midwestern rabble rousers, The Stooges. If an alien came down to Earth and asked me to define what an underground rock hero is, I would point to a picture of the Stooges’ perpetually shirtless frontman Iggy Pop smearing peanut butter on his chest while belting out “I Got a Right” over a pulverizing proto-punk groove. Iggy Pop was never a pop star. If music history solely reflected the marketplace, Iggy Pop would’ve been forgotten long ago. It was up to critics to remind future generations that this guy mattered.
During Gimme Danger, I found myself wondering: How would music critics in 2017 regard a band like the Stooges? Would they appreciate the unrelenting power of the band’s 1970 LP Fun House, or would they denigrate the Stooges because they were never as popular as Cat Stevens? Is it possible that the poor commercial performance of Fun House — surely one of the greatest rock albums ever made — would be used as evidence that rock was dead?
My point isn’t to say that rock is better than pop, or that the Stooges kick ass and Cat Stevens is a wimp. I’m merely circling pack to Sanneh’s original point: All music should be appreciated on its own terms. Pop shouldn’t be a zero-sum game, in which you’re either an uber-famous celebrity or an irrelevant nobody stuck in a dead genre. Maybe we can find a little more room to praise the pop star and lionize the underground hero.