It’s been a saying since the genre was new and fresh in the late 50s. One that gave a whole generation a style of music to call their own.
Yet, decade after decade, rock n roll has prevailed. It underwent changes but always stayed at the forefront of whatever music was at any given time. It became the umbrella term for music, the basis for its own hall of fame, and quintessential type of celebrity: “rock star”.
But in recent years, the statement seems closer to truth than a figurative political-in-the-sense-of-music statement.
Led Zeppelin’s 2014 Grammy Award Winning Celebration Day
At this year’s Grammy awards, four of the six nominees in the Best Rock Album category were bands who came to prominence in the 1960s. Five decades ago! The newest band among them, Kings of Leon, put out their first major label album more than ten years ago in 2003.
The winning album, Celebration Day by Led Zeppelin, was a live recording of a December 2007 concert consisting of no new material, suggesting the best rock music of the last year was from the 60s.
Over on the Billboard rock charts, the Hot Rock Songs chart consists mainly of crossover hits that benefit from pop format radio airplay and subsequent digital sales, where the definition of “rock” is loosely given based on Billboard’s own criteria that can range anywhere from guitar ballads by Passenger to synth-pop by Capital Cities and anything considered “indie” – which has been the new “alternative” since it stopped meaning just without a label.
The Rock airplay charts contain more of what would be expected in the line of rock, with bands that are established on the rock front but relatively unfamiliar otherwise. Maybe not unlike niche genres such as jazz or classical, neither of which are dead but not nearly as popular as they were in their heyday.
I’m not implying in a serious manner that rock music is dead or even dying. I’m well aware that any city or town with any sort of a live music scene is made up of bands who perform rock music. Simply put, its place among mainstream music has been lessened in favour of other genres. But as with everything in music, it’s cyclical.
The popularity of rock music in any given time period is based heavily on the youths who consume it and make it their own. With the rising popularity of hip-hop, predominantly since the late 90s, many of these young people have adopted that or resorted to classic rock from the 60s and 70s.
Interestingly, rock music may be the only genre of mainstream music where the oldies never go out of style as dozens of rock bands from the 60s and 70s have continued or even increased popularity and respect – or at least go through it in phases.
And maybe it’s because classic rock never goes out of style that the entire genre has seemingly reached a standstill. The constant comparison of new bands to the tried-and-true classics of the 60s and 70s – the age of discovery in music when there was room to grow and do something that hadn’t been done before. Some variation of “bands/music today suck(s)!”
There have been eras when new subsets of rock music have moved to the forefront, such as grunge and post-grunge in the late 90s, and the continuation of that in the early 2000’s with nu-metal and rap-metal, but for the last half-decade or so, rock has taken what seems like a permanent back seat. Relegating itself to only those few people interested in new rock.
Imagine Dragons (photo from hollywire.com)
Newer rock bands (I use “new” loosely) like Arctic Monkeys, Vampire Weekend or Avenged Sevenfold, have yet to really cross over in any way, while bands like Imagine Dragons and Bastille have gotten lucky. Perhaps at the expense of the genre itself by incorporating elements of electronica or synthpop in there somewhere, they are still the present-day ambassadors of rock outside of the field.
Maybe present-day synth-inspired rock is the answer for the time-being. The definition of what “rock music” is, much like new wave was – which in itself was extrapolated from punk rock and experimental disco – is larger than many people realize, or want to admit.
So is rock music as it used to be known doomed?
Probably not. In addition to the current subset of rock (synth-rock? Indie? whatever), folk-rock was big for the last few years. While they aren’t traditionally mirrored with the classic sound of rock, every genre evolves and incorporates other styles and influences as a whole over time. Rock will never die. Even with its ever expansive definition due to intermingling styles, traditional rock will stick around the same way traditional country has, or pre-electric-Dylan folk, or even disco. And as far as mainstream audiences go, it may just take a while longer for rock to come back again full circle.