When I ask “Is rock & roll dead”, I obviously don’t mean dead and gone. There are still plenty of fine bands around. What I’m asking is whether rocknroll is now in the position that Jazz got into by 1968, which people at the time described as “jazz died”. Meaning that it’s no longer popular and relevant to the mainstream music buyer.
Rock has been in trouble for some time. But every time in the past that it got itself into a bad space, it always revived itself again. And looking back, I see that it tended to do so on a surprisingly regular schedule: once every twelve to fourteen years. Consider:
1951: Alan Freed starts playing a new kind of rhythm&blues for mainstream audiences, referring to it as Rock and Roll.
1964: the British Invasion.
1977: New Wave, with Punk just under the surface.
1991: Grunge and alt-rock.
2004: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ?
It’s clear enough why this cycle occurs: because once music becomes popular, it is imitated, with enough imitation it becomes lifeless and people get bored, and when they get bored they look to find, or do, something new. Innovation → Success → Imitation → Boredom → Innovation.
But it appears now that the cycle is not repeating. Every previous time that rock music turned into bland homogenized pap cranked out on record-company assembly lines, actual musicians went back to their garages and came up with a new kind of sound, a more authentic music that didn’t just imitate the past, and it caught on and eventually became successful and widely imitated again. It did this because rock and roll was not just a successful commercial product — it was also a living folk music. Meaning not that it involved people strumming acoustic guitars and mandolins as in “folk” music (though they sometimes did), but that it was an active grassroots art form which grew and evolved with the constant participation of everyday people playing and singing for the love of music. It’s in this sense that I ask whether rock is now “dead” — in the same sense that I referred to its active folk tradition as “living”.
By 2001, I was very much aware that rock had fallen into a boredom cycle again. By 2004, I was really expecting that some new sound would be erupting out of the garages and college towns any day now. By 2007 it was getting clear that something was going wrong. And by now it’s obvious that it’s not just delayed, but is truly not happening. There is no new sound. There is no new underground style that’s going to sweep away the cobwebs. There is no longer an active grassroots ferment of musicians trying new things until something clicks. And there is apparently no longer an audience that seeks out the genuine and worthy new music and rewards it with success — at least, it isn’t seeking that music from rock bands.
Why are things different now? What could make it go wrong? There are several possible theories:
- The rock genre has now been explored so thoroughly that there really isn’t anything all that new for it to do.
- Hip-hop is so awesome that people don’t need rock&roll anymore. Or maybe what’s even more awesome than hiphop is American Idol.
- Life has changed enough so that this sound simply isn’t the one that speaks to young people anymore. Maybe kids today are too sheltered. Maybe they actually get along with their parents!
- Or maybe it’s just that everybody’s parents listen to rocknroll, so the kids don’t want to (but that was pretty true already in 1991).
- Or maybe it’s just that kids today no longer grow up with decent chances to learn to play musical instruments. School music programs are a sad remnant of what they once were.
I think that last point may be more relevant than is generally realized. Maybe kids today are listening to soulless computer-generated pop/rap/club swill because they don’t know how to make anything else.
Whatever the reason — and all of those points might be part of it — you can’t really blame the surge of bland cutesy pop singers. Rock and roll has been laughing at acts like that right from the beginning. If it can’t beat vacuous bubblegummers singing corporate lyrics on their home turf, it has nothing but itself to blame.
I do notice that one side effect is a gradual elevation of bland pop to start having a little bit of artistic value again. It’s now not all that rare for a pop star, once they get a bit of success, to start making their music more authentic and personal, and not just sing whatever is handed to them. But that’s a far cry from what we used to have.
I wouldn’t mind rock dying out as a mainstream popular sound, and moving into a niche status as jazz did, if it were being replaced by something else that had just as much to it. Despite some mildly positive signs, what we’ve got on the hit charts today is mostly just dreadful — idiotic and crass and empty, an artistic vacuum, which exists only to be used as a game piece in the competition for stardom, not for the sake of creating something with meaning. We’ve really lost something.
But if the timing holds, maybe in two or three years we’ll be set for some new kind of post-rock music to sweep away all the Lady Gagas and Black-Eyed Peases.