Is Rock and Roll Dead? Or Has it Just Fallen Behind?

Throughout the past few years; and I think 2018 specifically; many have made the claim that “rock and roll is dead;” or have at least begun to ask the question “Is rock and roll dead?” Do a quick internet search, and you’ll find several articles; from both smaller, lesser-known sites, and larger, very established sites; with titles such as “Rock Is Dead, Thank God,” (Noisey) or “Rock ‘N’ Roll Is Dead. No, Really This Time” (Forbes). I think this is a question that’s weighing very heavily on the music industry right now, from both the top and the bottom, and with hip-hop continuing to dominate alongside standard pop music, rock is almost nowhere to be seen.

Since the beginning of the year, this is something I’ve been asking myself, as well. Towards the start of my second semester of college, in my rock and roll history course, we were told to read one of these articles; and we later explored the question in class. Several of the people in that class whole-heartedly agreed that yes, it’s dead, and it has been for a while. But I don’t think it’s quite that simple. The answer to that question is entirely dependent on what you mean by “dead.” What does it mean for a music genre to be alive? Does it need to be heavily prevalent in the mainstream? Does the sound need to constantly evolve? Does it need to create new, up-and-coming artists that the public has their eye on? Or can it rely on older artists, or an indie scene to get the job done? All of these questions make it hard to definitively say one way or another.

I often see a lot of finger-pointing toward the chart-topping rock bands, as proof that there’s currently a problem with the genre, and I don’t disagree with that. If you look at the Billboard charts, the only consistently successful/popular bands under the rock genre are Imagine Dragons, Panic! at the Disco, and Twenty-One Pilots. Most people, including myself, would probably not describe them as typical “rock” bands, but there really aren’t any relevant bands that are closer to rock than they are. New, popular, pure rock songs and albums are a rarity today (I realize I just said “pure rock,” whose definition, and existence is arguable, but you get the point). To illustrate this, Queen currently has the most hits on the charts, owning 12 out of the top 25 rock songs at the moment. While this is largely due to the recent release of Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), it is still a bad sign that an inactive band is currently beating out most of the rest. From the looks of it, rock currently lacks both diversity, and popularity, in the eyes of mainstream audiences.

Luckily, I don’t think that spells doom for rock as a genre. Despite it lacking a lot of the qualities associated with mainstream success, I think the indie rock scene is thriving now more than ever. Rock and roll has always been prevalent in underground music, but has typically been more concentrated in certain local areas. Of course, we all know of the Seattle grunge scene, as well as the psychedelic San Francisco scene, etc. And while there have certainly been numerous success stories of garage bands turned superstars, I think the overall environment and community is at its height, now that it has the internet’s help in spreading these regional sensations. With new platforms like bandcamp, many artists get the spotlight they deserve. One of my favorite bands, Car Seat Headrest, originally gained popularity when Will Toledo was releasing songs, semi-anonymously, on these types of platforms, and now they’re enjoying a pretty large amount of success. I think the introduction of these platforms; while helping artists of all genres; has done an amazing thing for the already widespread scene of underground rock, by making it even more accessible to the layman.

Another thing that can be referenced as a weakness in current rock is its lack of sound diversity and experimentation, which is partially true, but not the whole story. While there has admittedly been no huge, grunge-esque movement as of recent, there is; and always will be; experimentation within the genre. Albums like the new Daughters album, You Won’t Get What You Want (2018), the revitalization of Car Seat Headrest’s old album, Twin Fantasy (2018), and others, all show incredible uniqueness in their sound. The Daughters album specifically is a sonic experience unlike anything else I’ve heard; from the guitars, to the lyrics, to several other effects within the songs; it’s really special (I would recommend you check it out, although as a warning, it is incredibly dark, abrasive, and loud. Prepare your emotions and ears). Will it spawn its own new genre within rock and roll? No, that’s very unlikely, but it is still different and new, whereas it seems rock has been stigmatized into being too focused on the past (which does occur a lot of the time, *cough cough* Greta Van Fleet). I think there are more than enough rock bands doing new and interesting things with their sound to make up for the often-stale, nostalgic bands trapped in another decade.

To almost piggy-back off of that; the music doesn’t have to be entirely new to be good, either. While I don’t like what Greta Van Fleet has done; there are many bands that put their spin on old sounds, and make it their own. For another example; the new IDLES album, Joy As An Act of Resistance (2018), and even the new Judas Priest album, Firepower (2018), expand on previously explored areas. IDLES provide a return to great British punk, and Judas Priest don’t do too much different than what they’ve done before; but the songwriting, lyricism, and production are all done at such a high level, so it’s still great music. While there are always going to be a lot of stale artists who do nothing but look back on classic rock, there are still going to be those occasional gems.

While I don’t think rock and roll is thriving; and there are some concerning signs, particularly within the mainstream; it isn’t dead. I don’t foresee a quick bounce-back into popular music, for a variety of reasons. While the genre does still have experimentation, rock has been developed and explored much more than genres like hip-hop. Hip-hop has experienced several recent changes, and ;even if it’s 40 years old; it tends to appear as newer and more interesting to a mass audience. I also don’t think our societal trends and attitudes; especially in the United States; really calls for rock music. With the youth of America is getting increasingly angry, and involved in politics, hip-hop artists create rebellious, outspoken messages just as well as punk does. It just doesn’t seem like a ripe time for rock and roll. That all being said; none of this is important for maintaining a music genre’s life. Tons of genres have flourished behind the curtains, and rock is no exception. There’s still new, interesting, and quality music out there, you just have to look a lot harder to find it. If mainstream success is necessary for ensuring a genre’s life; punk was dead before it existed.

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