How Many Times Has Rock ‘N’ Roll Died Now?

Popular culture’s unluckiest zombie has been in the hands of the pessimistic and the paranoid since the late 1950s. As befits any great youth culture movement, rock ‘n’ roll flared white-hot through the 50s until Elvis was enlisted, after which it was declared dead. A few years later, it turned out that the British had been taking notes, and suddenly bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Animals, and The Faces were born. The British Invasion went psychedelic by the late Sixties, and then it went heavy in the early Seventies. By the late Seventies rock ‘n’ roll was dead again, a victim of disco. Punk rock came about as a response to the decadence of both disco and progressive rock, and the underground gave birth to another youth movement. On the popular wavelength, the Sunset Strip hard rock template kept things going for a while, but then Too Fast For Love turned into Girls Girls Girls and pop metal became a parody of itself. Rock ‘n’ roll was dead again, slain by big Eighties pop music and the early days of mainstream hip hop. The Alternative Revolution replaced the hair rock that had become tired, but it too became a parody of itself over time. The 2000s were the decade of big pop and hip hop. Except for a couple of rare exceptions, rock has not been chart friendly in some time.

There are certainly enough doomcriers in the modern world, and not just the bathroom wall scrawl copypasta selling the idea that 98% of teens today have “turned to hip hop and pop”.  Perennial rock ‘n’ roll rodeo clown Gene Simmons not only told Esquire/his son Nick last September that “Rock is finally dead”, but that “The death of rock was not a natural death.  Rock did not die of old age. It was murdered.” What did he mean by this – I mean, besides making great pull-quotes by which he could increase brand awareness of his ageing self?  Part of it, of course, was his usual self-serving tough talk about downloading and piracy, but a more salacious part dealt with what he feels to be the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll. He claims that since 1983 he can name only two acts that “carry on the spirit”: Nirvana and Tame Impala.  But wait! you cry. How can this be?  Has he never listened to Ty Segall? Has no one clued him into Thee Oh Sees? What about Titus Andronicus’ first two albums, or the NYC cool of the Strokes, or the wave of Springsteen worship we went through at the end of the Oughts that gave us first Arcade Fire or Wolf Parade, and then, much later, acts like The War On Drugs? Am I taking crazy pills?  What about chillwave? Gene liked disco once, didn’t he? “I Was Made For Loving You” and all that?

Well, first of all, like so many things in Gene’s life, that was about the money first and foremost. Secondly, none of those things count, of course, because they’re not on terrestrial radio and therefore “no one” is listening to them. Never mind that they get ample play on satellite radio, or on the internet. Never mind the recent revelation by streaming juggernaut Spotify that, speaking globally, metal is the most popular genre by a wide margin and pop is only very marginally more popular than rock (which in turn is slightly more popular than hip hop). Never mind that, Thursday through Sunday morning, I can take a stroll downtown and find a group of young people bashing away on the guitar-bass-drum setup, or that my little nowhere corner of the world puts on an annual festival chock full of upstart unknown rock ‘n’ roll bands that remains one of the most popular attractions in the regional calendar. No, Gene must be right. Rock must be dead.

He’s not alone in thinking this, of course, he just tends to be the loudest. Pop Matters ran a column in late 2013 lamenting the exact same conclusion Simmons came to a year later: that rock ‘n’ roll was dead and the internet had killed it. Their rationale was that: ‘young people’ think that buying albums is “quaint or absurd” (this despite the number of bands getting their start selling their home-brewed demo on Bandcamp); “Band t-shirts are not especially cool anymore” (I’d like to see some hard data on that before I go swallowing anything); and that “younger people…simply don’t care for live music at all”. This last one has me scratching my head, because all of the shows for the young underground bands I’ve been to have always been well-attended. Of course, this same column goes on to state that “maybe they only know how to dance to computer sounds while they’re rolling on Molly”, so I suppose it should be taken with a grain of salt roughly the size of Manhattan. Still, this is the narrative that has developed. A post on the front page of /r/music this morning was advertising some band that the poster was purporting would “save rock ‘n’ roll”. Dive into any music discussion board on the internet and you’ll see similar sentiments. There’s a thread on IGN from 2013 entitled “Who Will Save Rock ‘n Roll?”, and the OP makes the winning statement that “If you’re in your twenties right now, there’s a good chance that you’re pathetically pining for a return to the music of the 90s” and that “If you can’t stand Nickelback but aren’t lame and desperate enough to listen to emo, you’ve probably been left out in the cold.” While these sentiments are pretty standard fare for people whose only exposure to new music is their FM rock radio station and their own echoed griping, they go on to make an interesting point with their next sentence: “The music press certainly knows this, and it’s come to the point where they’re snapping up stylish, clueless indie bands and declaring them the “saviors of rock ‘n’ roll” at a rate of about one per month.”

This part is absolutely true.

There has been a real, problematic phenomenon that buzz bands go through in the music press over the last decade or so. It goes like this: band generates some good word of mouth, builds some hype based on early singles. The press starts covering the band and salivates over them. Their debut comes out and suddenly they’re gracing the covers of untold magazines that scream “ROCK N ROLL IS SAVED” in hideously large font. The press continue to trumpet this up until the point that the band’s second album is released, upon which they’ll stop talking about the band and move on to the next Jesus Christ of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Pretty much any band with a nifty guitar line and a radio-ready sheen can be put through this wringer, and seemingly has. Remember Franz Ferdinand? That thumping, propulsive lead single “Take Me Out” got them slathered across magazine covers to the point where you would have thought they were the second coming of Elvis and the Beatles. Franz Ferdinand was on everyone’s playlist; once You Could Have It So Much Better came out they couldn’t haven gotten themselves arrested. How about the pride of Las Vegas, The Killers?  Their debut album, Hot Fuss, rode an explosive amount of hype based on singles like “Somebody Told Me”, “Mr. Brightside”, and “All These Things That I’ve Done”. So many people at the time regarded them as “the last great rock band”; after Sam’s Town, no one, especially the music press, shared that sentiment. Recent English wunderkinds The Vaccines made this same trip. What Do You Expect From The Vaccines was flogged mercilessly by a press convinced that all it took to “save rock ‘n’ roll” was to rewrite The Strokes with a wry sense of humor. Their second album silenced this idea, and their just-recently-released third, English Graffiti, showed convincingly that no one was buying it anymore. The list can go on forever:  Bombay Bicycle Club, Mumford & Sons, Two Door Cinema Club, The Naked and Famous, Cage The Elephant, Royal Blood, Kings of Leon…there is a pattern, and it plays right into the hands of those who believe that rock ‘n’ roll is in need of a savior.

Have you ever seen such an insecure genre of music?

You don’t see jazz musicians sitting around deciding not to play jazz because they can’t make millions of dollars doing it. You don’t see blues musicians deciding to give up on the guitar because tween girls aren’t buying blues albums. Other genres don’t require saviors, so why does rock ‘n’ roll have such a Messiah complex? The biggest culprit in this is the rock ‘n’ roll press itself.

Magazines, as traditional printed glossy books, are on their way out. For one thing, printing costs are just too much in this brave new post-2008 world. For another, the kids just aren’t reading them anymore. Why buy Kerrang! or NME or, god, Rolling Stone, when you can flit on over to your favourite blog – your Pitchfork, your Q, your Drowned In Sound, your Brooklyn Vegan – and read about what’s going on there? The blogs are certainly more up to date, and again that’s the fault of the traditional rock press. With the readership of traditional magazines stuck in early middle age (defined as “anyone who has thus far outlived Jesus”), the musical reference point they use is permanently stuck in the mid-to-late 1990s. Rock ‘n’ roll, then, needs saving because rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t sound like it did in 1997, at the tail end of Britpop, the beginning of post-grunge, and modern culture’s all-too-brief flirtation with ska.  Like the Boomers before them, the earliest Millennials are convinced that the last golden age of music was coincidentally when they were in high school. The traditional press is certainly not going to disabuse them of the notion, since selling youth to the aging is a sure-fire tactic for making sales.

It’s not like these Millennial pioneers would be open to the concept of a different form of rock ‘n’ roll anyway. A recent study showed that people stop listening to new music at the age of 33 – or, as they’re known today, the last demographic to buy magazines. If your readership isn’t open to the idea of new music anyway, what’s the advantage in trying to keep up with the internet to try to introduce them to it? It’s much more cost-effective to pretend that your readership’s youth was a Golden Age and use the new bands you do hype to try to sell the idea of a return to that Golden Age. This idea leaks out into the general populace, who are already being told that there’s no good music anymore by their parents, their older siblings, their coworkers, and their more myopic friends. Suddenly you have people saying garbage like “The Foo Fighters and the Red Hot Chili Peppers were the last great rock bands” and “Kids today only listen to rap and EDM” and, of course, “Rock is finally dead.”

It’s infuriating and more than a little confusing. When I look at the last five years, I see Titus Andronicus’ The Monitor. I see the twin triumphs of The Suburbs and Reflektor. I see Cloud Nothings, St. Vincent, Deerhunter, The Hold Steady, Parquet Courts, Kurt Vile, Vampire Weekend, The National, Ty Segall, Mikal Cronin, Thee Oh Sees, Girls, Savages, The War On Drugs, et al into infinity. The traditional press doesn’t reflect this, though. Instead, you get a couple of the blander rock bands that will fit on modern rock radio, and a lot of “You’ll never guess what Dave Grohl said in this interview!” and “Morrissey still not talking to Marr!” You get largely mediocre bands splashed across the covers with the words “Will They Save Rock ‘n’ Roll?” emblazoned overtop, only to be replaced with the next meaningless totem in the next issue. Meanwhile, actual rock ‘n’ roll is coming along just fine.

I don’t remember who said it, and the internet is failing me in finding the source, but there’s a line that’s always stuck with me: “The real reason that rock ‘n’ roll can never die is that every generation of kids seems willing to go out and dig up the corpse.” What it really boils down to, however, is easily summed up in a quote from an IGN user named evilchris23 in that aforementioned “Who Will Save Rock ‘n’ Roll?” forum post: “The only thing rock needs saving from is whiners like you.”

Trevor James Zaple, Music Writer at Seroword

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