I’ve been rabbiting on about the lack of angry, loud, guitar-based music in today’s alt-rock for some time now. With so much to be angry, confused and scared about into today’s world, why aren’t more musicians screaming their frustration in the way previous generations did? Richard Sands, editor of The Sands Report, an American radio-and-music industry newsletter, asked to me write up my thoughts on the subject. So I did. Here’s what was sent out to subscribers last night.
Burning Question: Why Has Alt Rock Gone Soft?
And now for something completely different. A guest column! When we left off last time, we were discussing the state of Alt music, particularly the infiltration of more Pop. Whichgot Alan Cross to thinking. If you’re not familiar with him, Alan is probably best known in the Alt world for his stints at CFNY (“102.1 The Edge”) in Toronto, and as well as the host of several syndicated Alt programs, including “The Ongoing History of New Music.” I’ll let Alan take it from here…
The hardcore kid with the Black Flag tattoo on his neck shrugged when I asked him about the source of the rage that powered his music. “Sometimes things get so bad that you just have to pick up a guitar and scream,” he said.
I knew what he meant when we had that conversation in 1994. Whenever the world got weird, there was always someone ready to scream out their anger, fear, and confusion through music.
Back in the ‘50s, the Cold War,racial strife, and a new social construct called “teenagers” birthed rock’n’roll. Assassinations, the civil rights movement, the generation gap, and Vietnam saw rock explode in all directions at once. When Nixon, Watergate, the oil crisis, and bad economies got too much,artsy outliers in New York and class-baiting dole kids in London created punk.
Want more? The Reagan and Thatcher years gave us hardcore. The first Gulf War and a wretched recession pushed Gen X into creating grunge, the Lollapalooza- fed Alternative Nation, and the mid-‘90s punk revival. And a combination of George W. and 9/11 was a factor in the rise of both indie rock and a period of guitar-driven Alt-rock in the ‘00s.
But something has gone amiss lately. The current generation is facing some ugly, weird stuff: the prospect of President Don- ald Trump; the Syrian refugee crisis; ISIS, Wall Street crooks that keep growing richer; the Black Lives Matter movement; gun violence and mass shoot- ings; terrorism; the growing wage gap; Zika virus; crushing student loans. This surely is enough to have people angry, scared and confused.
So here’s the question: Where’s all the aggressive and angry Alt-rock in response to these issues? It’s not that no one is making this sort of noise. I continue to find plenty, mostly through streaming services and brows- ing through music stores. (Thank God for bands like FIDLAR, Purple, and PUP!) It’s there, but it’s just not bubbling up beyond a certain level. Instead of a new Rage Against the Machine, Clash, or The Who, today’s Alt-rock consists mostly of poppy, mid-to-low tempo songs with introspective lyrics and a woe-is-me attitude.
The Lumineers “Ophelia” begins with Wesley Schultz singing “When I was young” (he’s 33) before he begins ruminating on a dysfunctional relationship. Twenty One Pilots’ “Stressed Out” is a nostalgic look back on the “good old days” by singer Tyler Joseph (age 27). “Time to wake up and make money,” they sing. Cold War Kids’ “First” drips with worry and fret- ting (average age is in the high 20s)…But let’s get away from the introspective stuff. What are we left with? Banjos. Hozier’s yearning to be taken to church. Vance Joy plays a ukulele, fer crissakes. And when was the last time you heard a protest song that actually caught fire with the public?
Even Active Rock stations are having issues finding new guitar-based stuff to play. Instead, they’re dipping into the catalogue for tracks from Jimi Hendrix, AC/DC, and Ozzy.
I know all of this sounds judgmental in a Grandpa Simp- son sort of way, but please don’t jump to that conclusion. Given its break from long-established historical trends, I’m genuinely interested in the social, political, eco- nomic and demographic conditions behind the current sound of Alt-rock. I’ve been in the format since 1986 and I can’t ever recall things being this soft for this long.
I’ve put the question to listeners, Alt fans, and students. “Given all that’s happening in the world, where’s your generation’s angry music?” The answers
have been fascinating. Apathy is rampant. “What can we do? Nothing’s going to change.”
Social media is a factor. “We protest by leaving comments on Facebook and by changing the avatar on our Twitter account.That’s easier than writing a song.”Some express economic pragmatism. “I’d form a band, but no one makes money from music anymore. Besides, there are no places to play.” Distractions. “Everyone cares more about what the Kardashians are doing than what’s happening in politics.” Smartphones combat boredom.
Maybe it has something to do with this generation’s ecumenical musical tastes. The old Alt versus Pop versus Rap versus Classic Rock silos have all crumbled, their tribes scattered. Rather than use a specific genre to help project one’s identity to the world, people have found new ways to tell everyone who they are and what they think.
Or could it be something darker? One recent study suggests that there’s something about modern life that’s undermining the mental health of young people. The author predicts a possible uptick in cases of depression.
Are our audiences trying to tell us something? If we as programmers are responsible for reflecting the wishes, needs, fears, and aspirations of our audiences through the music we play, these are some of the big questions we need to ask. The future of the format depends on it.
Here’s some feedback since the newsletter went out Wednesday.
Just read your piece in the Sands Report. I’m glad you said it because I can not WAIT for my alt rock to get angry againJ Where are the G#* damn electric guitars??? [SHAKES FIST]
I have been following your posts for a very long time now. But nothing recently has hit me like this one did! Thanks so much for sharing this with all of us.
After a long absence from the microphone, I am now a DJ with radio freephoenix.com.
Although all of this is done through technology, and not live in the studio, our program director does the very best he can to keep up with the alt stuff happening currently. Still, there is so much BLAND music out there these days! I will share this post with my colleagues. Thanks again!
Janie Snyder (a long-time-ago jock at KWFM Tucson and KYMS Santa Ana CA)
Great article from Alan Cross…thanks so much, Richard!
So true. So sad. It’s like we need that wave of rock to resurrect itself as it does. There’s got to be a way to scream out your apathy with a stratocaster on 11, right?
There are other examples of young artists lamenting lost youth “2 AM” by Bear Hands, Nathaniel Rateliff’s “I Need Never Get Old,” and The Neighbourhood have a song called “I Need Never Get Old” What are these guys gonna sing about when they are Springsteen’s age?