Ever since the birth of rock’n’roll–hell, long before that–political, economic and social situations have moved people to express their anger, fear and displeasure through music. Kids have grabbed guitars, turned amps up to 11 and started screaming.
Cold War fears, segregation and the post-war baby boom in the 50s spawned rock’n’roll. In the 60s, Viet Nam and the civil rights movement led to all kinds of loud, angry music. We have Nixon, Watergate, a fear of growing crime and the economic crises begat by the oil crisis to thank for punk and the growth of hard rock and metal. When the world was being run by Reagan and Thatcher, we got hardcore. A terrible recession and the first Gulf War helped birth Grunge. George Bush and 9/11 was a factor in the indie rock revolution of the Noughts.
See what I mean? When the going got weird, the weird got going–loudly. We all benefited from that. And we felt a little better, too.
But something has gone amiss.
The current generation is facing some ugly, weird stuff: the prospect of President Donald Trump; the Syrian refugee crisis; ISIS, al-Qaeda and Boko Haram; Wall Street crooks that keep growing richer; the Black Lives Matter movement; gun violence and mass shootings; terrorism; the growing wage gap; Zika virus. This surely is enough to have people angry, scared and confused.
So here’s the question: Where’s all the aggressive and angry rock music in response to these issues?
This isn’t to say that no one is making loud guitar music. I continue to find plenty, mostly through streaming music services and browsing through music stores. It’s there, but it’s just not bubbling up above a certain level. And put aside folk, hip hop and metal; I’m talking strictly about mainstream rock/alt-rock.
Look around what the masses are gravitating towards. Instead of a new Rage Against the Machine or Clash, today’s rock consists mostly of mid-to-low tempo songs with introspective and–I daresay–a woe-is-me attitude.
Twenty One Pilots’ “Stressed Out” is a nostalgic look by a twenty-something on the “good old days.” “Time to wake up and make money,” they sing. Alessia Cara spends “Here” moaning about how she doesn’t want to be at a party. Lorde’s two biggest songs speak about her disillusionment with life–and she was just 16 when she wrote them.
But let’s get away from the introspective stuff. What are we left with? Banjos. A 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?
I could go on, but you get the point.
So far, the current generation of young people–those we rely on to give us new guitar rock–have yet to pick up those guitars. There are some exceptions, of course–thank God for the Foo Fighters, but they’re a band rooted in the 90s–but the prevailing vibe with new rock/alt-rock talent is very poppy. No judgement necessary; that’s a fact.
Why? What has caused this break with history?
- Is it apathy?
- Is it because everyone knows it’s almost impossible to make a living making music today?
- Is it because people now protest individually and independently through social media rather than music?
- Are there no places to play?
- Too distracted by celebrity culture to care? Or is it because rock has no longer the driving cultural force it once was?
- Or is it because rock has no longer the driving cultural force it once was?
I’m genuinely interested in your opinions on this. I asked for input on the radio today and I was flooded with emails. Here’s a sampling from the mailbag.
Let’s first start with anger in art. In any art form. If we can use painting as the analogy; does a paint stroke to symbolize anger need to be done with an aggressive thrust of the brush angst at the canvas? I’d argue no: a skilled painter understands the colour and composition convey the attitude not the physical movement of the body. In terms of music do these times require sounds of hard angry screeching guitar rifts? Again no. The composition: challenging the way we listen and construct music can be more angry and political than a drummer hitting the drum set as hard as they could muster. I believe that’s what the Beatles were doing. (The white album) the indie revival challenged the establishment; an echo of the great 60’s.
So what is different today? Education. Not enough philosophy is read; the writings of Baudelaire Derrida, Foucault or Zizek are (obviously and assumption) unknown by the artists in this crappy pop situation we have to listen too.
Who’s too blame? The marketers, the record companies, the radio stations? Or is it our fault for being so completely complaisant that we just have lost all will to fight for higher quality?
I’d love to know what you think about these thoughts. Thanks.
Here’s my 2 cents on what you had to say on the Edge this morning.
I believe that the new generation is completely desensitized to how bad things actually are around the world. Hence, it doesn’t come out in their music. Back in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, when news broke of a school shooting or an act of terrorism, everybody was talking and concerned about it. These days it has become so common you don’t even blink an eye when you hear of these events.
Second – Angry pop music doesn’t sell. And the only music seemingly doing well these days are the Taylor Swifts and Beyoncé’s of the world who talk of girl power, boyfriends and summer nights, not of real life issues happening NOW.
Pretty sad if you ask me! There are real and frightening events happening around the world right now. How do we get people to wake up to these issues?
Thanks for your time,
First, I’d like to say thank you for bringing this subject up. I’m a big fan of the Ongoing History of New Music and the episode that pointed out the correlation between political or social difficulties leading to some of the best music over the past 50 years was easily one of my favourites.
To the point: where’s the anger?
I’ve been a musician for most of my life. Perhaps not a great one as I’ve never been in a band that “made it” but, now in my 40s, I still play. I was raised on the great songs from my mom’s generation: The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen pre-Born in the USA. These songs formed what would be the basis of my listening that lasts til this day – a sort of proto-punk rock ethos that lends itself to grunge and even the angry hip-hop of the 90;s.
So why don’t we see a modern Rage Against the Machine or Quicksand or Bad Religion? Part of goes into the way things were explained to “the kids these days”.
When I was young, we were taught competition was the key. You must compete to win. Winning was something we wanted to do. You had to fight (figuratively) to win. It was an uphill battle and no playing field was level.
Today, things are different. My kids go to school and they are taught that everyone is special and unique. A great message, really. The problem comes in when “everyone wins”. Everyone gets that participation medal. There is no need to compete. Since there’s no need to do it, few bother to try.
This leads to complacency, a “why should I try if I get recognized anyway? I am a special snowflake.” To cushion it, it’s a generation of self-absorption, of selfies and “I/me” mentality.
You could argue early emo was similar. Sunny Day Real Estate and Rites of Spring and even Fugazi were focused on the things that upset them in their world. It’s still a far cry from bands like Cute is What We Aim For and My Chemical Romance that had that “Looks at me, my rich white life is so tough because I have issues and shop at Hot Topic”.
Another turn on the same idea is the feeling that one person (or band) makes less of a difference. These kids feel like they don’t have a voice (something I think AlexisOnFire exemplified well on “We Are the Sound”). This means the good fighters will be few and far between. You’ll still see the occasional Rise Against pop up, but they aren’t for mainstream radio. And since radio has to compete with streaming services, it needs to be as accessible as ever.
When the populace cannot be roused to indignation, we can’t expect a company, needing to make money, to lead the way.
I think this turned into more of a ramble than I expected. The subject of music is near and dear to me. Even though I still play, my day job is to be a technical advocate that inspires developers. I did manage to give a talk a while back though on the subject of music and cognitive development a while back so I continue to try to stay in the game.
Sadly, living in Buffalo, I can’t get a job at the Edge and live the dream like you are lucky enough to do.
Keep looking for that next NoFX in the music lab, and I’ll keep listening.
I have been thinking about the lack of angry music for a while now. The theory I have is that angrier music seems to stem from Republican Presidents of the United States. To list just a few:
- Green Day formed in 1986 while Bush Sr. was president, then had somewhat of a revival with American Idiot in 2004 under Bush Jr.
- Rage Against The Machine formed in 1991 just at the end of Bush Sr.’s 8 years
- Nirvana formed in 1987 still Bush Sr. (Most of the Grunge movement started around this time as well, I will just list Nirvana as they are the most mainstream)
- Eminem – While he did start while Clinton was president, his angrier/political songs (Mosh, White America) came out while Bush Jr. was President
- The Punk Rock scene of the 1970’s all started while Nixon/Ford were President (1968-1976)
So, sadly, I think, if we want some new angry music, Donald Trump is going to have to be elected President.
I heard your piece on my drive in to work and felt compelled to write to you. First and foremost, this is coming from someone directly in that Millennial category that you spoke of, but also from someone who is a musician and music fanatic for many years. I’d love to offer my insight – especially from the perspective of a generation that really seems to lack that anger, that edge, that passion towards music writing.
You mentioned Punk in the 70’s (which I almost think can be true punk at any generation!), protest songs, grunge, etc. – but I feel like the real reason our generation lacks that emotion is not from as much cynicism as one might think. Simply put, I just feel as though the platform of expression has changed. I am a firm believer that great music can transcend generations, borders, or even personal beliefs – and yet here we are in 2016 with music lacking some emotions, in a sense. The younger Millennial generation has more then enough reason to have anger in the society we live in – yet we express it through any number of outlets, sadly excluding music for the most part (I won’t generalize! I am aware there are still angry musicians out there. Won’t there always be?). It just seems as though in today’s day and age, more people connect by liking a page on Facebook, sending an angry tweet, or posting an Instagram picture stating “Pray for Paris”.
I understand that I risk sounding like I am simply opposed against the social media generation, and showing support that way. I for one still have a Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – guilty as charged. However, I still feel like the anger felt at any of these world issues can turn into wonderful, amazing music…it’s just waiting for the right light bulb to go off in a young musicians head. I personally am more surprised that we haven’t experienced a surge in international music with angry, charged lyrics producing itself from around the world.
I know I’ve touched upon a lot of points but I’d like to end it with this: Young people want to get involved – they really do. I once wondered if it was just a bunch of apathetic 20 something year old’s that could care less about economies around the world crashing, terrorism striking fear into millions, or even just issues in our own back yards. I don’t feel like it’s a lack of emotion or feeling involved, it’s just a lack of transferring that ‘pen to paper’ (or fingers to keyboard) to write that first pissed off, emotionally driven, politically charged lyric. Here’s to hoping we see some more soon!
PS: Huge fan of yours and all that you do!
Thanks a bunch,
From: Ryan Giberson
Good question Mr. Â Cross, I have been wondering this for awhile especially after the big recession. I am not sure of the reason, rock seems to be more of a outlet for a artsy youth than teenage angst. It could be that the new metal Era of limp bizkit and korn made a angry sound seem cheesey. And now anything that seems heavy with distortion sounds so generic and with nickelbackish lame lyrics. I hope some kid is looking around and thinking what the hell! I want scream because I don’t want to dance to my rock. I need some raw emotion, hopefully it happens soon.
I was listening to you on the radio today discuss the curiosity in the fact that there is no real protest type music being made or written in these hectic and troubled times. I think one reason would be that there is an outlet for people to discuss or protest these themes and that is social media. Before the advent of Facebook and Twitter, people would have to find creative outlets to protest.
Now there is a lot of dialogue on social media between people who share an interest in contributing or protesting. The idea of organizing our thoughts are a lot more common and have become a sort of constant chatter to change our way of living. Music is almost becoming the soundtrack to it but not in a lead seat. More on the sidelines. Well, at least in terms of what is in the mainstream. Now we seem more into ourselves and our own personal growth, hence all the introspective lyrics of these times in top 40 genres other than Pop.
Underground music still provides commentary but because everyone has an outlet for their voice, the need for us to comment through music is not as immediate because social media is instant. Listening to the music played on the radio at this time and you can hear that it’s providing a support for the underground system instead of being at the forefront.
The idea of protest or commentary on our troubled world are more prevalent in music that is deep underground or in genres that most people don’t pay attention to. Genres such as heavy metal (and all it’s sub genres such as thrash, grind, etc) and punk (and all it’s sub genres such as hardcore, post-punk, etc).
My best guess through all of this is that because conflict, war, and economic collapse seem so close that we are turning inward in hopes that we can heal ourselves and at least keep pushing on and through. There is a great surge in self help books, podcasts and blogs. This also has us in direct conflict with other groups who have interests that deal with a specific ideology such as modern third-wave feminism, the black lives matter movement and the 1% movement as examples. We are in a position to be making great leaps and bounds with our activism but at the same time seem to suffer from certain blow back from those very groups of which we align. This has left many people frustrated that, although they feel movement forward, they see backwards movement towards censorship and vigilante justice. These can make people weary of communicating ideas that deal with the outside world and it’s problems for fear of shaming, censorship or other forms of retribution. Many musicians I know are afraid to speak out on certain subjects for fear of retaliation and thus, involuntarily causing sabotage to their careers.
This is evidence of us being so overwhelmed with the world around us that we have turned inward to tune out all the negative information. These self help paradigms are also geared towards ridding ourselves of toxic influences and these are making the general public more focused on each other. This in turn has artists providing commentary of this world through the idea of self help and self observation as well as an increase in escapism.
These are just some thoughts on the subject.
Thanks for reading.
Sean W. Alten
I was listening to your spot this morning regarding ‘why is there no angry music these days?’ I have a bit of a theory on that.
My theory is that young people in western society are too comfortable and have it too easy. they are complacent about things going on in the world. ISIS is shooting people? That’s ok go play a video game and eat the dinner mom made. Pollution and global warming and famine? That’s ok, it’s not a problem that affects them. It’s the ‘me’ generation and most of these horrible things that go on elsewhere have no effect on them, as young people are more concerned with themselves and the comforts that their parents worked hard to get.
Back when we did have angry music, and I was a teenager in the 70s, kids did not have it as easy. In the states, if you were a male and not in school you were first on the conscription lists. Off to fight a war you didn’t want to fight. Racial inequality was the norm. Societal expectations for young people were different, as it was understood that if you want great things you had to work hard.
These days kids have nothing to be angry about, other than that mom or dad wouldn’t buy them the latest thing they want, even when they are in their late 20s.
You may say I am cynical, but I wonder how these young people are going to lead the world when we old people can’t any more.
That’s my theory
Great question, and I’m sure this has been mulled over a million times by the general listener. When in the mood, I have searched the radio dials many times looking for a great, new, angry, rock song only to settle to pop in a CD of one of my old fav’s.
All of the comments so far, have been very insightful socially. But I feel that most are missing the obvious. In my opinion the reason we are not hearing any new, great, angry Rock songs is simply because they are not being played on Radio.
Their are thousands of angry Rock Bands out there. I have 2 on my street that I am aware of. You could visit any Rock club in the GTA on any given night and experience some angry Rock/alt Rock.
So, with so many angry rock/alt Rock bands out there, how come we are not hearing this on the radio. While some mature Rock bands with a following are still being signed by indie record labels, we do not see any of the big 3 (Sony, Warner, Universal) mentoring and pushing any young Rock acts they way they push Pop, Country or even Hip Hop.
Sure, we have established Rock acts releasing new songs, but most of these bands are well into their 40’s and even 50’s, which unfortunately does not do much for the young consumer.
The music industry really needs to sign and push some young Rock Bands. I would bet my right arm that a marketable, angry, young band with a push would be the next big thing.
I think the music industry knows this as well, but why they are not acting on this is a whole nother discussion.
Just my 2 cents…
Happy St. Paddy’s Day!
I read your blog post and thought about your question about where is the angry rock music. I’m not old…only 37…so I kinda grew up in the grunge rage rock era. I was watching an interview with Dave Grohl and he made a good point…he said “the mainstream went to Nirvana. Nirvana didn’t go to the mainstream.” Perhaps that’s the point. The music industry hasn’t really gone towards that type of rock. Yet.
For the most part if you look at the kids nowadays that should be putting out the rage rock they would be in their mid 20s ish perhaps? So 25 years ago would have had them born in 1991. By 2000 they are starting to hit their early discovery years. But by 2000 for the most part North American kids had it pretty good. Yeah there was 9-11 but that didn’t result in a conscription or anything like that. It was a terrible war but to a kid who would be 11 I’m not sure it would have the same effect as maybe it would on a kid that would be 16. And then from 2000-2008 you have tremendous growth and opportunity and money and nothing really angry going on that the majority really cared about.
And then the economic crash of 2008 dropped on North America and it would be the first real bit of struggle that any of these kids maybe would have faced (generally…obviously different kids have different situations) but that would have really been the first rage inducing piece of history for those born in 1991 that they would really understand.
But even then that recession, while bad, still seemed to be kinda slow to progress…you still had some struggles but not to the extent that you are starting to see today as it has been prolonged and now reborn through the oil crash. And I think this is what we need to look for. Perhaps the rage music is still coming yet because since 2008 when the economy has been recessed, the media having all sorts of bias which is so easy to pick up on, and with all the other things that have happened since 2008 perhaps we are about to get our rage music.
If you jump forward to 1996 and look at the kid born then. That kid in his teen years will have gone through a lot of bad world garbage. By 2016 he is now been through a lot and he (or she of course) is now 20. And maybe he can’t find a job. She sees her government as a bloody mess run by idiots. He sees the police issues and the brutality of her society. And he’s about to get his rage rock on. Maybe the rage rock is yet to come over the next 5 years. Those kids born between 1996-2002 will have lived a lot of their life in a more negative atmosphere just due to the economy and world affairs. So a kid born in 2002 will be 14 now. Just the time to pick up a guitar, maybe even his dads guitar, and start wailing away.
I think we might be on the brink of something between now and 2020. Question is what will it look like? Will it be guitar driven? What bands right now give the kids that guitar sound that will make them want to pick up a guitar and rock. And really what do the young kids born between 1991 and 1996 really have to rage about? They’ve had it pretty good. I think it is the ones born later…the 1996-2002 and beyond that are gonna be angry. Mainstream just has to find them. Because the mainstream is the feeling of the masses. And if the masses are angry someone will speak, or rock, for them. And they will find them. Just gotta hit peak rage and have the mainstream come to them. As Grohl said in the same interview, “if you play out and you have good songs and you’re badass people will find you. You just gotta play.”
Anyone else? Please feel free to chime in. Keep statements about personal tastes to a minimum and focus instead on the social/demographic aspects of this question.I’m looking to get a proper dialogue going
Trolls will be deleted without mercy.
I also posted this article to my LinkedIn network. Here is what some of those folks had to say.
Meanwhile, here’s some new Slayer. Get the story on this one from Rolling Stone.