Time to Face Facts: Rock’n’Roll is Old (But Not Dead Yet)

In his book Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock, author James Miller ends his survey of the history of rock’n’roll history in 1977, reasoning that the last thing of evolutionary significance to happen to rock was punk. Everything since ’77 (wth the possible exception of the rise of electronic keyboards in the early 80s) has simply been a rehash, an endless cycled of new generations discovering the same old sounds.

Later, I began to read how rock had lost its primacy when it came to driving cultural change. Just as jazz, the major musical force for the first half the 20th century was supplanted by rock in the 1950s, hip-hop has taken that mantle from rock.

As a diehard rock fan–and as someone who makes a living in the rock business–I was in denial about this for a long time. Now, though, I’ve come to accept that when it comes to a genre that’s able to push pop culture forward, rock is no better than #2.  And I’m okay with that.

This does NOT mean I think rock is dead or dying. It’s just…old. Or maybe a better word is “mature.” The New York Times picks up that thread (via Pamela).

The record business has evaporated for everyone not named Adele. Top 40 radio, which has always been for teenagers, is mostly devoted to post-rock pop and hip-hop. In 2016, rock is not teenage music.

Rock is now where jazz was in the early 1980s. Its form is mostly fixed. From Louis Armstrong in the 1920s to Duke Ellington in the ’30s to Charlie Parker in the ’50s to Miles Davis in the ’60s, jazz evolved at superspeed and never looked over its shoulder.

In the early 1980s, it began slowing down and looking back. The trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis returned to styles that Davis and Parker had abandoned and showed how much was still there to explore.

Jazz moved into Lincoln Center, established a repertoire and assumed its place as “American classical music.” It was no longer controversial or evolving, at least in any popular form.

That is where rock finds itself, in a stage of reflection on past glories. Rock-star memoirs are a booming business — Bob Dylan, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, made it cool with “Chronicles: Volume One” in 2004. This fall, Bruce Springsteen, Robbie Robertson of the Band and the he said-he said Beach Boys Brian Wilson and Mike Love are looking back on long public lives.

Rock ’n’ roll as we know it was named in the mid-1950s, born as a mix of black and white musical styles of the Deep South — blues, country and early R&B.

A “new” invention, the electric guitar, replaced the horn section. The performer was usually the songwriter, and there was a standard of honesty, autobiography and (to use a word that was swung like a sword of judgment) authenticity in the rock musician that made him more artist than entertainer.

In the 1980s rock got a boost from MTV and the compact disc, but the first signs of middle age were already showing. Rock became the soundtrack to Hollywood movies and TV commercials. At the same time, rap began to challenge rock’s domination of mainstream music.

After the brief early ’90s insurgency of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the grunge bands passed, rock became less interested in innovating than in repeating. A popular new rock band tended to sound a lot like beloved old rock bands, and the days when the Beatles moved in three years from the teen pop of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to the experimentation of “Strawberry Fields Forever” were gone.

This isn’t to say that all experimentation is gone from rock–one need just spend some time with the music of Bjork and St. Vincent–but the overall sound of rock has been fairly well standardized. And the time-tested formula/rules/aesthetics of the genre will ensure that it will last a long, long time yet. There’s something timeless about picking up a guitar and independently discovering the joys of rocking out over three chords that have formed the foundations of so many songs. This has happened for over several generations and will no doubt continue for decades to come.

Rock isn’t dead. It’s going to be there for anyone who wants and needs it for a while yet.



Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

3 thoughts on “Time to Face Facts: Rock’n’Roll is Old (But Not Dead Yet)

  • November 21, 2016 at 7:43 am

    There’s always going to be rock ‘n’ roll, it’s just not going to be the dominant force it was like in the 80s and 90s, eg, the charts is mainly, if not all, pop songs

  • February 4, 2017 at 1:14 pm

    I realize this is an old post, but something has been bothering me about it. Though I do agree with the author in stating that the fundamentals of rock have not changed, please, someone explain to me what sound Slipknot has rehashed from and when in history? There are lots of other examples of this, and maybe this falls into the evolution of experimentation category, but I think the author of this article has written it with earplugs in. There are so many sub genres of rock that would decimate the pop culture if people were exposed to it and took the time to understand the lyrics. It’s modern poetry. That’s the only way to describe it. And if you’re actually going to read this Alan, I would love to hear your take on this in one of your episodes. Further, if anyone can tell me what modern metal (a sub genre of rock) is a rehash of, I just might have my ears opened to music that’s actually worth listening to that predates Nirvana.

  • February 5, 2017 at 1:35 pm

    I completely agree with Kevin, but in answer to Kurt, here are just a few thoughts from me. First of all, I’ll start by saying I’m 60 years and have been a semi-pro musician a good chunk of my life, going on 40 years now. I’ve lived though Beatlemania, the psychedelic age, the classic rock age, the punk age, the grunge age, the post-punk age, and now I guess we’re in the modern rock age? When hip-hop came in, and became so popular, it was the first major threat to the domination of rock music. That has continued. I don’t know why, because myself I find most of it the most boring crap I’ve ever heard in my life, but that’s just me. When I was in high school, all the guys listened to Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Alice Cooper. I liked Hendrix, Deep Purple and Wishbone Ash also, but my tastes have always been outside the mainstream and what most people hear on the radio twenty times a day. Today’s music is aimed at mainly an audience of young girls. Young girls like pop music, always have, and they like to dance, and I guess never the twain shall meet. The only reason most guys put up with it is because they are trying to get laid, let’s be honest.

    All the music you hear today that is popular, no matter what genre, has its roots in something that has come before. The only innovations are coming now is in how some artists are able to mix the old sounds in a new way. Like Rage Against The Machine, for instance, who successfully mixed rap with hard rock, and created a totally new sound. Nirvana and all the other grunge bands just mixed elements of punk and classic rock and created the Seattle sound. Bands like Blink 182 and Green Day have taken the sounds of the punk movement of California back in the 80’s – Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, and sort of reinvented it in a more pop way that radio will play. Slipnot is a mixture of grunge and what they call Nuemetal, whatever that means. They are talented guys, with their own sound, but they took their cues from things that came before them. They are like Alice Cooper, more showmen than what you would call a regular rock band. Marilyn Manson simply updated what Alice Cooper had already done twenty years before. The last new thing I can recall in rock was when the industrial/techno thing started, with NIN and Skinny Puppy and all that – a form of rock I really enjoy. But even that had its roots in Germany back in the 70’s, with bands like Kraftwerk and Can and all of that. You need to start expanding your horizons and bit, Kurt, and start going back and checking out the roots of the bands you love. It will make you appreciate what they do, and have done, all the more.


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