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.