An introduction into one of the biggest questions of music in the 21st century.
The Getaway on vinyl.
Music has a special place in my heart. Being born in 2003, I was just under three years of age when I first remembered hearing my favorite artist. My parents had just bought a copy of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Stadium Arcadium, an album which went number one in many countries. Despite being the only piece of music I had ever heard, it was the best piece of music I had ever heard. And on this very day, 15 years later, it's still up there. The record has aged wonderfully. For these reasons--the most prominent one being my parents musical taste-- it seems like rock is very much alive. In a literal sense, it is-- rock is known to be a kaleidoscope of energy and passion, an experience, a gift from God. Some wish all music was like that these days. But, the genre’s outlook largely depends on the perspective of the person, their upbringing, their taste. Rock music has developed a popular connotation with the old, the tasteless, the vulgar. And for these other reasons, it seems like rock is very much dead. Or, at least dying a slow death into permanent irrelevance.
Hear that sound? It’s the sound of controversy. Music changes, no matter who’s talking. How it has changed though is an entirely different matter. With such conflicting perspectives and outlooks, a question is raised that isn’t terribly new, but remains important when defining our culture: Is Rock dead?
In order for something to supposedly die, it must have been born. Like all 7 billion wonderful humans that grace the earth, rock was manifested through a variety of influences, where its initial conception was defined as “Rock and Roll.” This term was coined in 1951 by Alan Freed, who worked as a disc jockey in Cleveland, partially why the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is located there. At the time, new artists were taking a leap beyond the jazz, rhythm and blues acts. From what began as the Robert Johnsons and The Ink Spots eventually evolved into the Chuck Berrys and the Elvis Preselys of the 1950’s. Musicians like this were gaining steam during this decade, and more and more people became inspired to create something similar to what was now being done. Rock and Roll resonated with the youth on unprecedented levels, especially within the 1960’s. Within America, both blacks and whites were drawn to the same kind of music, with its both blues and jazz roots. Rock and Roll was approachable, digestible, yet remained clever in its composition, and deep in its meaning. Pairing these roots with relatable, upfront lyricism, rock music became the symbol of the counterculture movement. Rock music was the cool thing to listen to; a rock fan was the cool thing to be.
The connection with the youth entered the United Kingdom by the late 1950’s, inspiring acts such as The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and The Kinks. The British felt particularly inspired by the counterculture movement of the United States, and the occurrence of Beatlemania in 1963 only further influenced the impact of rock music. At the time, the Beatles were like other typical rock and roll acts, with a pop background and a neat wardrobe to boot. Counterculture was a movement expressing freedom and intimacy, an openness and an acceptance for humanity and all of its emotions and feelings and desires. Rock music would take a step forward when artists made this connection. Rock became less rock and roll, and more so just “rock,” at least in nomenclature. The British Invasion continued to influence this change, with the evolution of the Beatles being most present. Numerous genres and other namesakes were born out of this era of rock and roll, and when zooming into The Beatles, the spark can be seen. “Helter Skelter” off of The Beatles(The White Album) is considered to be the first hard rock or heavy metal song. With this song, an explosion occurred, with the fumes and ash being the sounds of the Fender Stratocaster and the Les Paul. The guitar became the most prominent instrument in the music industry, and generated numerous icons such as Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Mick Ronson. The prominence of the guitar allowed rock to grow and expand, and thus heavy metal was born. Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, and Led Zeppelin took both classical and blues influences in rock and roll and turned up the Marshall Amp to 11, both literally and figuratively. These artists were the ultimate exemplification of counterculture and freedom to express. Surely mothers were worried sick for their sons and daughters when the song “Black Sabbath” started playing. Connections to these three artists can be heard in the present day; Deep Purple is still active themselves.
Of course, other genres were still present during the 60’s and 70’s, such as Funk, the emergence of Punk, Reggae and popular music. All of these genres, stemming from rhythm, blues, and in a sense, rock and roll, would in turn influence new rock music as the 80’s crept up quickly. Metallica took Heavy Metal to new heights, The Police took punk and gave it a reggae flavor, Red Hot Chili Peppers combined funk and punk, essentially creating the term ‘alternative’ back in 1983.
Alternative is the next incarnation of what began as Elvis singing about women in Nashville. The literal definition of ‘alternative’ means different, and as all things do, rock music changed. Disco had a pronounced influence on rock, which itself was influenced by previous incarnations of the same genre. Duran Duran took the world by storm in the 80’s, along with many others. Psychedelia continued to influence rock: The presence of Pink Floyd and Alan Parsons influenced artists such as Radiohead. The Rap scene emerged as well, a fresh take on the genre, becoming especially prevalent in the 1990’s. Rock continued to change its shape as time evolved, with new genres and subcategories flourishing and diminishing simultaneously. Today, rock music is still made in many forms, whether it be metal, alternate, or indie. Many rock bands are still popular today, and new bands are gaining steam as well, such as Nothing But Thieves and IDKhow.
In short, Rock music is a story of evolution. As Conor Mason would put it, the genre is a “clone of a clone”-- never quite the same, but still rooted in rhythm and blues. It is a story of ever prolonged change, where new artists are inspired by older artists, who were previously inspired by the artists of their own time. It is a chain of beauty, a work of art, really. Yet, some bands fall into the epitome of old, the depths of hell, and the valley of irrelevance. The bands that are still popular or going these days— Chili Peppers, Deep Purple, The Rolling Stones— they all have something in common: They have changed.
If rock music is still kicking, and if all these new bands are gaining popularity, then why is the vital status of the genre up in the air?
It depends on how we look at it.
Firstly, we must define what we mean by ‘dead.’ More likely than not, this term refers to the popularity and relevance of the genre, just like how neon headbands and apple bottom jeans are ‘dead’ fashion trends. Speaking of which, another important term is trend: At some point,each subgenre and subcategory underneath the rock umbrella was trending, and was popular. Someone can wear a neon headband, but that won’t make it popular. Someone can listen to Anthrax, but that won’t make them relevant.
To fans of music in general, the answer is largely ambiguous. My mother is an avid fan of the genre and would be inclined to say it is more alive than ever, and would argue that artists like Olivia Riodrigo and Royal Blood have revitalized the genre. A fan of BTS would likely argue that rock is dead, largely in part because they may have never heard anything besides k-pop. Perhaps it was the same in the 70’s where the youth argued country or funk was dead because they may have only heard Deep Purple. But, these thoughts are just based on complete personal bias and experience, making the answers largely inconclusive, although providing some context for both sides. Just like rock music, society has changed over time, and the world we live in is somewhat different than the world Elvis and Bill Kenny lived in. Society’s evolution is largely why there is no obvious answer to this question, because the answer to this question depends on a variety of variables.
Age plays a role in the perception of the status of rock music. Different generations grow accustomed to different things, in all forms. This can be seen between basic family interactions--parents are likely to be drawn to a different kind of music than their kid. In other cases, the child can learn to love the music their parents did. The child’s taste or preference is never a guarantee, proving the question's complexity.
Location plays another role in the perception of the genre-- for some regions, the genre was never relevant to begin with. Rock music in the 20th century wasn’t nearly as popular in Asia and Africa as it was in Europe and America. Of course, African and Asian media marketsare smaller to begin with in general, but the statement remains true. While some countries’ future generations aren’t brought up with rock in mind, other generations are born to simply enjoy music, and the namesake becomes irrelevant. This connotation with music having a namesake distorts our typical, american perception of what rock music should sound like, and what it represents. The question on its status exists in part because of how people interpret it and what people expect the genre to sound like. The majority of those listening may just not ‘hear’ rock anymore, causing a decline in its popularity.
Evolution of rock may have set up rock for its own decline, in an unfortunate twist of irony. Out of rock, funk, and blues, hip-hop was born. Hip-hop evolved from the roots of storytelling within rhythm and blues, and has been, on a general level, more popular than rock itself since the 1990’s, especially among younger generations. Hip hop was once known for sampling rock music and simply rapping over it. With the evolution of technology and technical producing, the rock-infused essence of hip hop eventually faded to gray-- adding more potential to the question of the genre’s status.
Rock music was created for the sake of expression; rock music evolved to make sure that expression wasn’t lost. Rock’s status is important as it reveals the status of the artist in general. WIth the demise of the genre, perhaps the artist’s freedom to express is diminishing. Perhaps censorship, political correctness, and inclusivity are bending the way we see and interpret artistic expression, and rock music’s decline in popularity is an example of such. Art is the ultimate form of creative expression, and rock music’s decline may be a signal that society is losing, if not suppressing, such an expression.
At the end of the day, music is art. Unfortunately, it is also a business. Record companies look to make money, and sell what is fashionable and what is appropriate. What was once popular in 1970 isn’t so much in 2021, and that is because society has changed. Perhaps rock music hasn’t changed so much, and it is society who has moved away from the idea of long hair, of the Hammond Organ, of strategically placed socks, of white makeup. The industry has largely moved away from the idea of a band in general-- most popular music today is of the solo artist. Today’s world, driven by my generation Z and the internet, questions what is appropriate and acceptable in society constantly. Music critics everywhere, as early as the 1980’s, have critiqued the habits of rock music. They question why rock music is so sexist and vulgar, with its sometimes sexual lyrics. Take a listen to ‘Sir Psycho Sexy’-- Anthony Kiedis knows what the media is thinking: “Good God, no, that would be treason!” But, on the flip side, rock music is known to be pop music that doesn’t care about its popularity. The edge that rock music comes with is a reason why it gained popularity in the past. It is also potentially why it has lost traction-- people don’t care for an edge anymore.
My generation is very unforgiving. We do whatever we can to dig up the past and click cancel as soon as we find something inappropriate-- this continued trend might be the nail in Rock’s coffin. But, older generations and evolving bands continue to bash heads with this notion, proving our answer for the status of rock to be a bit less straightforward than we all presumed.
In a world that is engulfed by racial, political, and scientific tension, this argument's existence comes down to the tension that is prevalent within society today-- the tension around political correctness, the tension around inclusivity. The answer to the question has become a subject of controversy due to one suffocating reason-- rock has become controversial itself. Comparing the role of rock music between today and yesterday allows us to uncover about the change in society. The way music is perceived, the way it is listened to, what it is associated with-- all are factors into the controversy surrounding the life of the genre. They say that life imitates art-- and what is popular in art today may reflect the direction that society is heading in, and that is something that the status of rock can answer.