Gone are the days when the Billboard charts or MTV VMAs were dominated by rockstars. Hip hop and synth pop have all but replaced rock in the popular sphere. Sinéad Dunphy asks, “Is rock dead?”
Is rock dead? This question is practically a cliché now but the answer is still uncertain. A quick look through the music charts will confirm that rock is definitely nowhere near as popular as it once was but what’s more telling is that rock musicians are virtually never included in the conversation of new, exciting and innovative music. Look at who’s winning Album of the Year at The Grammys and The Brits, who’s winning the Mercury Prize, or who’s making the artists to watch lists from sites like The NME and NPR. It seems that when it comes to innovation and progress, the electric guitar and live instrumentation without technological intervention has reached its creative limits. Sure, rock artists can still sell out arenas and even make the charts from time to time but those artists are largely from 20 or more years ago. Still, there is some hope for rock as a few contemporary bands manage to keep it afloat. Plus, music like most things, tends to go through cycles so perhaps rock is just waiting for a comeback.
Bands like Foo Fighters, Green Day, Metallica and Slipknot are still selling out arenas around the world. The frontmen of those bands are even known to give impassioned speeches on stage denying the “rock is dead” claim, as evidenced by their huge and passionate audience. However, this fails to acknowledge the fact that only a small handful of rock acts that debuted in the past decade can attract the same kind of crowds as those seasoned music legends. Even those newer successful bands are usually more sonically diverse than just rock, for example Twenty One Pilots use equal parts rock aesthetics and hip hop stylings. Furthermore, rock bands like Green Day are seen as increasingly dated and out of touch, as evidenced by the immense criticism Green Day received for the cringe worthy billboards they used to promote their latest album that obnoxiously boasted about how the project had no “trap beats” or “Swedish songwriters”. In popular culture, rock just isn’t seen as that cool anymore, it has reverted into a subculture but without the underground indie street cred.
Rock may not be quite dead yet. Artists like Foals and Tame Impala are keeping rock interesting to young people and rap superstar Kendrick Lamar is set to release a “rock-influenced” album this year, much to his fans’ surprise. It’s not yet known exactly what that record will entail, but the positive impact a Kendrick Lamar record could have on the rock industry is immeasurable. Hip Hop artist Machine Gun Kelly, who has long fused rock elements into his music, is now recording a pop punk project with Travis Barker. Gary Clark Jr has managed to make old school blues rock perform commercially and land him performance slots and awards at the Grammys – though it’s arguable he is being used as some kind of token to appease rock fans watching the ceremony.
Another important factor to consider is the increasingly blurred lines of genres in today’s industry. Artists are influenced, consciously or otherwise by a whole plethora of different styles and sounds throughout history. The invention of streaming has made it easy to access endless supply of music from every genre so it’s only natural that the demarcation between these genres is not as clear-cut as it once was. On top of that, with the advancement of technology, the boundaries of music making are being pushed everyday as technological devices and techniques can be used to enhance or even create music from scratch. Many rock enthusiasts would shiver to think about any kind of synthetic noise in their beloved music but that seems to be the only way for rock to keep advancing creatively. Some die-hard rock fans may hear a drum kit, synth or auto-tune and claim that it’s not “real rock music”, as evidenced by the guttural reactions to Billboard’s list of the top selling “rock” songs of the last decade which included Imagine Dragons, Twenty One Pilots and Panic! At the Disco. It’s easy to look at those names and hear their music and think, that is pop music, not rock. But why? It’s hard to put a finger on. What should be a prerequisite of rock? Who’s to say?
Is rock dead? Have we moved past it? Or is it just in hibernation, waiting to come back in fashion? Both are reasonable conclusions, but the optimist in me would like to think it’s the latter. We live in a society obsessed with nostalgia and trends have a habit of repeating themselves. So, whether it’s an updated iteration of rock or we go back to basics, it seems likely that rock will live to see another day.