Rock and roll music is dead.
That has been the persistent sentiment at certain periods and from even those who live by it, like Gene Simmons (“Rock is finally dead.“) and Trent Reznor (“I think rock bands are generally out of fashion . . .”). But the genre that has compelled kids to disobey the parents, question any form of authority and find profound joy in the trashing or burning of a guitar, has been on a steady decline in terms of sales and listenership since the late-2000s. And it hasn’t really seen any resurgence over the past decade or so.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t any fans.
Of course, the old guards of rock and roll are still here, with their waist-length hair and flying V guitars. We still celebrate how Woodstock changed the world. Skate punks are always going to listen to NOFX and Pennywise while kick-flipping across a parking lot. And the emo kids are still going to tear up every time they hear the G note.
But rock and roll is dead. It’s dead, it’s been buried, there are no memorials to it, but it is gone from this world. And honestly? It’s a good thing.
The Slow (and Constant) Death of Rock and Roll
The death of rock and roll didn’t happen overnight, or over the period of a few months or years. In fact, look up the term “rock and roll is dead” on Google, and you’re going to see think pieces and opinion articles from the 2000s and even some digitized newspaper articles from the mid-90s.
Hell, I bet you a brand new Stratocaster that you’re going to find a “rock and roll is dead” article somewhere in every single decade that rock has existed since Chuck Berry first blew everyone away by playing two-note lead line of jump blues on his electric guitar.
Much like any artistic movement, rock and roll was born as a response to the movement before it: rhythm and blues. In this regard, rock music can be seen as an evolution of its predecessor: rock borrowed –and was/is heavily influenced by – blues licks, jazz lines, even traditional Christian Gospel vocal styling.
It was a mishmash of all of these musical genres and it further economized the concept of a band. Sure, there were quartets and other, small-sized bands playing, but it was only after the mainstream explosion of rock did a band consist of a drummer, a bassist, a rhythm guitar, a lead guitar, and a vocalist (who may or may not be playing one of those instruments already).
But as pioneers like good ol’ Chuck Berry, Roy Brown, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe (to name a few) were perfecting the rock and roll sound, it was already being opposed. Early music critics were confounded by the style’s fast-paced and frenetic rhythm, and mainstream radio stations didn’t like the sexual undertones of the term “rock and roll” (it used to be a euphemism for sex, derived from the rocking and rolling of a ship).
It also didn’t help that most of the pioneers of rock and roll were black; conservative America, who was then-predominantly white and lovin’ it – Jim Crow Laws didn’t really end until 1965, a full decade and some change after the first rock and roll records. It wasn’t until white people started doing it, namely Bill Haley and Elvis Presley, did rock and roll achieve mainstream attention and appreciation.
One proof of that is this video below, which cites that rock and roll history “began” with Elvis Presley:
And even then, rock music was still seen as an edgy, dangerous soundtrack to an equally edgy and dangerous lifestyle. Although there were some safe-for-radio and safe-for-white-people rock music that they’d swing to in mom and pop’s soda fountain, most of rock music – at least, the good, top-shelf shit, to be honest – was still underground, something you could only find in African-American clubs and bootleg joints.
When the ’60s and ’70s rolled around, it was associated with the hippie movement, thanks to big names like Bob Dylan, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Buffalo Springfield, and, of course, The Beatles (post-“White” Album).
Perhaps the more insidious reason behind the idea that rock is dead comes from Dylan. In a rare interview with former Rolling Stone editor Robert Love, Dylan casually drops a realistic analysis to the question “is rock dead”: racial integration. It wasn’t just that rock represented a “dangerous lifestyle” to the buttoned-up suburbia of white America. The rise of rock music threatened to galvanize the Civil Rights Movement in the ’60s. And the fix was commercial segragation by the establishment; soul was “black” and British invasion was “white.”
You can thank the corruption of the payola scandal that brought rock and roll down; Dylan adds that there had to be “some elitist power that had to get rid of all these guys,” referring to Chuck Berry and Little Richard as these guys, among others.
Good rock music, both then and now, is fast, loud and had heartfelt, artistically styled lyrics, which made it the perfect accompaniment to the counter-culture.
Even as disco, new wave and the modernization of pop music, in general, invaded the airwaves, rock music constantly loomed in the shadows. An underappreciated outcast in a band tee scoffing at how real musicians don’t need a synthesizer to sound good.
It wasn’t a small movement by any means: by the mid-’80s, rock music was a firmly established genre with millions of fans both in the country and around the world. But it wasn’t until the early-and-mid ’90s did rock music stopped being the weird kid in the back of the class into the most popular guy in school.
“I’m Not Out of Touch, It’s the Kids Who are Wrong!”
Even before the age of the portable CD player, rock music was already popular, particularly with the youth as a subculture of anti-establishment and being angsty toward your parents. However, it wasn’t until the birth of Grunge, when bands like Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, and of course, Pearl Jam, that rock music turned from a niche market into mainstream success that appealed to almost every demographic – beyond the flannel-shirt wearing population.
Punk also saw its mainstream debut around this time, despite being around since at least the mid-’70s. Of all the genres of rock, punk was the most averse to the spotlight, its very existence predicated on shunning the mainstream. But go mainstream it did, pop-punk became a blessing to the youth culture: here was this sound that was just angsty enough to get kids to listen to it, but safe enough that their parents won’t mind. Neat!
There were plenty of things that pushed rock music into the forefront of pop culture, not the least of which is the ’90s being the zenith of American consumerism. Sure, the ’40s and the early ’70s were considered as the golden age of Capitalism, but it was in the ’90s when they turned that shit into a science.
If Mad Men taught us anything, it’s that the ’60s and all the way up to the ’80s was the golden age of advertising, when men had martini lunches and women did the housework, but it was in the 90s when all of that research and study came into fruition.
This was the decade when corporations focused on the youth: sure, they were a demographic on the radar, but it wasn’t until the ’90s when corporations realized just how much money kids can bring in. Soon enough, radio and TV ads were inundated with images of everything youth culture: neon graffiti, caps worn to the side, and of course, metal guitar licks.
Think back to every Kool-Aid and Nerf gun commercials of your youth, and you’ll hear those generic metal riffs that boomer corporation heads added in for the young ones to enjoy.
It was also in the ’90s when the original rock pioneers started dying off, and the time when rock musicians themselves started calling rock and roll a dead genre. They certainly weren’t the first and they wouldn’t be the last. It was an important time in the critique of rock music that insiders turned a critical eye toward the commercialization of their counter-culture and heard the death dirge in every TV commercial’s guitar riff.
Video Killed the Radio Star, Digital Production Killed Rock
First uttered by the Buggles in 1978, echoed more famously by The Presidents of the United States in 1997. Video didn’t exactly kill the radio star, it just provided another platform for the artist to grow in. Sadly, this wasn’t the case for digital music and rock, with the former becoming a hostile environment for that grungy kid that once had his 15 minutes of fame.
Arguably, one of the hallmarks of rock music is the “dirtiness” of its sound: imperfections in the recording quality that gave rock music grit and soul, and what made it so popular in live performances. Digital production, on the other hand, is all about perfection: clean beats and notes, with that dirty quality being added artificially to mimic the raw audio of days-gone-by.
In my opinion, rock music’s last, real revolution was the mid-2000s, when pop-punk and emo music surged forward as rock and roll’s last breath before retreating into the shadows. A final attempt at relevance which, to its credit, it was able to achieve for a brief period. But then the digital age went into full swing, and by the early 2010s, rock music gradually retreated into the dark.
But is Rock and Roll Actually Dead?
Yes, rock and roll is dead, but is it really that bad?
I, for one, don’t think so.
Sure, it’s kind of annoying to see Imagine Dragons topping the rock charts when A7X or Foo Fighters is still raging against the dying of the light. But does it mean that new innovations or new sounds won’t ever come from the hallowed halls of rock music? Of course not.
Someone, somewhere, at some point in time, will pick up his dad or granddad’s old telecaster and figure out a new way to transform their feelings into face-melting riffs that would mesmerize. And when that happens, we’ll be ready.