Is Rock And Roll Dead? No. It Just Smells Bad
“ROCK and Roll isn’t dead. It just smells bad.”
I am, of course, paraphrasing Frank Zappa’s famous response when asked whether jazz was dead. Who would have guessed that quote would be applicable to rock music just a few decades later.
There are many of you already feeling your blood pressure rise at what I’m saying. I can hear you now: “There are tons of great bands today! All you have to do is stop wallowing in the past you old bastard, and dig for it!” Problem is – if you have to dig it up, it’s probably dead.
Indeed, whenever you read an article byForbes magazine and its ilk smugly declaring that rock is alive and well, they inevitably cite a litany of “awesome” rock bands that you’ve never heard of. This, of course, proves the point even further. No one is denying that there are plenty of genuinely good rock musicians out there… the problem is they’re starving and completely off the pop-culture grid.
ALBUM SALES: “I CAN’T GET NO RETAIL TRANSACTION”
Since the end of 2012, less than 12 per cent of the songs that reached the top 100 were rock… and of that 12 percent, many are suspiciously un-rock-like. Meanwhile, electronic music and hip-hop have steadily grown in the lush fertilizer that is rock music’s ashy remains.
One look at a list of the top selling music of the past year is all the convincing you should require. It’s dominated by the likes of Eminem, Justin Timberlake, Luke Bryan, and Beyoncé. Every so often you get a whiff of “rock” (i.e. Imagine Dragons) but it’s anecdotal at best. The artists that capture media and consumer attention these days (Miley Cyrus, Kanye West, Daft Punk, Katy Perry) are so far removed from what we called rock ‘n’ roll, it’s laughable.
It’s true, Journey, Queen, Pink Floyd, The Beatles, and AC/DC are still raking in album sales. You know, bands that are eligible for Social Security in the United States (if they’re even still alive).
And don’t get me started on radio play. While you may find plenty of “classic rock” and “oldies” stations playing The Turtles and ELO; you’re unlikely to find it playing anything by an artist who doesn’t go in for regular prostate exams. You can never be too cautious at our age.
CONCERTS: STAGES FOR THE ELDERLY AND INFIRM
Other than abysmal sales, perhaps the writing on the wall is clearest in regards to concert tickets. Best-selling concerts in the 2010s: U2 (Bono is 54), Roger Waters (70 years old), Metallica (James Hetfield is 50), AC/DC (Angus is 59), Bon Jovi (Jon is 52), The Eagles (Don Henley is 66) and Springsteen (Bruce is 64).
It would be nice if just one of them wasn’t into their fifties. I suppose you could include Coldplay and make yourself feel better. But it’s a poor consolation for most.
Gone are the days when a band in their prime can put on a successful concert tour to support its new album. So, as much as I would enjoy seeing The Eagles in concert (I am sure they put on a good show), it would be with a heavy heart. This is a band whose heyday was about FORTY YEARS AGO. How sad that bands of today don’t enjoy similar interest.
SEMANTICS: THE LAST BASTION OF HOPE FOR THOSE IN DENIAL
So, your laundry list of bands no one has heard of didn’t convince anyone that rock was still thriving. The next step is to claim that rock has “evolved” into an unclassifiable diversity. Thus, Mumford & Sons, who you might call a rock offshoot, gets discounted – as do various alternative bands.
There has never been a universal agreement on what constitutes “rock”. Would you call James Taylor or Kenny Loggins rock? When Pink Floyd were singing about Hobbits (in Piper at the Gates of Dawn), was that rock? So, there is no question that the classification is flawed; however, that doesn’t suddenly resurrect rock ‘n’ roll from the grave. Bottom Line: If you have to stretch the limits of what even constitutes rock to keep it alive, chances are it’s hanging by a thread. You won’t resurrect rock on technicalities.
So, we are left with three possible scenarios:
1. Rock is just fine. It’s just annoying geezers once again sounding the alarm. (I think we can leave this philosophy to the hipsters and aging Boomers who are living in a fantasy world.)
2. Rock is down for the count. Resuscitation is impossible. The Duck Dynasty Christmas album was among the top 10 selling CDs of 2013 for God’s sake. All hope is lost.
3. Rock is at death’s door, but as AC/DC once proclaimed, “Rock and roll ain’t noise pollution. Rock and roll will never die.” This is my position; that there is a modicum of hope. But it will require two magical things to happen…
WHAT WILL IT TAKE TO COME BACK? THERE ARE 2 THINGS THAT NEED TO HAPPEN:
1. A YOUNG GENERATION WITH MASSIVE AMOUNTS OF DISPOSABLE INCOME
The Baby Boomers were a gigantic horde with an unprecedented amount of cash to blow on entertainment. You can warp the numbers all you like to claim it still is financially sound (most cite the zillions spent today as if it were that simple), but there has never been anything like the tidal wave of support for music as there was during the heyday of the Boomers. It has been trickling down ever since.
To support such an industry, you’ve got to pay a pretty steep bill – not just in disposable income, but also disposable time. You can’t be working at Starbucks all day and Wal-Mart at night and still have time to attend Woodstock. Something tells me the Fab Four would’ve been singing to some vacant seats at Shea Stadium had they played to this generation, saddled with debt and a shit economy.
Simply put, the only ones with that kind of money to burn today are still the Boomers, who seem to be watching a lot more Fox News than playing contemporary rock. If the economy rebounds for an up-and-coming generation, you can be assured the music industry will massively benefit. It won’t just be crummy iTunes sales; it’ll be the whole enchilada: concerts, merchandise, and any novel technologies that may come our way in the years to come.
2. A YOUNG GENERATION WHO ACTUALLY GIVES HALF A SHIT
Chances are, if you are 20 years old or younger, this entire discussion is white noise. There’s more attention paid to the passing of pleated khakis than rock and roll. It’s just not that interesting.
Unfortunately, it has to be interesting again to the younger generation for rock to be reborn. Whether Boomers and Gen Xers fall back in love with new contemporary rock is irrelevant. Rock has to come via a youthful revolt, a sort-of primal surge. As cliché as it may sound, rock and roll really is an expression of rebellion. Without a climate of rebellion, rock has no footing and cannot stand.
Looking at our dubstepping, Minecrafting pre-teens of today, I wouldn’t hold my breath for any massive rebellions (with pockets overflowing with disposable income) any time soon. That being said, prior to the Beatles, the US was flat-lining to the likes of Bobbie Vinton and Connie Francis. The cacophony of screaming American teenagers that greeted the mop tops wasn’t just giddy adulation… it was a dam breaking.
We’ve since rebuilt that dam. Complacency and comfort are its bricks and mortar. Perhaps, what rock needs most of all is a band to rise above the water line and tear it down.