Is Rock Really Dead?

Ever since its invention all those decades ago, rock music has been a corner stone in popular culture and entertainment. New artists innovated to create new branches of rock music and its reach expanded over time. However, in recent years, rock’s popularity went from a roaring flame to a mere pilot light. The days of stadium rock and roll band glamor are all but memories as indie bands struggle to find the limelight that once bathed countless acts.

Black and white promo photo of Chuck Berry Holding His Guitar and winking
Chuck Berry — photo: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

In The Beginning…

Rock music quickly gained momentum after Chuck Berry defined its sounds in the early 1950s and it began to infiltrate everyday life more and more. Fashion began to take heed of what was going on in the world of rock and roll; the art world took on a new life inspired by the fury of rock music; and movies and television started casting quintessential rock stereotypes to appeal to the growing interest in rock music and culture.

By the 1970s rock solidified its positon as the most popular genre of music, beating out the great pop music makers of the 1950s and ’60s. As the ’70s pushed forward, musical acts like Janice Joplin, Led Zepplin, The Rolling Stones, and Lynnard Skynard branched off into various sub-genres of rock ranging from folk and psychedelic to southern and hard rock. This influx of rock artists eventually came to obliterate the disco explosion that had just started taking over the United States at the time. And by the start of the ’80s, rock had effectively killed disco and remained the driving force in the entertainment industry.

A vintage Guns n' Roses press photo
Photo: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Shoot for the Stars, Land in a Stadium

As the ’80s motored along, pop began to once again infiltrate the charts. Artists like Tiffany and Madonna became the idols of teen queens everywhere. However, rock music was also going through drastic changes. Acid-dropping bell bottomed psychedelic rockers were quickly phased out and replaced with artists and bands that oozed far more heart stopping edge than ever before. Gone were the days of smoking dope and singing about white rabbits. The ’80s ushered in drugs, sex, and rock and roll. Bands like Motley Crue, Guns and Roses, The Cure, Whitesnake, Metallica, and Aerosmith swept the globe with stadium rock. Rock bands no longer played festivals and bars. They now sold out entire sports arenas to tens of thousands of adoring fans who wanted to live the glamorous lives of rock music’s biggest stars.

However, as rock left the ’80s and entered the ’90s, artists were no longer interested in the glamour of hair metal and stadium rock. Rock once again returned to its roots of rebellion, self-expression, raw emotion. Bands like Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Garbage, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Hole pushed against the money and fame the ’80s promoted and carved their own paths in the music world.

Vintage Nirvana promo photo
Photo: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

The Slow Descent

After the ’90s left many a grunge rocker battered and beaten, the 2000s rolled in and ushered in the birth of pop punk — rock in its most agonizing and commercial state. While the ’50s birthed rock and the ’70s nurtured it, the ’80s gave it a money making platform and the ’90s saw it return to its roots. In the 2000s rock music once again went through a change. Unfortunately, this time the change would be fast the worst kind there is. As the 2000s progressed, rock became more of a novelty than a platform of expression. Society and mainstream media began to shift its position on the idea that rock could continue to be a profitable genre of music. Bubblegum pop took hold of half the music industry and hip hop and R&B began to dominate the rest. Countless bands popped up throughout the 2000s, attempting to dominate the music landscape by creating sub-genres like indie rock, alternative rock, pop punk, screamo, and more. But the music world no longer had room for rock music to grow in like it did in the ’70s and ’80s.

Photo: John Varvatos

“Well They Say That Rock is Dead, We’ll They’re Probably Right…”

When grunge goddess Courtney Love uttered these lyrics back in 2004, it made her futile attempt at solo career all the more heartbreaking to watch. Now many have stated that rock is officially dead, and many have argued that rock lovers just aren’t looking deep enough. But the truth of the matter is that rock most definitely isn’t dead, but it sure as hell is breathing its last few breaths. While a handful of acts seem to burst onto the scene every year from the realm of indie rock, none can really claim to have the success of bands like AC\DC or Judas Priest. And it really comes down to a simple and completely unavoidable fact: Rock is no longer profitable. Unlike the baby boomers and their kids who made various musical acts and, in turn, various genres profitable by connecting with and see parts of themselves in the music, millennials fall in love with the packaging before sampling the product. This in turn caused the mainstream music scene to become unbearably homogenized. Folk artists blur lines by merging soft pop songs with dancehall beats, while pop princesses become rappers for one song and teen idols for another. Poetic rap has been replaced with set guidelines and molds that spell success for those willing to follow them, and irrelevancy and empty bank accounts for those who try to push against them. The same has happened to rock music. There isn’t a shortage of dreamers wanting to become the next big thing — that hasn’t changed in the slightest. What has changed is that the rawness and intensity have been drowned out. The likelihood of ever having another Patti Smith challenging the status quo or a Marilyn Manson using our own discomfort against us to send a message are slim to none. Rock has become a game of who can sound the most easygoing and digestible rather than mesmerizing and self-exploring.

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