Man Playing Guitar
Metal,  Music,  Rock

Rock is dead. Or hidden?

Or smelling funny, as the late Frank Zappa said of jazz. Rock is dead has long been claimed, asserted, announced, joked about and cried. Since the 70s already, in which arguably rock was at the height of its health. Perhaps its first use was in the Doors song from 1968, when the genre was in its expansion phase still.

Whoever and wherever it started, a plethora of rock musicians have expressed their opinions on the liveliness of the genre. Most for clamor, others with better insight. It nearly didn’t pass a single year that an artist or a music critic announced its death.

Rolling Stones in concert in 1982
Rolling Stones in concert in 1982

So, is rock truly dead?

Rock is musically alive

Most of definitions of rock are two-faced. One is the musical style and the other is the cultural influence, themes, attitude. We can easily get rid of the first doubt: musically rock is alive. There are a dozen or so of successful young bands that do play rock these days, The Kills, Greta Van Fleet, Royal Blood come to mind, with their songs aired on repeat on music channels and with millions of views on Youtube. There’s a follow and there are critical acclaims for newer albums to this day.

Admittedly, there are not that many bands as in the previous decade but I’m not including a bit older bands like Muse, Arctic Monkeys, Foo Fighters, Queens Of The Stone Age, Kasabian, Rammstein and plenty more who were born in the early 2000s or late 1990s but keep experiencing a widespread success today. Plus I’m not including bands that are labelled as rock but truly aren’t, on which I’ll come back in a moment.

If we include the good old myths of the past as Paul McCartney, David Gilmour, Scorpions, Queen, Rolling Stones, we have scores of bands that do play rock today, sell albums like peanuts and are constantly sold out.

Queen Live at Sanremo's Festival in 1984
Queen live at Sanremo’s Festival in 1984

Thus musically there’s an audience, there’s an interest and rock isn’t going to disappear anytime soon. I wouldn’t bet on it to become culturally significant again in a few years but that’s to be expected from a genre that has nearly 60 years. We don’t expect jazz to become popular ever again either, so why expecting rock? No, that’s not the issue. Suffice to conclude that musically there’s rock, good rock, in younger bands and thus the music has indeed a future, if not for the general public. But that is more a matter of attitude and promotion.

Rock attitude is dead

Culturally rock is far less important than in the past. This isn’t any news and dozens of articles have been written about it. I won’t bore you to read yet another analysis of what is attracting for the younger generations nowadays and why.

What interests me and led me to go farther into more extreme genres of rock to find solace, is the lack of a “rock attitude” in modern “rock” bands. Media have been increasingly attaching the rock label to bands that are pop at most, or have just elements of rock. Rock sells still, it seems. But that generates a confusion among the young, including into rock just anything that has electric guitars and is mostly sung by men. That encompassed the likes of Coldplay, Maroon 5, Nothing But Thieves, Vampire Weekend, Thirty Seconds to Mars which have as much in common with rock as Beatles had with heavy metal back in the time. Not only in attitude but musically too.

Don’t get me wrong, those are respectable bands with a huge following. But rock bands? Do any of them possess the theatricality of Queen, the dressing up of Bowie, the evilness of Alice Cooper, the blasphemy of Black Sabbath and countless imitators, the establishment-opposing attitude of Sex Pistols, the rage of Metallica, the political stance of Neil Young or the dark sensuality of Nick Cave? Where’s all that?

Alice Cooper in 2015
Alice Cooper in 2015

Killed by Radiohead and Nirvana probably. The former by introducing a persisting emo attitude, later dropped but the damage was done, and the latter by completely bringing down the rock gods of the 80s who dominated the arenas of the whole world for a decade. Again, I do love both Nirvana and Radiohead, for different reasons, but it is undeniable that they brought to the fore a different attitude, yet musically very rock, that was the seed for today’s grandchildren of them. I’ve always found a sort of redeeming spirit in Dave Grohl trying to keep high the flame of rock and roll for 2 decades now because he was in one of the bands that contributed the most in bringing it down. Life is ironic.

Be it as it was, issue here is that there is nothing in modern rock that I would call “challenging”. Challenging the pop icons (who is threatening the Bon Jovi of today?), challenging the politicians (where’s the War Pigs of the 2010s?), challenging society by being different, challenging the structure of our world’s dominating ideas by smoking in public and having promiscuous sex in the conservative society of the 60s? Gone are the public showing of drugs, the alcohol addiction, the leather jackets have become polished and are probably worth 10x more than Judas Priest’s ones, the studs are exclusive metal territory, the face painting is out of fashion, nobody burns guitars anymore (smashing them is easier eh Bellamy?) go figure churches. There’s no going outside of the block, no being proud and cherishing being different. Elton John was far more anti-conformist than Adam Levine will ever be. When it is proclaimed that rock is dead, this is what it is actually meant. Not the music, but the spirit.

A spirit that can’t be found in what substituted it: hip hop. Most of the more popular strands of hip hop are an hymn to indulging in the most basic impulses of men: be it the violence of gangsta rap or the drug abuse of trap or the constant barrage of twerking asses since Mtv opened the doors to hip hop artists. Only redeeming factor is the political stance of the likes of Childish Gambino, recently, and Public Enemy, in the past. Yet even this part is mostly navel-looking, more focused towards the issue of the black community than of the world as a whole. It has rarely the scope of a Bob Dylan or a Roger Waters. Totally respectable, true, but smaller. Hip hop is a genre too closed onto itself and its origins to be able to fully take the banners of anticonformism from rock. This inability has led the younger generations, imbued by it and its aesthetic, to not look for anticonformism in music outside of profanity in lyrics and dressing like idiots and claiming it to be “a new trend”. Bah.

Therefore we are left with a bunch of successful “rock” bands that have neither the courage nor the willingness to be as daring as the tag “rock” would entail, a long series of bands who are in truth simply pop bands musically influenced by rock and lots of hip hop singers intertwining in all genres due to an endemic lack of instrumental prowess.

If I wanted to see something that would actually blow my mind, shock me, where do I go nowadays? Where can I find the flamboyant shows of the 80s? A bit here and there perhaps, but nowhere in a single place like before. At Coachella? Glastonbury? Please…

Rock is dead indeed. Killed itself and nobody was able to fully take its role. But.

If Rock is dead, Metal is alive

Metal was always the forlorn child of rock. Even when rock was dominating, and because of it, metal was the preferred genre for the truly anti-conformists, the abandoned ones, the ones who didn’t care for money or fame but wanted to kick ass with music, even if it meant themselves and 3 friends in a garage, at most, metal was the one you would choose. Alongside punk rock, which much quickly morphed into a different beast with new wave and post punk, metal answered to the rock is dead with a “who cares, heavy metal is forever”. Which might well be true at this point.

Alissa White Gulz singing live
Alissa White Gulz

The single advantage and disadvantage of metal compared to rock is that is more conservative. That prevented it to evolve as quickly as rock, made it keep a strain of traditionalism that makes bands of 2019 being proud of sounding like the forefathers of the 70s and was enemy of innovation. While long are gone the battles over not using keyboards in metal and the meaning of “true black metal” is increasingly attached to a specific period of time than a subgenre, metal answer to the rock is dead question was always a sense of preserving the uniqueness, the trueness, the pure spirit of it, in a more extreme version. And perhaps also because of it being more extreme it couldn’t be diluted as rock did over the decades. There can’t be any Maroon 5 of metal. If any band attempted it, they would be called out by the fans for being “sell-outs”. Ask Metallica.

That’s not to say that metal didn’t evolve nor change. Of course it did. If we only considered the experimentation with rap of the 80s, the avantgarde black metal sounds of the mid 90s, the progressive metal of the early 90s and all the barrage of “posts” (post-black, post-metal etc.) of more recent years, there is enough variety in it for anybody to find something to their liking. It already split in different genres in the late 70s, with the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, marking a difference between new and old forms of metal. Despite its inner traditionalism, heavy metal morphed, absorbed, took inspiration and developed in multiple subgenres at a speed only comparable to its father, rock, in the late 60s.

Which was what was peculiar about rock, originally. Changing and bringing forth new forms of music. Bands had a specific sound, a specific way to dress (a role that nowadays is covered by the pop singers a la Rihanna, Lady Gaga and more), a specific way of being on stage (who uses Eddie or face painting nowadays?), a logo pertaining to them only. This is utterly lost in the rock of the new millennium, where bands act more like pop stars playing rock than true rock stars. Rock is dead indeed here.

This doesn’t include heavy metal though. The logos, the icons, the dressing up, the make up, it is still all there. Ghost have a specific way of presenting themselves by masking and dressing as clergymen, Lordi and Slipknot have the horror appearance, black metal bands of all sorts still use the face painting and even the most obscure death metal band has its unique logo, ready to be printed on t-shirts and sold to the fans. Anything that belonged to rock is still to be found in metal, in a harsher form. Perhaps even harsher as to contrast the gentler rock of modern rock bands. Rock is not dead, is hiding under the metal tag.

What future for rock?

I’m not of the opinion that rock losing its mainstream appeal will mean less quantity and more quality. The new rock bands we have seen emerging in the last decade don’t support this view. I’m instead convinced that a genre stalls when there is not a mass of fans that can sustain it, promote it, generate noise enough to young kids to notice it and be willing to contribute one day. If there’s no radio airing, no big, mainstream festivals hosting the artists, no constant exposure on mass media, rock will just fizzle out. Granted, lots of quality bands will still exist but what for? To create another jazz? We have it already. Another classical? Oh god no, rock doesn’t need to be that cerebral (albeit it has been from time to time).

Rock is a genre that comes from the gut. As its ancestor, blues. If it will not get enough exposure, the people who are not music experts or music students will not get acquainted with it and will go to jazz or classical. Nothing wrong with that, good for those genres but whom will rock attract? The rebellious? They will go to metal. The ones looking for fame? They will go to pop or hip hop. The partygoers? There’s EDM.

Basically, where’s the room for rock nowadays? If it doesn’t regain its soul, there won’t be. Rock is dead if there’s more of its spirit in Lady Gaga than in Arctic Monkeys. That is the saddest phrase of this article.

Rock is less to be found among those who musically play it than among those who exploit its clichés or are more extreme. Both parts are eroding the space for rock, causing it to stay in the tomb it dug itself in years ago.

Then one day we will all concede that rock is dead is not anymore a repeated cliché but stating the facts.

Cover photo by Flavio Gasperini on Unsplash

Neapolitan programmer, traveller and metalhead, co-author of PaperSounds blog.

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