Rock Is Dead (In The USA)

DDon’t let the Grammys fool you. Rock is dead. The Grammys are a fairly conservative association that tends to reward those whose creative peak is past them. A better indicator are year-end sales (easily found if you google “Billboard year-end charts”). One look over the 2009 year-end charts and one thing stands out: the lack of any top rock acts.

Taking numbers from the top forty groups, there are a grand total of eleven groups that are categorized as “rock” of some variety, and looking further down the list the trend continues, with a grand total of 26 of the 100 top-earning artists coming from rock groups. The aforementioned list covers a variety of rock groups, from the easy rock of Coldplay to the harsh metal of Metallica, but the singles list is even worse, with only 13 of the top 100 songs originating from the rock artists.

This news spells trouble to those looking to make rock a creative vehicle. Rock has been a driving force behind much of the creativity of the past decades, its influence omnipresent throughout the close of the century. The majority of pop music of the seventies fell under what we would classify as “rock”. Even pop music of the eighties was strongly indebted to this phenomenon. The emergence of grunge, post-grunge, and nu-metal seemed to ensure the commercial viability of the rock n roll genre, but those genres have slowly shriveled to only a few musicians still making a living. Nickelback, Three Doors Down and Creed have all experienced disappointing album sales over the past two years, and newer bands with smaller fan bases (Three Days Grace, Hinder, AFI and others) have also failed to match previous sales.

Photo credit: tamako sato

The challenger to the rock throne seems to be electronic-oriented music. Strongly influenced by the funk/disco branch that evolved from R&B opposite Rock n Roll, electronic music has dominated the charts over the past year. 70 of the top 100 singles trace their success to electronic hip-hop beats or dance music. Critically electronic music is enjoying increasing popularity, as three of the top album nominees from this year’s Grammys came from these genres and a club-driven single won “Song of the Year” for the first time ever.

Not only electronic, but country music appears to have sucked away some of the life from rock n roll. Many of the same people that were drawn to earlier forms of rock n roll have been lured in by the crossover appeal of country. Since the success of Garth Brooks, country music has increasingly crossed over to poach many of the easy rock buyers. Country music has had no qualms about emphasizing pop-rock guitars in order to bring in would-be rock consumers. This, coupled with a willingness to substitute pop instruments for more traditional country instruments in radio singles, ensures that country is enjoying a strong, cross-sectional appeal to consumers.

Rock itself is struggling. No new genres have emerged to revitalize the rock scene. Metal is successful, but consumers of metal have little love for the more radio-friendly rock genres. A few pop acts embrace aspects of guitar-based rock, think Cobra Starship and their hit “Good Girls Go Bad”, but by and large rock finds itself at a crossroads. Will it be able to reinvent itself in order to survive? Or will it linger as a genre that has its occasional practitioners but little mainstream presence? One thing is certain: if there is no new creative force to revitalize rock n roll, it will slowly fade into a shadow of its old self.

So this is where the challenge emerges to anyone wishing to be successful in the rock genre: how can you grow as a musician to make your music something more than a tribute to heroes gone by? How can you invigorate new energy into an old brand of music?

Now, more than ever, it’s time to break the box of the past. What’s necessary is a new way of thinking, a willingness to experiment and have fun. One quote that has stuck said something to the extent that rock and roll is the music of the people; they could sing along with it, and dance with it. It stuck in their heads, its rhythm made you move. That is what is lacking more than anything else in rock. No longer the music of the people, rock has become dominated by seizure-inducing guitar-play or mass-produced ballads. Either rock will find its rhythm, or lose it entirely to another genre that willingly embraces it. The upcoming years are crucial in the development of rock, as it deals with the twin forces of electronic and country music. Rock needs to recast itself if it wishes to stay above water in the riptides of the music industry; I hold out hope that it can be redeemed.

Ben Histand is a fourth-year Business student with an interest in finding out how pop culture works, and has spent entirely too much time finding out how Marvin Gaye is the same as Led Zeppelin, and why Led Zeppelin sold a whole lot more albums.