Recently there has been plenty of anguish in the wind about the state of rock music in today’s cultural and economic marketplace. At the Grammies Dave Grohl felt the need to come out and defend “the human element of music,” which, to some, meant he was dissing electronica. (This goes to show that rock music may be dying, but fans of electronic music will always have thin skin). Over at The Guardian, Michael Hann argues that all rock and roll music needs is a large flagship band to rally around. But others aren’t so optimistic. In the New York Times, JonCaramanica decries the artistic stagnation that has barnacled its way around modern rock and roll radio. I think, at the very least, we can all agree that modern rock radio sucks. In my town of origin, Cleveland, which also happens to be the home of the Rock Hall of Fame, the station that once played contemporary rock music has now been replaced by sports talk. Of course, the radio station in question defined contemporary rock music as a bunch of stuff from the 90s plus the warmed over grunge imitators of today, so it wasn’t much of a loss.
There’s plenty to quibble with when it comes to these prognostications of death. In the case of Caramanica’s New York Times article, he is smart enough to define his subject not as rock music as a whole, but as rock music on a major label that is played on a major radio station. But he’s also dumb enough to claim that the Black Keys’s newest album is nothing more than “one long airless, swingless jam,” whatever that is supposed to mean. I suppose part of his argument is that rock music is so in love with revivalism, whether what they’re reviving is classic blues based rock or nineties grunge, that they haven’t moved the art form forward. But is this really a phenomenon located only in rock music? Plenty of people have argued that the last fifteen or so years have been a time of cultural stagnation, and they are not only pointing to rock music. The songs of Lady Gaga or Katy Perry could easily fit within the milieu of the late 90s. Their brand of revivalism just happens to be more popular.
But, at the same time, Caramanica might have a point. With the exception of the Black Keys, most of the bands Caramanica sites as examples of rock and roll’s stagnation are pretty convincing. In fact, modern rock radio has been a wasteland for the past fifteen years or so. I have a solution to this problem: let rock and roll die. Now, let me walk that statement back a little. I don’t actually want to kill of the genre of rock music. But I do think that the manner in which these articles are defining rock music seems just as old fashioned and out of date as some of the music they are decrying. Here is how Caramanica defines the subject of his piece: “For the purposes of this article, that’s [rock music] more or less rock released on American major labels, regardless of origin, and played on mainstream rock radio stations.” He’s only looking at music that has been played on the radio. When was the last time you’ve actually listened to music on the radio? For many of us it has been years. And when I do listen to music on the radio, I’m much more likely to tune in to local college radio stations than something funded by a large corporate conglomerate. This begs the question, why do we even care about the health of rock and roll music in the mainstream?
Rock music has been around since the mid-twentieth century, and in that time it has evolved to the point where it looks a whole lot different from the music that was made by Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley. While rock music’s most famous signifiers of rebellion and drugs came about in late sixties and early seventies, I would argue that it didn’t become a truly vibrant artistic vibrant until the late seventies and early eighties during the punk and new wave movements. It was during this time that rock musicians decided that they couldn’t make the kind of music they wanted if they still relied on the old forms of music production and distribution, leading many to create their own music labels. From that time forward, few artistically viable rock bands made it onto rock radio, but if you picked up the nearest rock you might find a bunch of squirming hardcore punkers taking pains to destroy rock music, and in the process reinventing it. With the exception of a brief boom in the early to mid 1990s, great rock music hasn’t been found on the radio. But there has always been a vibrant subculture that has played with the form and influences of the genre.
What was true in the 80s onward is true now. It is amazing that these music critics seem so concerned with the economic health of rock music in a day and age when thousands of new rock bands can be heard free through a myriad number of internet sources, from Spotify to Youtube. If you are looking for great new music through your radio dial, then you’re looking in the wrong place. Sure, rock musicians could probably construct songs that would be palatable to large swaths of the American public, but do we really want a new Phil Collins for the 21st century? Besides, thanks to the long tail, even popular music isn’t terribly popular by the standards of the pre-Napster age. Now, with this new world of easy and instant access comes plenty of other questions. How do musicians make money off of their hard word? How can music fans cut through the millions of mediocre to bad songs in order to get to the good stuff? The one question most people are not asking, other than culture critics at large magazines and newspapers, is whether or not there’s anything good on the radio. I have no worries about the artistic viability of rock music. In fact there are too many great rock bands out there for me to keep up with. What we need to do now, as fans of art, is to make sure we are supporting musicians who provide the soundtrack to our morning commute and our Friday night debauchery.