In organizing and categorizing the last five-plus decades of rock music, many trends have emerged, all of them pointing toward one eventuality. You see, innovation and cultural significance are the lifeblood of this artform. With the medium’s nascence in the 50s, it was a white-hot popular commodity and paradigm shift, the point from which everything else sprang. The roots began there, and were only strengthened with the British Invasion. At this point, there was a veritable deluge of significant changes happening at an incredible rate. The 60s were a positive upheaval of change, a social cataclysm that will never be repeated. It was an immensely important decade for multiple reasons.
The 70s were also a standout decade, where some of the brightest spots and biggest talents were coalescing and islands of influence were beginning to stand out. The musical community gained a sense of complexity and order. Lots of possibilities were realized, and the advancement continued. The momentum slowed down a tiny bit, and the audience was a bit diffuse.
The 80s were conflicted. More growth was occurring in established genres, but development was relatively stunted. Forward propulsion was not always an option; entropy and stagnation were beginning to take hold. The big story was localized progress. Some change was still happening, and it was all thanks to previous breakthroughs, which served as building blocks. Scenes and ideologies that used to be artsy and fringe were beginning to become self-sustaining and even dominate the market (hip-hop was a surprise success in this regard). Still, there was relative repetition and homogeneity, especially in the mainstream, which had begun to seriously stagnate and play it safe. There was an increasing race, class and aesthetic divide in the music industry, a far cry from the peaceful ideology of the 60s and tentative inclusiveness of the 70s.
The 90s and the dawn of the information age were a brief Renaissance once again sparked by an affection for the past; cultural memory had become stunted and the advertising cycle brief enough that old tricks were gussied up from a new angle and presented as a revolution. This happened in many ways at many different points during the decade. Everything was sufficiently advanced to begin studying its own place in history and surrounding context. Bands explored the seeds of the past and tried to glean more novel concepts from those formative texts (like contemporary rock’s interest in reframing 60s and 70s rock). A whole generation of people raised on modern rock and R&B were coming of age and making their own art, and their experience showed. Much of this music was good, and would continue to be good in the next decade. But less and less of it was truly groundbreaking or new. There was at least one degree of separation: the copied idea, with some inventive exeuction on top. Meanwhile, the self-awareness inherent to this experimentation also bred a sense of humility (grunge) and irony (indie rock). In culture as well as music, things were speeding up, lacking reflection and losing reference points. Everything was splintering apart.
Eventually, to put it in physics terms, our ever-increasing motion and discovery will reach a point where no forward momentum can happen. The 2000s found us on the brink, with Kid A being the event horizon, the last unexplored region, the final push of energy before the great winding down. It wasn’t sudden; indeed, there was a lot of quality music in this decade. But it was a very detectable sea change. Sure, there were a few magnificent outliers, but they were all just mashing up the last dregs of new-ish ideas that were available. In this regard, all the genres, aesthetics and artistic narratives will eventually loop back on each other and media will be a unified organism collapsing into a singularity.
This hypothetical well of inert, negated potential is the 2010s, the current musical climate. We are in a time of permeating information and cultural saturation. There is one new development: hip-hop, which was arguably the most popular genre of the 2000s, is now quite obviously the frontrunner of popular culture. Additionally, people of color, women and individuals from across the spectrum of sexuality are getting far more of a spotlight in the musical idiom, which is great. The era of white male-dominated pop is over. The only downside is that so far, these prominent entertainers aren’t doing anything significantly different from their forebears and influences. After all, they owe a huge debt to breakthroughs in the last fifty years, just as their straight white male counterparts do. It’s wonderful and refreshing that this music and visibility exists; however, possibly because of entrenched biases, people aren’t exploring any true artistic innovation. This problem has to do with something I’ll explain later.
From this point onward, things might just be the same forevermore or we may undergo a new “big bang”, with a totally NEW sociohistorical movement that reshapes the world. But either way, it seems clear that rock music as we know it is beyond repair.
It’s all due to our increasing connectedness, for better or worse. At first, every new discovery was seismically influential and important, but in an ever-expanding galaxy of media and data, new, important, AND popular music is harder than ever to come by. We’re drowning in the same abundance of entertainment we were so driven to create. While it’s now incredibly simple and cheap to produce and disseminate product, it’s harder than ever to establish a brand and make a living as an artist with fresh ideas and integrity, and that’s only partially the fault of the corrupt record industry (in theory, the laissez faire system of free MP3 distribution would seem to be a perfectly Darwinian structure of weeding out the unworthy, but it sure doesn’t make anyone any money because of the anonymity of the marketplace). It’s mostly because the economic structure of this business is infinitely fractured and oversaturated, and I’m not sure where it will be able to move from there.
Looking at this evolution in other terms, one can trace the pattern of cultural influence and how it began as direct and complementary, and it is now a faint echo of its previous self. In the era of Beatlemania, the art WAS the changing society. They almost seemed precognizant, recognizing disparate, obscure cultural signifiers and turning them into brazen, popular signposts while bending the world to their whims in a variety of respects, from fashion to telecommunications to identity politics to sonic trends, and on and on. In the 70s, underground movements quietly heralded the decade’s politically turbulent times before the fact, and during the new wave boom, these events happened alongside an independently changing public. They were a product of their environment, and were responding in kind. By the 80s and 90s, these game-changing events were fewer and farther between, and were crucially more of a reaction to change than its genesis. Additionally, these two decades were known for their stagnation and/or stability, depending on how one views things. The two variables of society and musical recordings had become separated, with little causality between them.
In a nutshell, rock and roll was born in an environment of hugely changing social values, new technology, market availability, and culture clash. It took those elements and emboldened them, turning old jazz, blues, country and folk inspiration into something wholly new. In today’s climate, our values are certainly changing for the better, but that has little to do with anyone’s musical output. There is still much culture clash, but likewise, artists aren’t doing much with it that hasn’t already been done. Technology is advancing at blinding speeds, but the digital revolution produced only a handful of differences in style, recording and aesthetics. We’re past that now, and have no watershed moment to propel us further. The electric guitar itself had so much potential as an invention, and there is no modern equivalent. Similarly, the market for music is completely broken.
Put in other terms: John Lennon once shocked the world by saying the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. These days, Kanye West – the only real modern equivalent of a universally known musical figure who stays relevant and cutting edge – says that about himself all the time and while it gets press, it doesn’t really change anything. By the turn of the decade, classic pop music iconography and sounds are so normalized and even passe that it’s hard to try and think of another analogous entertainer, let alone one in the now antiquated sphere of rock and roll. It would be naïve to utilize rock and hip-hop as something dangerous and ambitious – in the 2010s, they simply are; devalued by oversaturation.
This illustrates the flip side of the issue: as artists got more savvy and jaded, so did audiences. We as a culture have lost our innocence, our wonder and inexperience. What used to be surprising is now old hat, and what’s more, we’re constantly looking for the angle behind everything; the ironic twist, the conceptual ploy, the chink in the armor, any reason to dismiss or dislike things. Under the purview of free streaming and the digital skip function, it’s second nature to bypass hours of content almost instantaneously searching for a purer and purer fix, which amounts to isolating oneself to a very limited comfort zone.
With more and more to keep informed about, it becomes increasingly hard to be ahead of the curve, and so by the 2000s, bands had (admirably) just stopped trying and either willfully ignored the change and became irrelevant/iconoclastic or merely catered to their own fan base to shore up support and funds. Now, as I’ve repeated a bunch of times, we’re all adrift in a morass of constant information overload. It can still certainly be good, but it’s losing its importance and universality, and that sort of shared social experience will be dearly missed. It calcified the goals, ideals and attitude of a few generations, and now it’s likely gone forever.
ANYWAY, enough of my old man complaining. On to the actual topic at hand. Like the 70s, 80s and 2000s before it, the 2010s started with an especially strong year, the result of an overspill from a prolific period and synchronization of release cycles. But then it mostly went downhill, and has not yet recovered, giving more credence to my assertion that although quality music is still being released today, rock (and rap) as a tool of social change, as experiential touchstone and artistic innovation, is exhausted. Nearly every nook and cranny has been explored dozens of times over. Every viewpoint has been adopted and every cause alternately championed and attacked. Each sort of archetypal persona and aesthetic approach has been touted, discarded and dusted off again and again. I do not mean to say that those viewpoints and stylistic intersections are without merit; they are simply no longer novel, and, with such an unthinkably large stream of content and producers, no longer unique or noticeable amidst the debris. If a truly visionary artist comes along every once in a great while, they are almost always polarizing and ignored by the mainstream, which isn’t their fault, but it keeps them sealed off from being more influential.
Due to this cluttered feedback loop, it seems that cultural memory is worsening, which is an altogether different problem. The only trait being rewarded now is fickle, momentary marketability, rather than long-term investment and freedom. The predominant best-selling records are pretty arbitrary, and there are no clear patterns of legends being forged, of movements being created. It’s becoming a one-and-done environment. You could trace how some of the major players of 2000s rock put out solid releases in 2010 and 2011, only to fizzle out later on. These groups, who had been consistently developing and releasing adequate music, are stumbling and succumbing to bland middle age or biting off more than they can chew.
Don’t get me wrong: Though I’m painting a bleak picture, I’m hopeful that things will change. However, seeing as it is six years into this decade and nothing has happened, I’m growing concerned. I have to believe something new is out there, but I think it’s going to be fundamentally different from the pop/rock landscape of today. And that’s if it even gets traction with the multitudes of consumers who could care less. I think it’s perfectly fine that the industry is radically shifting and certain formats are dying out. That’s the natural order, and we are in lean times, creatively speaking. It was bound to happen. People can certainly like what they want to like. This post isn’t meant to demean the social value and emotional release that modern music provides, or to present an attitude of stubborn anachronism.
I just dearly hope that my generation and those that follow keep curating and remembering the culture that predated us and raised us. That’s partially why I started this project a few years ago. If we lose this tradition and evolution in the thoughtless consumption of streaming and MP3s, then a rich and valuable history will be erased. I know that I personally learned, listened and gained a lot from the breadth and depth of rock and roll in very little time with the help of the internet, and I can only hope that the precious few creative signals out there keep pushing against the encroaching wall of noise. As long as the music survives, I’ll be happy.
I myself still have plenty to be educated on and further holes in my knowledge to fill. There’s always more to do and room to grow. But I am reasonably confident that, musically speaking, all this stuff resides in the past, and not the future. In this sense, I have little hesitation in saying rock and roll is dead and done. But with this handy guide to its birth, growth and decline, you can enjoy all the high points over and over, and find plenty more besides. Thanks for listening.