By Jackson Radley
Rock’s been dead every 10 years for the last 50 years. No matter how many legendary bands may come out of whatever decade you were raised in, your asshole uncle Jimmy who wears an Aerosmith t-shirt to his bartending job, or X_xLovelessAOTY32 who won’t stop fighting the good fight in the YouTube comments of rap videos will always decry contemporary iterations of whatever sub-genre they hold dearest as worthless, in favor of championing real shoegaze or real rock-and-roll, or whatever brand of guitar noise held the key to their teenage heart. However, Uncle Jimmy and Mr. Loveless32 have a stronger case than ever for the genre’s death in 2018: according to their year end report, Nielsen Music reports that in 2017, rap has finally overtaken rock as the most consumed genre.
Of course, GOOD rock isn’t dead, despite what Imagine Dragons’ and Twenty One Pilots’ popularity (or even their classification as “Rock music”) may tell you. The genre just lingers in the small text of Coachella lineups and the bottoms of Spotify discover playlists, playing small clubs and occasionally smoking a cigarette in Pitchfork’s “best new music” section. Instead of dominating radio waves and revolutionizing culture, good rock now thrives as a niche, but thriving subversion and abrasive contribution to the kingpin culture that R&B and whatever the latest alt-pop gentrification have helped turn into what we consider the wider music scene.
In any other era, this would be a travesty: an era where radio play was conflated with popularity, where vinyl sales paradoxically dictated a band’s ability to get a record deal, where record deals were still relevant, and where The Eagles were considered listenable. Fortunately, we live in the 21st century, where platforms like SoundCloud and Bandcamp allow anyone with an EP, an Internet connection, Garageband, and a post-ironic name somewhere in their discography to be picked up by Matador records, or break 3 million views on youtube. If you’re either talented, unique, or both, it is not difficult to either break through to audiences, or find the bands that haven’t quite yet grasped the hammer.
Also of course, that italicized “finally” wasn’t a jab at the genre’s ethos. Rock has been the workhorse of the music industry for the last half-century, pumping out legendary band after legendary band, decade after decade. We aren’t at a point where rap can claim to have a Beatles, AND a Joy Division, AND a Ramones, AND a Nirvana — but does it even need to when it has as many distinct voices as rock with 20 less years to develop?
Rock has been through decades of re-invention, public scrutiny, forced experimentation through condemnation of disgruntled parents, and a HELL of a lot of youth revivalism. Rap, though only viewed through a mainstream lens for (at most) half of rock’s tenure, has seen arguably as much diversity and more innovation within its genre confines, and has certainly seen more consistent artistry. While the genre may not have a Beatles or Joy Division, a Ramones or a Nirvana, it DOES have a Tyler, The Creator, Kendrick Lamar, Danny Brown and Kanye West — many of who’s contemporaries have pulled from rock’s motifs. Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition samples the Joy Division song of the same name, and the late Lil Peep has made a name for himself for exclusively sampling everything from lo-fi folk legend The Microphones to Blink-182. Through no necessary fault of its own, Rock is, in the simplest terms, being outpaced by Rap.
There are, essentially, two probable reasons for this, the first (and most impactful) of which being quite simple: accessibility. To start making rock music is both an investment and a commitment, requiring potentially hundreds of dollars in physical equipment and a sizeable time investment to become versed in that equipment. Contrasted with digital music’s price of entry, which can be boiled down to pirating ableton and watching a few hours of youtube tutorials, it paints a grim picture for rock’s future.
The other, more complicated problem is that of the genre’s rigidity. Though it’s evolved within itself, branching out to different pedalboard configurations and various tempos, rock has refused to budge in terms of innovation. Perhaps that’s for the best, and may have more to do with the structural problem of inherent incompatibility with other genres than stubbornness on the part of the artist. Last time rock attempted to genre-mix, we ended up with Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park (and most recently, Lil Aaron) which I think we can all agree was a mistake.
Perhaps the future of rock lies in something that isn’t rock, but instead it lies in something adjacent tp it. Maybe indie-pop, with its reverb guitars and syncopated riffs, will carry the torch. Maybe soundcloud rap, something like the late Lil Peep, will revitalize the genre for old listeners and introduce it to newcomers. Maybe the muddy acoustics of Sandy (Alex G) or Julia Brown will keep rock’s essence alive on the front page of bandcamp. But, as long as these legitimately good acts exist, do they need to be popular?