Since its beginnings, Rock Music has been considered either a short lived fad, or a genre that is dead, or dying. Yet, the genre has been successful and popular for 50 plus years. Some of the greatest popular art of the last century has come from rock music. But the resilience of Rock has lulled many into thinking that it could never die; this art form has become such an intricate part of the 20th century that we can no longer image popular culture without it. It has been a long time since we have seen the fall of an art form (the last, arguably, was radio in the early part of the 1900's. But also, paintings, plays, and classical music have all basically been buried in the last few decades. However, there are few alive who witnessed any of these forms in their prime as the case with rock.) Art forms are born, grow into maturity, and then slowly die. Rock music is not different. But since people have been claiming its death for years what reason do we have to believe that now is the time of its demise?
To know whether Rock music is dying we must look at the tools and techniques and decide what else can be done. Is there anything left to do? A simple look at some of the critically acclaimed albums of the last ten years is revealing. These are the Grammy winners for Best Rock Album from 1994-2004:
2004 Green Day. Title of the Work: American Idiot.
2003 Foo Fighters. Title of the Work: One by One.
2002 Bruce Springsteen. Title of the Work: The Rising.
2001 U2. Title of the Work: All That You Can't Leave Behind.
2000 Foo Fighters. Title of the Work: There Is Nothing Left To Lose.
1999 Santana. Title of the Work: Supernatural.
1998 Sheryl Crow. Title of the Work: The Globe Sessions.
1997 John Fogerty. Title of the Work: Blue Moon Swamp.
1996 Sheryl Crow. Title of the Work: Sheryl Crow.
1995 Alanis Morissette. Title of the Work: Jagged Little Pill.
1994 Rolling Stones. Title of the Work: Voodoo Lounge.
Notice that almost all of these albums are unoriginal. The style, themes, lyrics, music, everything here is recycled. There are some fairly sad albums here, but one of the most distressing was the latest winner: Green Day. This band won an award for a style, theme, and genre that has remained unchanged for more than ten years! This is astounding. The amount of change that historically occurs in rock music over ten years is drastic. That's the difference between “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (Platters) and “Abbey Road”. Or the Cure “Boys Don't Cry” and Nirvana's “Nevermind”! Yet this album is claimed to be the “Best Rock Album” of the year 2004. Now, some will chastise me here for basing my argument on such a historically out of touch award. “American Idiot” probably won for many reasons. The band did deserve an award for their years of work, perhaps the academy realized they had missed some of the band's greater albums. Also, the political message of the album is a far cry from the band's early slacker style. And the production value has gone way up. But, essentially this is the same music, the political musings may be new (but are hardly original. If anything this is a sure case of senseless pandering to a disenchanted youth who want nothing more than to complain about a government that they don't know anything about.) and their songs may sound cleaner, but nothing has truly changed. For the sake of those who oppose the Grammys as a source of data, I will look at another barometer. Billboard magazine is the best source to find out what is actually selling. Here are the top selling rock albums for the past few years and their ranking for that year.
Billboard Year End Records from 2002-2004 (This was all I could get my hands on.)
6 FALLEN Evanescence
9 THE VERY BEST OF SHERYL CROW Sheryl Crow
5 LET GO Avril Lavigne
6 METEORA Linkin Park
8 FALLEN Evanescence
2 WEATHERED Creed
5 [HYBRID THEORY] Linkin Park
7 SILVER SIDE UP Nickelback
These are the rock albums (I excluded “Pink”). Notice again there is a lack of originality here. Linkin Park is mixing post-grunge rock with some pathetic rhyming. Evanescence is perhaps the only thing close to original here and its Goth/Classical/Rock style leaves no room for growth (this is an example of forging new ground by finding a niche). Creed's style is hardly different from the poppy post-grunge sound (think late Pearl Jam, early Foo Fighters, Live, etc...) and Nickelback is post-grunge. And Avril Lavigne needs no explanation. Alright, well some might also take issue with my use of sales as a barometer. And not wishing to contribute to the commodification of music, I will now turn to the hip critics for answers.
Rolling Stone Records of the Year for 2004.
Aerosmith - Honkin' on Bobo
The Arcade Fire – Funeral
Jimmy Buffett - License to Chill
Eric Clapton - Me and Mr. Johnson
Elvis Costello and the Imposters - The Delivery Man
The Cure - The Cure
Franz Ferdinand - Franz Ferdinand
Interpol – Antics
Jimmy Eat World – Futures
The Killers - Hot Fuss
The Libertines - The Libertines
Modest Mouse - Good News for People Who Love Bad News
Phish – Undermind
R.E.M. - Around the Sun
Rilo Kiley - More Adventurous
The Rolling Stones - Live Licks
Patti Scialfa - 23rd Street Lullaby
Scissor Sisters - Scissor Sisters
Elliott Smith - From a Basement on the Hill
Patti Smith – Trampin'
Taking Back Sunday - Where You Want to Be
Tegan and Sara - So Jealous
TV on the Radio - Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes
U2 - How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
Velvet Revolver – Contraband
Wilco - A Ghost Is Born
Brian Wilson - Smile
Notice how many of these into one of a few categories: 80's music rehashed (the Killers, The Libertines), post-grunge (Jimmy Eat World, Taking Back Sunday), more-of-the-same (think U2, Brian Wilson, R.E.M., and the Stones), or rehashed experimental styles (Modest Mouse, Franz, TV on the Radio, Wilco). With such clear stagnation can we realistically expect rock to pull through? I have looked at three, industry standard sources for my data and in all three cases originality was found lacking. Before we can answer this we must look at those few bands which are, in some way at least, still making innovative music, which I will do in my next post on this topic.