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Rock music isn’t dying, it’s evolving

Dec 29, 2016

Just because hip-hop and rap had a landmark year does not mean 'rock' music failed.

It often feels like 2016 has been the banner year for endless division, derision, and generally volatile human behaviour.

But this year did play host to one of the most diverse, exciting and revolutionary stages for the music industry; Frank Ocean dropped Blond in unprecedented fashion; in a much different way, the release of Kanye’s Life of Pablo was equally contentious and exciting; Beyoncé released Lemonade, a record accompanied by a one-hour HBO short film. Then her sister stole the show with the incredible, all-too-timely A Seat At The Table; Rihanna upended expectations with Anti-.

It was a wild, vital year in music.

But what about ‘rock’ music? Carl Wilson penned a cautiously pessimistic take on the death of ‘rock’ music for Billboard (cautiously might be a little soft, given he suggests ‘rock’ might be as dead as Leonard Cohen and David Bowie). For Wilson, irrelevance and diminished popularity mean death.

Just because hip-hop and rap had a landmark year does not mean ‘rock’ music failed. The success of one should not be conflated with the failure of the other (which only serves to further the perceived division between these two down the fault line of race; if rock dudes think rap is taking the spotlight from them, this conversation devolves into a heinous case of whitelash). Nor should the term, in syntax, be narrowed so that it cannot address the brilliant subgenres that comprise that grandiose, bloated word: ‘rock.’

‘Rock’ is being presented in skeptical quotations here because its function, its form, and even its defining qualities have all been upended; the game changed, man. The utility, accuracy and currency of the word ‘rock’ are about as parenthetical in 2016 as anything else that might warrant use of sarcastic air-quotes. Because ‘rock’ as it used to be is not ‘rock’ as it is.

‘Rock’ as it used to be (and, to some extent, still is) was a domain for straight white dudes to sing songs for and about other straight white people, often about fucking. The cult of personality around ‘rock’ as it used to be was pervasive; Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Steven Tyler, Mick Jagger, Axl Rose (who actually recorded himself and a drunk girl having sex, and then put it on one of his band’s records). The ‘good old days’ of ‘rock’ were about showy and self-congratulatory sex, drugs, and cock-rock and roll.

In 2016, that species of ‘rock’ might be dead (and that would be fine, actually), but what’s sprung up in its place is a genre that’s typified by reflective, introspective, caring, compassionate leaders. ‘Rock’ bands like Speedy Ortiz and Modern Baseball are implementing hotlines at their shows for people who feel unsafe. 2016’s ‘rock’ stars are discussing mental health, gender fluidity, and sexism. Rock has rarely been this fucking alive – even if it doesn’t top the charts.

Let’s say acts like PWR BTTM, Jeff Rosenstock, Angel Olsen, Sheer Mag, Mitski, and Sad13 all exist under the swollen banner of ‘rock’ (they do). These are modern ‘rock’ acts in an elemental sense; they play distorted guitars with drums, bass, and, generally speaking, accessible, conventional melodic tendencies. But they’re tweaking traditionally exclusive ‘rock’ music frameworks to fit a new narrative.

Wilson notes that ‘rock’ in 2016 isn’t “amps in the garage but ProTools in the bedroom,” lamenting its “sullen introspection” instead of “youth rebellion.” But “surreal introspection” has become a form of “youthful rebellion.” For Mitski, repurposing Weezer’s grungy riffs to critique and comment on love, alienation and eventual belonging as a Japanese woman in a culture that propagates white-on-white love stories almost exclusively. Jeff Rosenstock uses compact yet orchestral punk rock progressions to relay tales of disillusionment and anxiety with modern times. Sad13’s Sadie Dupuis uses her presence to upend and challenge how women in rock are understood, and what they’re thought to look like onstage (Sadie toys with explicitly feminine presentation so girls watching her can feel comfortable engaging with their femininity on their own terms, and still play bad-ass rock music; she wants to show that the two aren’t mutually exclusive). Touché Amoré’s characteristically gutting 2016 release Stage Four exemplifies how far we’ve come; a hardcore band made an entire record dealing with the death of its frontman’s mother.

But even rock’s golden-era monoliths took part in this progress. Bruce Springsteen’s admissions of depression and anxiety are emblematic of a move not necessarily located in ‘rock,’ but in a broader cultural renaissance in which these issues are no longer stigmatized, no longer pathologized. Surely no one would dare label Springsteen’s admissions as ‘sullen introspection.’

Regardless, the importance and gravity of this discussion can be summed up by a former Sony exec in Wilson’s piece: “What we’re having is a conversation that only people over 40 care about.” The inadequacy of genre categorization is blatant. Still, it seems at least a little dismissive to suggest ‘rock’ is dead at a time when the genre is hosting more diversity and innovation than it’s arguably ever seen; this has been a year where non-conforming people not only found a place to celebrate and explore their identities in ‘rock’, but were celebrated and successful while doing so. A year where bands like July Talk are repurposing what a rock band can be about, from their performance to their music videos to their aesthetics, while still bearing the thumbprints of performance artists like the explorative artistry of Bowie and the macabre beauty of Cohen.

To be clear, this isn’t a ‘take-down’ of Wilson’s piece, which itself hinted at a new incarnation in the wake of ‘rock.’ It isn’t even a critique; it’s more of an extrapolation. If ‘rock’ is dead, as he suggests, should we care? I think we should celebrate. If ‘rock’ in 2016 doesn’t look like white dudes biting the heads off of birds and pissing on the national historic monuments, and instead looks like Ben Hopkins’ glitter-smeared fingers tearing apart his guitar on PWR BTTM’s “Ugly Cherries,” that’s a monumental step forward. For a genre endemically dominated by and tailored to one demographic, it’s a wildly encouraging vision for what ‘rock’ could mean.

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