Over the last 10 years or more, many-a-music fan has been wondering about the future of rock music. Up to the late aughts, rock still held a dominant position in the mainstream with several post-grunge, pop-punk and neo-garage acts maintaining its commercial footprint even as hip-hop gained rapid momentum. Come the early ‘10s, it was clear that hip-hop, along with country and EDM to lesser extents had all but eclipsed rock in the charts, and the band went on hiatus– not really going underground and definitely not breaking up, but taking a back seat until it was the right time to get back together, record and go on the reunion tour.
The reactions to rock’s slip into the shadows have predictably been anything but uniform- high-profile legacy artists have said it’s over, other respected torchbearers have said not if we have anything to do with it. One has to take into account the causes of rock’s decline before they can contemplate its rebound though, one of the biggest being one I’ve extensively documented in previous articles: The decline of the music industry itself. From the 1970s onward, rock music transformed from a countercultural soundtrack into a highly prized cash cow, inspiring a number of backlash variants along the way when it became too sonically and aesthetically bloated. The industry became inextricably tied to the rock-n-roll mythos: Start a band, get discovered in a club by an A&R, get signed, put out a record, go platinum, see profit and live it up.
Then came the internet, and by the turn of the millennium spending $18 on a 10-track CD with only a handful of songs you actually liked on it wasn’t appealing anymore when you could handpick the songs you wanted to listen to off the web for free. The controversy around Napster and other subsequent file-sharing sites birthed an intense debate between fans, artists and executives; the battle lines being drawn largely on what your stake was in the music business, what generation you came from, what industry model generated the most profit for you and any other pertinent detail. For me personally, as a millennial who grew up in this transformative period I don’t think I’ve ever bought a physical copy of any record but nevertheless understand the urge of major music companies to crack down hard on what they saw as a huge threat to their income. With that said, if these same companies wanted to keep being movers and shakers in popular culture, they should’ve been able to see the wave of the future when it arrived and figured out a way to surf it instead of building bigger and bigger levees against it that just wouldn’t hold.
After years worth of legal and digital warfare had proven counterproductive, the industry started to come around to the online future and since 2015 has been gradually rebounding off of streaming service subscriptions. Still, it’ll take a long time if ever to get the business back to where it was, and one of the irretrievable casualties of this shift has been that rockstar myth. Now that the music world has turned into one where anyone can put their music online and build a following, you have to take matters into your own hands and generate a buzz yourself before any label will bat an eyelash at you. The mystique is all but gone and rags-to-riches miracles simply won’t happen like they used to. Embracing the new means of outreach and distribution is a big reason hip-hop has surpassed rock beyond a shift in consumer taste; rappers perfected the art of mixtapes in the 2000s then mastered the use of Soundcloud and social media in the 2010s. As it stands at the time of this writing, it’s more common for rappers to make a buzz on their own and rake in the streams through expertise with sites like Soundcloud, Twitter, Instagram and apps like TikTok than it is for an unrecouped no-name to make headway on a major. Of course, once their following has grown to a certain level they could link up with a major depending on what their priorities are, but the direction in hip-hop right now leans way more towards being independent.
The other thing that gives hip-hop the advantage in this case is the accessibility it provides for those who can’t access the resources other genres require. Soccer is an internationally popular sport because all it requires is a ball at its most basic level, making it just as accessible for people in the second and third world to play it as people in the first. Likewise, hip-hop only requires your voice, and with the rapid technological developments the 21st century has brought thus far it’s possible for a kid from a hole in the wall in the ghetto to rap, be his own producer and marketing team and go viral without buying a bunch of something-thousand-dollar instruments and gear- just like anyone else. You may notice the rap world has got a lot more diverse over the last while, and this is not a coincidence. As all this has gone on, rock mainly stuck to its longtime business model and didn’t sophisticate anywhere near to the same extent. Sure, the people who grew up when rock was the it genre will reliably continue to consume music the way they did when they were young, but it’s who the demographic is now and how they find their tunes that matters. The industry has dragged its feet trying to market rock in a fresh new way and the artists have had to take it upon themselves to do so; but of course the onus isn’t all on the suits for why rock has been lagging so far behind.
It’s no secret that rock has been suffering from creative stagnation for a long time. Yes, executives have a lot of say in what gets put out and played, but it’s still the artists making the music before anything else. You could trace the beginning of the rut to the mid-‘90s after Kurt Cobain died and grunge ground to a halt. Grunge is sometimes if not often looked at in retrospect as the last movement in rock to really leave its mark on the Earth, with Cobain being lauded as “the last real rock star” right along with it. It’s hard to find many major developments or moments in rock that have achieved that magnitude and level of authenticity since; with some exceptions many of the same bands and trends that emerged in the ‘90s, whether they be Cobain and co.’s post-grunge descendants or the alternative rock and pop-punk movements that were made possible by the seismic impact of Nevermind more or less continued to run the show in the ‘00s as well. Yes, there was indie rock in the aughts and still is, yes there was the garage rock revival in the ‘00s that can still be heard in more diluted, subtle forms, but even with the likes of the White Stripes, Jack White had to go way back and refurbish a sound from the ‘60s to make a name for himself. How original is that, really?
Once again, fast forward to the end of the aughts and post-grunge bands were now widely ridiculed and derided as “butt-rock”, condemned as a trite, poseur stereotype, an overproduced, overcooked product with little substance to offer- much like how their grunge forefathers regarded the ‘80s metal movement they finished off in the early ‘90s. Pop punk had finally burned out, though its influence lived on through the emo movement that had picked up steam in the mid-‘00s. Indie rock continued to proliferate and morphed into some less rockish forms as the ‘10s progressed, and the neo-garage influence of Jack White lived on through big acts like Royal Blood and The Black Keys, along with more underground acts like Jeff The Brotherhood and Bass Drum Of Death. Retro-rock also became a thing, starting with the likes of Wolfmother and working its way up to the Sheepdogs and Greta Van Fleet. Here’s where I interject my opinion again- when it comes to the “retro” stuff and what the creative future of rock should be, I can’t help but have a mixed reaction. A fair bit of me hears the rock that’s out now and thinks it’s gotten too soft, too digital, too this or that and yearns for the genre to come back in its original form, but when I hear the intentionally retro artists that are out there, I feel disappointed and underwhelmed knowing that what I’m hearing is merely a hollow rehash of what once was rather than anything new- communicating musically that rock has run out of ideas and its artists have given up.
Considering all these factors, it’s hard not to look at rock as it currently stands as a dead end, a dusty old relic doomed to pass and be forgotten. Then again, perhaps not- there has been a lot of chatter over the last couple years about a coming renaissance, a great rebirth of rock in the mainstream. I certainly speculated about it happening, and imagined extensively in my head that I’d be the one responsible, but it wasn’t until I spoke with a Canadian expat in Los Angeles who works in the music business over the phone some months ago that it seemed like more of a sure thing. He said to me in no uncertain terms that rock was going to come back, and while there wouldn’t be any Led Zeppelin or Aerosmith type bands (see the first couple paragraphs for why), the comeback was happening one way or another, and given his experience I believed him.
Now in the months since that phone call I start to see how right he was by looking at the pop world that’s supposed to be totally removed from anything close to rock. Miley Cyrus of all people just put out a pop-punk album, as did Machine Gun Kelly– the same guy who blew up with “Wild Boy” 10 years ago. Post Malone of course constantly pays homage to and collaborates with his rock and metal influences and did a whole livestream show of Nirvana songs at his house while he was on lockdown. Billie Eilish at least has an implicit rock aesthetic, and the darker, moodier approach she takes to her music goes well against the bubblegum image people typically associate with female pop artists. The list goes on, and while a handful of pop stars you may not necessarily care about dabbling in rock-and-roll isn’t ideal at the moment, it’s a start nevertheless.
Having established that a rock revival is beginning to take shape, one may wonder what form it might take sonically. What we have thus far certainly provides a few clues, with the current trend of artists who established themselves through crossing over between pop and hip-hop trying their hand at pop punk 2.0. The fuel behind this resurgence in Blinkian puberty rock might be in some part a yearning for a breath of fresh air in a digitized musical landscape, but is definitely a product of Gen-Z angst and millennial nostalgia. Two generations marred by anxiety and social confusion in a hyperconnected, hyper-technological surveillance age, grappling with bleak futures and trying to find their identity within a dystopian present is sure to result in some fiery developments in culture, and their helicoptered, overmedicated upbringing only amplifies the collective difficulty.
A twist, though: as evidenced by who the big names are driving this shift, there’s a good chance that what comes out of this rock resurgence might not even sound that much like what people usually call rock at all- rockers in recent years have increasingly borrowed from regular hip-hop, trap, EDM and pop (somewhat understandable, given the commercial landscape), country has borrowed certain sounds from hip-hop and hip-hop has likewise borrowed from rock, country, EDM and god knows what else in return, a microcosm and consequence of the cultural blending and uprooting that comes with globalization. As an example, there’s a new sensitive, introspective strain in rap that has steadily grown over the last few years, one that thrives and proliferates on Soundcloud and is just as influenced by actual “emo” in the most Hot Topic, Fueled by Ramen sense of the word artists as it is by rap progenitors like Kanye West and Drake- the late Juice Wrld was one such example of this breed. If certain types of rock can influence certain types of rap so strongly but it’s still technically rap, then how long do we have to wait until the “rappers” start picking up guitars and crossing all the way over? No longer, it seems.
Once again, predictably I get conflicted feelings about this- the ideal outcome for me would be for pure, capital R rock to come roaring back, vanquish the genres that eclipsed it and reign supreme forever- and I’d also like to be one of the main people if not THE person who made it happen. However, if current trajectory stands, we’ll more than likely get a genre potpourri with a rock foundation, and if that’s what the future holds then so be it- after all, we must not fight the inevitable like the executives did, and we must not stall and languish creatively like the artists did either. Whatever comes of these fault line shifts in the future, the point in the present is this: The ground is fertile and the seeds are ready to sprout. Hip-hop may have overtaken rock in recent years, but at the same time it rose to global dominance in the 2010s, the quality of it got worse and worse with one-verse nonsensical mumble rappers and other increasingly ridiculous, un-lyrical and effeminate characters rising to positions of prominence they don’t even remotely deserve. That’s the rap world’s problem to deal with, but while many people will buy into that, in combination with the sterile, radio-ready, machine-made pop and country and everything else in the market it’s just enough to turn people off and start looking elsewhere for their fix. If the bands of today and tomorrow and the pop stars flirting with rock right now play their cards right, then a glorious comeback is in store that cannot be avoided, impeded or destroyed. Rock and roll may have gone dormant, but it will never die– sometimes all it needs is an update.