The Year in Rock 2014: Rebound From a Rough Year?

After decades of leading the pack, the cultural rebound of rock, alternative, or whatever we want to call it depends on learning to play by new sets of rules.

I promise this will not be a “rock is dead” story. We’ve already had that conversation far too many times, and besides, it’s far more complicated than that. When Coldplay has the year’s biggest opening sales week until Taylor Swift comes along, that argument starts to seem a little undercooked. But do album sales measure success like they used to? Is Coldplay even a rock band? Do rock bands have to have loud guitars? And their 2015 album will probably be their last, so what does that mean going forward?

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Rock’s problem is more difficult to diagnose. It’s muddle of relevance, adaptation, and future prospects. Nominees in the rock categories at the 2014 Grammys average 44.5 years old; as if we needed further proof we’re no longer living in the rock and roll generation. But even as hip-hop and EDM signifiers dominate the Hot 100, it’s inaccurate to say that kids no longer listen to rock -- scratch that -- alternative music. Almost all culturally-relevant, millennial guitar-based music belongs in the alternative category, and that’s telling. It’s not dead -- it has a following that brings up vinyl sales year after year and keeps festivals like Bonnaroo and Coachella going strong each year (the latter grossed $78 million this year, leading all fests). Thing is, guitar music has become almost entirely alternative, a niche industry that exists more or less outside the mainstream consciousness. At some point, the Foo Fighters, Black Keys, and Kings of Leons of the world stopped competing -- intentionally or not -- with its Justin Biebers, Kanye Wests, and Beyoncés.



It’s telling that Lorde was nominated for -- and won -- major awards as a rock artist at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards and MTV Video Music Awards. Like most of us, Lorde herself isn’t quite sure what to make of that moniker. She doesn’t make “guitar music,” but perhaps the definition of the term “rock” has been evolving behind our backs. Lorde crafted her debut album Pure Heroine with just one creative collaborator (producer/co-writer Joel Little), a traditional, rock purist statement if there ever was one. There’s her minimalist onstage approach, her New Zealander outsider status, her outspoken views on feminism; if this was the late 1990s, she’d probably be making guitar music and headlining Lilith Fair.

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Back to those outspoken views, though. If Lorde is some strain of new rules, millennial “rock artist,” she certainly pushes herself into the mainstream cultural conversation much moreso than her fellow “rockers.” She can diss Selena Gomez, Diplo, and David Guetta and make the internet take notice. She’s so precocious that her foolhardy age truthers inspired a recurring South Park subplot. And who else would have Taylor Swift, The Hunger Games’ music department, and Majical Cloudz in her contacts list?

Even if we’re not quite sure how she’s doing it, Lorde’s worked her way into the same cultural conversation occupied by Beyonce’s feminism, Kanye West’s racial politics, Justin Bieber’s hedonism. But back to rock music, or whatever it is we’re going to call it in 2015. Aside from Lorde, precious few artists outside this alternate universe interact with the pop zeitgeist in this way. A notable exception -- and exemplary practitioner -- is Fall Out Boy, who reformed after their singer’s failed R&B project, named a a comeback album Save Rock and Roll, and scored a legitimate Hot 100 hit with “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light ‘Em Up)” in a time when electric guitar songs on pop radio sound almost alien. A Big Sean verse on their album, a Rick Ross cameo in their video, singles that use samples unapologetically -- Fall Out Boy manages to maintain their rock band identity while tipping their hat to hip-hop and EDM’s cultural ubiquity.



And no, they’re not the only ones. Hayley Williams guested on a hit Zedd track to help keep Paramore in the pop conversation while her band promoted its best album yet. On the just-below-the-mainstream level, Vampire Weekend’s lyrical nods to hip-hop and production nods to just about every genre outside of rock help keep their sound completely their own. But examples like this are the exception, not the norm. Big contemporary rock acts like Jack White, The Arctic Monkeys, The Foo Fighters can crank out technically-sound, occasionally great albums, yet they feel like they’re mining the past more than engaging with the cultural present. And even their talking points -- Jack White’s love of vinyl or Dave Grohl’slove letter to the history of American music” -- seem more like history lessons than new ideas.

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What rock and alternative music needs is collaboration and relevant, forward-thinking discourse, more Lordes and Fall Out Boys, maybe even bands that forget the old rockist rules and collaborate like rappers and DJs. And on the discourse front, those with an ear to the underground know it hasn’t gone anywhere. In 2014, White Lung, Perfect Pussy, and Against Me! -- all signed to indie labels -- released critically-acclaimed albums full of progressive, conversation-starting views on gender, feminism, body image, feelings, and feelings about feelings. Where are the discussions amongst rock acts that could be bringing them to a much wider audience, outside of punk and D.I.Y. circles, where this talk is already commonplace? It’s been a while since major labels commonly farmed established bands from indies, so this is certainly a work in progress, much like hoping for a Big Sean verse on that 2015 Coldplay album. But even if it’s a lot easier for the kids these days to become laptop DJs or Vine stars than form rock bands, even if the Rock Hall is running out of bands to induct, even if Fall Out Boy couldn’t fully resuscitate it, rock music still has untapped cultural potential. But after decades of leading the pack, its rebound depends on learning to play by new sets of rules.
 

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