Grammy Watch: Will Rock Look to the Future in 2018 or Stay Rooted in the Past?

Bret Hartman/CBS via Getty Images
Imagine Dragons on the Red Carpet during The 56th Annual Grammy Awards on Jan. 26, 2014.

In the months leading up to the 59th Grammy Awards this January, Billboard will be featuring Grammy Watch, a weekly column looking at the artists, music and trends likely to be featured heavily at this year's ceremonies. This week: Andrew Unterberger looks at the chances of the Grammys embracing the more hybridized rock artists that seem to be leading the genre into the future within the mainstream -- or if they'll stick closer to the genre's longtime status quo.

One of the most fascinating things about the upcoming 59th Grammy Awards is that they come at a time where seemingly every major genre is undergoing some kind of big-picture reckoning.

Country is being dragged into the digital age by Sam Hunt and Thomas Rhett, hip-hop is being reinvented by young hybrid sing-rappers like Lil Yachty and Lil Uzi Vert, and Latin is being fused on a global scale by the crossover success of "Despacito" and "Mi Gente." The Grammys will mark a possible inflection moment for all these genres, where the establishment either resists against these evolutions in favor of genre traditionalists, or embraces the music's future and all that comes with it.

Rock is no exception. The genre's presence in the mainstream sphere is moving increasingly far away from its long-established guitar-bass-drum core and towards a sound in which pop production, hip-hop beats and dance explosiveness all weigh heavily. "It is the sound of rock music for kids now," says a voting Recording Academy member and former member of the Grammys' rock committee. "Whether it’s bands like Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco, or Twenty One Pilots or Imagine Dragons... I mean, they're all arena bands."

The Grammys' rock categories dipped their toes into the genre's more contemporary, crossover-friendly sound last year, with nominations for both the turbo-rock of the reinvented Panic! at the Disco (best rock album for the band's Billboard 200-topping Death of a Bachelor LP) and the practically post-genre bombast of Twenty One Pilots (best rock performance for their No. 2-peaking Hot 100 hit "Heathens"). But both nominees lost, to more established, traditional rock competitors: Panic! to Cage the Elephant, and Twenty One Pilots to David Bowie

"The panel I was on a couple of years ago, it was a lot of credible people [who are] often very strongly opinionated that rock should be rock, and not necessarily branch out to currently what they call 'pop-rock,'" the Academy member explains. "It’s not that the committee is full of super-old men, it’s just that they’re very strong-minded. It’s sort of like... Josh Homme [of hard-rock band Queens of the Stone Age] wasn’t on the committee, but he could’ve been."

This year, the most likely representative of the new-rock vanguard at the Grammys is almost certainly Las Vegas-based stadium-shouters Imagine Dragons. The quartet scored one of the year's biggest hits from any genre with the fist-pumping anthem "Believer," climbing to No. 4 on the Hot 100 and topping the Rock Songs chart for a staggering 29 weeks. That single's parent album, Evolve, debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 in July and is still in the chart's top 10 three months later, while its follow-up single, "Thunder," is currently bounding up the Hot 100, jumping from 31-17 this week (chart dated Oct. 14).

Most tellingly, two songs have combined for over 800 million plays on Spotify, where the group is one of the precious few acts from the rock world who can put up streaming numbers to compete with the heavy-hitters of pop, dance and rap -- largely because their dynamic, widescreen sound integrates sonic elements from all three of those worlds. "Believer" skips along with a hip-hop swagger and bursts into its chorus with the force of a huge EDM drop. "Thunder" is built on thick synths and quaking bass over a snapping boom-bap beat. Both songs feature guitar, but the instrument is just one element in the band's highly combustible formula. They can fit on playlists alongside Kings of Leon and the Killers, but they can also slot in comfortably next to Kendrick Lamar and Ed Sheeran.

Will that make them unignorable to the Grammys, though? Hard to say: the band does have history at the awards show, having won best rock performance in 2014 for their omnipresent crossover smash "Radioactive," and even snagging a nod for record of the year for the same song. "Radioactive" (along with parent album Night Visions) was a little more conventional in its arena-rocking, though, and the awards' rock voter contingent may not be thrilled which how much further in pop's direction the band has drifted since. "[The rock voters] are definitely very opposed to things that are poppier in production, so I don’t know," says the Academy member of Imagine Dragons' chances.

And the band will have competition this year from longer-established, less-hybridized acts like Green Day and Foo Fighters -- artists who released albums that were far from the most commercially or critically successful of their careers, and had only a fraction of Imagine Dragons' crossover appeal, but whose past triumphs and continued contemporary stardom make them something of a security blanket for Grammy rock voters. "Foo Fighters are always the favorites -- Dave Grohl definitely carries the torch for rock 'n' roll for sure so I would expect them to get [a nomination]," the Academy member offers. "Green Day, Queens of the Stone Age, Foo Fighters, they’ll get at least a couple [nominations] between those."

In addition to some of those '90s veterans of alt-rock, some acclaimed '00s acts that are still selling well -- the National, Arcade Fire, the Killers -- could feature, as could a couple bands who were never big enough to make Grammy splashes in their own day, but may finally have the juice to make waves following recent high-profile reunions: LCD Soundsystem and Brand New. "I actually think LCD Soundsystem get an alternative nod," says the Academy member. "Brand New, yeah, that could be cool. They’re a funny one because...  All the other bands [from their era] have succeeded and became pop bands. Brand New really went the other way; they’re almost harder than they were before. So that would be interesting."

It'll be telling to see whether Imagine Dragons and their crossover contemporaries -- which may also include Portugal. The Man, whose soul-tinged "Feel It Still" single became a surprise Hot 100 top 10 hit this autumn, and Paramore, whose well-received After Laughter LP showcased the band adopting a poppier new-wave sheen -- can cut through these two generations of established rock acts to get theirs on Grammy night. If they do, it might be a sign that the Recording Academy's generation gap is finally starting to close a little.

"I understand both arguments," the Academy member says. "The difference between Green Day and Fall Out Boy is that [FOB] grew up in the era of hip-hop. So the beats and their use of electronic instruments, which would be the same for Imagine Dragons, it comes very naturally to them... It’s just an influence, the way maybe that Bob Dylan would be an influence on Green Day. It’s just the nature of how old you are."

2018 Grammy Awards