The year was governed by coups in sound and form from the major pop names of the decade, such as Kanye West, Rihanna, Drake, Beyoncé and Frank Ocean — non-rock artists who stir the kind of passion, debate and deconstruction today that once might have been spent on Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen. Dylan got his Nobel Prize and Springsteen wrote his memoir, and there were comebacks from Metallica, Neil Young, Bon Jovi, Radiohead, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day and Blink-182, most of which topped the Billboard 200 (at least briefly). Guns N’ Roses got over their decades of in-fighting and sold out stadiums with their classic lineup, while October’s Desert Trip festival, widely known as “Oldchella,” found Young, Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters and The Who combining forces for a $130 million haul over two weekends. Yet it also felt like a memorial service, a luxury keepsake and a last hurrah.
This year, America was a quarter-century out from Nirvana’s Nevermind, the album that rescued rock from its early-’90s doldrums — as far off now as the releases of Revolver, Pet Sounds and Blonde on Blonde were then. By contrast, consider how few new rock artists of comparable staying power or cultural significance have emerged since that decade’s alt-rock surge. Yes, there are well-regarded figures from the indie, emo and metal scenes. But few of them reach far beyond their niches — witness the “Who Is Arcade Fire?” meme that erupted when that band won album of the year at the Grammys in 2011, and the utter lack of intrigue in the rock categories as we barrel toward awards season five years later.
“There is no figurehead band you could point to,” says critic Steven Hyden, host of the podcast Celebration Rock. “When people talk about rock music, they have a vision in their head of a four- or five-piece band, smoking cigarettes, with leather jackets and tattoos… a band that comes from nowhere and takes over the culture. That’s unquestionably over — if a band like that came out, there would be no infrastructure to support it.”
In commercial terms, rock has become a paradox. Its aging veterans still dominate the concert business (McCartney, Coldplay and Rod Stewart all sold out arenas and stadiums in 2016), and in festival formats, clusters of younger indie-rock and metal bands also do well. Classic-rock radio stations thrive parasitically on nostalgia, slowly incorporating ’90s to early-2000s tracks. As radio analyst Sean Ross sees it, even the active rock and alternative formats now feature few current releases, and those that do get played are either unable to cross over to top 40 or are softer genre hybrids that are very debatable as rock at all.
The one rock act that has crossed over in 2016: Twenty One Pilots, an electro-acoustic duo that owes as much to hip-hop and dance as to emo-rock forbears such as My Chemical Romance. Its sound is not amps in the garage but ProTools in the bedroom; its mood is sullen introspection rather than youth rebellion. “I care what you think,” goes part of the refrain from the hit “Stressed Out,” an inversion of Rage Against the Machine’s “F— you, I won’t do what you tell me.”
Above all, acknowledges Pete Ganbarg, who works with the band as head of A&R at Atlantic Records, neither the group nor its fans care much whether its music is classified as “rock.” The genre often has defined itself combatively to other styles, but among a streaming-and-playlisting younger generation, that kind of formal loyalty is increasingly passé.
“Media companies created these labels to drive multiple markets,” says Steve Stoute, founder/CEO of marketing agency Translation and former Sony executive. “What we’re having is a conversation that only people over 40 care about, because it’s related to being taught to put things in boxes. Younger people don’t put things in boxes at all.”
Rock’s 40-year reign, beginning in the 1950s on the backs of black musicians like Chuck Berry, set a paradigm of so-called authenticity, rebellion and truth-telling that an older white cohort (and a certain younger faction) has trouble shaking, one associated with rebel gangs of individualistic skinny dudes standing up against society. The strictest “rockist” perspective still prompts listeners to resist the idea that commercially successful women and people of color might have equally urgent things to say in entirely other ways. On that level, putting rock out to pasture — understanding it more like jazz, as a heritage form still thoughtfully practiced and influential, but past its heyday — could be a healthy corrective.
Yet Ice Cube protested that narrative this year at N.W.A’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “Rock’n’roll is not an instrument,” he said. “It’s a spirit that has been going on since the blues, jazz, bebop, soul, rock’n’roll, R&B, heavy metal, punk rock and, yes, hip-hop. Rock’n’roll is not conforming to the people who came before you, but creating your own path, in music and life.”
If there’s a claim for rock’s continuing relevance, that would be it. A disobedient spirit is direly needed to balance out the economic pressures that push both music and media toward a narrow, survival-of-the-fittest emphasis on mega-pop. The results are both more demographically inclusive and conformist, and leave many gifted midlevel artists marginalized by press and industry. In the “rock era,” there was more space for eccentrics to skew the game.
That standard is perhaps best borne now among young female artists, who appropriate rock’s flexibility to express out-of-bounds thoughts while ignoring clichéd postures. The likes of St. Vincent, Alabama Shakes, Courtney Barnett, Angel Olsen and even, an ocean away, Pussy Riot, embody the thought that Kurt Cobain scribbled in his late-’80s notebooks: “I like the comfort in knowing that women are the only future in rock’n’roll.” The rock feints that Beyoncé and Lady Gaga made this year on their respective albums attest that its seemingly worn-out maneuvers can yield otherwise unavailable strengths.
Most grass-roots rock bands already have accepted that they are out of the pop game, for better or worse. “When I talk to great young bands, they don’t even have those goals anymore,” says Hyden. “I’d liken it to folk music — rock has returned to that tradition. There is this idea of acknowledging the past but wanting to modernize it. I think it’s about wanting to stand outside the mainstream, instead of taking it over.”
Rock’s Champions 2016 Playlist
“Hardwired” – Metallica
“Ride” – Twenty One Pilots
“Dark Necessities” – Red Hot Chili Peppers
“Burn the Witch” – Radiohead
“Bang Bang” – Green Day