Where the F*** Is Rock 'n Roll?
Updated: Nov 18, 2018
Descending from the rich tradition of American Blues in the 1950s, rock n’ roll began as electric guitar heavy “race records” pioneered by southern black icons like Big Mama Thornton which was ultimately packaged and popularized by digestible, white Tennessean, Elvis Presley. While early rock seems innocuous by today’s standards, it began as a rebellion perfect for countercultural Beatniks and as a nightmare for suburban moms everywhere.
The genre developed over the latter half of the twentieth century, shape shifting into various forms and evolving with the times. The popularization of sub genres would begin to emerge like progressive, glam, psychedelic, garage, grunge, etc. So why does it feel like the genre has become stagnant on the popular charts? A dominating force for over 50 years, rock just seems exhausted now, propped up only by nostalgia bands like Greta Van Fleet. They barely manage to keep the genre from flat lining by reviving it time and again with off brand Led Zeppelin-isms.
For a genre so contingent on its mantra of rebellion, the rise of rap has seemingly booted rock from that pedestal it created 60 years ago. Perhaps this is just the circle of life, just nature taking its course, and rock will never rise again. Or maybe it never left. Maybe it has just transcended its traditional borders, living in forms different than what we expected.
From the invention of the phonograph, the electric guitar and the Walkman, music has consistently been defined by the technological innovations of its time. By the 2010s, consumers gained unparalleled access to producing studio-quality works cheaply, easily, and independently thanks to Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) such as Logic Pro, Ableton Live, Pro Tools, and more. The accessibility of music via digital streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music has also had a major impact on the art being created today.
Reports have shown that guitar sales, for the first time, have begun to falter as more kids are interested in producing with these DAWs than in learning to play a physical instrument. These reports leave many with a fear that guitars might become obsolete, but frankly, that assumption seems more like a doomsday conspiracy than a logical prediction. For years, mostly thanks to the sex-appeal of rock stars, the instrument has been fetishized. Today, the mystique of the guitar still holds, but we are starting to see beyond that as the end-all-be-all instrument of our time. Perhaps this lack of interest in guitar playing could be an explanation for rock’s absence in Billboard’s Top 100 recently, but to say rock does not have a place in modern popular music is imprudent.
Because of our newfound access to music over the internet, our tastes have disseminated across genres. In the past, we were limited in what we could hear: we could listen to the radio or the albums we bought. But now, music has been democratized at the immense benefit of the consumer (and huge detriment to the artist… a subject for another day), and this rising generation of artists have had access to the democratized music experience since infancy. This has led to a unique decade of music, defined by amalgamating preexisted genres into new creations.
Although it’s not quite what the baby boomers intended, rock’s legacy has lived on in its next-of-kin, alternative, as well as some strange new crossovers. For example, it has made its impact on a rising group of rappers, ushered in by the late Lil Peep. Dubbed “emo-rap,” this rapidly growing genre is dependent on dirty, guitar-centric beats, lo-fi production, and emotionally raw lyricism, drawing much inspiration from rock icons of the early 2000s like Good Charlotte. Previously quite unseen by hip-hop acts, guitar has become a focal point for these rising artists and knowingly or not, has led them to become unlikely torchbearers for the genre.
This is where rock thrives today, as an influence to popular styles in new ways no one expected. Perhaps this decade will see the beginnings of entirely new genres, emerging from the ashes of classic rock, much like rock emerged from blues. The genre will never die, but it also will never be the same.
Music, like culture, is constantly moving forward. So, when people ask “where the f*** is rock n’ roll?” they are not looking in the right places. They are looking for nostalgia bands like the aforementioned Greta Van Fleet and then getting upset because its a recycled sound. We must realize that rock was never a stagnant genre, and even if feels that way now, it is not. The past decade has just seen it evolve, in most cases, past traditional recognition.
Whether we want it to or not, rock is not meant to be held up by nostalgia, and to do so is to neglect the point of rock entirely. Rock was meant to challenge and to rebel, not to be exactly what you wanted to hear. Today, you will find it as an influence for many chart-topping songs and in those indie, subcultural shadows you’ll need to find for yourself. Rock is not dead, rock is just being reborn.