The phrase “rock is dead” makes people angry. Whisper it in seclusion at the top of the Himalayas and 30 people in CBGB shirts will materialize to drop some well, actuallys… on you. The subject is such trite internet bait that gallantly defending rock’s honor has become Rock Journalism 101. Most of the many, many Rock Ain’t Dead thinkpieces being published fall into a handful of predictable tropes. Sometimes they’re written by old guard writers—the guitar-worshipping hangers-on of rock’s bygone heyday—whose kneejerk reactions come off like the meme of Principal Skinner asking himself if he’s so out of touch with youth culture before determining that no, it’s the children who are wrong. Other times, more in-touch writers will point out that rock isn’t dead, it’s just finally evolving to become more inclusive of women and people of color, while cheerleading for a few of their favorite examples. And while that is true and good, it’s not what people mean when they say “rock is dead.” They mean that from an industry perspective, the genre has been eclipsed in all measures of popularity and profitability by pop, hip-hop, and EDM. And by those standards, yes, rock is dead.
It’s a hard pill to swallow, I know, especially for those who don’t often look outside the genre. How can rock be dead when your favorite band just played a sold-out show, or a groundbreaking new rock album got Best New Music at Pitchfork? The future looks promising on the surface, but these are but mere glimmers on ocean waves carrying off a floating corpse.
The writing has been on the wall for a while. For the last few years, the Billboard rock charts have been an abysmal slog of new pop artists that occasionally hold guitars like fashion accessories (as of writing this, Imagine Dragons hold the top three slots on the rock songs list), older acts who’ve grandfathered their way into the system like Godsmack and Arctic Monkeys, and decades-old rock albums that are suddenly relevant due to its creator dying or becoming newsworthy. I don’t know if there’s a more sobering indicator than the fact that The Guardians of the Galaxy 2 soundtrack dominated the rock charts for 22 weeks last year, even hitting number one.
Hip-hop has such a tight stranglehold on new music right now that Kanye West, who made national news by aligning himself with the ideological scum of the earth, farted out a joke single of poopity scoop jibberish that racked up over seven million streams and came within an inch of cracking into the Billboard Hot 100 chart, while his album went to number one. Not even taking a literal shit on a microphone while donning the official hat of xenophobia could derail hip-hop’s momentum.
So irrelevant is rock in the music industry at large that the Grammys didn’t even bother to air its rock category awards at this year’s ceremony. Avenged Sevenfold, seemingly through some sort of unfortunate clerical error, was nominated for a Grammy for “Best Rock Song” but had the good sense not to show up for the untelevised award presentation. (Foo Fighters took home the award anyway, though, since the Grammys were dangerously close to recognizing a band that’s been around for less than two decades.)
But beyond sales figures and streaming numbers, rock’s death knell can be heard on the ground. I’m not sure how much time the “rock ain’t dead!” defenders spend among teenage music fans, but I’d recommend they give it a whirl. Last weekend I walked across a bridge of vomiting teenagers to Governors Ball, an all-ages outdoor New York festival that encompasses a wide range of genres. And when presented with a variety of musical options, take a guess as to which the barf kids chose. That’s right, they picked Not Rock. Japandroids and The Menzingers, two reliable mid- to large club bands, played to half-empty fields while kids flocked to Halsey and Post Malone. Even The Gaslight Anthem, the rock darlings who came out of semi-retirement to play their entire fan-favorite album as the Saturday night headliner, looked out onto a sparsely filled field. Meanwhile, a couple hundred yards away, Travis Scott’s sea of barf teens was so massive that someone had to come on stage before his set to instruct the crowd to move back because the people up front were getting squished.
Even as a longtime Gaslight fan I could concede to being outmatched. While the New Jersey band’s set was an intimate affair backdropped by a simple banner, Travis Scott’s set looked like Tokyo on Ecstasy—a multi-media party where the stage was decked out in flashing TV screens, fog machines, and lasers, while the shirtless Scott bounced off the monitors. To a generation raised on Snapchat filters and vape tricks, of course this seemed like the more attractive option.
Even Galantis, who played on the same stage as Gaslight a few hours prior, drew a more substantial crowd, despite being, as far as I could tell, the Hoobastank of EDM. Their act was two identical, but not biologically related, men with presumably functional microphones hyping the crowd up for 45 minutes while 12-foot high flames shot out of the ground. I don’t care what kind of music you listen to or how old you are, flamethrowers are just fucking cool. But beyond their engaging visual aspect, it’s not hard to figure out why Galantis was popular at an all-ages music festival. Their music, even if you’ve never heard it, sounds familiar. It sounds like a commercial for a cool product.
The coveted youth demo is currently being advertised to more than ever before. Ads are fucking everywhere, and pop music is no exception. Product placements are a staple of the modern music video, with Miley Cyrus applying EOS lip balm in “We Can’t Stop,” Migos prominently displaying (and singing about) 19 brands like Chanel and Segway in “Bad and Boujee,” and just about everyone shilling for Beats by Dre. One of the most celebrated music videos this year—Spike Jonze's trippy collaboration with FKA twigs—was actually a four-minute commercial for Apple’s HomePod speaker. Companies are marketing so aggressively to younger listeners that branding and its feel-good lifestyle pitches seem omnipresent, which explains why popular music, objectively speaking, sucks ass. To borrow a joke from John Mulaney, every song is about how tonight is the night and we only have tonight. So it’s no wonder festival kids want to listen to songs that sound like commercials. Kids want familiarity. Kids want music to dance and take drugs to. Kids want Galantis.
But even though things look grim for rock, here’s the bright side: The genre has always best served as the underdog. In fact, whenever rock has gotten a shot at the mainstream, it’s almost always shit the bed. While it’s tempting to look back on rock’s grunge boom in the 90s as the genre’s recent glory days, it’s easy to forget that boom periods typically only benefit a small number of people and leave the rest on the curb. While Nirvana, the Smashing Pumpkins, and Soundgarden get remembered fondly, a thousand other acts get forgotten—one-hit wonders at best. For every Green Day, and their breakout megaseller Dookie, there are a hundred Jawbreakers whose Dear Yous disappointed the major labels who swept them under the rug of history. It’s been said that a rising tide raises all boats, but no one talks about the castaways who drown.
Another thing that always gets glossed over when remembering genre boom periods is their embarrassing aftermaths. Whenever a truly innovative artist defines a new sound, it gets carbon copied for at least a decade until what’s left is an embarrassing abomination bearing almost no resemblance to the spirit of the original. Pearl Jam’s Ten spawned a new wave of scruff-rock in 1991, and nearly 30 years later we’re still stuck with Chad Kroeger doing his fifth-rate Eddie Vedder impression in Nickelback. It’s happened in every genre, when the talentless clones copy and paste a formula to create something devoid of any soul and eventually kill it off. In metal, it was Winger. In pop punk, it was SR-71. In hardcore, it was every band that came after Minor Threat.
So what will happen to rock in the future? A commercial resurgence anytime soon seems unlikely, but then again, The Strokes and a whole slew of bands reaped surprise mainstream success at the turn of the century without reinventing much of anything. Maybe all rock needs is some charismatic wunderkind—the next Joe Strummer or Joan Jett—to come along and blow the door open for a flood of new rock bands. But given how many excellent rock bands are currently enjoying mid-tier status, it seems like that would have already happened by now.
Maybe rock will gradually start to appear more appealing by comparison as its hip-hop and EDM counterparts grow older and bloated with their own SR-71s and Wingers. Or maybe rock as we know it will never cycle back in vogue. It could very well get smaller and smaller as its last dinosaurs like Metallica and U2 die off and the genre will exist on the fringes as a mere touchstone that popular artists pay homage to, like when a rapper samples an old jazz song or when Jack White pretends to play the blues.
Regardless of what happens to rock in the future, though, it’s actually in a great spot right now, with too many worthwhile acts and splintered subgenres to possibly mention here. While rock may be getting nudged out of the top, its middle is expanding. The more its popularity shrinks, the more it attracts freaks and weirdos—those with something to prove and nothing to gain. The more the traditional rock star career path crumbles, the more it draws in the true, inimitable visionaries making groundbreaking work for the sake of art and not money. Hopeful thinking? Sure. But the alternative is to accept that guitars are playing the siren song of a floating corpse.
Dan Ozzi is on Twitter and has never been wrong once.