I was educated on the grounds of Harvard, the mecca for bright minds like Barack and Michelle Obama, Bill Gates, and Hilary Duff. But I didn’t sit in a classroom, and I didn’t open a book—I listened to raucous riffs snaking their way through a crowd of drunken degenerates and musical minds, my people. I watched as Jack White proved his status as a member of the pantheon of guitar players at Boston Calling, not that the legendary artist who currently holds eight Grammy Awards needed to prove it to me or anyone else in that crowd.
As any good education will do, it forced me to ask the hard question: Is rock and roll dead?
I previously thought rock and roll was laid to rest when Jimmy Page’s guitar was forced to take a backseat to gaudy disco balls. (I am reminded of the Freaks and Geeks scene where a young James Franco and Seth Rogen yell, “Disco sucks!” at their dancing peers.) After reading Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011, a nearly 600-page oral history about the rock resurgence of the 2000s, I am convinced that rock and roll was reborn around the same time I was born. For the first time since Mick Jagger and John Lennon, rock wasn’t a fringe movement—it wasn’t overshadowed by ’70s disco, ’80s pop, or ’90s hip-hop. It was happening, and people showed up to watch it happen. The Strokes’ 2001-released Is This It united outcasts with a gritty garage rock sound and a uniform of Converse and skinny jeans. In the following decade, The White Stripes “Fell in Love With a Girl” as the world fell in love with the Detroit duo.
But today skinny jeans and Converse don’t indicate membership in a musical movement, and the Class of 2001 (as author Lizzy Goodman would call it) graduated before I could read, let alone write this column. Did rock music take its last breath when The White Stripes broke up in 2011? Or did it move back to the fringe when Taylor Swift and Kanye West became radio station royalty and forced rock acts back onto genre-specific stations?
Rap Versus Rock
After forcing myself to abandon my Meet Me in the Bathroom-inspired playlist and reenter the world of post-2011 rock, I concluded that rock and roll is dead, or at least in a coma in a hospital room buried deep in Brooklyn. It isn’t dead because people don’t make good rock music—Arctic Monkeys’ AM will undoubtedly go down as one of the best albums of the decade, and bands like Kings of Leon and The Orwells continually keep the genre from flatlining.
On one hand, rock music risks being left behind because of its lack of diversity: The genre is still overwhelmingly dominated by hyper-masculine straight white male personalities while other genres are increasingly inclusive. Goodman notes former RCA product manager Dave Gottlieb’s insight that “all the great things about music come up from anger, from outrage, and from a need to connect with anger and outrage,” and perhaps this is the more immediate explanation for the current impotence of rock music.
A sign of the times, the U.S. top 50 chart on Spotify displays hip-hop as the unquestionable victor in the age of shuffling and streaming, and rightfully so—Kendrick Lamar’s documentation of the black experience in modern America on DAMN. superseded Grammy validation and won a Pulitzer Prize this year, and people are streaming West’s ye as if it’s the only album that came out this year despite its glaring shortcomings. Through its highs and lows, rap dominates rock in the modern age because it is simply more palatable to the millennial ear.
Rock ’n’ Roll is Dead
Cage The Elephant’s “In One Ear” oozes eerie self-awareness with the prophetic lyric, “Rock and roll is dead I probably should have stayed in school.” While I am endlessly grateful Matt Shultz traded in textbooks for tour buses, the genre certainly hasn’t been revitalized since the 2009 song.
Even without chart competition with other genres, rock music simply isn’t what it was 15 years ago. In the age of digitization, rock music conformed to synth sound and lost its unique ability to rebel against the mainstream in the process. Despite early promises of a return to rock’s golden age with the British Arctic Monkeys’ raw 2006 Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not and Cage The Elephant’s 2009 snarling self-titled debut, the rock giants failed to sustain the momentum to propel the genre back to the podium in recent years: Following AM’s unprecedented commercial success, Arctic Monkeys delivered one of the biggest let-downs of 2018 on Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino by replacing guitars with organs and pianos. The Black Keys followed a similar trajectory, trading in the youthful recklessness of early albums Magic Potion and Attack & Release for refined riffs on the 2015 Turn Blue.
Cage The Elephant derailed the contained chaos of the 2015 Tell Me I’m Pretty with a demure Unpeeled album that sucked the soul out of many of the Kentucky-based band’s most strident riffs. Cage the Elephant covered Julian Casablancas’ “Instant Crush” on Unpeeled, both a touching tribute to the trailblazer and a striking reminder that modern bands are piggybacking off the success of their predecessors in many ways.
Make Rock Great Again
Chuck Berry birthed the iconic “Johnny B. Goode,” a model for modern rock, around the same time American boots first landed on the soil of Vietnam. The Strokes saved a post-9/11 America from carnage and chaos by capturing the collective rage with vicious guitar riffs and unapologetically loud drum beats.
We live under a president Alex Turner likens to “a wrestler wearing tight golden trunks,” a man White dubbed “Icky Trump,” a departure from the usual “Icky Thump,” in a recent Gov Ball performance. Gun violence’s evening news residency and the never-ending war on terror make the future feel increasingly insecure for many. The world has never been so primed for a rock revolution, but its leaders tasked with the challenge of making rock great again have yet to take the stage.
Featured Image by Kaitlin Meeks / Heights Editor