Photo Credit: MTV VMAs
This year’s MTV Video Music Awards (which aired live on September 12th) tell us pretty much all we need to know about how the state of rock ‘n’ roll is 2021. Actually, we can even go all the way back to 1997: The award category that had once been “Best Heavy Metal” and then “Best Hard Rock” has been simply “Best Rock” since then, probably because rock music, in general, has been represented in the mainstream less and less. This year, of the six artists who were nominated in that “Best Rock” category – which included the Killers, the Foo Fighters, Lenny Kravitz and winner John Mayer – the two newest among them were Evanescence and the Kings of Leon, both of whom debuted nearly twenty years ago.
We’ll never all agree on exactly what is and isn’t rock ‘n’ roll (some still use the term to describe pretty much any popular music that came out after the mid-1950s), but we’ll get back to that. Rock at least arguably still dominates live music (as the industry tries to rebuild slowly after the pandemic), but in terms of the Top 40 and hit radio, it seems as though the only glimpses of rock we’re getting currently are those that come filtered through artists from other genres, i.e. rapper Machine Gun Kelly’s Tickets to My Downfall album or pop singer Olivia Rodrigo’s single “Good 4 U.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Interscope Records
So, will rock artists ever again have even a significant – or even dominating – presence in the current music climate, as they did for so many decades? Well, a couple of things would need to happen. First, rock artists would need to do their best to avoid a nostalgia trap, i.e. simply trying too hard to re-create the past through their look and sound. In the ’80s there was the rockabilly revival and then the neo-psychedelic movement, and then (going outside of a rock a bit) the swing music revival in the mid-’90s. None of these trends ended up as much more than short-lived fads, since once the novelty wore off younger fans realized that they were seeking their own musical and cultural identity, not that of their parents (or grandparents).
By contrast, the folk revival of the early ’60s was known at the time as just that – the folk revival – but nobody was trying to emulate older generations. In fact, a good part of it was in open defiance of them, as was spelled out clearly by Bob Dylan’s anthem “The Times They Are A-Changing” (“Come mothers and fathers throughout all the land… // And don’t criticize what you can’t understand… // Your old road is rapidly aging”). The movement didn’t last, but it did establish Dylan as a major force in music (which he remains) and helped sew the seeds of the counterculture, which would emerge a few years later.
Photo Credit: Brengola-Diena/WENN
In just the past twenty years, British rock bands like the Darkness and the Strypes who were too steeped in nostalgia never really took off in the US. Even American rock bands like the Black Crowes and Hinder who embraced an older sound and look started out very successful but then petered out commercially, with the consensus being that listeners were eventually overstepping them in favor of the original bands that had inspired them. By contrast, you had Oasis, a band which just flagrantly bogarted the Beatles’ sound (in 1996 Rolling Stone called Oasis “horribly derivative,” adding “[their] attitude seems to be, if it sounds like the Beatles, record it”). However, anyone who’s read an interview with them knows that they were far too self-important to ever see themselves as a nostalgia act and as anything but the current or future state of music. Oasis was ultimately huge a success and had a lasting impact on music in the UK and beyond.
Okay, enough about nostalgia, let’s talk about right now: so far in 2021, not a single rock release has topped the Billboard US album chart. In the UK (often a barometer of what’s next), all but seven weeks this year in the number one position on the singles chart have been occupied by artists other than Ed Sheeran, Olivia Rodrigo, and Lil Nas X. However, the British album chart has been a bit of a different story, as in 2021 the Killers, the Foo Fighters, Kings of Leon, Mogwai, Paul Weller, Bring Me the Horizon and Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds have all hit number one.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Geffen Records
Not to mention the Snuts and Wolf Alice, much newer rock bands whose most recent albums also both went to number one in the UK. Though neither album has even charted in the US, they’re just two among quite a few promising new British and American bands – which would include Blanketman, the Aces, and the Blips – that might help bring rock back. Of course, creators (such as Gene Simmons) and fans of harder or more traditional rock will inevitably greet some of this new music by labeling it with the “that’s not rock music” reverse scarlet letter. However, rock music must evolve if it’s ever going to survive and thrive again. We can’t recognize rock as being only heavy metal, blues-based hard rock, or something that sounds just like something else we already heard fifty years ago. And we certainly can’t measure “rock” only in terms of stereotypes like drug abuse, objectification of women, or excessive behavior like throwing TVs out of hotel windows.
It was reported that a lot of people used the widespread quarantining of 2020 to learn and/or practice musical instruments, and we dare say it’s almost inevitable that for younger people the appeal of making noise with some friends in a garage using electric guitars and drums will eventually equal or even surpass that of creating music hunched over a laptop alone in one’s bedroom. And, hopefully once the pandemic is more under control, people of all ages will be compelled to go out and create (or revive) more regional rock scenes. Anyone who knows the history of rock or even just popular culture knows that it’s going to take just one band, one song, one riff (or “just one guitar,” as Foreigner sang in their 1981 hit “Juke Box Hero”) to bring rock ‘n’ roll back in a big way. We’ll be ready.