It probably doesn’t stir up much controversy these days to say that rock music has its tires stuck in the mud. At least as far as main stream rock, although I can’t say I find indie rock, whatever that means anymore, to be much better. The White Stripes, Kings of Leon, Arctic Monkeys, et al. are pretty good bands, they make regular appearances on my iPod, but they’re not exactly stretching the boundaries of rock music. A raunchy bluesy/punk guitar sound with a bass drum and a high scratchy voiced singer is not exactly revolutionary. But why has rock music become so stagnate? I think that the answer is simple. There’s no over arching movement to carry it forward.
Let’s think about the lineage of rock music for a moment. As far as mainstream rock goes, it pretty much all starts with Elvis. But of course Elvis didn’t create rock music, he just happened to be a pretty white guy with swivel hips who was part of a group of musicians playing up tempo blues. Elvis would have never popularized rock and roll had he not been part of a mostly black rock and roll musical movement. Next came The Beatles. Completely changed the landscape of rock and roll in many ways, and of course, they were just part of The Mods and the whole Brit invasion. The 60’s, which I maintain wasn’t just a decade or an era, but an actual rock movement, opened the world to guitar rock like never before seen. It got fat and bloated pretty quick, but Hendrix, Zepplin, and even Skynard have some pretty solid tunes. Prog rock, punk rock, Metal, New Wave, Grunge, Brit pop, and Emo all have their standout bands, but it was the movement, the idea that the bands were all roped together by, that moved the music forward.
Certainly it can be argued that by the time a movement in rock is actually defined, the music has become stale. It wasn’t long after people were calling it Grunge that we had to endure bands like Live or Silver Chair. But had Grunge as an idea not existed--basically a big F-you to the hair and leather bands of the 80’s--we’d probably never have heard of Nirvana or Sound Garden.
With anything like music, art, or literature, the real creativity, the innovation, is born out of community. Claude Monet didn’t change the 19th Century world of art, but he along with The Impressionaists did. Hemingway and Fitzgerald had their Lost Generation. Kerouac had the Beats. The Clash had punk rock. Communities like these quickly become crowded with hangers on and mediocrity, especially once they become popular, but it is in their infancy that true innovation is born.
The problem with rock music right now is that there are no movements, their is no real community. Jack White is a brilliant musician and what he does with how little he uses is awe inspiring. But take a way his scratchy high pitched voice and replace it with a growlier Eddy Veder type and his music could have easily come from the early 90’s. Pretty much listen to anything right now on the guitar rock front and it sounds the same as it did ten, even twenty years ago. Muse kicks so much ass sometimes I can barely stand it, but they could have easily existed alongside Hurricane #1, Blur, and 90’s Radiohead. Individual rock musicians are pretty much freewheeling it these days and coming up with some good music, but nothing that is particularly new.
Plenty has been made about record labels looking for instant hits and not really nurturing bands anymore, but the real culprit is how our consumption of music has changed. Most people find their music via blogs, and social networking. While this is a great way to find little known acts, and while I Am Fuel, You Are Friends has become an invaluable resource to me, I think that this m.o. is killing any chances for a true musical movement. Bands don’t struggle and hone their sound in small cliques in cities any more because, thanks to the internet, we find them in their infancy. There is no place where the next Nirvana is playing with the next Soundgarden because these potential next bands are plucked out of what is local and spread across the national and international landscape too quickly via internet. What would Picasso be had he and Matisse not had the chance to both influence and rival each other? How can their be a community if no one is around and how can there be a movement without community?
I’m not a nihilist as far as rock music goes. I do think that eventually it will evolve and bands will adapt to the modern environment of iTunes, blogs, and Facebook, but I also think that, given the historical make up of rock, it’ll be difficult. Pop music and hip hop have been far less reliant on the sort of musical snobbery that has been such a big part of rock music, thus they have better adapted. Rock has always been dependent on the nerds and the hipsters to bring it out of the clubs and the coffee houses, but those nerds and hipsters aren’t even waiting for that anymore. Maybe rock needs to look at hip hop has a model. Or maybe there is a model out there just waiting to break that none of us has thought of yet. Whatever it is, I hope it happens soon. I’m sick of flashback weekends on the radio sounding just like the current ones.