Scott Christian

Scott Christian
Los Angeles, California, USA
August 29
Scott in his former life was a playwright but is now a tender of culture, sports, music, and literature. He spends most of his time attempting not to impose his obsession with baseball, motorcycles, and the music of U2 on the general public. In this regard, he has largely been a failure.


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JANUARY 19, 2010 12:59PM

What Really Happened to Rock Music?

Rate: 7 Flag

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.  

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It's funny that you post this as a friend and I were wondering this a few weeks ago. We couldn't think of a "band that matters" -- influential and of any relevant longevity -- since Nirvana. Being a kid of the 80's and early electronica/electronic pop I can retreat into Trance and other types of "Lounge," and I also like upstarts like Ladytron and the dabblings of my band. Aside from this, I've been listening to A LOT of Siouxsie lately -- a tad different than Britney, Ga Ga (who I do respect), or this year's ingenue.
I really know very little about rock music. I'm barely qualified to call myself a "listener" much less a critic.

But in recent years I have come to enjoy music that is typically called "progressive metal." This includes a lot of foreign bands such as Porcupine Tree, Angra, Vanden Plas, Andromeda, Opeth, Lacuna Coil, and countless others, as well as some American bands.

What's interesting to me is that you never hear these guys on commercial radio. "Never," as in not once. I suppose it's possible that there is a radio station in the U.S. that plays them, but if so I don't know what it is.

I find a lot of this music very interesting, quite different from what is typically played. Many of these bands have songs that violate what appears to be the "three minute rule" on commercial radio. I remember that Porcupine Tree's "Anesthetize" runs for 17 minutes. And there are distinct "movements" in it; it's like listening to a mini concerto. A lot of the these groups are doing "album rock," in which the intent is for the listener to take in the whole album, not just individual tracks.

While we never hear any of this on commercial radio, other stuff is played to death, especially "classic rock" music. "Stairway to Heaven" is a great piece, but do I have to listen to it every day for the next 40 years? Even modern music gets played to death.

So what is my point . . . I guess my point is that perhaps one reason why rock music has stagnated is that the commercial stations have a very well-defined format, and anything that doesn't fit into that format isn't going to be heard. The only way you can even hear anything new or interesting is by looking for it on the internet or maybe satellite radio.

If you're interested, check out "Trains" by Porcupine Tree. You're not going to hear it on the radio.
While your point about rock music stagnating maybe true, your history and references seem to me, at least, flawed. Rock N' Roll was born from a marriage between "hillbilly" music and R&B. While Elvis was indeed it's first white superstar, he never wrote any songs. Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly not only wrote but played their own instruments. They would have more impact than Elvis ever would. The Beatles and The Beach Boys were inspired by both Berry and Holly as well as Rockabilly, Doo Wop, and later Phil Spector, Barry Gordy, and Bob Dylan. I'm not going to go through the history of Rock in this comment, but I think you oversimplified the roots of this uniquely American musical form.

As for today Hip Hop is the most popular music in the world and is directly descended from Rock music. Don't believe me? The rhythm and aggression of Hip Hop could have come from no other genre of music. Today's Country music sounds pretty much like The Eagles early stuff.

I believe that the iPod has changed the way the music is listened to and played more than the internet itself and will allow different styles of not only Rock, but other types of music to be heard and flourish. I'm definitely bullish on Rock music.

Trust me Scott, I'm sure some new band will absolutely blow you away sometimes soon. It still happens to me and I'm 51.
I do believe that there are rock musical movements going on now, just because the mainstream media and your MTV'S have decided in a boardroom to keep riding the wave of hiphop and R&B because thats what has been making them money for the past 20 yrs, why would they change now?As far as radios stations go, the program directors have to play the so called top 40 and even on 80's rock stations you dont really hear them playing any "B" sides of albums from back in the day. Fortunately we have a new outlet called satellite radio, sirius and xm where you can find music being played that has never had any radio airtime in the past. Let's be thankful for the youtubes, facebooks and myspaces for allowing these communities that are out there making great music to be heard.
interesting analysis mirrored somewhat by the Edge of U2 in a great new movie, "it will get loud".. just watched it... cool.. gonna blog about it in awhile probably
As a Classic Rock fan, I wonder if there might be something akin to the Great Man theory of history at work. Artists like the Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Zepplin, Floyd & The Who wrote tons of good stuff that remains popular to this day.

Is it possible that great rock songwriting naturally waxes and wanes and that there's been a bit of a slump that will end when someone like the Beatles or Dylan smashes the paradigm?
I think it's hard to get a movement started when everything is so "niche-ified". It's weird to say it, but I think when you had fewer choices and points of access, more people could get behind a movement.

Add to that the fact that, with the (probably deserved) demise of record companies, artists are having to be their own marketing and publicity departments. Also, with the way music is listened to now, a good recording really isn't necessary anymore, and that means fewer people on the technical end that have to give a rat's ass about music. (Ho many engineers out there anymore with the passion of someone like Tom Dowd, for example?) I think that music as an art form suffers because of that.
Turn that shit down!!! You damn kids with your Enya....
In the infamous words of Homer Simpson: "I prefer to listen to Cheap Trick" Go get their current cd/download "The Latest" It is awesome. Also they are on tour right now. Go check them out next month on February 25th at Hollywood House of Blues. See you there!
You missed mentioning Joy Division as far as influence goes, and I say this because as of late, I feel innundated with JD rip off's and it gives me comfort and annoys me at the same time.
Rock may be suffering, and it's many off-shoots, but I'm pretty confident in the current singer-songwriter genre's and cross-pollination of sorts amongst many genre's (i.e., alterna-folk, etc.) Yes, it can convalute things and compromise the organic goodness of individual genre's, but I'm afraid (more than a little afraid) that this might be the inevitable. It's both the social forums and global community that are raising the dilemna you mention as well as this hybrid conglomeration of music that can be inspiring yes, but at what cost? I'm very anti-music blogs as I feel it makes things far too easy and it is that easily-influenced moron that contributes to the death of the rock concept. Go find it on your own. Own it.
The whole thing is a bit depressing at times, but then I just put on some Band of Horses, Deer Tick or Bon Iver and all is well in the world once more. Sweet read though. Rated.