The Precarious State of Rock

Written by Hunter Schwarz on . Posted in Music

Rock is dead. Train’s “Hey, Soul Sister” was the only rock song to crack the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100 in 2010.

This past April, Rolling Stone magazine presented the “State of Rock: 40 Reasons To Get Excited About Music”. Gracing the cover and landing in the No. 1 spot was a group that represents everything that’s wrong with popular music, the Black Eyed Peas. Has it really come to this?

Luckily, things aren’t as dire as Rolling Stone‘s No. 1 pick makes it out to be. Dance pop and hip-hop are experiencing a renaissance thanks in large measure to Lady Gaga and Kanye West. Gaga and West have both raised the bar in what we expect from our pop stars and rappers and their contemporaries are forced to keep up. Rock, however, is another story.

“There have been some moments recently, like at the American Music Awards, where a male-fronted band came and played, and it was a sleeper,” said pop singer Katy Perry. “Jeans and a T-shirt and a guitar — it just doesn’t work anymore.”

Don’t just take the California Gurl’s [sic] word for it, just check the Billboard Hot 100 where a single rock song — that’s right, just one — made it to the top ten in all of 2010. The song was Train’s “Hey Soul Sister”. Rock is dead.

“Hey, Soul Sister,” a song that the Village Voice named both the worst song of 2010 and, “the whitest song to ever have the word ‘soul’ in it, and that includes Death Cab’s ‘Soul Meets Body’” sold 4.8 million digital downloads this year. I don’t know if I’m more surprised that many people wanted to hear a 41-year-old man sing the phrase “I’m so gangsta, I’m so thug,” and make lame ’80s references or that not a single other rock song could crack the top 10 in an entire calendar year.

But rock doesn’t just need bigger hits. A monster Nickleback record might be a rock record, but it’s still Nickleback. What rock needs is someone to expand its vision, defy conventions, and sell over 4 million downloads at the same time. Luckily, there are some hopeful signs. This year, two indie albums debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart, Vampire Weekend’s Contra and Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs.

As Rolling Stone editor David Fricke pointed out, rock is at a crossroads as new technology obliterates the old business model. Although it’s bad news for record companies that are hemorrhaging money, Fricke says it could be a good thing.

“Everything that has ever mattered in rock and pop history, every turning point and life-changing act of creation, happened at a crossroads,” Fricke said. “Elvis Presley messing around with…”That’s All Right,” during a break at his first Sun Records session in 1954; Bob Dylan facing the boos with an electric guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival; Nirvana taking punk to the masses, overnight and with a vengeance, on 1991′s Nevermind. The choices made at the forks — not just by the singers, songwriters and bands but everyone on the other end of the music — determine the immediate future and how we look back later, in wonder.”

Sure, the state of rock might not be particularly strong right now, but it’s never stayed that way for long. Rock’s very own Fame Monster or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy could be in its infancy, performed by some unknown band in a dingy club this very moment. For Rolling Stone magazine’s sake, let’s hope that game-changing record comes out sooner rather than later — I don’t want them to have to put the Black Eyed Peas on another “State of Rock” issue ever again.


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