Thursday, July 12, 2007


Rock music hasn't died, it's just changed.

A month ago I had a conversation with a professor about the many people of his generation (he's in his 40's) who are caught up in "nostalgia" music - music from the 70's and 80's. He talked about his appreciation of alt-country, Wilco and Son Volt are two specifics, and he lamented the lack of interest his friends and co-workers have for current rock music.

This concept was also explored in an essay I read recently in IV: a Decade of Curious People & Dangerous Ideas by Chuck Klosterman. Klosterman attends a "Rock Cruise," on which Styx, REO Speedwagon, and Journey, perform. The cruise is filled with 30 and 40 somethings who are disillusioned with the current state of music and yearn to recapture the "glory days" of rock & roll.

I was thinking about these two congruous ideas last night at a Spoon concert in Battery Park in New York City. Spoon is a moderately popular band - their best selling record, Gimme Fiction, sold about 100,000 units - and is probably best known for a Jaguar commercial during which their song "I turn my camera on" played.

The concert was well attended - my friend Potter estimated somewhere in the 700 range which is good considering it was raining for most of the afternoon - but almost entirely by people who were born after the 8 track fell out of fashion.

I know that rock & roll is, and always has been, the province of youth but I think that there are greater factors at play.

In the 70's and 80's there were great bands ("great bands," in this sense means bands that sell a lot of records for an extended period of time and receive at least some degree of critical acclaim) that got a great deal of radio play. Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Doors, Pink Floyd, The Clash, U2, AC/DC, Metallica, Aerosmith - all of these bands were not only very talented (I don't like all of them but credit where credit is due), they were very commercially successful. People from that era understood the radio to be the arbiter of good rock & roll music. They didn't need to look any further or pursue other avenues to find very good music by very good musicians.

Since the demise of grunge music in the late 90's there has not been a single great band to come out and attain consistent radio play. Bands like Radiohead, U2, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Aerosmith, may get a fair amount of airtime but all of them originated in the 90's or earlier. Furthermore, all of the airtime attained by these bands is surrounded by music that is entirely foreign to veterans of 70's and 80's rock & roll (this is not a commentary on bands like Linkin Park or Fall Out Boy, just a fact).

This has lead many people to believe that there is no longer any good rock & roll music. This is not the case.

Rock and roll has simply become more fragmented over the last 20 years, creating less of a consensus as to what is good rock music and pushing much of the art form out of the mainstream.

Alt-Country for example, wasn’t even a genre of music 20 years ago. Uncle Tupelo is generally credited with having founded alt-country, their first record was released in 1990 and two of their members went on to found the bands that we had discussed (Jeff Tweedy with Wilco and Jay Farrar with Son Volt). Yet only one of their records ever made the Billboard 200 (their anthology released in 2002 scorched all the way up to 173 on the chart) and they certainly never received any mainstream radio play. This does not mean that they were not a great band in the artistic sense, it just means that they were not a great band in the sense that 70’s and 80’s bands were great.

Current rock bands like Spoon, Arcade Fire, The Hold Steady, The Walkmen etc. play rock and roll in the tradition of bands from the 70’s and 80’s and are very good at what they do, it’s just that the market has been fragmented to the point that they no longer receive the attention their predecessors did.

Rock and roll has not died and never will, it is too dynamic to ever disappear. For now, rock music is still out there you just have to listen a bit harder to find it.


Unknown said...

I had no idea that song in the commercial that features "I turn my camera on" was performed by spoon. I always assumed it was the sound produced during sex between David Byrne and Prince. Not a creeking bed... but that song is the sound made.

GG said...

After extensive research I have learned that the tune is, in fact, both "I turn my camera on" and the sound of Prince and David Byrne making sweet love.