Thursday Thinkpiece: The Continued Stagnation of Rock Music

There’s a rather contentious recurring statement that’s been made on this blog over the years, and that’s “music (as a viable commercial commodity) is dead”. Although I still stand by it, I will concede to the fact that it is arguable, and that some recent developments have breathed new life into the medium.

Streaming has become and actual “thing”, even if it is dealing with growing pains of its own. It’s also unexpectedly affected the process of creating music itself. It has however allowed for millions of people to get exposure to lesser known artists, even if those artists do get literal pennies for their plays. It’s also a little worrisome that with these services you are not in control. But hey, let’s throw streaming in the “win” column; it’s at least kept music in public discourse.

Because there’s little else that’s doing that. The starmaking machine has sputtered out precious few household names in the past five years. Kendrick Lamar seems to be in it for the long run, as are Twenty One Pilots. Other than that, every genre has had a drastic surfeit of acts with staying power. How many 2017 songs have landed in public consciousness domain? About two: Ed Sheeran‘s “hey look i’m suave now” jam and a sad version of the Macarena.

“Bad and Boujee” and “Humble” also provided some meme-riffic moments, but as far as legitimate, widely known capital-h Hits are concerned, it’s only been the above. For the whole year.

So to wade into the waters of rock music to see if there’s anything popular there is a bit of a moot point. There’s been precisely TWO big marketable hits this year and rock radio is clutching to them furiously. The first is another reliable workout anthem from Imagine Dragons, who will no doubt be chart mainstays for years to come. The second is a little more surprising. Portugal. The Man‘s “Feel it Still” is the most memorable crossover hit in years, and will probably ride the wave to the end of December. Rock radio finally got it’s own version of Pharrell‘s “Happy”- they’re gonna keep it around as long as they can.

Two hits dominating a whole year might seem utterly insane, but that’s been par for the course for years now, regardless of genre. Turnaround time has only been growing over the past seven years; a hit sitting on top of the charts for months is no longer uncommon.

Last year’s “Heathens” was on top for thirty weeks. Over half a year. The literal definition of stagnation. Let’s venture further into the swamp now, and take a peek at actual modern rock charts, where things have turned into a hellish cycle.

Most people rightfully assumed that after a hit or two each, post-post-post-post-grunge bands like Seether and Shinedown disappeared in the mid-2000s along with the last vestiges of nu-metal. Shockingly, they are not only still around but thriving. The South African Nickelback clone did not in fact just have the one song with Amy Lee. They still have songs.

Long after their prime, these bands are still running the show. The mainstream rock chart is usually some combination of Disturbed, Shinedown, Breaking Benjamin, Stone Sour, Chevelle, Seether, Theory of a Deadman and Stone Sour. All bands whose last recognizable hit was well over a decade ago, still churning out “hits”. It’s almost by proxy at this point. As long as they release something, it’ll sell.

It’s not much better on the live scene (rock or otherwise). It’s a select few modern acts that will pack arenas; those giants are reserved for the nostalgia market. This is the era of the midsize venue, an era that will continue indefinitely as more and more classic rock acts hang up their wares and fewer new bands take their place. Big marquee names will become increasingly harder to come by. Rock has become antiquated, something to look at from the lens of hindsight. It’s something old-fashioned to be paraded on stage as an artifact (see: American Idiot the Musical, Rock of Ages, Bat out of Hell). While it still has some cultural sway, it’s locked firmly into “park”, and unless a rapid about-face happens it’ll completely lose relevance.

Change is inevitable- jazz was at one point the king of the joint, now but a novelty. Genres come and go like the seasons. The issue here is that without action, the fate that befalls rock music will quickly consume the whole of popular music. Rap, EDM, and even pop aren’t safe, as seen from the Hot 100 charts posted above. Technology and societal priorities are holding this ship in stillwater, and it’s going to take some swift maneuvering to steer this ship back into a current. Let’s hope for a little puff from the winds of change, and turn the stream into a river.

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