Posted by Aphra Magazine on 24/7/15.
Has the value of rock music deteriorated over the years?
Neil Young’s famous statement ‘rock ‘n’ roll will never die’ rings through my head. Bands such as ACDC, Guns’N’Roses, Nirvana, and Led Zeppelin come to mind when ‘rock n roll’ is mentioned – they are the classics. All of the above are distinctive in their music and image; they are legendary. But what of rock today? Is it still the same? I want to explore the idea that perhaps the value of rock has significantly deteriorated over the years.
How many authentic rock songs do we see in the Billboards top charts these days? Sure, there are rock songs showcased on the charts, but their sound doesn’t have that raw and authentic feel that rock music from the ‘50s had, when its influence aided in profound social changes. The end of World War II was the catalyst for the economic boom and social revolutions that were to occur, and teenagers began to challenge the social norms. During that period, Johnny O’Keefe owned the Aussie stage with his creation of ‘The Wild One’, a top 40 hit. His sexualised lyrics and rebellious attitude challenged Prime Minister Robert Menzies’ conservative rule at the time, encouraging sexual expression and freedom of thought amongst youth. His music bore the influence of the heavy guitar sound and strong beats that had emerged from the US and Britain during that era.
Rock ‘n’ roll had inspired the emergence of counter-cultural movements, and music artists began to address forbidden topics such as social inequality, sexual freedom, identity and politics. For instance, Elvis Presley had diminished racial barriers between different cultures; his creations contained elements of blues, which had previously been predominant mainly in African American culture, and he was able to draw in a wide variety of listeners, including white Americans. He also encouraged the blooming of sexual expression amongst youth who listened to his music, as he crossed social boundaries with his provocative dance moves and controversial personality. Johnny Cash advocated for the de-marginalisation of Native Americans, and was widely known as the ‘man in black’, as he promoted freedom and equality for everybody. According toBBC News, he became the go-to voice for the media when it came to improving prisoners’ circumstances in America, as he advocated the importance of rehabilitation instead of punishment.
In contrast, mainstream music of today is centred around popular culture, and music artists such as Beyonce, Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift own the stage. Rock has been integrated into the mainstream system, for the most part, through indie rock, though the definition of indie rock has changed over time too. Back in the 1980s, indie rock emanated from records produced on a smaller budget, released through independent record labels. The Atlantic Magazine have featured an article that discusses how indie rock in the ‘80s had often emphasized on non-conformism, embraced individualism and challenged the norms. But now? Most indie rock bands are driven to conform to FM radio standards. It tends to be dominated by profit-making, rather than projecting the artist’s inner self to the world. Of course, there are still some indie artists that establish themselves independently these days, but according to the Guardian, their numbers have dwindled significantly and they are often not featured on the charts.
While commercialism did exist back in the 1960s, where the divide between mainstream music and independent production first became evident, it was nowhere as heightened as it is now. Bob Dylan, for example, aimed to enlighten people and change the world, and in the early 1970s, the rise of FM radio inspired the creation of college radio stations, and independent musicians began to be heard and appreciated for their emphasis on freedom of speech and thought. Today’s rock music culture has lost its footing in mainstream music, lacking some of that activist mentality that was much more prominent in the past generations. Kiss frontman Gene Simmons emphasises upon rock ‘n’ roll’s lack of presence in our culture, in an interview with Esquire Magazine, stating:
‘There are still record companies, and it does apply to pop, rap, and country to an extent. But for performers who are also songwriters — the creators — for rock music, for soul, for the blues — it’s finally dead.’
While rock may not be entirely dead, Simmons is right – it doesn’t resonate with our generation as it did with our parents and grandparents. Furthermore, hip hop and rap appear to be dominating our music culture these days. Kanye Westsays in a BBC interview that he is ‘the number one rock star on the planet’; he then continues to discuss how rap is the new rock ‘n’ roll and ‘we are the new rockstars and I’m the biggest of all of them’. As egotistical as he is, he is acknowledging the increase of rap music within today’s music culture. Rap often makes it into the charts.
While rock music first appeared in the US as a fusion of country and western with black rhythm and blues, Australian rock was influenced by this initial fusion and first became popular in the 1950s and 1960s. Australian rock bands enjoyed their time in the limelight in the 1970s, with the production of head-banging hard rock. ACDC and INXS were two of the biggest Aussie bands during that era, and English rockers such as Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, along with American artists such as Jimi Hendrix and Elvis Presley created a roaring spectacle of the rock genre.
MTV’s conception in the ‘80s did its part to further the growth of commercialism and establish the concept of mainstream music. These expectations redefined the value of rock in our society; now anti-conformism is overlooked and production is often geared towards what the masses are listening to. For instance, rock artists may experiment with other popular genres and mix together into their sound, and yet label themselves purely as rock artists. I do appreciate that they are experimenting with their sound in order to create something original, however, as they bring in pop, folk, RnB and funk elements into their music, the true essence of rock is slowly being snuffed out. That strong raw guitar beat is being replaced by synth lines, and most of today’s generation wouldn’t know any better unless they delve into the archives of legendary rock tunes.
Dave Grohl says in an interview with Billboard, ‘Because you have things like “American Idol” and you’ve got radio stations that play music made entirely by computers, it’s easy to forget there are bands with actual people playing actual instruments that rock.’ This raises a counter-argument to the concept that rock bands have mostly disappeared from today’s music culture; while rock artists are overlooked in today’s society, it can be argued that in today’s world of social media, the internet does allow us access to music that we wouldn’t otherwise hear on major radio stations. I did discover most of the bands I listen to via Facebook, and this is true for a lot of people these days – with Spotify and other streaming services, as well as sites like Facebook and Youtube for sharing musical content, we don’t have to resort to only listening to mainstream material. Social media gives us the opportunity to express ourselves, which includes choosing the type of music we want to listen to.
Emerging rock music artists can also establish themselves independently online, which gives them more freedom to experiment with their creations. They don’t have to get signed to a major record label, which could potentially influence the output of these artists’ music. It is quite evident that most of the more mainstream sounding bands get signed up to the major labels, while the smaller, often more unique bands have to resort to social media to increase their publicity within the world. While bands such as Alt-J have made it into the mainstream scene without losing their own voice, they are also among the minority of truly indie bands that have actually made it big within today’s music industry.
Perhaps it all comes down to people’s individual preferences and how different people would categorise rock music. There are certainly rock bands and artists with potential these days, but the rock genre overall isn’t as valued or distinct as it was in the 20th century. Rock ‘n’ roll should be more appreciated for its impact on society, and how it paved the way for freedom of speech and thought. It has taught us to question our surroundings and formulate our own observations and opinions of it.
Maybe social media is the key to boosting its significance in shaping the world we live in today; it may play a role in bringing rock music back into the spotlight, and by doing this it could encourage people to expand beyond traditional media forms in order to gain knowledge about the world they live in.