These are not high times for rock-n-roll.
Pop music is ascendant, more kaleidoscopic and outrageous than ever. Hip hop continues to take over the world. Synths are back in force.
Guitars, not so much.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic lately amid our strange and terrifying moment in history. Because I am craving rock, badly. And so I’ve gone in search of some eardrum-searing rock and roll, and included some of what I’ve found.
Now, more than ever
Because not to be a downer or anything, but we live in serious fucking times. There is never-ending, exhausting chaos coming from the White House. Our toddler-in-chief has disdain for America’s finest impulses, the very foundations of democratic rule and the value of knowledge itself.
Every decade has its underlying anxieties, but this is different altogether. We’re in uncharted territory, with the White House operating as an “adult day-care center” for a president who’s basically the sore loser kid who grabs the ball and goes home. North Korea is terrifying, California is on fire, coal is being given a reprieve, gun violence is out of control, white supremacists have infiltrated the White House and Hollywood is dominated by sexual predators.
I need something to blow the windows out, go dark and terrify the oppressors. Something to provide some release (something I am craving more and more these days). I need noise and loud guitars. Because the return of the synthesizer, for all its other virtues, isn’t quite doing it for me that way.
I need to fucking rock.
It goes in waves
This is hardly the only time that fans and critics have asked whether rock and roll dead. They asked it for a while in the ’80s, until Guns N’ Roses exploded onto the scene and reminded everyone that guitars are awesome. But it wasn’t dead before G-n-R, and of course it isn’t now. But it’s a hell of a time for it to go so quiet.
When Trump first took office, I comforted myself — if that’s the right way to put it — with the thought that the freaks and malcontents would rise to this bleak occasion. Make a furious racket to offend the pious and serve as a noisy counterpoint to the status quo, much like hardcore punk did during the Reagan era.
You can find plenty of protest music in hip-hop, from artists like Kendrick Lamar and Run the Jewels. And even Beyonce and her sister, Solange, released incredible albums last year that made the political personal.
But it’s been harder to find that kind of righteous protest in rock and roll.
Sometimes I wonder if the world has gotten bored with rock. Whether in our technological age, when everyone’s got an iThing in their pocket, we’re looking for new and sleek; music that goes well with the tidiness of tapping a smartphone or spending all day staring at a computer. Maybe rock-and-roll just seems old fashioned to kids nowadays, something that is eligible for AARP membership by now. I know my 9-year-old barely listens to it anymore.
Maybe, as recorded music moves to Spotify and earbuds, and music becomes on-demand and commoditized, our digitally compressed jams are losing their cojones.
Then too, rock-and-roll is graying. Look, I’m grateful that torchbearers like Dinosaur Jr. and Queens of the Stone Age continue to kick out the jams into middle age. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say it’s a little weird to see grayhairs thrash away onstage. Like anything organic, you need a constant infusion of youth.
But does rock have any boundaries left to be pushed? Or has the steady cocktail of 24-hour news and Facebook, all at the tap of a finger, left no corners left unexplored? Is everything left to explore in rock just clever combinations of things that came before? Does that even matter?
Maybe I’m weird
In a fascinating recent profile in the New York Times headlined “‘Weird Isn’t In Right Now,'” Hal Willner, a longtime music producer who has worked with everyone from Lou Reed to Mikhail Baryshnikov, offered this:
“I don’t know what inspires people now. Maybe they don’t need to be inspired in that way. Do these last two generations have heroes? I’m not sure they do. I go to Avenue A now and listen to what people are talking about, and it isn’t culture. When John Lennon died I couldn’t go to work for two days. I wonder if they have someone that they look at like that — an author, a poet, whatever. Those are people who made us what we are.”
Bowie’s gone and so is Lemmy. Prince, too. Who are the rock stars that will symbolize this era?
Who will make this generation’s list of musical heroes? The list probably won’t contain many rock stars.
Kurt Cobain famously said that the future of rock-and-roll belongs to women, and if there’s anything I’ve been able to tell about rock-and-roll in 2017, it’s that women are taking up the mantle, big time. Across the board, much of my favorite music in recent years, from Beyonce and Solange to Warpaint, is made by confident, innovative women artists.
Now, there’s a new wave of women-fronted punk bands dragging rock’s bloated, hungover corpse into this weird era, taking pointed political stances on issues of gender identity, immigration and sexuality.
If hip hop artists are galvanized by the events of Ferguson, Charlottesville and the endless string of police shootings of unarmed black men, then smart and politically minded women are turning up the volume on the pussy-grabber-in-chief and the likes of Harvey Weinstein.
Recent event suggest there’s plenty more fuel to fire their fury.