In 2001, the Strokes released Is This It. Rock had enjoyed an incredible decade – any genre that can claim Nirvana amongst its ranks is doing something right – and Julian Casablancas had just shown us the way rock should sound in the coming century. Not even twenty years later, rock is dead.
Now, maybe that’s going a bit far. There have been some memorable releases in the intervening period, for sure. The Strokes’ follow-up album, Room on Fire, was a pretty solid second act; PJ Harvey’s 2011 conceptual album Let England Shake was excellent; Interpol initially found creative traction. There are others, of course, but that’s largely beside the point. What’s more pressing is the increasing trend away from innovation, of doubling down on sounds that marked innovation at the dawn of the millennium but now feel hollow, trite. Interpol’s Marauder sounded like outtakes from their early releases, only dulled and robbed of their cultural capital. People have pointed to groups like HMLTD as the new direction of rock, and while I have nothing against them as artists and have enjoyed a number of their releases, if Happy Meal Limited are the saviours of rock we’ve gone wrong somewhere. Worst of all have been the weak alternative bands like The 1975 or the Pale Waves, whose new record My Mind Makes Noises is genuinely one of the most vapid, indulgent, aesthetically redundant commercial releases of the last decade. Yeah, rock isn’t doing too great.
But maybe it can’t be helped, and even if we can help it maybe we shouldn’t. Rock’s development was informed by a variety of social realities that are no longer in play: industrialised urban centres being the most glaringly absent from today’s society. As an art form rock peaked in the late 1960s and enjoyed fruitful years throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s. It’s hard to conceive of a world without rock music – but every form of expression eventually runs out of steam. Jazz music supposedly died in the 1970s just as – in other realms of artistic expression – Modernist literature kicked the bucket in the ‘40s.
But surely rock has been through slumps like this before – isn’t is just waiting for the next great pioneer to raise it back to the top? Maybe so – in many ways the late 70s and early 80s provide a solid example of a preceding stagnant period. Though yes, these were weaker moments for rock – just as there were others (the mid 80s have never really done it for me) – those ‘weak years’ gave us Joy Division, Easter, Street Hassle. It’s relative terms. They had Bowie, Curtis, Iggy Pop – and we have… Matt Healey? Paul Banks (yes, the guy who also gave us his take on rap, the catchily titled Everybody on My Dick Like They Supposed to Be)? When those are what we’re working with, you have to consider whether it’s worth it any longer. I can’t truthfully say that it is.
An issue that has emerged has been a real unwillingness to experiment and push the boundaries of rock – which is, by definition, transgressive, so that’s actually a bit of a problem. Previous breakthroughs in the genre have come from uncompromising, honest lyricism, combined with purposeful and arresting instrumentation, and a real subversive energy. Think The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, Sonic Youth. At this point it feels like the number of chords in rock is shrinking by the year. The shift to intensive studio production has led to slick and nondescript filler being churned out and passed off as new material. And when it doesn’t sell (and it really hasn’t been selling – at least not at the same rate – as we just saw rock lose its top commercial spot to hip hop) the band spends longer in the studio, more laboriously poring over their same dearly held sonic formulae. On top of all this, we haven’t had a good live rock album – a former hallmark of the genre’s vibrancy – since Insecticide.
Perhaps this is just the classic example of a hot take, though. Living in the present. Aesthetic panic. Maybe all we need is pared back, guttural, lashing guitar and a take-no-prisoners snarl. Feedback and screeching, ear-rending, flesh-melting rage. But Jimi Hendrix, Lou Reed, and Janis Joplin aren’t walking through that door any time soon. The spirit of punk’s riot and rebellion, once vibrant and underground, has been swallowed by the corporate machine it raged against. And that’s okay – I’m happy with Kendrick, Jid, and whatever Kanye can still give us. Rock may not be dead just yet, but we’re closer to switching off the life support than many of us dare admit.By Jarlath Nolan