The Null Device

The twilight of rock'n'roll

It is now looking increasingly likely that the age of rock music is over:
The percentage of rock songs plummeted from a sickly 13% in 2009 to a terminal 3% – far behind hip-hop/R'n'B at 47%, pop at 40% and dance 10%, according to figures from MusicWeek.
("Pop", here, meaning not light guitar-based ditties, nor any niche genre (the "twee pop"/"p!o!p!" in the Orange Juice/Field Mice/Lucksmiths mould favoured by indie kids (many of them well north of 30), or the "futurepop" favoured by Goths who code) but specifically music without guitars or live drums, assembled in a studio to a commercial template.)
The news that the best performing rock song of 2010 was Don't Stop Believin', a 30-year-old track from the veteran rock act Journey made popular by US television show Glee, added a further nail to the coffin. "It is the end of the rock era. It's over, in the same way the jazz era is over," declared the veteran DJ and "professor of pop" Paul Gambaccini. "That doesn't mean there will be no more good rock musicians, but rock as a prevailing style is part of music history."
The death of rock, or at least its death as the dominant musical genre, has been predicted for a while, and demographically makes sense. Rock was a product of the post-WW2 boom, and the rise, in America and the West, of large numbers of middle-class teenagers with disposable income and freedom from adult responsibility, which conveniently happened when recorded music was the most promising entertainment technology of its sort. (Television was still too expensive for teens to have their own sets, and cinema is a more rarefied pleasure; you can listen to a record over and over again in a way you couldn't watch a movie.) When the same demographic phenomenon happened in South Korea and China, the teens jumped right over recorded music and got into multiplayer video gaming; instead of youth tribes, they got gamer clans.

Anyway, the warning signs have been around for ages. Rock first started lumbering towards middle age in the 1970s, the age of prog, being revitalised by the rise of punk, which was, essentially, just 1950s-style garage rock with more focus on urgency and rage than on musicianship (in fact, being too good a player would have been a liability, as punk led in the cult of lofi-as-authenticity that stayed with us until it was dispatched by cheap computer-based production tools on one hand and commodified pseudo-alternative music on the other). Throughout the 1980s, the commercial end of rock was showing definite middle-aged bloat, no longer being the anthems of teenage hooligans but rather of working stiffs and mortgage holders. The last major strands of underground rock to emerge into the sunlight and promptly get picked over by the forces of commodification were the alternative music genres that entered the mainstream in the 1990s, leading to shitty nu-metal in America, three-chord JJJ grunge in Australia and dire lad-indie in the UK. Meanwhile, hip-hop (and R&B, i.e., electronically produced soul infused with some hip-hop street attitude) and electronic dance music were growing, and a generation was growing up whose early memories of pop music were not of guitar-based beat combos but of Michael Jackson and Madonna. And when they started making music, it was often easier to pick up a laptop than a guitar. Where once it was given that a group of kids with music to make would rock out, now doing so is a deliberate retro affectation.

Another factor in the decline of rock has been the aging of its cohort, both the audience and the makers of the music:

There are rock acts still doing well, but it is the old guard: there is now, it seems, little new in rock. Bon Jovi was the highest grossing live act of 2010, bringing in $201.1m (£130.7m) in world ticket sales. However, its frontman is 48, and according to a report by Deloitte, 40% of the frontmen of the top 20 highest-grossing live acts in the US will be 60 or over next year; almost one in five acts will be over 50.
The first generation of rockers, those who made the music in the 1950s, is long gone; the second generation is moving towards retirement age, as are their original fans. (Does Pete Townshend still sing "hope I die before I get old"? Does he do so with a straight face?) As such, it's quite likely that rock's time as the dominant form of popular music is in its twilight. Of course, rock won't go away, in the way that jazz or blues (or, say, calypso or rhumba) didn't. Elements of it will occasionally reappear in whatever follows, but rock itself it will become a distinctly antiquarian pursuit.

There are 2 comments on "The twilight of rock'n'roll":

Posted by: Neil Young Tue Jan 11 05:24:18 2011

The three stages of rock: http://www.chariho.k12.ri.us/curriculum/MISmart/ocean/rocksong.htm

Posted by: Greg Tue Jan 11 11:39:31 2011

I'm one of those who agrees that rock's decline is inevitable, and not such a bad thing, and I agree with your editorial, but I'm going to play devil's advocate on the article you're citing.

Note that they say that rock's sales percentage is declining only for *singles*, and not for albums, where is it holding steady.

But what are singles in 2010? Does anyone buy them anymore? Does anyone even release them anymore? This SMH article from 2004 suggests that it's the age of *singles* that's over, while album sales are doing well (and it accuses ARIA of highlighting the former and hiding the latter in order to attack downloading).

http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2004/03/28/1080412234274.html

" ... record companies are not releasing as many singles as they used to. Sales of singles do not make much money. Singles are these days pretty much released for promotional purposes - to get radio play and drum up interest in an album. In the US, singles have virtually disappeared from sale."

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