Has Rock Music Changed?

People are always complaining about how things have become so much tamer. People aren’t wild enough. They don’t take enough risks. They don’t step out of home, or their comfort zones.

It’s ubiquitous enough a complain, but it really seems to roar louder in the world of rock music. There are reasons for this.

Since the demise of the grunge movement following Nirvana legend Kurt Cobain’s death, the entire rock music scene lost momentum and spiralled inwards. By the end of the nineties, only the bands that survived the chaos of the younger half of the decade would go on to make it into the next era. The others would be lost, and so would their fans.

Kurt Cobain on stage, Ireland, 1991. Credits: Pinterest

As a kid of the aughts, bands from the zeros seem closer and more familiar to me, but on the grand timeline, it could be argued that they were definitely more obscure than rock musicians have been in past decades. For those that did prevail though, the set of problems they faced were a little different in nature than their predecessors.

Of course, those who grew up in the ‘golden ages’ of the sixties, seventies, or even the nineties, claim that they don’t make it like they used to. The nature of showmanship has changed. The faces of venues have changed. Artists’ demeanour is more closely scrutinised than ever before, and they’re everywhere, all the time.

This is a big change. Earlier, the only exposure you’d have to your favourite artist would be through an interview they did with a music magazine, or an MTV special on the late night telly. You’d hear from them when they dropped their music, and of course, in their music, where they’d always be with you. None of these have changed, although as a compelling article in Spin Magazine argues, the interviews have become rarer, and the music has broken itself into smaller and smaller pieces: from albums to singles, and singles to snippets and breadcrumbs (a phenomenon I recently explored and outlined in this article).
What has changed though, is that in addition to this, you can find your favourite bands on YouTube, their personal Instagrams, Twitter, and for younger artists, even Snapchat. Like every other person, they find these platforms ideal to express their own thoughts and opinions. Of course, for a fan what this means is that your favourite stars are now living in your face, having comfortably nestled there after building themselves a little fire and drinking hot chocolate.

Metal exposed to free air for too long begins to rust, and the same is true of your interest in your favourite musicians. The tabloid has exploded, and everybody can be a reporter; heck, the artists themselves can do it. As you scroll through your news feed in infinite scroll mode, there’s too much stuff to catch your eye, and soon enough, the fifth reposted promotional picture of favourite artist becomes boring. You cast a momentary glance at a gothic, high-heeled, heavily made-up picture of that band you like who would swear to be so strictly folk rock that their getup would be otherwise shocking. But then you move on, because you just saw another picture yesterday.

Rock music was built on the social foundations of ‘rebel and shock’, but what used to shock people is either seen so often that it’s just not shocking anymore, or it’s simply unacceptable.

If Iggy Pop were a rising musician today, he’d have had a tough time.
Iggy relied heavily on the effects of the shock he could have on people, and do it more subtly than contemporaries who would proclaim themselves rebels. (See: MC5)

In particular, Iggy used to cut himself up with a blade live.

Today, he’d probably be cast as having mental health problems. He’d be told, it’s okay, everyone has darker days, and it’s great that you’re putting it out there for everyone to see. Self-inflicted harm? Total sign. Do talk to someone though, please!

And he’d have been a mental health advocate, broken by the stress we all face, a product of that system, with all our respect and our sympathy.
Rebels don’t get your sympathy, and that’s what endeared young rock and rollers to him. That’s what shocked people, and what made him a rebel. It simply wouldn’t work today.

In the face of this, the Noel Gallaghers of the world say that bands simply don’t have it in them anymore, that they’re not dangerous enough. They don’t wake up stoned or turn up drunk onstage (au contraire, only a month ago I witnessed a bassist down seven cans onstage). Artists do what they do. Only the implications of their actions have changed.

Of course, this also makes a band like Coldplay so likeable. In short, Coldplay are anodyne rock and roll: maybe a gateway band to artists more rock and roll, but also a band that you, your mother and your puppy can bond over. They aren’t out to offend and mum and dad won’t hate them. They won’t be in the news for the wrong reasons. In fact, all Coldplay have done to iff anybody is make more mainstream, pop radio-friendly music, and that seems to piss you off more than it does your mum.

But they’re hitting the charts alright.
This is something you’d see showing up all over the charts. Softer pop rock and more mainstream friendly artists are dominating the rock airwaves. Imagine Dragons, Coldplay and Twenty One Pilots are the biggest things rock on the charts. Oh, and probably Billie Eilish.

So is this the changing face of rock music? Has it become so mainstream friendly that it’s no longer friendly to those who created it in the first place? (Case in point: Greta Van Fleet. You either love them, or you love to hate them.)

The short answer is it’s not the end. The rock music scene was always stronger underground. A quick glance at Billboard’s archives tells you that rock music seldom dominated the hot music charts. There were moments when artists shone bright before being replaced by hotter tracks. The limelight was never meant for endurance, only an upthrust. And all legends are written in hindsight. Maybe we’ll be looking back on something we may have missed in our Instagram feeds and think it an incredible display of rock and roll showmanship.

In the meanwhile, do us all a favour and hit your local club, or a bar. There’s tons of good music buried under the unassuming air of carefreeness there that’s just itching to be discovered.

Tip: If you are looking for new music right now, here are some artists I could suggest.

Looking for some laidback surfside Cali blues, and generally a good time? Check out the Beach Goons. In their own words, they hate the beach. San Diego based surf blues-with-a-dash-of-Mexican-rock and roll, they’re my age.

Looking for something with the punk attitude but with catchier tones? I’ve said this before, but check out SWMRS. They’re also a lot better live than their records suggest.

While we’re talking punk, check out PUP. Even Pitchfork seems happy with them, which either means they’ve all caught the flu, or we have a rare conciliatory two seconds before they’re back.

For a classic throwback, try Greta van Fleet. For some good alt rock, try Wolf Alice, or even Royal Blood.

Wolf Alice

Looking for some old fashioned indie rock? Come on, there are tons of bands out there, I won’t even try. Just go to a club, for goodness sake.

Looking for some hard hitting garage rock? Do, do, do check out Phono Pony. It took me forever to remember their name right, but it’s all worth it. British Columbia based duo hitting it in the vein of the White Stripes. Also, in the words of their drummer, “We’re not the White Stripes”. As a bonus, if you happen to be in Toronto tonight, hop down to the Horseshoe Tavern, they’re playing a midnight set.

Then come back and answer me, is rock music dead?

Still in the Dark?

It’s now been twenty seven years since a walking legend, a cult leader, a “spokesperson for a generation” (as he hated to be called), a way of life for many people who felt just the same as him, grunge rocker Kurt Cobain, had died.

While the music, the attitude and mentality that he and Nirvana had, and the grunge legacy they established speak for themselves, the grey area emerges when things come a bit closer home and personal: the equation between Kurt Cobain and his wife, controversial Hole rocker Courtney Love.

Let’s chalk things out in very brief:

Kurt was a volatile person going down the path of destruction.

Courtney was a volatile person headed down the path of destruction.

That’s all it was.

Courtney hung on longer than Kurt, and that’s all there is. Kurt let go, while Courtney persevered and is somehow still here today, 20 years later.

It seems to be that some people vilify Courtney for this very reason. That she stayed on, and is alive, while Kurt petered out. Some suspect she had something to do with Kurt’s “death”. Because Kurt was the vulnerable, sensitive candle flickering in it’s last flames, the smallest nudge the wrong way from the wind could set it off. Apparently Courtney, however similar to Kurt, was made of stronger stuff than wax. And it’s as simple as that.

Many don’t see it that way.

Let’s flip the situation, hypothetically, and reassess.

Suppose it had been Courtney who’d petered out, while Kurt had somehow found the will to live.

Somehow, I feel that Courtney would never have been the martyr legend that Kurt became. The same anger and suspicion some have for Courtney may not have been there for Kurt. Courtney could never have been raised to the legend Kurt was. And is that simply because while Kurt was the fragile, vulnerable man, done in by the evil woman who supposedly wanted to leave him and was “thinking of” cheating on him anyway, Courtney the biblical Eve leading the man down the path to ruin?

I try to imagine a scenario where a vigil would have been held for Courtney Love. I try to imagine people talking about what a fighter she was, what a hypocritical world she fought and rebelled against. I try to think of where people would shake their head and say, what a shame, Hole’s first album was almost out, and she gave up… Always was such a flame in a wind…

But somehow, that’s not really the scene that sets in naturally, does it.

What I really imagine is, ah, that was bound to happen, she lived too dangerously for her own good. Poor Kurt, left like that to raise his two year-old daughter all by himself, could it ever have lasted? (No, I don’t recall Courtney getting that concern from anyone.)

There are even some, who think Courtney so crude, they may have said, good riddance, or something on those lines.

Courtney was just someone who happened to be involved with Cobain at a point in his forever uncertain, low-melting fuse box of a life. Many say Kurt would have taken his life at some point regardless. That after so many failed attempts, he simply had this coming. Some close to him will even point out that Courtney’s presence may have prolonged Kurt’s life this little bit.

But tell that to those who subconsciously hate Courtney because she was a woman who stood up and made some noise in a man’s world. She may not have always been right about everything, but she was strong when it mattered, and she had it in her to give it one more shot.

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Stickler.

(P.S. I am still a big Nirvana, and a Cobain fan.)

(P.P.S. The reason I don’t believe Courtney had Kurt killed lies in simple psychology, for those still unconvinced. Because no matter how different individuals may be, basic psychology still applies to almost all humans.

It’s been more than 20 years since Kurt Cobain died. (This year would have been his 50th, had he been alive.) Those many years can do some serious damage to people. Suppose Courtney had done what they suspect. Doesn’t one suppose that she’d think of it at times, and over the years, the guilt would have grown? She lived to see their daughter’s face everyday, the living legacy of Kurt Cobain; how could 20 years of living with it not have broken her down to the point where she’d have to tell someone? Confess to the world? It would be a tortured existence! If she really had done it, she would have confessed in three, maybe five, maybe ten years. It’s been twenty years. By her standards, Courtney Love is in fine mental health. She didn’t do it.)