The Aging Punk 19

Friday, 04 March 2011

A recent article on FutureHit.DNA declared rock music to be, finally, dead. It wasn't a theoretical or aesthetic argument, but one based on sales figures and chart positions. It claims that not only does rock no longer dominate the charts (it hasn't done that in some time), but it barely exists there at this point. Granted, the article focused more on songs than albums, but the decline in sales that it outlined held true across the board.

While some may lament this fall in sales (and status), I say it is the best thing that could happen to rock music. At least, that is, if you want rock to continue to be a vibrant, innovative force in music. If you prefer your rock music in the form of dinosaur fossils, there are still plenty of those lying around. If the current spate of reissues is any indication, there are even more fossils yet to be dug up – but if you want to hear rock music which is truly new, you should join me in welcoming this development.

In fact, I would argue that, except for a brief period in the late Sixties, commercial success has always been the enemy of originality in rock music. If rock musicians would only stop chasing after it, they would be freed to experiment, to mess around with the genre and produce music they truly love; music of a sort we haven't heard before.

This recent requiem puts rock music in approximately the same position jazz was in around the late Fifties; when rock pushed it off the charts. Jazz hasn't done so bad for itself since then – true, it never regained its' commercial position, but it did remain a vital and innovative form of music. In fact, some of the music's greatest innovations came after its; fall from grace; a defence of the style need only site John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, late Miles Davis as proof of that. Even today, all sorts of interesting music is being produced under the 'jazz' label.

Of course, we also got the blander versions of fusion, and Kenny G, but those actually support my argument. They represent jazz chasing after that long lost commercial throne. Again, commercial success proves to be the enemy of new and interesting music.

Maybe something similar can now happen in rock music. It has happened before. Through most of rock history, the true innovation has occurred on the fringes; the most commercial rock has been the blandest. As I said, the primary exception to this was the late Sixties, but special circumstances allowed for that. One is that there was so much innovation going on during that period that some of it inevitably had to leak into the commercial mainstream. Secondly, record companies had lost control of their product. For a few years there, rock fans actually determined what became hits rather than record company marketing departments. In the early Seventies, those commercial entities regained control partially because they finally grasped the financial potential that existed there and partially because younger, more aware, executives took over.

This assertion of control by the financial interests, and renewed attention on hits rather than innovation, produced the bland, homogeneous sounds of mid-70's rock. The last true explosion of innovation was late 70's punk, which was a direct reaction to those commercial powers and the music they forced on the public. The thing about punk is that it was not immediately co-opted by those commercial forces – it took years for that to happen. And during that time, punk and its' descendants – especially the shift to alternative which began in the mid-Eighties – continued to put out new, interesting music. That lead to the grunge movement of the early Nineties, which (sorry all you Nirvana and Pearl Jam fans) was actually less a period of true innovation and more the final co-option of punk into the mainstream.

Since then, all the popular rock music (ie; that which has hit the charts) can only be described in reference to what has come before. It is all repackaging and reprocessing. Anything really new has only existed on the fringes. This is not to say that there hasn't been plenty of action on those fringes. There is actually innovative rock music being produced right now, but it is overshadowed by those bands still aiming for the commercial lowest common denominator. If we no longer expected rock music to produce hits, then our attention – that of the music press and the listening public –  could turn to the interesting stuff.

So I say it is time to kill off commercial rock once and for all. Let those musicians who are primarily interested in chart positions and sales figures work in pop and hip-hop, and free rock music for the people who want to make something new and interesting.

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