Is This It?: What Should We Do About Rock and Roll?Photo by Mick Hutson/Redferns Music Features Is This It?
Is This It? examines the current state of rock music through a modern-day lens, highlighting the artists, perspectives and sounds that have kept the genre and its dedication to counter-culture alive.
I love to complain about rock music. I think most diehard fans do. I wouldn’t consider myself a sports enthusiast, but I assume my feelings are similar to having a favorite team. They lose, they win, you cheer or critique from the sidelines. Sometimes you actually go to the game, or watch it on television, and other times you just check your phone to see the stats. But you’re loyal because you love them, and even when you’re talking shit about your favorite team, it’s only because you want them to win. “You don’t get to hate it, unless you love it.”
I started this column to answer a question: When it comes to rock and roll, is this it? Will it forever trail behind hip-hop, R&B and even pop in terms of chart success, or will it someday peak again like during its inception in the ‘50s, its romanticized heyday of the ‘70s, or even in the early ‘00s when everyone just wanted to be one of The Strokes?
There have been countless articles and op-eds that have dove headfirst into the question, fishing out answers that range from “yes” to “maybe” to “absolutely not.” Some of the best headlines I’ve gathered on the alleged death of rock and roll are as follows: “Rock n’ Roll Is Dead and Tech Killed It,” “Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Dead, or Just Old?” and my favorite, Dan Ozzi’s aptly titled piece, “Rock Is Dead: Thank God.” Ozzi’s 2018 article does the best job of laying out the two basic dissertations outlined in those other the articles, the first being that rock is, in fact, still alive and well, although that completely ignores the data that, at the time, showed a decline in its listenership. The next theory is that rock is still alive, but it just looks different, thanks to the fresh cast of diverse characters making recent headway in the genre. It’s a viewpoint I’ve often championed, but even with the revival of pop-punk, and more women and non-white artists picking up guitars, the numbers don’t lie: rock’s listenership is still eclipsed by those of other genres. A third theory, the one Ozzi posits in his article, is that not only is rock dead, but also its death is worth celebrating.
“The more [rock’s] popularity shrinks, the more it attracts freaks and weirdos—those with something to prove and nothing to gain,” he wrote. “The more the traditional rock star career path crumbles, the more it draws in the true, inimitable visionaries making groundbreaking work for the sake of art and not money. Hopeful thinking? Sure. But the alternative is to accept that guitars are playing the siren song of a floating corpse.”
It’s optimistic, cynical and likely true, but instead of agreeing with this idea completely, I’d like to offer a fourth theory. I believe that rock and roll, whether it’s on life support, six feet underground or up onstage ushering in a new era, is completely within our control. Calling rock dead has always felt, to me, like a way to hand over its fate to some outside source, some sonic deity with the ability to determine whether a soul-stirring, visceral, life-altering seismic sound will flourish or fail. However, we music listeners have always been beings with the powers of intervention.
Rock and roll will do whatever it is we want it to, as long as we don’t mind taking on the task of keeping it alive. Not with thoughts, prayers, tweets or (unfortunately for me) think pieces, but through our decision to stop cheering (or jeering) from the sidelines and take actual action. Buy a ticket, since many rock and roll albums don’t make it to No. 1 without a ticket bundle. While you’re at the show, buy some merch. Keep the venue’s lights on by getting a round (or two) for you and your friends. Share a playlist, or call up the radio station and ask them to play your new favorite song. Listen to up-and-coming artists, because even though classic rock has ensured the genre’s popularity, new acts are what’s going to keep it relevant.
Where we spend our money is how we weigh in on what’s relevant. Even our social media engagement—what we click, stream, watch and dance to on TikTok—determines what music the industry at large believes is worth investing time and resources in. Never forget that rock music itself first gained popularity in the ‘50s because of what Britannica refers to as “seeds of music [that] had been in place for decades,” which “flowered in the mid-1950s when nourished by a volatile mix of Black culture and white spending power.” I know what you’re thinking: It’s not about money, it’s about playing music and turning people on! But your favorite artists have to pay their light bills, your favorite genre isn’t going to thrive without some investment, and even if that investment isn’t monetary, your time and engagement is still worth more than you think.
I know I’m an optimist, but I really do think every dollar, share, click counts. Every kid who decides to pick up a guitar or start a band counts. Every writer who, like me, decides to leave everything behind in the pursuit of becoming a rock journalist counts.
I don’t have any delusions that we as rock fans can save the world, or that there aren’t bigger issues that require our concern. But if life is worth living, then it’s also worth enjoying, and what’s more enjoyable than rock music? I doubt it’s coincidental that, at a time when the whole world is dealing with a shared crisis, rock music was one of the only genres to experience an increase in its share of audio streaming.
As I’ve said in previous iterations of this column, I don’t have all the answers, just some questions I think we should all be asking. That being said, I don’t even have all the questions. I do think, however, that my favorite inquiry when it comes to the point of having types of queries about rock at all, may have already been posed by a music critic decades ago, so I’ll leave you with his words instead of mine.
“The real question is what to live for,” Lester Bangs once said. “And I can’t answer it. Except another one of your records. And another chance for me to write. Art for art’s sake, corny as that sounds.”
Erica Campbell is a host and rock journalist with stories in Spin, NME and Alternative Press. She’s the former music editor of Consequence and owns a star ornamented boot collection that would make David Bowie proud. You can confront her about her boot hoarding habit on Twitter, and check out her latest stories and interviews at campbellerica.com.