It's post-election, and thankfully we won't be suffering through election ads on TV for the next few months. Robo-calls? Nada, we are free for a bit. Now we can debate something that actually matters: hip hop and rock 'n roll.
I'm a rocker, flat out. I love guitar, melody, big drums and power. Rock is still the king of live music - I know this because that respected musical publication, the Wall Street Journal, told me so - but hip hop rules the dance clubs, airwaves and streaming. Has the nation ever been this divided before? Hell no, never. It’s high time to acknowledge that rock ain’t carrying the day anymore. It’s a hip-hop world now! Does that make you feel better or worse? It just makes me want to lose myself.
I have been noodling on this post for a long time. I first started it months ago when I saw Kendrick Lamar’s halftime show during the college football playoffs. That’s the first time that it really smacked me in the face that I’m a dinosaur because I thought the show was B-O-R-I-N-G. He jumps around, grabs his crotch, and yells/shouts/speaks (sings?) a bunch of indecipherable lyrics over a drum machine heavy hip-hop beat. No guitar heroes. No actual drum kits. No great solos or hooks to the songs. But plenty of people packed into Millenium Park in Atlanta to see the show. And they all seemed to like it.
Did you watch that video? It has 563 MILLION views. Yowza, for that? I haven’t seen that many bald heads since the last time I was at a CLE. How do you explain hip-hop’s popularity? Maybe it’s because hip-hop is more danceable than rock? Maybe, but the new wave scene put out tons of great dance tunes, like this one:
But hip-hop certainly has its moments. There are good songs that have come out of the genre, and the influence on America’s (and the world’s) popular culture is beyond debate. It is here to stay, carried with it by its massive audience hungering for the next Kanye, Eminem, or Drake. Heck, even old-school rappers like Jay-Z, Nelly and Tupac are listened to fondly by middle-aged people at weddings and celebrations. I even will occasionally listen to some rap/hip-hop, and know the “big” songs enough to do the suburban shuffle while at some fund-raiser in my tux.
Maybe hip-hop’s popularity is about the authenticity of speaking today’s culture through the more modern musical form. Hmmm, so how does that explain that hip-hop is primarily an African-American musical genre that is focused on a small sub-set of that community, the one that hails from or lives in the ‘hood. But even rockers lived lives that their audiences didn’t share, you know, completely alcohol-and-drug-filled and outrageously slutty, a lifestyle that led to lots of dysfunction, dissatisfaction and death. So while you can’t see the direct correlation of hip-hop lifestyles to the huge suburban audiences who still primarily live their lives in comfortable neighborhoods and cloister themselves with their phones and internet connections, it’s no more difficult to bridge that gap than it was back in the rock days. Want to hear some true suburban music? OK, you didn’t say no, and yes, it’s rock. Well, sort of:
Of course, hip-hop’s popularity could simply be an alternative to “Big Rock,” a sound that basically has nothing new or compelling to say that hasn’t already been said, or any new compelling songs that attract big audiences. It’s really true that the pre-recorded music mega-sellers these days have few rock acts in the club. U2, Metallica, Springsteen and the Foo Fighters remain, but even those bands are not dominating the charts. And with the death of Tom Petty, we lost one of our most reliable rockers. The charts are full of manufactured pop acts, hip-hop stars, or some poppy-rocky combo some of whom, like Bruno Mars, Lady Gaga or Coldplay, I like considerably but don’t really give me the hard edge that I love so much. Here’s a good one from this era:
But can rock just die for this reason? Country continues to have pretty strong legs after about 100 years of output, and it’s most recent success has been moving more into harder, more rockin’ music. Where are the rockers? Well, they are out there, but now they are on the fringes. And I’m here to argue that that is for the best.
Rock has gone through some bad moments before. I was never a big fan of the highly technical and grossly extravagant music that came out of bands like ELP, Yes, and their cohorts, and don’t get me started on bands like Supertramp, REO Speedwagon and Styx. It took music from the fringes to blow that crap out of the way and get rock back to its roots. Yep, I’m talking the Ramones, Iggy, the Sex Pistols, the Clash, X and the rest of the punk/new wave movement. And it needs to be remembered that those bands remained on the fringe for quite a while and did not sell millions of albums or pack stadiums. They lived in the clubs and on the edges. But their influences were huge and started a rampage that overwhelmed the big money bands of the day. And even that movement got too strung out until Nirvana came along and blew it all up again.
Rap is also having these protestant uprisings. Newer acts keep popping up challenging the orthodoxy, and rappers have the habit of calling each other out by name in their songs. It’s quite remarkable in some ways, but not unprecedented. After all, about 30 years ago, Skynyrd said that they hoped Neil Young remembered that a Southern man don’t need him around anyhow. The point being that rap/hip-hop is probably still in a healthy space with its creative destruction and “in with the new” mentality. It’s very American.
So what to make of rock? The baby boomer classic rock bands still go out and soak up millions from aging fans, but those same fans seem disinclined to look for new rock acts that pump the blood. Why not? Isn’t it boring listening to Led Zeppelin and the Stones over and over and over and over. The Gen Y and Millenials seem like they are satisfied with the classic rock coupled with the new pop and hip-hop stuff. But not all of them. There remain rockers out there and some of the new bands are damn good.
Maybe I’m a dying breed, but I know that rock still lives comfortably alongside of hip-hop. I go see live rock acts all the time. And this is vital and great stuff I’m talking about. They just aren’t getting major airplay, record company support, or front-and-center attention. These nascent acts are keeping the flame alive until the movement spawns another guy like Kurt Cobain who rises and drags the whole rock machinery out of its slumber and jams it back into America’s face, refusing to be ignored any longer.
That's one potential future. Or maybe rock will just live on as one of many genres that attract attention every now and again, but doesn’t dominate like it used to. You know, like jazz. Ugh, I can’t believe that I just wrote that line. It made my bowels watery, a deeply unsatisfying feeling. Jazz? A great American art form for sure, but way on the fringes of the musical scene, except in places like France.
Why is it so important for rock to resume its front and center place in American pop culture? Well, you don’t make records for them not to be heard. While great music will always find its intended audience sooner or later, there is a ton of effort that goes into making records. Writing, arranging, producing and marketing music is WORK, and a lot of it. Read about any rocker that actually does the composing and you’ll see how much effort goes into that exercise. You need ambition, drive, stamina and talent, probably in equal amounts, to succeed. And success still comes down to getting people to listen to and buy your music. Isn’t that the point? If the rewards are no longer there, the incentive to create may also slip away.
Yes, I can listen to and occasionally appreciate a good rap or hip-hop song. But much of it is just blah, blah, blah. For me, I still love great rock ‘n roll. I love the loud guitars, the driving beat, the lights and the show. The sheer energy. You know, the whole “2 minutes 59” blast that blows you away. I’m not nearly as into songs that are all about lyrics: that’s hip-hop territory with its clever use of slang and street to tell the story. I want catchy tunes where, sometimes, it’s about just the music. The story is short and sometimes sweet (and often nasty), but the big solo makes you want to play air guitar and contort your face in a way that would make even your mother cringe and say, “you’re right, he is kind of ugly.” And at the end, you hold up your hand and scream for more. Yeah, that’s it. Here are a couple of new bands that are bringing it:
I’m glad I finally got that off my chest. The division in America is stark, but co-existence works. Hey, rappers, come on in to the rock space and enjoy for a while – it’s accepting over here. And rockers, take some of that street savvy and anthemic lyrical sense and make it your own.
Anyway, I’m doing my part to hunt down and bring to you some great rock that is still happening out there. Now it’s your turn. Go out and see some great rock. And keep coming back to BRP to listen to me whine, cajole, cheer, hoot and holler – you know, have some fun with me. And pass the flame to someone you care about, ok? Perfecto.
My name is Bill, and I live in the greater Philadelphia area. I love music, and I have a lot of opinions. This site is primarily focused on music, but sometimes I get off track. I hope you enjoy.