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Neil Young’s celebrated anthem “My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)” of 1979 was a response to the punk-inspired insistence at the time that rock music was passé, at best, or dead at worst. There could be little doubt that reports of the death of rock-and-roll were highly exaggerated, as New Wave, Heavy Metal, Grunge, Alt-Rock, Post-Punk, and other new sub-genres revitalized music through the 1980s and into the ‘90s. But as time subtracts one rock legend after another (the death of Gary Rossington being the most recent as I write these words), it may not be so premature any longer to wonder whether the once mighty House of Rock is falling into musical irrelevance.
The most obvious place to start in an evaluation of the decline of rock-and-roll is with its generational history: Rock emerged in the 1950-60s as the musical voice of the Baby Boom generation, replacing jazz and swing in the pantheon of popular culture. It evolved rapidly, producing new styles and sub-genres even as the Boomers gave way to Gen X. The sky, to borrow a line from Tom Petty, seemed to be the limit. But a look at the most recent Grammy Awards reveals just how things have changed as the Millennials and Gen Z have settled into their place as the successors of today’s popular music. Among the 66 awards categories this year, five were devoted to rhythm-and-blues, three to rap, and three to blues. Lizzo won Record of the Year, and Beyoncé broke the record for Grammy awards. For its part, Pop, as a genre in and of itself, loomed large, as it does throughout the world of contemporary popular music.
Meanwhile, there were just four categories devoted to rock, with Brandi Carlile—an alt-country star with rock-and-roll chops—taking two of them, while Ozzy Osbourne—a flash from the past if there ever was one—garnering the other two. Adam Granduciel and The Black Keys, two more recent representatives of the rock tradition, were in the running but failed to bring home any trophies.
It is evident that rock-and-roll, as we used to say, is no longer where it’s at, with such scant attention being paid to the most current bearers of the torch. But there is more to the matter than the simple inevitabilities of generational change; after all, Gen X carried the rock tradition forward—it didn’t bury it. To see what deeper causes are behind the decline of rock we have to examine its racial rather than generational history.
As I note in the introduction to the eighth chapter of the 10th edition of Signs of Life in the USA, “Tangled Roots: The Cultural Politics of Popular Music,” the history of American pop music is marked by racial co-creativity combined with racial marginalization and suppression, and the history of rock-and-roll is no exception. Co-created by such pioneers as Rosetta Tharpe, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddly, and Little Richard, along with Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Buddy Holly, early rock-and-roll was very quickly segregated and stratified. Black performers were shunted to the side (often re-categorized into rhythm-and-blues), while white performers, most strikingly by way of the British Invasion, became the face and future of rock-and-roll. Rock, in short, became coded as White.
The ongoing waxing of such genres as rhythm-and-blues, soul, and rap, when seen against the waning of rock, perhaps suggests a cultural shift away from this history of racial repression in music, as well as the emergence of a new social dynamic in the world of contemporary music.
Photo by Mick Haupt (2020), used under the Unsplash License.
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