If you've been in a long supermarket line recently, you've probably seen the leather jacketed members of The Black Keys gracing the cover of this month's issue of Rolling Stone
. You may even be privy to the attention-grabbing lede:
"Rock & roll is dying because people became OK with Nickelback being the biggest band in the world. So they became OK with the idea that the biggest rock band in the world is always going to be shit – therefore you should never try to be the biggest rock band in the world."
That was Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney's quote, which the author used to start the profile piece. The article was about much more, but the easy, pot-stirring soundbite was the driving force behind the retweets, reblogs and shares, so let's talk about it. Is the great rock & roll dying? However you feel about Nickelback, one of those bands that is simultaneously hugely popular and hugely dismissed, is irrelevant to the underlying idea Carney is getting at: rock & roll is the big time, and the big time is no longer cool.
The sub-culture and/or counter-culture has always been present in music, whether it was jazz or punk. But it seems the recent rise of the internet has made it a viable place to live; now, more than ever, you can stay off of the radio and refuse The Tonight Show
and still make enough money to live. Indie has become a self-sustaining ecosystem and community. As a result, kids picking up guitars for the first time can aspire to get big – but not too big. Maybe big enough to get on the cover of Rolling Stone, at best.
But is that killing rock & roll? There's an idea out there in the fandom that mainstream popularity and coolness are usually mutually exclusive. Just look at any misguided discussion about “selling out.” Carney seems concerned with making straight rock & roll, and the fame that comes with it, a positive thing to the rebellious youths turning away from rock & roll and toward alternative or indie. Because what kind of world would we live in if rock & roll was no longer hip?
What I think Carney is picking up on isn't that rock & roll is dying, but it is definitely changing. It's now an umbrella term for a wide variety of music – just look at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame's definition of the genre. Rock & roll has always branched out from its point of origin, but with technology providing a low barrier to entry and easy distribution, it has splintered out even faster. So any of the big guitar acts, like indie chart toppers Arcade Fire, don't really identify as simply “rock & roll,” leaving that territory for the Nickelbacks.
Despite this, it's hard to imagine that Arcade Fire doesn't fit in the big world of rock somewhere. If they identify as an indie band, or some kind of alternative, or some derivative of folk and chamber pop, all of that can still be traced backwards through time to a rock & roll tradition. It's not that rock & roll is dying – it's just that the term isn't helpful in today's mass music access, because it doesn't describe the difference between Radiohead and Papa Roach.
It's important to note that people have always claimed that rock & roll was dying. In 1968, the King of Rock & Roll himself, Elvis Presley, gave credit to these new bands like The Beatles and The Byrds, but felt that they were straying away from rock's roots in gospel and R&B. Maybe it's changing faster now than ever, but it's always been changing, and that's far from death. In a culture where there's something for everyone, where every band – even Nickelback – has a niche and an audience, how can that be anything but survival?
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