The great rock’n’roll is dwindling

And it looks so peaceful from the outside. Tradition has it that Led Zeppelin requisitions up to six floors of what is now the Andaz Hotel in LA for their parties. Further down the Sunset Strip is Whiskey-a-Go-Go, where Oasis once made its way through a Kilimanjaro of crystal meth they mistook for cocaine.

Across the road, at the legendary and sometimes tragic Viper Room, Hollywood’s Golden youth would descend from the hills to feign musical talent into the new millennium. You don’t even have to go as far as the Roxy or Rainbow immortalized by Guns N ‘Roses to give the Strip its due as Wall Street or Savile Row of rock.

And, to that extent, like a sort of mausoleum. The statistics for the decline of rock are fairly well publicized. Hip-hop and R&B overtook it as the dominant genre in the United States in 2017, according to the Nielsen Annual Report. (Later than I had guessed.) Most Streamed Artists on Spotify in 2021 are solo and mostly on guitar. less. While Peter Jackson’s recent Beatles flick performed well, it also exposed rock’s addiction to some kind of ancestor worship that is not talked about at all.

Explanations of great rock’n’roll are scarce, without ever really convincing. On the supply side, there’s the alleged lack of innovation (as if Adele were Philip Glass) and, more likely, the financial barriers to entry. When every laptop is a viable studio, the cost of live instruments and amplifiers must confuse even a golden teenager.

On the demand side of the problem, there are the vicissitudes of taste, which hint at the prospect of a rock revival one day, and the more structural question of the genre’s advanced age. It’s hard to lure listeners into the more rebellious phase of their life when not only their parents but their grandparents have grown up with more or less the same sound. So expect an existential hip-hop crisis in 2040.

I feed my own theory. One of Arsene Wenger’s starting shots as he neared retirement was that young football fans were taken with players, not teams. At 379m, Cristiano Ronaldo has more Instagram followers than Manchester United, Juventus and Real Madrid, his last three employers combined. Tennis too has developed a culture of strangely personal identification (there are “Rafa people”) which I am not sure was so pronounced in the Sampras-Graf era.

In civic life, as political parties weaken, there are movements of intense and at times disconcerting personal attachment to Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and – not even a public office holder – Greta Thunberg. Emmanuel Macron won the keys to the Elysee Palace with a personal vehicle from a party that even shared his initials. Steve Jobs and now Elon Musk had independent followers of their companies. At all times we see a public need to relate to an individual, not an institution. The tendency for unlimited emotional disclosure is part of it. Against solo artists, therefore, groups, which might even change members over time, must strike young people as extremely impersonal.

Ultimately, the cause of the rock sag is less important than the fact. It’s heartening to witness the fragility of something that was so popular that it sometimes seems anything but ingrained in human nature. But then it happened to jazz too, and to poetry, which uneducated British people were once able to quote from tracts by heart. We could be three-quarters of the way from the serious novel to academic obscurity. All ideas, practices, businesses, and even ascendant individuals should regard the fate of rock’n’roll as a memory mori. The difficulty in explaining it is precisely the horror. This implies that it is possible not to make any glaring mistakes and still fall.

The question is what, beyond sound, has been lost. Rock has always been a good inducer of young people in the ways of the outside world. I was on the path of a sweeter immigrant adolescence when a host of groups from North West England taught me the uses of swagger, even or especially when it is the opposite of what one feels. Maybe Ed Sheeran or BTS is fulfilling the same pastoral role and I just can’t see it. This is something to consider as night falls on what, for much of the postwar period, rivaled cinema as a central form of mass culture. Sunset, indeed.

Email Janan at [email protected]

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