It's Only Rock 'n' Roll

By JOHN SWENSON, United Press International  |  Jan. 8, 2003 at 9:24 PM
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Several recent news articles have prompted the revival of one of the most road-tested popular music bromides, the theory that Rock Is Dead. In 2002 the biggest star and biggest album-seller was Eminem, an emblematic post-rock figure who may turn out to have been the first Elvis-level pop fetish of the 21st century.

With rapper Nelly and pinup Avril Lavigne, the only two figures to even come within half the influence of Eminem, the New York Times' Neil Strauss was prompted to conclude that 2002 was "The Year That Pop Lost Popularity."

In an analysis of the records that charted at the top spot on the pop charts, the Billboard Hot 200, Strauss demonstrated rap and "country" music dominated the charts, with rock in third place, followed by R-and-B and pop.

"The dominance of country and rap on the charts could be seen partly as a reaction to consumers' being spoon-fed manufactured boy bands for years," Strauss wrote. "Slightly older audiences are regaining control of music trends and are gravitating toward styles led by solo artists who seem to have some point of view and connection to everyday life."

Older listeners are also less likely to use the Internet to download their favorite music. The recording industry is well aware that young, computer-savvy listeners have grown up expecting to be able to download their favorite music for free.

The industry has been slow to respond to this trend, and has also been fairly ineffective in stopping the rampant piracy industry. The streets of Manhattan are filled with sidewalk vendors hawking bootleg knockoffs of current releases, and with CD burning equipment now built in to virtually all home computers the urge to burn your own copies of your favorite albums is easily satisfied.

All this is bad news for an industry that is predicated on steady growth, but does it mean that Rock Is Dead?

By 1975 at least two of the most influential rock critics, Lester Bangs and Nick Tosches, had declared in no uncertain terms that rock was indeed dead, just as the entertainment industry was set to make the music its Main Event. Like a stock market climbing a wall of worry, the record industry scoffed at critics as it rode the "Saturday Night Fever" soundtrack and the disco boom to record profits. In '76 and '77 punk arrived in New York and London to challenge the industry and restore critical faith in rock's resilience, but for all the glowing reviews, historical influence and sheer, unbridled fun, punk never produced the kind of household name stars that the entertainment industry thrives on.

In the ensuing years Bruce Springsteen established himself as a bankable stadium level commodity, Sting, Elton John and Billy Joel became major stars, and in the 1980s U2 became the last of the great rock bands. Metal, with KISS and Ozzy Osbourne as its grizzled figureheads, has maintained a strong hold on successive generations of the male teen market over the years; and the Eagles, as popular as any band during the 1980s, became the template for the curious transformation of country and western music into suburban pop. Outside of its already entrenched marquee names, rock as Hollywood-style star entertainment has been in a slowly spiraling commercial decline since the 1980s.

In 1982 MTV became the de facto marketing force of the recording industry. No major label popular music act could make it after that without the MTV imprimatur. The signature stars of the MTV era were Madonna and Michael Jackson, neither of whom were "rock" artists by traditional definition although both used elements of the style on their recordings.

Grunge, a last gasp for rock as a major artistic and commercial force, was an even greater failure than punk, with Kurt Cobain's unfortunate suicide standing as its most memorable moment. Pearl Jam has maintained its musical integrity but never broke through to the sales levels that define the genre's biggest stars.

In 2002 rock was essentially irrelevant to the multi-national corporations that control the entertainment industry. There is still plenty of quality rock music being made, but it has been almost completely marginalized, relegated to independent labels and the do-it-yourself ethos of the digital age.

The expense involved in artist development to create successful rock careers is anathema to a quick-fix industry that would rather concentrate its resources on hit producers who can fashion any artist's work into chart-topping success. Even Eminem would never have made it to the top without the signature sound innovations of producer Dr. Dre.

As a commercial force rock music has returned to the days before it was big business. Instead of selling records out of the trunks of cars, as enterprising promoters did in the 1950s and early 1960s, the best bands now give their music away over the Internet to loyal concertgoers.

Rock's last stand is being made in live performance. In 2002 concert ticket sales broke all existing North American records, largely because older fans of entertainers dating back to the 1960s were willing to fork over hundreds of dollars to see their heroes. Tours by the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and Elton John contributed mightily to the whopping $2.1 box office take. The average ticket price for the McCartney tour was a wallet-busting $129.92.

So what happens to rock as a commercial force when these bands finally retire?

(Next week: The future of rock.)

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