Is Rock Dead?

ON JANUARY 25, 2017, 1:00PM
Standing on a rain-soaked sidewalk in Manhattan’s East Village, there’s little to distinguish Brian King and Dave Prowse of the rock duo Japandroids from any number of bartenders, baristas, or otherwise starving artists who’ve called the neighborhood home. Tall and lean in a black motorcycle jacket, King is the more glamorous of the two, blessed with the quiet, prowling confidence of someone with a steady girlfriend and a well-loved Lust for Life LP waiting for him back at home. Prowse, who prefers wool sweaters to leather jackets and ends most of his thoughts with an ingratiating shrug, doesn’t wear the rock star aura quite so comfortably. But it’s not as if strangers are lining up on the street to take selfies with King, either.

Though they’ve been bandmates for over a decade and friends for even longer, it’s tempting to view King and Prowse as a sort of rock ‘n’ roll odd couple. In both appearance and demeanor, they represent two very distinct, even diametrically opposed, eras of rock music. With his natural swagger, King is a callback to punk’s late ‘70s marriage of loud guitars and leather while Prowse seems more a product of rock’s post-college years, in which modesty and sincerity became the genre’s more reliable calling cards. Both strains are baked into Japandroids’ DNA and help to explain why, in just over 24 hours, the duo will preside over a small but sweat-soaked congregation of fans screaming their songs back at them as if their lives depended on it.

Nearly five years after its release, the duo’s aptly titled sophomore effort, Celebration Rock, remains one of rock’s last truly invigorating records. It’s a hair-raising, beer-can-smashing synthesis of everything that made the genre sound vital at every stage of its development. Few albums better capture the self-mythologizing power of guitar music, which works by jettisoning life’s dark side and injecting the void with arena-sized choruses, triumphant riffs, and a wide-eyed sense that everything is possible all at once. “There’s enough sadness in the world,” King remembers thinking while he wrote the songs on Celebration Rock, “so let’s focus on the glory instead.”

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In the years separating Celebration Rock from Japandroids’ third and latest effort, Near to the Wild Heart of Life, King and Prowse have had much to feel glorious about. They spent the better part of two years in a mad dash across the globe, performing over 200 shows in more than 40 countries and graduating from a beat-up Ford Explorer to a Sprinter van to a BandWagon (“somewhere in between a bus and a motorhome,” King explains) to a proper bus. After a while, they also quit crashing on friends’ floors, as I learn when they lead me up from the street and into the spacious third-story Airbnb they’ve booked for their stay in New York.

“You wanna know when we became an Airbnb band?” Prowse jokes, as if it’s absurd for any rock band to indulge in such a modest form of luxury. There’s a slightly sharp edge to his comment, however — a tacit admission that, no, he and King will never be celebrities in the true and proper sense. They’ll also never be rock stars, not for lack of leaving it all out there on the stage every night, but because such a thing hardly exists anymore. Indeed, the rise of Japandroids happens to have coincided with an opposite trend in their genre as a whole: In the time since their last album, rock has been busy dying a slow commercial death.

While the critical narrative of Near to the Wild Heart of Life will inevitably coalesce around the fact that the duo are now willing to let the sadness in, the bigger and more existential truth is that the state of rock music in general has shifted closer to sadness than glory. If Celebration Rock once seemed like a watershed moment in the rise of a new and powerful brand of guitar-based indie rock, Near to the Wild Heart of Life arrives at a time when that brand’s cultural impact is lower than it’s been in years.

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2016 was, as others have noted, an especially bad year for rock ‘n’ roll. But it wasn’t just because the genre lost some of its longtime titans in David Bowie, Prince, George Martin, and Glenn Frey; it was also because a remarkably small number of bands were prepared to fill the void left by their passing. Even the few “traditional” rock bands that released rock records in 2016 failed to summon up the same level of excitement as in years past. “I think you could argue that 2016 might be the first year where a band like Radiohead could release a great album and not move the needle,” King says when I bring up the elephant in the room. He has a point: A Moon Shaped Pool finished the year at No. 73 on the Billboard 200 despite being a hugely anticipated release from one of the world’s biggest rock bands.

2012, the year in which Celebration Rock was released, was much kinder to rock music. Earnest, back-to-basics albums by Mumford & Sons and The Black Keys both cracked the year-end Top 10, driven by the same retro engine that powered indie and alt-rock hits like Celebration Rock, Cloud NothingsAttack on Memory, and The Gaslight Anthem’s Handwritten.

A kind of inspired nostalgia seems to be the one thing all of these albums have in common. They didn’t set out to reinvent the wheel, but rather to celebrate rock’s history and reclaim something vital about it. Perhaps none of them qualify as timeless or even great rock records in hindsight, but at least they were culturally, critically, and commercially relevant in the year of their release. At the time, it seemed that nostalgia, however paradoxically, could be the gateway to a bright future for rock ‘n’ roll.

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After all, this had happened before, not so long ago and not so far away from Japandroids’ cozy Airbnb in the East Village. New York City in the early 2000s played host to the first wave of rock revivalists who took their cues from ‘70s and ‘80s post-punk — think The Strokes, Interpol, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Rapture, and so on. “I think you could argue that, all of a sudden, there was an explosion of bands who all seemed to be culling influence-wise from the same melting pot,” says King, reflecting on those New York bands in particular.

He sees the same trend today with bands like Japandroids and Beach Slang and Titus Andronicus, all of whom are obviously indebted to ‘80s punk, particularly The Replacements, but something crucial has changed. Whereas The Strokes, The White Stripes, and all their retro-minded brethren played out their drama in the national spotlight and enjoyed titles like “the saviors of rock ‘n’ roll,” Japandroids and their generation of rock bands have been relegated to a much smaller stage. The critical difference between these two eras of rock revivalism — one wildly successful, the other relegated to the sidelines of pop culture — lies less in the music itself than in the culture that has shifted and evolved around it.

For instance, the album. Rock music has held onto this artifact more stubbornly than nearly every other genre, despite the fact that overall album sales continue to decline at a precipitous rate thanks to the increased popularity of streaming and customizable playlists. Pop, a genre that places its highest priority on the hit single, has adapted to this trend wholeheartedly, as has hip-hop with its proud tradition of mixtapes. Most of the biggest releases of 2016 played fast and loose with the conventional idea of the “album,” whether it was Kanye West endlessly retooling his Life of Pablo, Chance the Rapper releasing his Coloring Book mixtape for free, or Beyoncé releasing her “visual album,” Lemonade, accompanied by a one-hour film aired on HBO.

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When talking to Japandroids and several other rock acts with prominent releases coming up, a different theme begins to emerge. All of these artists seem conceptually tied to a more conservative idea of the album, and many of them get noticeably excited when talking about things like cover art and tracklists. “I don’t know if other bands are like this or not, but we have a tendency to start shaping the sequencing even as we’re still recording the album,” says King. “With this one, we had a pretty clear idea of where certain songs were going to be. ‘Arc of Bar’ was going to open Side B, ‘Near to the Wild Heart of Life’ was going to start the album and so on.”

This kind of talk would sound almost like gibberish to today’s casual music fan, who probably hasn’t ever had to flip a vinyl record over to Side B and almost certainly doesn’t care about what kicks off that side. But those who listen more exclusively to rock do seem to share this persistent fetish with the album, as BuzzAngle Music reports that a staggering 63% of vinyl albums sold in 2016 were from the combined rock genres (rock made up less than 10% of total album consumption — a far less impressive but equally telling figure).

Though King has long stressed over things like the uniformity of Japandroids’ cover art and other album-specific qualities that mean far less in the digital age, he’s not alone. Even young artists like 22-year-old Melina Duterte of Oakland’s Jay Som talk in hushed tones about building the perfect rock record.

“It was important that this one was a traditional debut album,” Duterte says of her forthcoming Everybody Works, careful to distinguish it from the “collection of songs” that was 2016’s Turn Into. “I spent some time thinking about the tracklisting, and that took a pretty long time, just figuring out the flow and the order of songs and also how the art connects to the music. So yeah, I guess I took a more traditional approach.”

While not without artistic merit, at the very least this “traditional approach” symbolizes a disconnect between rock’s focus on the tactile qualities of music and the general public’s increased willingness — preference, even — to engage with music in a less hands-on format. It’s no secret that the current crisis in rock neatly coincides with the rise of Spotify and other streaming services that went online in the early 2010s but have since lapped album downloads and physical sales.

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Of course, rock’s undying marriage to the album isn’t the only thing dragging it further away from the mainstream. There’s also a growing consensus that some of the genre’s most characteristic traits — showboating, reckless debauchery, and a devil-may-care attitude — can now be found in equally potent doses elsewhere on the music spectrum. As for the overblown personalities that hog all the media attention, the raucous Mick Jaggers and brooding Kurt Cobains of yesteryear have given way to controversial pop and hip-hop stars like Kanye West, Taylor Swift, and Justin Bieber.

“I think maybe rock as an attitude has transferred over to other kinds of music,” admits Dylan Baldi, ringleader of the Cleveland-based rock band Cloud Nothings. Baldi’s songs have a tendency to break loose with oceanic waves of distortion, and those on his band’s latest record, Life Without Sound, are no exception. But the gangly, slightly disheveled frontman is himself a perfect example of modern rock’s curious lack of personality. He’s a quiet person when caught off stage, notoriously reticent in interviews and quick to qualify every opinion with a shrugging “…but I could be wrong.” In other words, he’s bizarro Bieber: a walking PR nightmare who goes out of his way not to stir up controversy.

The self-effacing modesty that artists like Baldi and Duterte and Prowse and even King represent is not good for the business of rock ‘n’ roll. As a writer who’s worked on the news side of music media for long enough to know what causes traffic to spike, I can attest to the age-old adage that most publicity is good publicity. Still, the culture surrounding rock has evolved in such a way that artists are encouraged to do everything they can to stay out of the way and let the music speak for itself.

“I think modesty is a trend,” says Baldi when I probe him about why this might be. “In punk and indie rock especially, there’s definitely a trend towards being very aware of privilege and not wanting to seem like you’re going wild or whatever. A lot of the rock bands I know aren’t going on coke-fueled benders for days,” he laughs. “That’s just not what’s happening in the indie rock world anymore.”

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One band that’s still waving the flag for shitty-attitude rock these days is Chicago’s The Orwells, whom I know personally from the night four years ago when they invited a bunch of minors to drink at a DIY show I had organized and nearly got me arrested. “I remember that,” laughs guitarist Matt O’Keefe, who seems good-spirited, if unrepentant, about our prior run-in.

The Orwells have since made a name for themselves nationally by blowing the set of Letterman to smithereens in 2014, getting into fistfights with venue sound technicians, and generally acting with a disregard for decency and personal safety that would make Iggy Pop proud.

The band’s antics — along with their surprisingly mature hooks and manic musical energy, of course — have pushed them to the forefront of the garage rock conversation, but even O’Keefe thinks there’s a ceiling to just how far that scene can take them. On the eve of releasing his band’s third studio album, the wonderfully titled Terrible Human Beings, he admits that rock “feels really boring and really bland” at this particular moment in history.

“There’s nothing exciting,” he argues. “A punk band these days could never be as angsty or as in-your-face as the most pissed-off rap record. No matter what, that album is usually tougher and cooler and more badass than five white kids from some Chicago suburb could ever be. We can keep saying, ‘Ah, I’m pissed off!’ but it falls a little flat. So if that’s what you want, you can get what you need from other types of music.”

O’Keefe’s outlook on Terrible Human Beings isn’t what you’d expect to hear from someone overly confident in the genre. “I think it’s just a good rock record,” he says. “I don’t think it’s going to change the world. I don’t think it’s going to bring rock back into the mainstream or make me rich. I just think it’s a rock record that maybe some people will enjoy.”

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Surveying the current landscape, one gets the impression that most of the rock records people enjoy or feel anything about came out 20, 30, 40, or even 50 years ago. Vinyl may be in the midst of a rock-fueled renaissance, but most of the records people are buying are so-called “deep catalog” titles released over three years ago. Sure, Radiohead and the marginally electro-rock duo Twenty One Pilots scored some of 2016’s highest sellers, but the rest of the year’s Top 25 is populated by the likes of The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, and other rock bands that haven’t existed for decades. While rock listeners continue to favor the genre’s classics over its contemporaries, solo pop and hip-hop artists like Drake and Adele happily smash industry records every year.

The problem and the paradox for rock music isn’t that it’s making no money, but that fans might be mortgaging the genre’s future by investing so many dollars in its past. After all, it’s not as if rock isn’t still an economic powerhouse in terms of live performance. Gross ticket sales from Guns ‘N Roses’ Not in This Lifetime reunion tour exceeded the truly insane figure of $112 million, and that doesn’t even include money made on merch. Bruce Springsteen, Coldplay, and The Rolling Stones also enjoyed some of the highest-grossing tours of 2016, which seems to underline an essential point: People are still paying to hear rock music, but the genre’s veteran royalty are the ones reaping the biggest benefits and cashing the biggest paychecks.

Nostalgia plays a role in this, but so does the simpler comfort of familiarity. Hip-hop’s strong ties to black and youth culture give young listeners a sense of this familiarity, and pop’s hook-based philosophy promotes intimate knowledge of a song after only one or two listens. Rock doesn’t necessarily have these qualities to draw upon, but it does have a deeper catalog of releases spanning several generations and thus a fan base that grew up singing along to many of its classic songs. As time and ticket sales have proven, people respond more positively to songs they already know.

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“It doesn’t matter if you’re Japandroids or Neil Young, that’s just a part of it,” says King, referring to the difficulty of playing new songs to fans that came to shout along to the old ones. “You know, the Stones got a new album that’s about to come out. Can you imagine if the Stones were to come out and be like, ‘Alright, ‘Jumpin Jack Flash’, ‘Brown Sugar’, ‘Satisfaction’ … and here’s one off our new album!’” Fortunately for the Stones and legacy bands of their ilk, they don’t need to fill their set with new songs to sell tickets. Younger and up-and-coming bands don’t have the same luxury, which only serves to widen the interest gap between them and their much richer forebears.

The gap is only widened by the rise of festivals like Desert Trip (aka “Oldchella”), whose organizers deal with the problem of flagging interest with the simple solution of just … not booking younger rock bands. This would all be well and fair if the more youth-oriented megafestivals like Coachella continued to support younger rock artists in their tiny fonts. They aren’t, and therein lies another reason for the genre’s slow demise.

Perpetually chilled-out indie rockers Real Estate were among the few nominally rock bands to earn a spot on Coachella’s lineup this year, and even they recognize that they’re part of a shrinking niche. “It does seem like there are fewer popular artists on festivals doing the type of thing that we’re doing,” says the band’s bassist, Alex Bleeker, and that’s to say nothing of the festival’s near-total erasure of heavier subgenres like punk and metal.

Real Estate, who will soon be releasing their fourth studio album, In Mind, are about the furthest thing from “heavy” on the spectrum of rock ‘n’ roll; in fact, they only really identify as “indie rock” because it’s the path of least resistance.

“It’s just for the sake of sheer convenience,” laughs Bleeker, “but I’m comfortable with that because we do come from a pretty classic lineage of what is considered indie rock. We have some staple influences in that realm with bands like Pavement and Yo La Tengo.” Adds guitarist and songwriter Martin Courtney: “It’s funny, because in the past few years, people have decided that guitar music can all just be put into one box now. Back in the day, you couldn’t do that, because almost every band used guitars.”

When Real Estate play Coachella in April, they’re not expecting a particularly large or engaged audience. The festival has largely shifted away from guitar-driven rock music in recent years, opting to fill its midsection with more pop, hip-hop, and electronic acts that draw young crowds in bigger numbers. As music festivals continue to shift gears to reflect the tastes of the industry at large, rock artists not named Radiohead, Red Hot Chili Peppers, or Arcade Fire are either being blocked out or coming to accept the fact that they occupy a much smaller niche than they once thought.

“What I’m learning is that my corner of the music world is smaller than it even feels like,” says Bleeker. “Even when you think of the big names of indie, like Belle and Sebastian and Sonic Youth, there are probably more people out there who don’t know what we’re talking about.” Like The Orwells’ O’Keefe, he seems to understand that there’s a built-in ceiling for rock artists in 2017. “It feels like this is the only community in which I move through music, and I can only move so high in that culture. And then I try to think about artists who do break through that ceiling, like …” Perhaps tellingly, he can’t think of a single one.

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Few rock artists, however, are willing to commit to any doomsday narrative for the genre.

“I guess it is a little concerning,” admits O’Keefe. “I was making a playlist earlier today and trying to figure out what to put on it, and I don’t think I have a rock song on there that came out in the last five years. So yeah, I don’t know what the deal is with new rock music, but there’s other great stuff coming out right now to fill the void.”

Bleeker agrees, noting that it seems short-sighted to spurn the culture’s gravitation toward more electronic styles of music. “I’m not really interested in this 1970s disco versus rock dichotomy right now because, looking back, there’s some disco that’s really awesome,” he says. “I like electronic music. I think it’s cool that there are so many new and modern ways to make music. When the electric guitar came out, people thought it was this devil instrument. So, I definitely want to be on the right side of history when it comes to considering news ways of making music.”

Adds Baldi: “I don’t think it’s necessarily going to be massively popular like it once was, just because there’s been a shift in culture and a widening of perspective. The thing that’s going to be popular isn’t going to be a bunch of white guys with guitars whining about being upset, and that’s OK. That’s an OK shift by me.”

The notion that rock music is not reflective enough of shifting demographics rings true in two ways. First, there’s the sense that Baldi is referring to — the “white guys whining about being upset” sense. Rock music has historically been the province of white men, and this simply hasn’t changed fast enough to keep up with a more diverse listening population. A Trump presidency notwithstanding, there’s only so far you can go on the backs of white men these days.

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While prominent female and minority artists are still an uncommon sight in the rock mainstream, the good news is that punk and indie rock have begun to realize a far more inclusive vision for what rock can look like in the future. Jay Som’s Duterte, the daughter of Filipino immigrants, recently completed her first national tour alongside Mitski and Japanese Breakfast, two other non-white, non-male artists who put out compelling rock records in the last year.

Thankfully, they’re not just the exception to the rule. Artists ranging from Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz to Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes to Hayley Williams of Paramore have also chipped away at rock’s boys club, while solo rockers like Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen and Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield have joined the growing ranks of indie artists going it alone. Rock still has a lot of catching up to do in this department, but there’s nothing to suggest that it can’t and won’t become more diverse as time goes on.

Rock’s bigger issue, and one that actually does have the potential to sink the genre entirely, lies in a different kind of demographic shift.

“When I was taking audio production classes in high school and community college,” Duterte remembers, “I was one of the only students in there who played acoustic instruments.” The multi-instrumentalist who grew up playing trumpet and taught herself guitar at the age of 12 sees herself as an outlier among her generation of musicians, who are moving away from strings, brass, and live percussion and toward a more digitized means of music production.

“People seem to be a lot more interested in electronic-based programs and synths and beats and stuff,” she says. “I see that happening in front of me all the time, and online you’ve got all the electronic artists on Soundcloud.”

Bleeker notices the same trend, and he openly questions if Real Estate would have ever formed if he and his friends had grown up with all the musical options available to them today. “Kids are now using samplers, they’re using computer programs, they’re using synthesizers, and I wonder if that’s what we would have been doing,” he says. “We definitely learned how to play music with each other every Saturday in each others’ basements, learning Pixies songs and then sort of graduating into more esoteric rock music from there. There weren’t really many kids making electronic music, and if you wanted to play in a band, the most natural and immediate thing to do was to get an electric guitar.”

Back at Japandroids’ Airbnb headquarters, King and Prowse aren’t fretting about the future of rock as their focus is on challenges closer at hand, like charging through a six-pack of beers and preparing themselves mentally for the first of two sold-out shows at Brooklyn’s Knitting Factory. The duo didn’t write a big-picture rock record like Near to the Wild Heart of Life because they’re chasing trends, and they didn’t book a venue like the mid-sized Knitting Factory because they want to play before a sea of faceless people. They’re after a more human connection, the kind they first felt while falling in love with the punk records of their youth.

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“There are going to be kids hopefully in 25 years that discover our records in the same way we discovered those records,” says King. “And that’s going to be a time when music is strictly digital and nobody plays instruments anymore, and they’re going to be like, ‘Oh, it could be cool to go to the pawn shop and get a guitar and get drums.’” He pauses. “It’s not crazy to think that.”

He’s right. It’s not crazy to think that, because the flipside of the digital age is that everything — rock, pop, Siberian opera, you name it — is available to nearly everyone, and some wild-eyed child of the future is bound to stumble upon artists like Japandroids and Cloud Nothings and The Orwells and Real Estate and Jay Som. And her life may just be changed forever.

“I think rock as a genre will always be around,” says Baldi. “With the Internet and the whole erasure of time, I don’t think you can call anything a relic … I just don’t think that term exists anymore. Rock is going to find its own little pocket, and there’s always going to be someone reviving it.” He laughs to himself, then adds his characteristic qualifier.

“But I could be wrong.”

Photography by Ben Kaye, Philip Cosores, and Wei Shi.

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