Friday, January 30, 2009

Where are the rock stars of the 2000s?

There don't seem to be any, as Jon Fine explains in the video clip below:

If you think about rock music -- which was this incredible industry for, I don't know, 30 years -- rock 'n' roll hasn't really minted any kind of massive ... multi-platinum-selling pop-culture superstar since the '90s, I think. The last really big ones have all been hip-hop. The rock bands now that consistently sell platinum generally came from an earlier era -- they're like Green Day or U2. That top level is completely gone.

Now, what you have in its place is you have a much healthier ecosystem in terms of discovering music and finding music, and for that matter nurturing bands on a local level. You know, the indie circuit that I adored in the '80s ... it's a much more accepted thing, as opposed to back then, it was a little more of a secret-handshake thing. ...

There's kind of a cultural impoverishment at the top of the spectrum, but at the bottom, it's just ridiculously healthy.

I agree, especially if we're talking about not just album sales but "rock stars," with the emphasis not on rock but on star. In the '80s, for instance, you had Madonna, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, and others, who didn't just sell tons of records but made a genuine cultural impact in their time.

Does anyone who made it big in this decade (and actually makes good music) even come close? Rufus Wainwright, Regina Spektor, Jenny Lewis (Rilo Kiley), Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie and the Postal Service)? Arcade Fire, the White Stripes, the Strokes? Those may be some of my own personal celebrities of the moment, but I don't know how broadly they resonate out in the world.

As Fine suggests, this is a very different question from how good the music scene is overall. In my opinion, rock/pop/etc. music in the 2000s is probably better overall than in the '90s -- or, for that matter, the '80s or '70s. There's more great music available to me and you, but it's less likely to be made by household names.

Of course, the '60s is better than all those other decades, but we'll never get the opportunity to see so much rock innovation, right? The bands/artists around now are severely disadvantaged by not being able to invent any of the genres that have already been invented. At a certain point, doesn't rock have to run its course?

(Arcade Fire - "Wake Up.")



Justin said...

I'm glad people are interested in this issue. I haven't looked at the video yet, but the decline of good, culturally impactive (?) rock has perplexed and disappointed me.

I wonder if it there are connections to changes in technology and, in a parallel sense, the "decline" of journalism. That is, there are many more channels of information, and the threshold for publishing is very low. This creates a space for more niche markets and reduces the quantity of information and media that practically "everyone" consumes. The the quality of mass media becomes diluted as it seeks to please a wider audience. At the same time, the landscape becomes increasingly fractured as new publishers rise to meet smaller audiences with specific tastes. Identifying a national "culture" -- to the extent that such a thing is possible -- becomes more difficult.

People have said this about journalism (although I may not have captured the thesis perfectly). Could the same apply to rock? In other words, does the decline of large distribution, high quality journalism and the rise of blogging parallel the decline of rock stars and the rise of lesser known, but high quality indie rock?

I haven't heard anyone say this, but I doubt it's a novel idea. It feels true to me, although I'm open to other explanations.

Media mergers surely have something to do with it, too. That is, the more that music distribution is controlled, the less responsive it is too cultural needs and the creators who can meet those needs.

One Fine Jay said...

Funny how no one gives the pop-punk genre any respect, and yet there are high-selling bands who get sold-out crowd after sold-out crowd when on tour. So what if they're not "original," when their music speaks to its listeners, yes?

Also I think that the proliferation of publicity channels and the ease with which a band can produce their work decentralizes "power" among artists by enlarging the pond into an ocean. Sure, somewhere out there someone with as much talent, skill and originality as Clapton is playing his guitar. He probably has a loyal following, but today's media environment prevents him from gaining monolithic status.

The age of Rock Gods is over, though Rock never will.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Justin: Great points, and I recommend watching the whole diavlog. Only a few minutes of it is about music -- most of it's about the (apparent) decline of journalism, and also books. So I think they were aware of the broader phenomena these trends seem to have in common.

Anonymous said...

Both Jimmy Hendrix and Janis Joplin eschewed the rock label. They wanted to be known as bluegrass and folk singers.

Rock isn't really a concrete, definitive classification at all. It's similar to jazz in that it's not just one thing, but rather a hybrid, and derivative of many different genres that came before it.

Today, I don't even think "rock-n-roll" exists, and certainly not like what was available during the Hendrix/Joplin area and beyond.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Both Jimmy Hendrix and Janis Joplin eschewed the rock label. They wanted to be known as bluegrass and folk singers.

If Jimi Hendrix said he played bluegrass rather than rock, then he was wrong. I take what musicians say about themselves with a grain of salt.

Today, I don't even think "rock-n-roll" exists,

I think there's a lot of truth to that. That's why I referred to "rock/pop/etc.," and why I said that when I say "rock star" I mean to emphasize the "star" rather than the "rock." I wish there were a single term that conveyed what I mean by "rock/pop/etc."

verlaine said...

It's amazing how many big stars cling to the rock label and totally disregard/disavow their pop following, which obviously pays their bills.

Stevie Nicks refuses to label herself anything but a rock-n-roll artist even though many of her biggest hits are ballads.

Tina Turner is an odd case. I've heard her in interviews cling to the rock-n-roll label so adamantly, to the point of completely rejecting the 'soul/r&b' description, even though that's exactly where her albums are shelved at record stores.

If you've ever listened to the Stones 'Tattoo You' album, I don't know how anybody could classify that as anything but Adult Contemporary, but don't tell Mick Jagger that !

Ann Althouse said...

Maybe the 60s were great because the bands had a garage-y mentality. I remember the punk banks of the 70s scorning the "dinosaur rock" groups like Led Zeppelin that dominated on the radio. In this view, the very grand groups were a bad thing, not a good thing. Maybe the present era will be looked back on as brilliantly fertile.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

These comments have mostly dealt with external forces such as the economics of the media or the views of fans. Those are all excellent points, and I wonder if the attitudes of the musicians themselves may also play a part. It seems to me that indie musicians go out of their way not to appear charismatic, at least judging by their photographs. Who would recognize Panda Bear if they saw him on the street, much less swoon and shriek over him? In contrast with, say, Bono. Musicians today look like their audiences, which I think is a good thing; it's the humility of a serious artist. Forty years ago, rock musicians looked different from their audiences in that the musicians were freakier; you would have stared at the Grateful Dead if you saw them on the street even if you didn't know they were a rock band. (I had that experience once.) Today everyone looks the same.

John Althouse Cohen said...

There's some of that, but how much of rock stardom is really based on looking different from most people? I thought the whole point of Bruce Springsteen and Kurt Cobain and a lot of other rock stars is that they seem like ordinary people. Also, my first example from the post, Rufus Wainwright, is totally flamboyant.

Hasn't there always been a tension in rock fashion between flamboyantly dressing up and putting on a show vs. dressing in jeans & t-shirt and acting like you don't care? Maybe there's been a mild trend toward the latter (though I'm not even convinced of that, compared with the grunge era of the '90s, which for purposes of this discussion is the distant past), but I don't see this as a major factor.

John Althouse Cohen said...

A couple other things:

- Jenny Lewis certainly has enough charm and charisma to be a star. (In fact, she was a child star before her music career.) She's as emblematic of '00s rock as anyone.

- That brings up another point, which is that I don't think it's very convincing to analyze any of this in terms of the specific bands and artists who happen to be around in any particular time period. If the music industry wants to find people making music who are sufficiently attractive and charismatic, and dress them up in flashy clothing, it can do so. The reason that, say, glam metal bands have gone away isn't that there happens to be a drought of musicians capable of playing that music and acting like that -- it's about demand. The consumers don't want it anymore.

This has an odd parallel to conservatives who diagnose the Republican party's problems by saying: "Bush betrayed the party's small government principles!" But just pointing out the fact that he did that is missing the point: WHY did he do that? It wasn't some random decision, and it's not that he was incapable of doing anything else. It's because that's what people want. People don't want small government. Likewise, if the American consumer had some kind of unfulfilled longing to spend lots of cash on rock stars who dress in boas and colorful hats, the solution for bands and record labels would be really simple -- just go down to Electric Ladyland in Austin, TX and buy some.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

And Dylan has done exactly that -- go to Electric Ladyland, that is. But I think of Cobain and his coevals in the early 90s as the beginning of the trend for rock stars to look humdrum and anonymous. (Cobain no longer looks anonymous, because he's become an icon, but in terms of sheer appearance he could be anyone standing at the bus station.) We could go back earlier, for instance to REM. How recognizable is Michael Stipe? He's worth zillions of dollars, but if he were looking at the same picture as you in the Metropolitan Museum, he'd be just another sophisticated guy.

The question of what the public wants is a two-edged one. If listeners today want rock musicians who look like regular people, I think that's great. But as with R. Wainwright, they would be drawn toward a charismatic star presence if given the chance. (I'm not saying that would be a good thing.) The industry does go to great lengths today to build up charismatic pop stars, but not in the indie genre. This is valuable as a genre marker and perhaps valuable in keeping the genre from becoming debased, but it probably limits their appeal too.

Meanwhile, it's true that there's always been a tension between these two ways of being a rock star. Outlandish as the Dead seemed in their time, they never dressed up for a concert; they just stumbled onstage in whatever they were wearing. Meanwhile, a star as minor as Little Steven dresses up in bandanas and jewelry just to pick up a quart of milk; "Being a rock star is a full-time job," he has said. While his sometime employer, Bruce, tries to look ordinary. So you're right, it's a mixed picture.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Oh, I just noticed the link I gave in the above comment on the word "charisma" doesn't work anymore, and I can't fix it -- sorry. It was the video for Rilo Kiley's "Portions for Foxes." But now it's set to "private," and it seems like all the official Rilo Kiley videos have been taken off YouTube. And what's particularly ridiculous is if you go to Rilo Kiley's website and go to the big section marked "VIDEO," what do you think are there? YouTube clips! But they don't work! So now their own website doesn't work to promote themselves. That speaks volumes about people's futile attempt to regulate content on the internet. Their loss.