If rock is “the new jazz,” then I blame The Strokes
The NY Times recently published an op-ed on the aging of rock music as a genre and of its first generation of musicians (specifically the ones who played "Oldchella"). It included the following claim:
Rock is now where jazz was in the early 1980s. Its form is mostly fixed. From Louis Armstrong in the 1920s to Duke Ellington in the ’30s to Charlie Parker in the ’50s to Miles Davis in the ’60s, jazz evolved at superspeed and never looked over its shoulder.
In the early 1980s, it began slowing down and looking back... [It] moved into Lincoln Center, established a repertoire and assumed its place as “American classical music.”
This is a theory that I've seen thrown around a few times over the past few years. In 2012, PopMatters ran an article simply titled "Rock Is the New Jazz. Sorry, Rock."
It's easy to understand why people feel this way. New rock bands very rarely top charts, headline festivals, or get played on (non-satellite) radio. In those places, you're more likely to find rap, R&B, and EDM, genres that are still moving forward at a rapid pace, while maintaining a large fanbase. Do you miss how quickly the world of popular music went from Sgt. Pepper's to Tommy to Dark Side of the Moon? That still happens all the time, only now it's 808s & Heartbreak to Take Care to Lemonade. The constant pushing forward, (mostly) friendly competition between artists, and the need to latch on to or establish a new sound are all alive and well amongst rap and R&B artists. For rock music, as the author of that Times op-ed suggested, "A popular new rock band [tends] to sound a lot like beloved old rock bands."
Rock doesn't seem ready to become "American classical music" just yet though. Plenty of rock musicians are still finding ways to push music forward -- that Times piece mentions Bjork, PJ Harvey and St Vincent as examples of rock musicians who are innovative but only rewarded with critical acclaim or cult followings rather than culture dominance, and there's plenty more where they came from -- so rock's "jazz phase" isn't really the fault of the musicians. It's the fault of us -- fans and critics -- for applauding new rock bands that sound like old rock bands. Giving high praise to backwards-looking rock bands has become so commonplace over the past 15 years, and I blame it on The Strokes' 2001 album Is This It.
There's not much wrong with Is This It as an album; it's a perfectly fine homage to The Velvet Underground and Television, free of any of VU's atonality or Television's extended jams, so the radio could play it. And it wasn't the only backwards-looking rock album to get noticed at the time -- The White Stripes put out White Blood Cells a few weeks earlier. The real issue is the way it was hyped as rock’s salvation, a hype that continues to this day. In 2013, NME called it the fourth best album of ALL TIME, only behind The Smiths, The Beatles, and Bowie. It even loses out to VU and Television, and, you know, literally every other artist ever. Rolling Stone's 2012 update of their '500 Greatest Albums of All Time' list has it at #199, making it the third most recent album in top 200, only behind Arcade Fire and Kanye West. The Guardian ranked it at #4 of the 2000s, Billboard at #3, and Pitchfork at #7. How can we give this much significance to an album that merely imitates and waters down the significant records of the past? When The Strokes were hailed as rock saviors in 2001, it set the precedent that "saving rock" was synonymous with "sounding a lot like beloved old rock bands."
It's harder than ever to figure out two things: 1) Why anyone thought rock needed saving in 2001, and 2) Why anyone thought The Strokes were the ones doing it. That was the same year that less critically-adored but more groundbreaking albums were released by System of a Down (Toxicity), Thursday (Full Collapse), Jimmy Eat World (Bleed American), and Tool (Lateralus), to name a few. Those four albums may have suffered for being less fashionable than Is This It, but not because they were less original. (Not to mention, 2001 brought us landmark records from Converge, Neurosis, Envy and pg.99 that, although surely too harsh-sounding to ever reach culture dominance, were more innovative examples of guitar-oriented rock music than The Strokes.)
Toxicity put hardcore's fury, nu metal's widespread appeal, and a serious dose of weirdness into basically every song. There's still hardly a record before or since that truly sounds like it. Full Collapse managed to add melody to the previous decade's screamo and post-hardcore without turning it into the sugar-coated pop punk that was already blowing up at the time. Bleed American, while not Jimmy Eat World's most groundbreaking album (that would be 1999's Clarity), was the breakthrough that emo (and Jimmy Eat World) had been building towards for the second half of the '90s. (It also helped position Weezer as an influential emo band.) Lateralus, which came almost a decade after Tool helped shape '90s alt-metal, was like the middle ground between OK Computer and Headbanger's Ball. I'm not suggesting those albums didn't get their fair share of good reviews, and I'm certainly not suggesting that they weren't popular. But their legacy certainly isn't reinforced like Is This It's is.
Is This It opened the doors for an entire generation of rock bands to regurgitate the sounds of '60s garage rock and late '70s/early '80s post-punk and get really popular doing so. Interpol, Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, The Libertines, Kings of Leon, The Killers, The Kooks, The Futureheads and a number of other bands built careers off of the groundwork laid by Is This It. Most of these bands made good to great music, but ultimately their careers reinforced not only that new rock bands should copy old rock bands (I leave Arctic Monkeys off that list, as they're maybe the one band to come out of the garage rock revival and go on to make genuinely creative music), but which kinds of records they should copy (i.e., the records that already exist on those 'best of all time' lists). It's right there in some of today's most acclaimed bands: Parquet Courts channel the same New York cool that The Strokes did (with maybe some Sonic Youth here and some The Fall there). Savages take from Joy Division the same way Interpol took from Joy Division. The '70s soft rock revival remains at a high this year, with Whitney, Kevin Morby, and their ilk. The indie cliche "sounds like Pavement" has been slapped several times on one of 2016's biggest indie rock breakouts, Car Seat Headrest. There are probably more shoegaze bands now than there were in the '90s, but there are still no better records than Loveless, Nowhere and Souvlaki... and the bands who wrote those records all currently tour and/or release new music. Even today's most thrilling garage rock bands (probably Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees) can't alter a musical climate that already has Nuggets. The year's more unique rock records either came from long-established artists (Bowie, Nick Cave, Radiohead) or artists favoring electronics over guitars (Bon Iver, ANOHNI), but none of those records really rock.
Rock fans, like any other people, will often embrace the familiar -- surely jazz fans in the '80s enjoyed plenty of then-modern jazz -- but if we want rock to stick it out a little longer before becoming "the new jazz," the widespread complacency with looking backwards has to end. We could really take some notes from what's going on in rap and R&B. When a promising Nas soundalike comes along, he might gain himself a little niche audience. But the rap-listening public is much quicker to jump on a young Chicago kid infusing post-Kanye rap with gospel music. Because it's something new, and because it's something a new generation can call their own.
Imagine if the (non-genre specific) mainstream music media rallied behind Toxicity and Lateralus over the course of the past 15 years the way it still rallies behind Is This It. Maybe we wouldn't wonder about things like why there will never be another metal band as big as Metallica because the idea of a mainstream metal band wouldn't feel so weird. One of the more unique and unprecedented but under the radar rock records of the year is Kvelertak's Nattesferd, which is certainly a metal album but a very poppy one. It feels futile to suggest that Kvelertak could achieve Chance the Rapper levels of culture dominance, but not because kids don't (or wouldn't) like them.
Or imagine if Full Collapse and Bleed American got the Is This It treatment, causing post-hardcore and emo to be treated like garage rock and post-punk. Maybe today, music magazines, festivals, and radio stations would be competing to get behind The World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die, a highly accessible but innovative rock band who have almost no true precedent in the rock canon... or really anywhere else.
You don't need to stick to 2001 to find moments where rock could've started an alternate history; the previous decade was full of them. Deftones released the highly inventive White Pony in 2000, and they're making better music today than The Strokes and most bands The Strokes influenced. Brand New put out The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me in 2006 (it turned 10 years old this month), and that album is at least as influential on rock as Is This It, and a total anomaly within the genre. These days, as I've mentioned, Brand New get treated by fans like Radiohead, but still haven't been canonized. Even bands who were critically adored like Modest Mouse and Wolf Parade had new ideas for rock music, but the only band of that variety to get true success was Arcade Fire. (Clearly Arcade Fire spawned tons of copycats, but those bands mostly took the “whoas” and the old-timey instrumentation and were backwards-looking in their own way.)
Rock is very alive and has so many new directions it can go in. We — the media, the record stores, the festivals, the radio, the fans on Twitter, etc — need to get behind the bands with new ideas and lay off the ones borrowing old ones.