Coachella might suggest that rock is dead, but that is far from the truth
Here's why the poor performance of rock acts at this year's Coachella is not reason enough to declare that rock is dead yet again.
Back in January, when Coachella 2018 released its grandiose line-up, we ranted about everything that was wrong with this year's lineup. For the first time ever, none of the headliners (Beyonce, The Weeknd and Eminem) were even remotely close to a rock act. But we remained hopeful back then, defiantly saying that rock is not dead - it's just buried in the fine print.
Indeed, while the bigger billings of the year did lean towards more hip-hop and pop-friendly acts, there still was a fair share of acts that fit under the massive umbrella of the rock genre. Buried in the smallest font in the billing were up-and-coming stars like Greta Van Fleet, Alvvays, Rolling Blackout Coastal Fever, X Japan and Django Django.
More popular rock acts like St. Vincent, The War on Drugs, Fleet Foxes, David Byrne, Alt-J, Fleet Foxes and (strangely enough) A Perfect Circle all found themselves in the second-row billing under the headliners. Of course, the biggest slots were given to the LA sister-trio HAIM and the Alaskan crossover outfit Portugal. the Man, and considering the fact that these two acts are almost at the fringe where rock meets pop, the message was very clear from the get-go that 2018 marks the year where rock music finally finds itself on the back-burner.
Now that the first weekend of Coachella is behind us (April 13 - 15), the Internet is flooded with claims that 'rock is dead' at Coachella. From festival attendees to media publications, the opinion is unanimous. And one can see why that is so. Even if you didn't attend the festival personally, just a glimpse of the four channels on Coachella's live stream would be enough to show that the hip-hop acts and even the EDM acts drew crowds that were considerably larger as compared to the rock-centric acts.
As Uproxx rightly pointed out, going to Coachella this year seeking a rock experience is 'a lot like swimming upstream'. It was even literally the case at times, as the road to rock often featured a swarm of bodies headed the other way. But that didn't mean that the rock acts didn't score some sweet slots. The War On Drugs scored an Outdoor Theatre slot just as the sun was setting, while St. Vincent and Fleet Foxes played that same stage after dark. In fact, that stage was the home for many of the biggest rock bands on this year’s bill, which also included a stage-closing Sunday night set from prog-gods A Perfect Circle and a sunset slot for rock legend and ex-Talking Heads frontman David Byrne.
But the response to these sets was lukewarm, to say the least. Even the tightly choreographed performance of Byrne and the larger than life sound of A Perfect Circle - who often sell out stadiums on tour - couldn't draw a decent audience at the festival. This was largely because of clashing time slots. A Perfect Circle had to compete with Migos and Eminem. Even seasoned rock fans would understandably be curious to check out Slim Shady on the main stage or artist-of-the-moment Migos.
Even Portugal. the Man and HAIM (who got the coveted spot to open for Beyonce), the biggest rock billings of the weekend couldn't do the trick and it might be said with some certainty that no band of their ilk could have done any better. Although Portugal. the Man did draw a decent crowd, you could see that the fans were not really into the entire set and were mostly waiting around for the hits. That was evident when the band (who were to be followed by electronic duo Odesza) decided to display a message across the backdrop that read "If you’re here for Odesza, you’re early."
Over the years, the festival has been transitioning slowly away from its early alternative, indie rock days. It could be seen in 2017 when even a Radiohead appearance failed to capture the massive crowd you’d expect out of a headliner. So it's not really a surprise to see the whole 'rock is dead' quip resurfacing. But truth be told, Coachella really does not represent the overarching global scene that rock finds itself in today.
The funny part is, every few years we get to see a sudden resurgence of the 'rock is dead' mantra. In the 80s, they said MTV killed rock with its love for all things glam and pop. A couple of years later, rock died again because white suburban kids finally started accepting hip-hop in their never-ending quest to be cool! Then in 1994, rock died again (or should we say killed itself) with the suicide of Kurt Cobain. Rock died again with the emergence of the huge wave of boy bands in the mid 90s. The riots at Woodstock were to be portrayed as the last struggle for rock to stay alive. Then finally in the 2000's rock was proclaimed resurrected thanks to The Strokes and Radiohead. But then some argued that Radiohead's sound had transcended the rock genre and that The Strokes were derivative so rock was indeed dead as a doornail.
Even in the very early days, rock was proclaimed dead as it transitioned from the wild-eyed innocence of the 50s rock-n-roll to the drug-fueled self-indulgence of the 60s psychedelic rock. A sentiment that was echoed by folk singer Don McLean in his song 'American Pie' which coined the phrase "the day the music died" in reference to the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper in 1959. That's nearly 60 years ago. Apparently, rock died just moments after it was born!
Is rock a soap opera star or WWE's The Undertaker to keep coming back from the dead over and over again? Pardon the cringe-worthy analogy, but it looks like rock has been resurrected as many times as it has died. The problem, as I see it is the yardstick by which it keeps being declared dead or alive - numbers, sales and popularity.
If numbers and popularity are the only factors that determine if a genre is dead or not, why don't we question if Western classical music is dead? Or drum and bass? Or World music? Or any other genre for that matter? The truth is that rock is as much alive and kicking today as it was three decades ago. Sure, the genre of rock (or at least the more traditional, classic definition of the genre) has disappeared from the global spotlight. In the 70s, heavyweight arenas playing bands like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd were in the center of public consciousness. They were on the radio all the time and back then radio was the primary tastemaker in the music world. Those days are surely gone.
Today, the streaming era has clearly chosen its favorites to be hip-hop. The genre has made leaps and bounds, selling the highest number of records, getting the most downloads and streams as compared to any other genre and showing exponential growth in numbers. Kendrick Lamar recently won the Pulitzer Prize for Music. That should be solid enough evidence to prove that hip-hop has now taken the spot that rock owned a few decades ago. But just because rock music is not popular music anymore, doesn't mean it's any less relevant.
One problem that should be pointed here is that of genres and sub-genres. Over the years, rock acts have undergone constant evolution, changing the sound by incorporating more and more elements of contemporary times to keep things fresh. Today there are some hundred odd sub-genres within rock. Acid rock, math rock, post-rock, garage rock, rap metal, pop rock, nu metal, shoegaze, prog-rock, djent... the list is endless. And those that don't fit into any of the boxes are often just thrown into the all-encompassing field of 'alternative rock' or God forbid, the even vaguer 'art rock'.
'Rock' is a good name for the genre because it is indeed like a giant boulder. Every time a definitive sound within the horizon of rock is fleshed out and sculpted to perfection, it's as if it breaks away from the big boulder and forms an independent entity by itself. A good example of this is metal music. Would we now dare to classify bands like Opeth, Lamb of God, In Flames or Periphery as merely rock? Surely not.
The fact is, in spite of dwindling numbers in sales compared to other more popular genres of today, Rock still remains one of the most accessible and inclusive genres of our times. Rock bands have proven to be amazingly resilient as the music industry has reverted — as it always does under economic pressure — to a pop-centric focus. One only has to do a basic search on Bandcamp to find literally thousands of rock bands that have taken it upon themselves to distribute their music directly to fans. And those fans, in turn, have started up their own websites to cover punk, emo, and metal acts in spite of mainstream media indifference, and even established DIY music venues to host live performances for kids who can’t afford to attend expensive music festivals like Coachella and Lollapalooza.
The image of rock has also changed significantly. It has shed its image of a male-dominated scene that was often associated with drugs and danger. Rock shows today are becoming increasingly safer for all kinds of people to gather, where beefy guys who just want to mosh are no longer tolerated if they can’t make room for women. This inclusive attitude is reflected well in the best up-and-coming rock acts of the day, which often feature women and people of color, as well as lesbian, gay, and transgender musicians. And the best part is that a lot of these bands are young — some of them are just a few years out of high school, and they epitomize the younger generation’s values. Just look at Greta Van Fleet, a bunch of 21-year-olds from a small town in Michigan who have suddenly come to be seen as the new Led Zeppelin, polarizing rock audiences everywhere, but making some serious vibes nonetheless. Thankfully, even Coachella recognized their talent and gave them a gracious spot to showcase their talent.
So all things said and done, the fact remains that all music has its own time and place, its own cultural and historical significance. It's not a competition between genres. What was considered rock 20 years ago is different from what is considered rock today and the rock music of today won't cut it for future generations (who will surely declare rock to be dead once again!) But it is important to recognize the fact that rock, like any other form of music, is not just another nostalgic phase in history, but a constantly morphing, shape-shifting concept that will endure the test of time.
So the next time you hear that rock has died yet again, don't worry. It just means that the genre has pushed its boundaries again to the limits and is poised at the cusp of something new and exciting that will continue to thrill fans for generations to come.