In a recent interview with Noisey, Brandon Flowers, frontman of the Killers, said that new rock bands haven’t been achieving widespread popularity in recent times because “there hasn’t been anybody good enough.
I submit that he’s in need of perspective, just as I was ten years ago “dancing” to Mr. Brightside at Lottie’s with my sixth White Russian sloshing in hand.
The Killers released their debut album in 2004, and international fame soon followed, but pop charts since then have made it abundantly clear that this band was among the last in pop-rock to follow a trajectory to commercial success that has, in the ensuing decade, become nearly impossible to replicate.
Mainstream popular music has been shifting focus away from rock bands (as traditionally conceived) for years now, and while the odd band like the Killers or Kings of Leon might, through some combination of luck, nostalgia, and mass palatability bubble up to the surface, there are fewer all the time.
This however is not because the bands that don’t “make it” aren’t good enough, it’s because the traditional mould of what a rock band is, and should sound like, has become hopelessly stale. Sonically and aesthetically, yes, but also in gender and race – it doesn’t take a radical leftist to point out the history of rock as very male and very white.
To my ears, most any group attempting to fit the old mould of a successful rock band with the aim of hitting the big time is typically working through imitation, and shooting for a big time that probably doesn’t exist. That doesn’t stop many from trying, though, and hearing them slog away at the tired old tropes, you’d be forgiven for pronouncing rock a musical corpse.
But Flowers, along with countless op-ed’s over the years striking the death knoll of rock and roll, all fail to perceive a crucial element of rock’s break with mainstream relevancy: this is a death in the service of renewal. It’s an overdue surrendering of the spotlight following an absurdly long starring role in pop culture – an arena so fickle and restless it’s amazing it lingered as long as it did.
So those players who know what’s best for it have taken rock to the fringes, the very best place for its health. Safely back underground, fresh voices with new ideas are, in their obscurity, free to inject it with all their creative splendour, freed from the stifling luxury and scrutiny of rock stardom.
Accordingly, the underground is flush with vital sounds, and thankfully, more and more women and trans folk are leading the way. It’s still rather white, but we’re getting there. You won’t hear them on pop radio and their videos aren’t receiving tens of millions of views on YouTube, but the bands are out there. On tour and small labels, Bandcamp and blogs, dive bars and basements, house shows and sheds – there they are, back in their element.
Rock after all has long been making its way underground. The late 70s and 80s saw new wave, punk, metal, and alternative fragment into a thousand indie sub-genres and micro-movements, all with their devoted niches. Then came the Internet and the micro became the nano.
But numbers are besides the point, because that which has drawn people to this music since its inception remains a constant. I know this because I go out in St. John’s to see Family Video, and Ribbon Tied, and Hard Ticket and I feel it, and don’t doubt the same can be done in most any local scene around the world.
Every genre has its sweet spot, and you know it when you hear it. That frenetic resonance unique to good rock holds for those who attune to it a power to move like no other. It could no sooner “die” than any other vibration – it’s just a matter of striking it and sounding out. The point is to find the vibration that resonates, wherever it lies; just don’t expect it’ll look and sound like it used to, or that you’ll come across it without doing some digging.
Today’s good rock no longer comes to find you, but it’s only too glad for you to come find it. Rock on and roll forth.
Note: a list of my personal favourite active rock band swould’ve eaten up too much word count, but if any non-believers are interested, shoot me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I’ll send one along.