Rock Rolls On. Or Not… Part 2

sir-rocknuts-500Last week’s bold suggestion in this space that rock might have stopped evolving at the turn of the century was met with equal parts scorn and affirmation. The “Scorn Group” either disagreed (it’s allowed…) or missed the key stated point; repeating a mantra that “There is a lot of great new groups and great new music and Sir Rocknuts is an idiot”. I will readily stipulate to at least the first two points.

In fact, I made those points myself. I love a lot of music that was produced post-2000. I just don’t think it changed the arc of rock or evolved the idiom. Think back: When you first heard the shrieks of Jimi’s Hendrix’s guitar, you were changed forever, musically. Or when the Clash (or Ramones or Stooges or MC5) got in your face with three strident chords, rock was altered somehow. And how about when Kurt Cobain raged on “Smells Like Teen Spirit”? The genie was never going back into the bottle.

In an effort to continue my “research” and to try to find that seismic-changing new music that would also change my mind, I entertained a lot of submissions from rock hounds who wanted to make a point. Or two. One, infrequent contributor “Adam’s Here”, said I just wasn’t listening in the right places. He attached a list of great new groups and once I took out the 10% I actually knew and listened to, I was left with:

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Hospitality Real Estate Purity Ring
Passion Pit Bastille Lemon Jelly
Crazy Penis Ásgeir Plushgun
Warpaint Suuns Phantogram
Haim Kodaline Tennis
The Antlers Kitten London Grammar
Broods Jungle Sylvan Esso
Panda Bear of Montreal OK GO
The 1975 Alvvays Toro y Moi
The Jungle Giants Sw/mm/ng Blockhead
John Kennedy The Naked & Famous Flume
Pilote Wye Oak Beach House
Houses Bear in Heaven Cloud Control
Glass Animals Mr. Little Jeans Yacht
Alpine Melody’s Echo Chamber Ex Hex
Mogwai Future Islands Pictureplane
Yellow Ostrich Temples Tanlines
Fun. JigGsaw Snakadaktal
Super Numeri Phoenix The DoDos
Frankie Rose Young the Giant Pomegranates
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart    

Whew. I don’t know if this proves or disproves my point. Is anyone on that list elevating rock or changing your world musically? Is there a Tom Petty or a Boss or a Jim Morrison or a Nine Inch Nails in there somewhere?

I am still searching for the group or the music that will emerge and shift the way we look at our beloved rock music. We can only hope…

We asked our regular feature columnists to weigh in last week to opine on the thesis: Is rock still evolving?

The least reverent Jordan Posner listed as a possibility that “Rock is evolving, but it is evolving into something awful”. He went on to muse that “I am hoping that there is still going to be new shit to write about because otherwise I’d be out of a job.”

Newer scribe – and one listing toward the more historical – Christopher Tahy opined, “It kills me to say it, but I believe that rock n roll has stopped evolving. Listening to my swath of artists over the years and the best genre tag I get it post-this and neo-that.”

Our almost-famous Rocknuts columnist, Rich Karfilis considered my conclusion in a column entitled “Sweeping Rock Trends Taker Longer to Materialize in the Digital Age”, an excellent refutation of some of my posits. Rich said:

“I would argue that the most significant change in Rock over the past 20 years hasn’t been at the creative end, it has been at the consumer end. The way recorded rock music is delivered has changed drastically since the days when grunge was king, and I would argue that the internet has actually worked against the widespread popularity of a new stylistic trend like grunge.

“Back in the early 1990s, you had to either listen to the radio (or watch MTV) to discover new music. It was so much easier for sweeping Rock trends to develop when there were so few sources to listen to rock. Today we have hundreds of thousands of sources for our music. The creativity of rock musicians is exploding off in all directions like never before. But not enough people are following any one new style to create a significant trend.”

Point taken, Rich. I have often said that the fact that there are so many new ways to listen to music (or so many new peripherals such as speakers and headphones and the like), doesn’t make the music any better. And dressing up the music doesn’t improve the quality either. But Rich is right in that trends need mass and it is harder to trend-spot in today’s internet environment.

And I don’t want to be dismissive of a number of sub-genres that had traction after 2000 such as emo, an emotional form of indie that appealed to the over-wrought set (think Dashboard Confessional and Bright Eyes or even The Fray). Also, heavy metal and hardcore seems to have progressed through their own sub-genre evolution; and the rest of the “new music”? To me, it still feels like variations on a theme. And that theme feels like it is largely club/dance music or dubstep or some form of play-it-live drum machine rhythm stuff.

And, finally, columnist Kate Patrick took direct issue with my overall assertion by posting, “While Sir Rocknuts’ opinion is well-informed and steeped in deep research, he fails to explain some new genres from the 2000s and 2010s that pledge allegiance to the rock genre.”

I appreciate the prefatory deference Kate and I went looking to drill deeper into some of the last “evolved” examples I listed in my previous column. What might be the trendiest of the new trends, you ask?

  • Witch house
  • Seapunk
  • Vaporwave
  • Soft grunge
  • Health goth

I searched for critical reviews that better understood these new musical forms – understood better than me, that is – and came across “High Snobiety”, an expert critic in these remote realms. Snobiety considers (much as Rich pointed out) that the new musical sub-cultures is internet-driven and remarked intriguingly:

“As the image-sharing capabilities of the web have improved, some of the most noteworthy subcultural movements of recent years have been pushed into the limelight. Often driven by a vanguard community of individuals keen to fetishize specific elements of art, music, fashion and popular culture – notoriously through social media platforms like Tumblr and Facebook – these fledgling collectives frequently find themselves snowballing into a full-blown force majeure by a trend-obsessed society ever-hungry to be fed the ‘hottest new thing.’”

Let’s look then at what the kids are looking at and get brought up to date:

Witch house is described as “Codeine-gurgled lyrics and hellish Top 40 pop samplings”. It also is similar to cutting edge genres such as drag, zombie rave and rape gaze with artists like †‡†, oOoOO, ∆AIMON. Hard to describe and hard to pronounce. The music is dark soundscapes but mostly obtuse tune-age with a steady thudding beat. The preferred costumes are ankhs and pentagram necklaces, and limbs embellished with a variety of occult and Egyptological symbol tattoos.

Witch house occupants ready to party

Witch house occupants ready to party

Seapunk emerged from the Twittersphere as a devolved form of house or dubstep.  Perhaps the most notable appropriation, however, came as various pop musicians shoehorned the movement’s trippy, nautical aesthetic into their own performances and music videos (see Rihanna’ s 2012 SNL gig or Azealia Banks’s “Atlantis”).

Seapunk comes to dry land

Seapunk comes to dry land

Vaporwave? The subgenre typically relies on the clichéd sonic ephemera of the ’80s and ’90s (think elevator music, late-night infomercials, or even “call waiting” soundtracks) as a means to parody hyper-capitalism while simultaneously fetishizing many of its artifacts. As such, Vaporwave has been described as everything from “post-elevator music” to “corporate smooth jazz Windows 95 pop,” with its chopped-and-screwed layering and spacey hyper-glassine sound highlighting a sense of soulless techno-corporatism. Ahem…

Soft grunge – Coming straight from Tumblr references and mutating traditional grunge with much greater vanity and posed disinterest, trend conscious girl lead singers distort this to a new sub-sub-genre. High Snobiety: “Place ’90s grunge through a Tumblr-powered centrifuge, sift and bake the remaining dregs in an Easy-Bake Oven, sprinkle on some ennui, and out comes its contemporary, pastel-hued, Lolita-baiting counterpart”.

Health goth – My personal “favorite” example because there is very little actual music in this musical genre (hey – if you are going straight for hip culture, why bother with the distraction of music at all?). Health goth landed second place in the most Googled fashion trends of 2014. “Now parodied, plagiarized and plucked from its cyber-generated petri dish by mainstream media outlets, health goth has gone from being a niche community of abstract art enthusiasts to a full-blown fashion trend.”

Parodied so soon? Un-hip so fast?

Health goth trods the fashion boards

Health goth trods the fashion boards

And so it goes with the warp-speed new genres of “rock”. Whew. It’s heavy lifting trying to force-fit these edgy brands into any theory of rock music whatsoever but if you are following what’s edgy with the kids who are edgy, then there you have it. And my thesis that there isn’t solid evidence that rock is creating new forms, well, that thesis lives on.

All I know is that much of this new music seems fashion-forward and musically-backward. Not that it is bad, just that it relies on old forms to create so-called new forms. Or maybe it is ALL form and no substance. Or “all fashion and no sound”. All hat and no cattle?

Or as Shakespeare might have said it:

“It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

I will cop to being the idiot. (See my introductory preface…) But is the new music “signifying nothing”? In terms of moving rock on to a higher plateau, I say that’s the unavoidable conclusion here.

There. I said it.


4 comments to “Rock Rolls On. Or Not… Part 2”
  1. I’d be lying if I said I weren’t intrigued by “Witch house.”

    Let’s also keep in mind that with someone like Hendrix, we have literally 50 years of hind-sight in which to inflate his image.

    Of course it seems revolutionary, because we know what came after it. The people that witnessed the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand didn’t know they were watching the beginning of World War I. The historical context came later. All they thought at the time was “bummer.”

    I guess what I’m saying is that we don’t really know how influential this modern crop of bands is going to be.

    If I may be ultra-reverent: excellent topic of discussion. It certainly got me all riled up.

  2. Does it really take much to “get you riled up”? If you hear “Purple Haze” or “Foxy Lady” for the first time and then segue over to Witch House tunes and tell me they have the same impact, then we are on the wrong site…

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