As far as hoary, oft-repeated sayings go, it’s hard to beat “rock is dead.” The origin of the phrase is shrouded in mystery — like the etymology of “heavy metal” — but it’s not hard to picture Lester Bangs coining it while reviewing the latest Lou Reed long-player in his underwear, specks of Robitussin drying on his mustachioed upper lip.
In reality, people have been claiming “rock is dead” since the genre wriggled its way into the repressed loins of America’s bobbysockers. Every so often, a new pack of scruffy young kids with guitars are labeled as its saviors, but it never lasts. ROCK IS DEAD. Long live paper and scissors!
But what if we had empirical evidence that rock really was dead? Or at least in a state of such dissolution that its resurgence was a probabilistic impossibility? To know for sure, we’d need data.
Now we’ve got some.
This article in The Hollywood Reporter indicates that rock is a spent force in the marketplace, squeezed out by more persistent pop forms. Based on a recent study highlighting the ubiquity of synth-pop, the news may be the final nail in rock’s coffin. (I’m just shocked that there was room for one more.)
According to Hit Songs Deconstructed, 79 percent of top 10 pop hits used a synthesizer as the song’s primary instrument. That’s up from 62 percent a year ago and seems to signal that the current electro-pop fad is here to stay — at least a little while longer. Further boosting that theory: the fact that 88 percent of Top 10 songs used electric-based instrumentation. As for the least popular instrument? The guitar, which hit a low of 4 percent during the second quarter of 2011….
…as for lyrical themes in pop music, “hooking up” is the most popular so far in 2011, prevalent in 38 percent of hit songs, followed by “inspirational” songs, which have steadily increased to account for 25 percent of the Top 10 in the second quarter of 2011, “partying/clubbing” (21 percent) and “love/relationships” at 17 percent. Curiously, any “other” categories of lyrical themes have failed to register at all, coming in at zero percent so far in 2011. Last year, when music listeners were seemingly interested in a little more than sex, it was at 9 percent.
Now, it’s easy to come right back and say that the vast majority of rock songs have been about fucking. That may be true, but the flexibility and durability of the form was such that it could include both “Wango Tango” and “Roundabout” in the same canon. I’m not sure that today’s pop will evolve to the same extent.
For those of us who still traffic in this antiquated form, there are more troubling indicators:
Other curious trends pointed to a steep drop in solos, down from 17 percent to 5 percent of hits, and the once popular bridge portion of a song now only exists in 42 percent of songs, down from 54 percent last quarter and 55 percent a year ago.
You may think that it’s perfectly fine to eliminate the guitar solo. Years of co-existing with jam bands elicits a certain sympathy for that worldview. I still enjoy them (if they’re well-placed and say something), but they aren’t a musical necessity. I have more of a problem with the idea that nobody employs bridges anymore. Sure, some of them are useless, but they are a time-honored construct that helps to give songcraft a form. I’m all for experimental art, but eliminating the bridge is kind of like saying we’re no longer going to bother with paragraph breaks. Can you get away with it? Probably. But it says something about our society if we abandon such formalities. It’s a short hop from here to anarchy. Anarchy, I tell you!
One thing that I like about having quantitative data on the death of rock is that it liberates me to keep making it. I am The Contrarian, after all. It would hardly befit my status to toil in a popular genre.
As always, we’re interested in your reactions. What do you think of this data? Was rock dead all along, and we’re just now noticing? What if it turns into a zombie? Are we prepared for that?