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July 19, 2010 / James Pusey

Rock is dead (no really, it’s true this time)

Rock is dead, it’s old news. The only questions are why and how.

Kate Nash complained recently that riot grrrl is becoming too mainstream, after synth-pop band Le Tigre revealed that they’ve been working with Christina Aguilera on her new album Bionic. Le Tigre is comprised of Kathleen Hanna, the lead guitarist from Bikini Kill, an influential riot grrrl band from the early nineties, and feminist zine writer Johanna Fateman. While Nash is certainly right to suggest that girl power is more or less run of the mill these days, I’m not sure where she’s been for the past decade. 

Ever hear about a little group called The Spice Girls

However, ‘what happened to riot grrrl’ isn’t really the question we should be asking- it’s ‘what happened to rock and roll?’. Slash, who is currently promoting his self-titled solo album, declared the genre dead during an interview last week. Besides trying to draw attention to his own record, which is said to be yet another pseudo-80s relic, he’s only about twenty years too late. Music moved beyond rock and roll a long time ago, both creatively and aesthetically, and while there have been many bands since who have tried to emulate those things, most of ‘em still don’t rock. 

Most of it doesn’t really get under anyone’s skin. Part of what made rock, or jazz, or even doo-wop so appealing was because it was rebellious; mum and dad would have been ashamed of you for it. According to sociologist Lawrence Grossberg, rock and roll in particular has constantly valorized defiance, and it’s that subversive nature that makes it so appealing. 

Contemporary female pop stars like Gaga, Rihanna and Aguilera aren’t popular because they offer any great creative depth, but because they combine catchy, sexually-charged club beats with essentially acting like male gangsta rappers. They upset conventional gender stereotypes for what is expected of a female artist, which simultaneously excites both discomfort and fascination from their audience. 

There are plenty of critics and casual observers who suggest that in this regard we’ve taken things too far, that this “rebellion” acts more as a commercialized facade than having any real impact. Now that anything goes, has our generation become unshockable? While there’s a tremendous amount of weight behind such claims, for the time being I’m putting it down to cultural amnesia. We always feel that things are getting worse. 

Just to get back to Kate Nash and her riot grrrl comments for a second: what do popstars truly have to compete with? Outside of the absolute mainstream, to those that can’t stand the shameless decadence that pop music represents, no matter how ironic its context, what does a female indie-rock performer truly represent? 

Watch out! She might go read a book!

Fifteen years on from when riot grrrl fizzled out, all you’ve got in terms of women in rock and roll is some vaguely feminist piano-pop from the likes of Lilly Allen plus clones and some vaguely hypocritical faux-attitude from the likes of Pink, and not a great deal else. Kate Nash implies that her own album, the critically and commercially successful My best friend is you is somehow a more valid feminist statement because it’s more “heartfelt” (and far less lucrative) than Bionic

 Alternative/Indie-rock offers no real alternatives, with exception to perhaps Amanda Palmer, Soko or Gossip, and even then their audience is a niche one. It’s as if roles have been reversed. Because Pop music has sunk to such perverse lows to cater to an increasingly sexually literate audience, alternative music has been forced to become almost conformist in its aesthetic and artistic response. Indie-rock’s warm, homely kookiness and retroactive appreciation openly conflicts with the sense of revolution that rock is supposed to represent. The culture of positivity in the music press encourages this, and a critical notion has developed that music has greater artistic merit if it isn’t overtly subversive in nature. 

Plenty of female musicians might use the word ‘feminist’ as a marketing label, but very few actually have teeth. While Kate Nash might be content to suggest that “that girl’s shady” and then bugger off to “just read a book instead”. Courtney Love, for instance, would probably rip the other girl’s head off. 

The sad thing about Courtney Love’s comeback is that the majority of mainstream audiences, despite being comfortable with having Gaga’s cooch waved in their faces, reject Love’s music on the basis of her lifestyle. While she might be a drug-addled train wreck, so were all the male musicians in 1994 as well. Of course, the other reason rock and roll went down in flames is the decline of the “rockstar” status itself. 

Artists rarely embody their own music any more. Rock is supposed to be about excess, something that some musicians still manage in abundance, but come under much more scrutiny for it than they used to. I’m not sure how true the stories about drug-assisted creativity are, but the Beatles or the Stones just wouldn’t be the same without LSD, Elvis without his burgers, or god forbid, Lenny Kravitz without his crotch stuffing. 

Even punk rock, the genre that so many new bands set out to copy because of its stylishly defiant and hedonistic image, seems to have forgotten what attracts people to it in the first place. Despite being one of the most influential movements in music history, it was very short-lived; the whole thing was over by 1980. Back in 1976, people came to see the Sex Pistols or whatever, again, not because they because they were particularly inventive musicians, but because they were inherently rebellious compared with the tame popstars and overly middle-class rock acts at the time. 

Bands like the Clash realized later on that you could take that rebellious image and then combine it with more artistically diverse types of music, which has more or less shaped the direction of alternative music ever since. By 2010, we’ve kept the hair and trousers but dropped the sex, drugs and, well, rock and roll, and it’s a combination of all those things that make a rockstar a rockstar. I’ve seen a whole pile of new bands who ride the increasingly rickety punk bandwagon, and unfortunately I haven’t been spat on once. 

Perhaps if I ask nicely? 

Elly Jackson, the public face of La Roux, has steadfastly refused to engage with her fans over the internet, because she claims it makes artists too accessible, destroying any sense of mystery. I’m inclined to agree. 

Album art, which is dying out anyway, has been dominated by writer-ly interpretation over the past few years. Most of it has the name of the band, the name of the album clearly visible and perhaps a small illustration to give you some idea of what to expect of it. There’s very little that actually invites the reader to think about what might be going on, to draw their own conclusions; no myth, no statement. Much like the music itself, bands refuse to take risks with their image, and having a cryptic album cover is simply too much of a financial liability. 

While some art was always intended to be indecipherable to its audience, the interpretation can actually bring fans closer to the band, and helps to add another layer of artistic complexity that can complement the music. Led Zeppelin’s IV, for example, despite being the dullest name in history, is one of the most well-known album covers of all time. Yet we’re still not entirely sure what the story of the old man carrying branches is about, and has continued to make it a talking point forty years on. 

The last big album art controversy was back in 2001, with the cover of the Strokes This is it. The protruding bum-cheeks of the artist Colin Lane’s girlfriend with a black-gloved hand resting on them and a camera angle that only just covers her privates, portrayed in artsy greyscale, was largely responsible for the outraged media response and subsequent success of the album. 

While the Strokes are representative of the kind of retro-obsession that permeates indie-rock culture, and in many ways a last-gasp homage to punk DIY rather than a renewal of it, their sudden surge of popularity can in many ways be owed to their glossy but provocative outer shell. Punk-rock album art has traditionally been fairly sparse, favoring DIY simplicity over the middle-class pretensions of interpretive art, a tradition that many indie bands continue to honour. 

Bands like Placebo, Marilyn Manson, the Dresden Dolls, Gossip, the Scissor Sisters or the trillion or so metal acts that constantly spring up everywhere still have plenty of fans because it grinds against the lowest-common denominators of pop music and the quaint inoffensiveness of indie rock so readily. It’s why people are still drawn to wankers like the Gallagher brothers, despite near-total creative stagnation since 1995, or Bono since the eighties, or Kanye West since he started releasing records.    

Besides that, in terms of moving the line forward, I think the torch has well and truly passed to hip-hop: no matter how much rock purists hate to acknowledge it.

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