In the summer of 2017, on a fair summer evening here in New Jersey, I went and saw Kings of Leon play live and subsequently lamented the fact that despite their strong performance, the real takeaway was that it was becoming increasingly apparent that rock ‘n roll as a big boy music genre was inching closer and closer to becoming a thing of the past. The show had a feeling of nostalgia, even though it shouldn’t have. It wasn’t as if Kings of Leon had already hit that point of their career. They were still relevant.
Hard to say.
A quick scan of the horizon examining the landscape of summer music festivals happening that summer only seemed to back up this creeping feeling that rock’s days as a big ticket, heavyweight fighter were potentially numbered. Radiohead (not a traditional rock band) was headlining Coachella, Phoenix (not a rock band) was headlining Governors Ball alongside Tool (also not a rock band) and Bonnaroo was co-headlined by U2 and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (old rock bands.) No where to be seen was a rock band. And by rock band, I mean a traditional rock band anchored by a pounding rhythm section surrounded by a couple of guitars and soaring choruses.
More specifically, no where to be seen was a rock band that was actually in their prime; prime for a band being that point where a band has already released a couple of albums, each one more popular than the last, and entering that point of their career where their masterpiece is only a song or two away. A band hits their prime when you can easily put together twenty great songs of theirs in a Spotify playlist. Once that number hits thirty, there’s a good chance that their prime is on the back nine. There’s obviously exceptions to this, but for the most part, I stand by this theory and definition.
Of the traditional rock bands slated to headline the major summer music festivals, none of them seemed even remotely close to being in their prime. It was dire straits. It actually would have been fitting if the actual Dire Straits were out there headlining a festival somewhere.
Now a year later, things don’t look much better for good old rock ‘n roll. The first sign that the forecast looked bleak was when the summer music festivals started rolling out their lineups for the summer of 2018. Eminem was at the top of damn near all of them. At Coachella, he was co-headlining with The Weeknd and Beyonce, in New York at Governors Ball it was Eminem along with Jack White, Travis Scott and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, down in Delaware at Firefly it was Eminem, Kendrick Lamar, Arctic Monkeys and the Killers, and then in Tennessee at Bonnaroo, Em was again joined by the Killers, as well as Muse. Once you got past that first line on the poster, the second and third lines were heavy with people like Future, Khalid, Logic, SZA, Post Malone, Chvrches and Odesza, none of whom anyone with ears would consider even remotely close to rock.
Based on those lineups, rock music’s front line currently consists of Jack White, the Arctic Monkeys, the Killers and Muse. The Yeah, Yeahs, Yeahs don’t really count because they’re A) not a traditional rock band and B) heavily associated with New York, thus it makes sense that the one big festival they played would be located there. Queens of the Stone Age would probably be on the next level, with the same going for the War on Drugs and Portugal. The Man. The Foo Fighters are around; Pearl Jam too. But while I wouldn’t go so far as to say both bands are past their prime, I would definitely say they are closer to the end of their career, than the beginning. If rock music was going to remain relevant this summer, taking up space on the main stages at peak times, it would be up to the front line acts to get the job done.
But what would these acts be bringing to those stages?
Relevancy is a delicate thing and to really capture the zeitgeist, it’s not enough to have one or two great shows and for those shows to be full of old songs; to just throw out a greatest hits set. If that happens, then I’m sorry, you’re already past your prime. You have to give the people something new or you’re just old. Not super complicated.
The Killers, and this came as a surprise to me, released a new album in the fall of 2017, their first after wrapping up a five year hiatus. Wonderful Wonderful didn’t really set the world on fire, though. This is not all that inspiring when it comes to considering the Killers as banner-men of rock music in 2018. If they hit the stage armed with “Mr. Brightside” and “Somebody Told Me,” it’ll be fun and enjoyable, but not all that exciting, something rock ‘n roll should naturally be.
Muse, purveyors in gigantic, massive-sounding arena rock, have not released an album since they dropped Drones in 2015. Although they did release a new song, “Thought Contagion,” earlier this year. They have also said that fans should expect a new album to follow, although an actual release date has yet to be announced. So that’s something. At least they can take on the summer with some new music. However, it would behoove them to drop some new music soon, so fans can get acquainted with it before seeing them live. It’s always kind of anticlimactic when a band plays a new song that no one has heard before live. On the one hand, sure, it’s cool. Yay new music! But it’s also unfamiliar music and a live setting really isn’t the best place to hear something new.
It’s been Jack White and the Arctic Monkeys who have struck first.
White released Boarding House Reach in March and the album is, well, not the best. For the most part, the album sounds like two robots having ugly sex. It’s just hard to listen too. It’s a tough hang. But part of what it makes it that way is that tucked in some of the songs are parts that are actually pretty good.
Take a song like “Over and Over and Over.” The guitar riff that runs through the bulk of the song is fierce as hell. But the chorus vocals, the goth gospel-sounding “over and over,” is gnawing and becomes obnoxious after a couple times through.
In a way, Boarding House Reach is the perfect example of Jack White’s music: equal parts promising and rocking, as well as a weird and borderline un-listenable. The whole album is like that, with the main difference between it and his earlier releases is that it leans more towards the weird and un-listenable than promising and rocking. Left to his own devices seemed to not necessarily be the best situation for him. When it comes to musical choices, White can’t really be trusted. It’s why he has become one of the more frustrating musicians out there. You never know what you are going to get from him and what makes that especially challenging and annoying is that you know that there’s a chance what you get from him could be some amazing, guitar-hero rock ‘n roll. But it’s far from guaranteed. On his last tour, he toured with two different bands. You literally got a completely different show than the last audience did. And no, not in a Phish kind of way, where that’s not necessarily a bad thing. More of a spring weather kind of way. One day is sunny and 70, the next it’s rainy and in the 50’s. How the hell are you supposed to live like that?
Now you have White being the rock headliner at a lot of these festivals this summer and he’s not the best ambassador you could have doing that. Maybe he runs out a killer set, full of hits and action-packed rock songs. But he could also show up with a pawn shop acoustic guitar and a hankering to play a set of Civil War-era hymns. You don’t know. And to make it worse, there’s no way to know. It’s like putting your NBA title hopes in the hands of Russell Westbrook. Sure, it could work out. But there’s a better chance it won’t. And you know that. You do. You just get seduced by the stats and it clouds your judgement. Just like with White, you get seduced by something like “Freedom at 21” and think he’s the standard bearer for guitar-driven rock ‘n roll. But then he plays something like “Hypermisophoniac” and you’re like, THAT’S NOT EVEN A WORD, let alone a song that makes any sense and is even something you’d want to listen to.
The Arctic Monkeys on the other hand have been slightly more reliable throughout the course of their career, even if they have evolved from the manic, British, dance rock of “I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor” to the heavier and darker vibe of their last album AM. The narrative through line is still rock ‘n roll. If anything, they had started to become even more traditionally rock ‘n roll, complete with a big, arena-filling sound. Surely there is no way they could leave us in a lurch as we head into the summer.
Yeah, about that.
The Arctic Monkeys released their long-awaited follow-up to AM last week and to say that Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is a little bit of a change of course for the band would be an understatement. Gone are the big guitars and thumping drone of AM and in their place is music that would be best suited on a cocktail lounge in the far reaches of the galaxy. Sounds cool, kind of isn’t. It’s a little early to call Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino the most disappointing album of the year, but it’s not too early to at least place it in the running. And I’m sorry, I don’t want to hear about how it’s refreshing and brave of them to change things up so much. Certainly not in such a delicate time for sweet, sweet rock ‘n roll.
How is the band’s new music going to translate to a live performance? How is going to flow with the older material? Not even two weeks ago I would have been fired up to go see the Arctic Monkeys live. I would have been delighted to see some big time rock ‘n roll played by a big time rock ‘n roll band. But now, not so much. And I can’t help but worry even more about the prospects of rock ‘n roll after listening to their new album. White proving unreliable was in itself reliable. The Arctic Monkeys felt like the safer bet. And then they go and get weird on us.
So what’s left? Where does rock ‘n roll go from here?
After seeing Kings of Leon last summer, I compared rock ‘n roll to baseball. Both were rooted in tradition, rooted in America, but both also had started to feel as if their moment had passed. They had started to feel increasingly niche. In order for either of them to make noise that would be heard outside of their respective fan bases and to creep back into the national conversation they needed stars. Baseball needs teams like the Red Sox and the Yankees and the Cubs and the Dodgers to be doing well to have a chance. As good as the Astros are, they don’t move the needle like a good Red Sox/Yankees series does. Similarly, rock music needs it’s big guns to represent and come to play to grab some of that limelight away from the Hip Hop and R&B stars. Rock music needs people like Jack White and bands like Arctic Monkeys to get a seat at the big kids’ table or else they’ll be relegated to the kids table back in the kitchen and before you know it, they become hockey, supplanted by country music or EDM.
Thankfully the summer isn’t over yet, it’s not even here yet, and there is still time for rock ‘n roll to be saved and given some life. Maybe someone like the Black Keys surprises us and gets back together or maybe the Foo Fighters have another run like they did a few years ago when they did Sonic Highways. Or perhaps in the absence of a true front runner, a younger band emerges and makes a leap, someone like Royal Blood or Alt-J or Portugal. The Man. That wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. It’s not hard to see that for the most part, the real talent in rock ‘n roll is the second and third line starters. They don’t fill the big rooms yet, but maybe they just need an opportunity to do so. If space is limited, sometimes you need someone to move before you can rightly claim your spot.
Or maybe the spot just isn’t there anymore. Maybe the spot is gone. Perhaps that could be a good thing to. Perhaps it could make rock music truly hungry again. Although in all fairness, that seems like bullshit because it’s not as if the hunger in rock is gone. It’s more like the audience for rock is the one that is gone, or is going.
I don’t really know what the answer is.
Things change, life moves in cycles and it’s entirely possible that rock music wasn’t meant to last forever, even if so many of it’s best songs felt timeless and that they would last forever. They still can, but it’s possible we’re reaching a point where the new music being added to classic rock is going to start to slow down and additions are going to become fewer and fewer.
I mean, if this summer is any kind of indication, somehow Eminem is going to be showing up on classic rock radio stations too.