Grammys 2014: Checking rock ‘n’ roll’s vital signs

Grammy Notebook
Lorde performs during the 27th Annual ARIA Awards 2013 on Dec. 1, 2013, in Sydney, Australia.
(Ryan Pierse / Getty Images)

Those looking for evidence that commercial rock ‘n’ roll music as we have known it — the kind featuring an electric guitarist — is in a coma need only examine a few recent incidents for proof.

Most prominently, the major nominations for Sunday’s 56th Grammy Awards suggest a genre floating further from the cultural center than ever, sapped of new ideas and so eclipsed by the competing sounds of electronic dance music, hip-hop, digital pop and country music as to seem almost inconsequential.

Others have observed a similar crisis.

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There’s this: In the fall, the lead singer of Grammy-winning band Arcade Fire, probably the most acclaimed rock and roll band to arrive in the last decade, announced at the beginning of its recent song “Normal Person” that he’s been questioning his tastes. Wonders Win Butler as a riff starts to stir below: “Do you like rock ‘n’ roll music? Cuz I don’t know if I do.”

And this: Last April, platinum-selling punk band Fall Out Boy issued its reunion album, “Save Rock and Roll.” Produced with glistening radio-friendly pop sheen, the record debuted at the top of the charts and featured a title track intent on resurrecting a tired music. Singer Patrick Stump complains on “Save Rock …" that it feels “like I’m the last damn kid still kicking that still believes.” If that’s true, we’re in big trouble.

Or this: Reigning arena rock hunk Chris Daughtry in November released his album “Baptized,” featuring the song “Long Live Rock & Roll.” Sounding like Grandpa talking about Lawrence Welk reruns, his song has the feel of an obit. “I was born the year that disco died,” he sings, “And U2 was in high school — thank the Lord that they survived.” As he name checks KISS, Def Leppard, Billy Joel, Journey, Van Halen, Van Hagar, Motley Crue, Guns N’ Roses and others, he may as well be carving their names on tombstones.

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Add in the Grammy roster for more bad news: The closest thing to a rock record competing for album of the year is Taylor Swift’s “Red.” Rock’s other torchbearer in the main categories? Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out of Heaven,” which purports to be about sex but lacks any hint of grit or grunt.

What’s more, Led Zeppelin — a band that hasn’t released a studio album in more than three decades — is in contention for rock album and rock song of the year (for “Kashmir”). In the album category, their “Celebration Day,” a recording of a 2007 reunion concert, will compete, among others, against three other acts that rose 40-plus years ago: Neil Young, Black Sabbath and David Bowie. That’s akin to Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five or Afrika Bambaataa snagging a hip-hop Grammy nod. (To be fair, the other two nominated rock records, by Queens of the Stone Age and Kings of Leon, are stellar examples of the form.)

Rock’s been in dire straits before, only to limp out of the hospital to live another year. But generations of hip-hop, electronic dance music and country dominance have done their damage. More teens can recite the words to Lil Wayne’s “6 Foot 7 Foot” than the White Stripes’ “Fell in Love With a Girl.”

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One of rock’s most vital services, as a delivery system for rebellion and frustration, can be just as effectively tapped through a combination of old Public Enemy, Nas and Clipse jams and new experimental rap teams such as Death Grips or Odd Future. As a decade earlier mainstream rock fans sought Green Day, Foo Fighters or Fall Out Boy, more kids wanting to scare their parents listen to DJs Zedd and Bassnectar or rappers Tyler, the Creator or Tech N9ne than they do guitar-heavy rock tantrums.

There’s a part of me that says good riddance. As someone lucky enough to have first fallen in love with music within the generational sweet spot between the rock-obsessed baby boomers and the rap- and electronic dance music-loving Generation X, I heard Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” in the same breath as the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” and Black Flag’s “Damaged.”

I quickly discovered that all were effective at getting my parents’ furrow-browed attention. A few decades later, I can’t imagine any form of guitar-based music arriving that could upend the genre and make it shocking again. Sapped of sex and danger, it can be pleasant, energetic and surprising but not groundbreaking.

Has mainstream culture moved on? None of the five best new artist nominees — James Blake, Kendrick Lamar, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Kacey Musgraves, Ed Sheeran — could be considered a rock artist by the standard definition. Even young New Zealand singer Lorde, mysteriously snubbed in the category, seldom employs a guitarist when she performs and made a more of-the-moment statement by covering Kanye West and Chief Keef’s searing “Handle My Liquor” than she would have doing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” And when she covered post-punk band the Replacements’ “Swingin’ Party,” she did so minus any discernible guitar.


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That “Royals” has topped Billboard’s rock charts and her debut full-length has ruled the album charts further illustrates a genre amid an identity crisis. “Royals” and the rest of Lorde’s debut album, “Pure Heroine,” minimize the use of the electric guitar in favor of electronics-generated distortion and midrange digital synthetics as envisioned by Nine Inch Nails, Björk and Skrillex. Imagine Dragons’ electronic rock hit “Radioactive” offers equal weight to both electric guitar and computer-generated sonic aggression; minus the electronics, it’s just another Creed song.

Few new musical sounds are more alien to parents who lived through punk or heavy metal as a squelch of digital noise and a bass wobble. Know how to anger a Black Flag-loving dad? Tell him Kanye West’s “Yeezus” has as much punk energy as “Damaged.” (It does.)

As polka, hard-core punk and disco fans can attest, no music ever “dies” as long as there’s a Brave Combo, Off! or Daft Punk to keep the fire burning. Vital, breathtaking electric guitar music appears daily, and Grammy nominees in the increasingly ridiculous category “alternative music” confirm that niche artists like Tame Impala, Neko Case and Vampire Weekend can deliver surprising, inventive guitar records.

But then we’re talking about a world in which the current No. 1 on the Billboard rock charts is “Let Her Go” by Passenger. A flaccid, brain-dead whine-rock song about lost love and regret, it’s about as rock ‘n’ roll as Michael Bublé.

Faced with such evidence, compassion suggests we address the inevitable. If this is what rock’s future holds, might we all be better served if someone does the humane thing and pulls the plug?


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