How has rock become so depleted? You can start by blaming the year 1991.
Two years ago, a group of British researchers published a study that charted the evolution of music styles and timbres by looking at 17,000 songs between 1960 and 2010. They charted the rise of Motown in the 1960s, the brief reign of drum-machines in the 1980s, and the spate of weepy love ballads in the 1990s. Among their many findings was that the rock genre, so dominant throughout the 1970s and 1980s, took a sudden nosedive in the early 1990s. In fact, they determined that one year, 1991, marked “the single most important event that has shaped the musical structure of the American charts."
What happened in 1991? Between 1958 and 1990, Billboard had constructed its Hot 100, the list of the country’s most popular songs, with an honor system. They surveyed DJs and record store owners, whose testimonies were often influenced by the music labels. If the labels wanted to push AC/DC, they pushed AC/DC. If they changed their mind and wanted to push the next rock release, AC/DC would fall down the charts and the new band would take their place.
But in 1991, Billboard changed its chart methodology to measure point-of-sales record data and directly monitor radio air play. [emphasis added] As I wrote in a 2014 article in The Atlantic, this had a direct impact on the sort of music that made its way to the charts and stayed there. The classic rock and hair-band genre withered in the 1990s while hip hop and country soared up the charts. In the next 25 years, hip hop, country, and pop music have carried on a sonic menage à trois, mixing genres promiscuously to produce the music that currently dominates the charts. [emphasis added]There is hip-hop-inflected-pop (Justin Bieber), country-pop (Lady Gaga), and country-rap (Florida Georgia Line and Nelly).
The recent British paper on the last half century of music found that hip hop has reigned the Billboard charts longer than any other musical style. Why might that be? In the early 1990s, some cultural critics argued that rock was qualitatively superior, because rap songs were mere “bricolage.” But it’s precisely because hip hop’s nature is to absorb other musical styles that it has proved so durably elastic. [emphasis added] Today’s most popular hip hop artists—like Beyoncé, Drake, Chance the Rapper, and Kanye West—sound very little like the styles that replaced rock in the pop music pantheon in the 1990s. They are more polyphonic, with more diverse inspirations and richer instrumentation and production. Meanwhile, 2017’s Metallica sounded a lot like 1990’s Metallica—even after they got the mics to work.
Now twenty some years ago I cared nothing for rap or hip-hop. I found ti vulgar and annoying. It's still not exactly my favorite style of music. On the other hand, there was another era in which the evolution of a then-new style of musical expression that leaned heavily on the verisimilitude of a musically declamed text to the rhythms of spoken words was scorned as a sign of incompetence unfit for real musicians. That idiom was the recitative and it was foundational to the evolution of opera. , which doesn't just happen to be another musical style I'm not entirely into. I like a couple of operas quite a bit just like I like a couple of musicals a lot but overall these aren't my favorite musical idioms. I don'tthink that "everyone" really "should" go to the opera at least once a year. If there was a local staging of Wozzeck I'd absolutely go to that if I could afford to!
But in his English language monograph on the Baroque era Manfred Bukofzer highlighted that for the Renaissance sympathizers in the early Baroque era recitative was the kind of junk a musician with no talent could do, that speech-song was a disaster, and that opera as a hybrid of drama, poetry and music was considered a dubious enterprise. Yet poera is incontestably high art centuries later, even an arguably obsolete high art.
The hybrid nature of contemporary popular music is taken as given in the article and you might disagree. Whether or not you do, however, it got me thinking of something.
MUSIC, THE ARTS, AND IDEAS
Leonard B. Meyer
Copyright (c) 1967. 1994 by The University of Chicago
As foreseen here, the future, like the present, will hold both a spectrum of styles and a plurality of audiences in each of the arts. There will be no convergence, no stylistic consensus. Nor will there be a single unified audience.
I find nothing shocking or deplorable in this. Though countless conferences and symposia are held each year at which the lack of a large audience for serious and experimental art, music, and literature is regularly and ritually lamented, I do not think that our culture is ailing or degenerate because Ulysses is not a best-seller and Wozzeck is not on the hit parade. They never will be. Expectations based on the premise that art is, or should be, egalitarian are not only doomed to disappointment but misleading because they create false aims for education and mistaken goals for foundation and government patronage. Democracy does not entail that everyone should like the same art, but that each person should have the opportunity to enjoy the art he likes.
... New idioms and methods will involve the combination, mixture, and modification of existing means rather than the development of radically new ones--for instance, a new pitch system or a new grammar and syntax. [emphasis added] ...
Complementing this stylistic diversity and these patterns of fluctuation will be a spectrum of ideologies ranging from teleological traditionalism, through analytic formalism, to transcendental particularism
In the ideology of Romanticism greatness was linked not only to magnitude but to the prizing of genius; and genius was, in turn, bound to the creation of innovation. This coupling occurred because the Idea of Progress made innovation an important value and there needed to be causal agents of change. Geniuses were believed to be such agents. But if the future is unknowable and chancy, and if change per se ceases to be a desideratum, then the creation of categorical novelty (for example, the devising of new musical constraints) becomes less important, even pointless, because there is no assurance that innovation will "advance" musical style or lead anywhere--that is, be part of a coherent, predictable pattern. For these reasons, few "hats-off" geniuses will be hailed in the coming years, and creativity will involve not the devising of new constraints (for instance, serialism or statistical techniques) but the inventive permutation and combination of existing constraint-modes, especially as manifested in stylistic eclecticism. [emphasis added]
Meyer wrote his postlude to his 1967 book in the early 1990s, just as the tectonic shift in the metrics of the hit parade were beginning to take effect. The way the Cuban guitarist and composer Leo Brouwer put things, he suspected the future of music was fusion and that academic musicology had largely failed to come to terms with this, and that largely, perhaps, because scholars are interested in taxonomies of delineation rather than integration. Or that's how I vaguely remember it. Brouwer's communist credentials are not really in dispute here but it's particularly worth noting that aspirations to fusions of styles previously thought to be incompatible has been a quest on both sides of the Iron Curtain. What, exactly, it means that musicians across the political spectrum have aspired to arrive at a fusion of high art techniques and forms with vernacular idioms is pen for endless discussion and debate.
But for advocates of high culture here and now to reflexively dismiss popular styles would be to face the peril of repeating precisely the "mistake" made by advocates of the old Renaissance ars perfecta over against the nascent tonal language that would be consolidated and refined in the middle and later Baroque eras.
It would be too easy, too, to forget that the end of the Renaissance saw the collapse of what was regarded as something of an international and unified style into a panoply of regional forms and styles. Those advocates for the equal-tempered twelve-tone tonal system need to remember just how recent the vintage of this thing is.
And in light of Billboard changing whatit measured and why it may turn out that the prestige of rock music as we've come to know it was because of an industry bubble, or perhaps even because of a basically inaccurate or dishonest way of accounting for popularity. So in a sense 1991 wasn't the year rock stopped being "the msical style hat dominated the charts; perhaps it was the year that the presumed supremacy of rock was shattered by the introduction of metrics and measures that did a better job of revealing what people were really buying (back when people bought music because streaming wasn't a thing yet).
Cultural conservatives lamenting the loss of high culture on the horizon can too readily forget that we've been here before as a human species. Fans of the styles of Byrd and Palestrina could conclude Monteverdi's music was utter garbage. Opera and other Baroque era innovations emerged all the same. Eventually the major/minor key system with functional harmony and tonal organization came about. Eventually the wild array of styles and idioms and forms from the early and idle Baroque periods consolidated into the late Baroque; rather it would be more accurate to say that the composers we now regard as the landmark figures of the late Baroque completed a century and a half long process of consolidating the elements of the previously existing styles and forms into the cohesive musical language that too often gets misunderstood as being the summation of the Baroque era as a whole. All of that is to say we've had eras in which dizzying stylistic fragmentation occurred and it was eventually rounded out by countervailing propensities to formulate new fusions of established idioms. Meyer was writing as a musicologist and historian of music in a position to have an idea we'd seen and heard this kind of thing before. His proposal was, as you just saw, that the musical heroes of the future (i.e. now) would be those who successfully hybridize existing idioms rather than inventing new musical modes of organization whole cloth.
We seem to live in an era Meyer anticipated, in which the heroes of the arts are not necessarily traditionalist or purist but experimental formalists working with idioms that are already known and playing with them in relatively new ways. If rock and roll does die out it will probably be because of stylistic purity rather than stylistic compromise.