Wednesday, December 1, 2021
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Mainstream Rock is Not Dead, It Just Needs To Adapt

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Gwen Stefani. Fall Out Boy. Avril Lavigne. Coldplay. Most of our favorite mainstream rock artists have gone pop. Plenty have been successful at this transition and never went back, much to the dissatisfaction of their old fanbase. However, in recent years there has also been an inversion of sorts, with non-rock musicians incorporating many rock or punk influences into their work. 

These acts have produced some of the most boundary-pushing music and innovative aesthetics as of late. Popular mainstream artists such as Halsey, Machine Gun Kelly and Olivia Rodrigo have all released chart-topping, rock-influenced music within the past year. And still, most of today’s rock fans have largely hesitated to embrace their sound. At the same time, rock artists have almost completely disappeared from the Top 40 in recent years — except for the usual Imagine Dragons soundtrack fodder and that cute little oft-forgotten-about indie wave around 2013-2014. If rock music wants to sustain its mainstream relevancy and connect with today’s generation of music listeners, the genre’s fans should work more towards welcoming these newer sounds and diverse faces that are keeping the genre in the spotlight.

Take Rodrigo’s “good 4 u” for example. Here, Rodrigo wears her influences on her sleeve, carrying the sounds of mid-2000s Paramore to the current year while staying true to her identity as a uniquely Gen Z songwriter. Yet her cultural presence still exists within a mainly pop landscape, without the prominent backing of a specific “scene,” unlike the pop-punk, goth and emo musicians of the past. Of course her music isn’t as firmly planted in rock as acts like blink-182 or Nirvana, and that’s exactly my point.

Today’s rock community should be more willing to embrace artists who do not fall into the genre’s boundaries 100% of the time. By not doing so, they are missing out on some of the only artists making rock songs that are Billboard Top-10 viable. It’s actually not an impossible task — I can still recall when the emo-rock community readily welcomed Twenty One Pilots’ hyperactive blend of rock, synthpop, hip-hop and reggae into their community.

While Rodrigo is a new artist, the problem extends to, and is arguably worse for veteran non-rock artists who want to make rock-influenced songs, as they are often boxed-in to their original genres. Young Thug, who in recent years has been fusing folk, country and punk into his trap bangers and has, at times, adopted a rockstar aesthetic, has not been able to expand his listener base to include fans outside of hip-hop. Halsey, who just released a full-on rock album produced entirely by Nine Inch Nails after dabbling with rock in the past, faces the same problem as Rodrigo due to her pop roots — even if her earliest fans came from the more “alternative” Tumblr crowd. Here I am not arguing that Halsey and Young Thug should be considered full rock or punk artists just yet, but rather that their, and other artists’ forays into rock should be taken with an open mind by diehard rock fans.

Although I believe that rock fans have been slow to adapt to the changing faces making rock music today, established rock artists have been facing this change quite well. Take Sir Elton John, who has praised and worked with Young Thug and Nicki Minaj on a new piano-rock and hip-hop track. Or Travis Barker, who has released an abundance of rock-crossover collaborations with hip-hop and pop artists while continuing work under blink-182. Not to mention, Sir Paul McCartney, who recently recruited up-and-coming multi-genre singer/rapper Dominic Fike to reimagine a song from his latest album. This shows that established rock artists with huge legacies are still looking for opportunities to bring rock back to the top of the charts and introduce their sounds to new listeners who may have otherwise only listened to today’s pop and hip-hop artists. 

Mainstream rock fans should follow in this direction and seek to expand the genre’s sonic boundaries as well if they want rock to stay relevant among the current and next generation of music listeners. We’ve seen hip-hop stay relevant in this way by welcoming new sounds like melodic rap and pop has always continuously reinvented itself. Now it’s up to rock to make that leap.

Johnny Nguyen is an Opinion Intern for the 2021 fall quarter. He can be reached at johnnln1@uci.edu.