Are we living through the dying days of rock music?

Pic: Jean McDonald
Pic: Jean McDonald

ONE of the strangest sights at the recent Electric Picnic festival was the mass exodus from the main stage ten minutes into the swoonful noise-rock of My Bloody Valentine.

Significantly, the majority of those abandoning the performance were 30 or younger. If you were making your way in the opposite direction, from the bar area towards the band, you can’t have helped but notice that many were visibly grimacing as MBV went about their noisy business. Maybe it was a trick of the dark, but it seemed a few even had their fingers in their ears.

Your first suspicion was that this had to do with generational differences in taste. After all, it’s 22 years since My Bloody Valentine last released a culturally significant piece of music. If you were still a child — a toddler in some cases — it’s unlikely they mean very much. But it was telling that the main stage was swelling 90 minutes later for DJ Fatboy Slim who, as a balding, teetotal 50-year-old, hardly represents the thrilling sound of the new.

The contrast between the welcomes extended to My Bloody Valentine and Fatboy Slim says a great deal about the state of the modern record industry. When Neil Young sang “rock’n’roll will never die ...” he probably hadn’t expected things to end up where they are today.

In 1992, the major talking point at the MTV VMA awards was Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic concussing himself with his bass guitar; this year, the world came to a standstill after Miley Cyrus ‘twerked’ in the direction of Robin Thicke. We exist in a time when the biggest band in the world is One Direction. A similar paradigm in the 1970s would have seen Bay City Rollers overshadowing Pink Floyd. If rock isn’t quite dead yet, it is undoubtedly hooked up to a drip and heart monitor.

It’s not as if there aren’t exciting artists producing innovative music. From a certain perspective, adventurous listeners have never had it so good. On the other hand, when last has a bunch of guys (and it is almost always guys) with guitars commandeered the zeitgeist?

Since grunge and the tragic end of Nirvana how many truly essential bands have there been? The Strokes? Arcade Fire? Arctic Monkeys? In their way, all are important but, really, would the culture be any different had they never existed?

Pop, meanwhile, is all conquering. A glance at the upcoming schedule for the country’s biggest indoor venue, The O2, confirms, bubble gum is where it’s at. Chart slaying rap duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis have sold out two dates, as has Bruno Mars. Meanwhile, you can still get tickets for grunge veterans Soundgarden, and younger rockers (we use the term in the widest sense) Sigur Ros, Queens of the Stone Age and 30 Seconds To Mars. The only ‘rock’ dates to sell out are gigs by heritage acts Fleetwood Mac and Billy JoelRock is not only irrelevant — it’s increasingly wrinkled and paunchy too.

It seems rock — the soundtrack to rebellion, protest, youthful angst — doesn’t even want to be rock music any more. It would be ludicrous to apply any of those adjectives to the teeth-grindingly jaunty Mumford and Sons. Standing through their sell-out date at the Phoenix Park over the summer, you couldn’t help but be struck by how bloodless and self satisfied the performance was.

Rather than attempt to whip the audience towards emotional catharsis — surely rock’s primary function — the Mumfords seemed to think it their duty to lull 40,000 people into a sort of soporific trance. You stood there, surrounded by rugby player jock types and their hayseed girlfriends, and it was like Nirvana, Pixies, Jesus and Mary Chain, The Stooges, Joy Division had never happened.

It is possible we are living through is the dying days of a genre. Rock, lest we forget, was the product of a specific time and social circumstances: the late 50s and early 60s and the first flowering of post-war youth culture. Nowadays youth culture and mainstream culture are essentially indistinguishable and the only ones with something to rebel against are oldsters who refuse to open a Twitter account.

Speaking to this journalist two years ago, author and cultural commentator Simon Reynolds suggested that, 50 years after The Beatles, perhaps rock’n’roll has said all it had to say: “There is a case for saying certain kinds of art form can only endure for so long,” he said. “Sonnets, as a poetic form – there was only a certain amount of time until nobody could do them any more. Maybe rock music is the same.”

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