Music » Reverb

With superstar retirements and slumping sales, is rock finally dead?


It survived Beatles bonfires, Saturday Night Fever and MTV, but rock is no longer more popular than Jesus. - SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • It survived Beatles bonfires, Saturday Night Fever and MTV, but rock is no longer more popular than Jesus.
The news of rock’s death may have been greatly exaggerated in years past, but an unprecedented rash of retirements and a downward sales spiral have now reached the point where all bets are off.

Over the past two months, seven multi-platinum rock acts have declared that their next tours will be their last. The three largest will be making stops in Colorado: Paul Simon’s Homeward Bound: The Farewell Tour comes to Fiddler’s Green on May 30. Ozzy Osbourne’s No More Tours 2 — yes, he previously “retired” from touring in 1992 — hits the Pepsi Center on Oct. 2. And Elton John’s three-year-long Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour will slowly make its way to the same venue, although not until Feb. 7 of next year.

If that’s not enough, Slayer will embark on their Final World Tour, while Lynyrd Skynyrd is going out on its Last of the Street Survivors Farewell Tour. Neither has scheduled Colorado dates, having both come through here last year. Meanwhile, Rush and Neil Diamond have announced that they are simply staying home, with no intention of touring again.

When it comes to sales and airplay, the prognosis gets even worse, as evidenced by Nielsen’s Year-End Music Report last month. The 32-page document from the industry’s premier source for sales and airplay figures reveals that — for the first time ever — nine out of the ten “most-consumed songs” fell into the R&B/Hip-Hop genre.
Rock music, meanwhile, was left in the dust. When broken down by genre, Metallica ranked first among rock’s top five artists, followed by Imagine Dragons, The Beatles, Linkin Park, and Twenty One Pilots, none of whom are exactly new bands. Together, they moved less than half the units as their R&B/Hip-Hop counterparts.

Both of these developments will no doubt fuel renewed “end-is-near” pronouncements for the rock genre. And while those doomsday forecasts may turn out to be true — who can say? — it’s important to note that rock ’n’ roll has been pronounced dead, countless times, going all the way back to its infancy.

In 1956, the Maddox Brothers & Sister Rose — who were billed as “America’s Most Colorful Hillbilly Band” — toured as Elvis Presley’s opening act and subsequently released a novelty track called “The Death of Rock and Roll.” The song’s lyrics actually had nothing to do with rock ’n’ roll; it was essentially a remake of Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman,” which was itself a lurid remake of an old gospel song.
Actually, one could argue that “rock and roll” was laid to rest over the course of the following decade. The music pioneered by black artists like Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley was inevitably appropriated by white musicians, whose albums were then marketed to primarily white audiences as “rock music.”

But just as jazz, blues and R&B artists were demonized for propagating the devil’s music, so too was this new generation of rock musicians. In 1966, lapsed-Catholic John Lennon declared The Beatles “more popular than Jesus.” The reaction was not especially positive: The Ku Klux Klan in South Carolina organized a “Beatles bonfire,” as did a Texas radio station, which was, oddly enough, struck by lightning the very next day.

A more substantive threat to rock’s market dominance came in the 1970s with the arrival of the disco movement. At its height, remixed singles by Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor and Chic were filling dance floors in more than 25,000 discotheques around the country.
Ironically, rock fans responded with the same virulence as their anti-rock antecedents. In 1979, a “Disco Demolition Night” promotion for a double-header between the Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox brought out some 50,000 fans, who exchanged unwanted disco records for discounted admission. The collected vinyl was subsequently set ablaze, triggering a full-scale riot, multiple arrests, damage to the field, and forfeiture of the second game.

If rock won the battle against disco, it apparently did not win the war. As the term “disco” fell out of favor and Saturday Night Fever albums were consigned to yard sales and used record bins, dance music went underground and resurfaced in the guise of Detroit techno, Chicago house music, UK dubstep, and Disney divas. Major labels were also pumping more and more money into another promising beat-driven genre called hip-hop.
Classic rock, meanwhile, was attacked on all sides: MTV championed A-Ha over AC/DC. American Idol brought melisma to the masses. Grunge music died alongside Kurt Cobain, replaced by nu-metal bands who fused rap and rock in the worst ways possible. Extreme strains of metal, thrash and punk scared off older rock fans. And so it goes.

Except that it’s not gone. While rock as we knew it may never regain its market share, the genre has somehow proven to be as unstoppable as Keith Richards and cockroaches. Rock is clearly far from dead, but it may well be nearing retirement.

“I don’t know which will go first, rock ’n’ roll or Christianity,” John Lennon once mused, and the answer to that question is as unclear today as it was 50 years ago. Still, it’s a fairly safe bet that both will survive, in one form or another, for generations to come. To paraphrase Brian Wilson, God only knows what we’d be without them.

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