At first glance, trends and sounds in popular music seem to come at us in random, fractalized bursts. Viewed up close on a day-to-day, week-to-week or even month-to-month basis, that’s how it appears. But if you stand back, patterns begin to emerge, patterns which have held surprisingly together over the last seven decades.
Since rock was born in the 1950s, rock and pop have been locked in a battle for cultural supremacy with each combatant a constant 180 degrees out of phase with the other. When rock is strong and ascendant in the public’s consciousness, pop is on a decline.
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Eventually, though, rock tops out and begins a decline as the public’s attention moves towards pop. Then once pop peaks and rock bottoms out, the cycle begins again. This back-and-forth dance has played itself out every 12 or 13 years.
Let me tell you how it’s all gone down.
The First Cycle: 1951-1963
While it’s impossible to pin down the birth of rock’n’roll — it was born through a gradual coming together of a dozen sounds and influences — many scholars point to March 3, 1951, with the release of a song called “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats. This band didn’t really exist. Jackie was the sax player for Ike Turner in his Kings of Rhythm and was thrust into the spotlight for this one recording with Ike and the boys providing backup. The sound, attitude and subject matter of “Rocket 88” make it a prime candidate for being the first true rock’n’roll record.
Once loosed upon the earth, this new form of music gathered momentum with the mainstream, peaking with Elvis in 1956. But when he entered the army on March 2, 1958, rock went into a period of decline.
“See? It was all just a fad!” the haters said. “Time to get back to some good music!”
And lo, things were pretty dire for rock through the late 1950s and the early 1960s. The charts were filled with light pop such as Percy Faith’s “Theme from ‘A Summer Place'” and those execrable Sing Along With Mitch albums.
Yet there was still some rebellion in the air, except that it was rather quiet. The folk music boom of the late 1950s and early 1960s — a boom that would eventually result in Bob Dylan — tried to keep things interesting for people who weren’t interested in mainstream music.
Cycle 2: 1964-1975
The second cycle began with the appearance of the Beatles. Even though they were originally rejected by Decca Records (“Guitar bands are on their way out! They have no future in show business!”) the Beatles eventually landed with EMI and — well, you know the rest.
They arrived just as the earliest of the Baby Boomers began entering their teens. These kids had their portable turntables and transistor radios, devices that allowed them to take their music away from the prying ears of parents. And psychologically, rock provided an escape from the funk that had fallen across the West following the JFK assassination in November 1963.
The Beatles had a fresh sound, were quick with a quip and were made up of four distinct characters with whom fans could identify. (Interestingly, you can make the case that the Beatles were the first boy band. What’s the difference between the reaction of Bieberites and what we saw with Beatlemania?)
Cycle 2 really kicked into gear with that Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9, 1964, about three weeks shy of the 13th anniversary of the release of “Rocket 88.”
To say that the Beatles rescued rock is an understatement. The years that followed their landing on American shores was one of the most vibrant times in music, a veritable gusher of guitar-based creativity that lasted for the rest of the decade. If you have to pick a moment when it peaked, I’d go with the Woodstock Festival in August 1969. But then came Altamont later that year with its bad vibes, corruption, and death. Almost overnight, the life drained away from the rock scene.
Creatively spent and disillusioned by the failure of the peace’n’love movement — not to mention America’s ass-kicking in Vietnam, Watergate, the oil crisis, the Cold War and a brutal recession — the mainstream turned away from rock toward pop music.
The Baby Boomers, who had driven rock through the 1960s, grew up and moved on. Instead of driving rock further forward, they settled into a period of nostalgia for the good ol’ days of the 1950s and the early 1960s. This was manifested in the rise of bands like Sha Na Na, movies like American Graffiti and TV shows like Happy Days. Even Elton John, a star in his prime, couldn’t help but get all misty-eyed for the old days.
Meanwhile, the aging hippy generation had a very hard time believing that the generation following them could be sucked in by simplistic pop made by the Bay City Rollers, Bobby Sherman and the Partridge Family. Of course, the Stones and Zeppelin were at their peak, but they were the exception. And we need to remember that critics absolutely loathed Zeppelin back then.
AM radio was at its absolute worst. Can you believe a song like this could be a #1 hit?
Cycle 3: 1976-1989
The third cycle was a reaction to the mediocrities of the early 1970s. Fed up with both the awful state of AM radio and with the pomposity of the Stones and Zeppelin and the complexities of prog rockers like Genesis and ELP, a new generation embraced the back-to-basics and DIY aesthetics of punk. Punk first rose from the streets of New York and then London before exploding in March 1977 when the Sex Pistols first tried to release “God Save the Queen.”
Remember the contract signing ceremony with Virgin Records outside Buckingham Palace? The date was March 10, 1977. That’s 13 years and one month since the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan and almost 26 years to the day that “Rocket 88” was released.
Punk, post-punk and New Wave brought new life to rock and helped many of us weather the disco storm. But by 1984, punk had burned out, New Wave had grown stale and rock, in general, seemed to have little to offer. As the world’s attention turned to acts like Huey Lewis and the News and Whitney Houston, many rock fans turned back to the music of the 1960s and 1970s, creating an insatiable market for what would soon be called “classic rock.”
If you were around towards the end of the 1980s, you’ll remember the megatours by Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones. Meanwhile, arenas and stadia were home to package tours featuring acts like Van Halen and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Those acts making new music all looked like … well, women — or at least extremely feminized men with spandex and makeup: Motley Crue, Poison, Whitesnake, Twisted Sister. MTV was a huge ally; they looked very interesting on TV, something that drove bands to have even bigger hair and crazier outfits. But after a few years, even MTV realized that they had overdone it with the hair metal bands.
And once they discovered the power ballad, it was all over. Nothing killed hair metal faster than second tier bands singing histrionic love songs.
By the end of the 1980s, music was all poodle haircuts and New Kids on the Block. The same “rock is dead” cries that were heard in 1958 and 1970 were trotted out again.
Cycle 4: 1990-2002
The first indication of rock’s next rebirth came on March 20, 1990, when there was a riot at a Depeche Mode autograph session in Los Angeles. No one expected that many people to show up to see a band that had been a solid cult act at best for most of their career.
That riot came 13 years and 10 days after the Sex Pistols’ infamous Buckingham Palace stunt, 26 years and one month after the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan and 39 years after “Rocket 88” came out.
The Depeche Mode Riot was the start of the era of the Alternative Nation of the 90s. The next six years were once again incredibly fertile: Manchester, grunge, industrial, Goth, Lollapalooza, Britpop, hip-hop. Rock’n’roll was resurrected, this time in the image of Generation X.
The peak came shortly before Kurt Cobain’s suicide in April 1994. But then things quickly went off the rails. Metallica hijacked Lollapalooza in 1996. The Smashing Pumpkins melted down in a haze of drugs and death. Nu-metal’s polarizing sound tore the scene in half. And then came grunge derivatives like Creed to put the final nails in the coffin.
Meanwhile, a period of solid economic growth and the seeming end of the Cold War led to a rise in public optimism. Meanwhile, Generation Y began to come of age musically and all they wanted to do was dance to the Spice Girls, ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys. Rock limped through the rest of the 20th century.
Again, there were exceptions — the Red Hot Chili Peppers and U2 come to mind — but the era 1999-2002 was all about boy bands and pop tarts.
Cycle 5: 2002-16
Our 12/13-year pattern holds more-or-less true, although here it begins to deviate (+/- 2 years) just a little bit.
Although Napster joined the music ecosystem in June 1999, file-sharing didn’t really begin to have its devastating effect on the record industry until 2002 when CD sales began to fall dramatically — which, according to our 12/13 Year Theory, should have been when we see a collapse of pop and the beginning of another rock resurrection.
And indeed we did. By the spring of 2002 (12 years after the Depeche Mode riot, 26 years after the breakout of punk, 38 years after the Beatles’ landing in America and 51 years after “Rocket 88”), the Backstreet Boys/’N Sync phenomenon had grown so big that the backlash against them was catastrophic. Happy, optimistic, danceable pop seemed inappropriate in a post-9/11 era. Rock began to once again reassert itself.
This time, though, the rock we got had more in common with the environment that produced “Rocket 88” in 1951. This music bubble, largely unfiltered from the streets, channeled through independent record companies rather than major labels. While some of these bands had been around for a while — both the White Stripes and the Strokes had been formed in 1999 — it took a few years before enough people began to notice what they were on about.
Indie rock was the kindling for Cycle 5 through 2002-2004. By 2005, rock’s dominance in public consciousness was greater than it had been since any time since 1992.
Coldplay, Franz Ferdinand, and the Killers came out of nowhere. Damon Albarn reinvented himself under the guise of Gorillaz. Linkin Park shook off any early associations with nu-metal and went on to sell tens of millions of records.
Audioslave was the perfect DNA splicing of Soundgarden and Rage Against the Machine. U2, Nine Inch Nails, the Foo Fighters, the Beastie Boys, the Chili Peppers, Green Day and the Offspring all returned with hit records. Coachella exploded in California and Glastonbury became more important than ever. Even Lollapalooza came back.
But The Cycle continued. After peaking in the July of 2005 (when it seemed that every single rock band that mattered had a hit record out at the same time), rock once again slowly slipped in strength, losing ground to pop. The era of Bieber and Susan Boyle was ushered in to end off the first decade of the 21st century.
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Rock fans — people who loved their music loud and aggressive — spent most of the Obama administration wondering what happened. The music softened and everything — including rock — got more poppy. Plaintive singer-songwriters with woe-is-me lyrics were everywhere. Hits came from artists with acoustic guitars, banjos, and even ukuleles. Meanwhile, on the pop side of the equation, boy bands seemed to be coming back.
But then, an unlikely savior. By mid-2016, it was apparent that Donald Trump had a serious shot at becoming the next president of the U.S. With an ultra-polarizing figure capturing the attention of the world, people opposed to his agenda, style, and politics began to make and seek out music that expressed their anger, fear, confusion and opposition. Within months, the vibe changed. A nation under Trump seemed to be better served by a nation under rock.
This brings me to another factor in The Cycle. Going back to the 1950s, booms in angry music seem to follow the election of a Republican into the White House.
Think about it. The folk movement gained traction under Eisenhower. Some of the best music of the 1960s was made during the Nixon administration. Punk came from the fall of Nixon and the ineffectual era of Gerald Ford. Hardcore punk and rap came along during the Reagan eras. Under George H. W. Bush, the world fell under the thrall and the music of the Lollapalooza generation. When we got to George W. Bush and the post-9/11 era, indie rock exploded and the music toughened up again.
Let’s look at it from the other direction. When a Democrat is in the White House, pop tends to rule. The early 1960s — Kennedy’s era — was dominated by soft sounds. During Jimmy Carter’s administration, punk turned poppy, resulting in a slew of New Wave bands who battled for attention as disco swept the world. Skip ahead to the 1990s, when the latter part of Bill Clinton’s time as president was dominated by the Spice Girls and a new generation of boy bands. And with the eight years of Obama, it was all pop, all the time.
We might be stretching things a little, but it appears that The Cycle is holding, albeit rock arrived a little late this time. By all rights, this resurrection should have begun in February or March 2014. But why the delay?
Technology has greatly disrupted how we access music. For the pattern to hold on both sides of the pop/rock equation, a great deal of consensus about what constitutes “good” (or at least popular) music is required. With everyone able to access whatever music they want, whenever they want it, consensus amongst music fans is extremely hard to come by.
Another thing to consider: the pop-rock battle has been joined by a third player. Hip-hop has grown to become the driving musical force in culture, relegating rock to second place in many countries, including the U.S., the biggest music market in the world. Pop has absorbed much hip-hop influence, giving it new strength in its struggle against rock. Could this disrupt things? Very possibly.
Or maybe there’s some greater power at work here, something unalterably eternal like the precession of the poles. The Cycle bears watching. Here, in the early months of 2018, we have indeed swung back to the rock side of the ledger, with rock growing louder and more angry. It should stay that way until at least 2020 —which, as it turns out, happens to be the next time Americans elect a president.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.