Rock, like God, is dead. In fairness, it’s been on life support for a while. Don’t get me wrong; the Strokes and the Arctic Monkeys were two of my favourite bands back in the day. Even as plucky 13 year olds though, we could tell the genre had seen better days.
Despite this hardly being a revelation, it came to me as something of a shock to read in some NME or Pitchfork article that in terms of pure listening volume, hip hop has finally usurped rock in as the most popular genre of music in the world, measured in things like Spotify streams and YouTube plays. (In a somewhat correlated but absurd factoid, apparently the word “love” in popular song has now been overtaken in gross repetitions by “nigga.”)
In retrospect, it seems obvious. How many Drake songs versus Queens of the Stone Age songs did you listen to this week? Yeah, me too. But then, how exactly did it happen? Did rock just run its course? It has been around for more than 70 years, and I don’t see many septuagenarians actively moulding popular culture in any artistic sense. Hip hop is a mere 40 years old in comparison, hitting its middle-age stride and it’s flexin’, baby. But there’s more to it than that.
It’s a question of ideology: where rock music thumbs its nose at the establishment claiming the role of the rebel crusader, fighting the crown in perhaps futile but romantic antipathy, hip hop claims that crown for itself. It says, “Fear me, for I am the king and y’all better bow the fuck down!” That’s pretty appealing to a generation of wantrapreneurs who all want to “build their empire” on Instagram.
Hip hop has always appealed to the masculine sense of “Yeah, I’m the shit.” It’s pure fantasy fulfilment. Admit it, you’ve strutted down the street listening to Biggie Smalls’ ‘Hypnotize’ feeling like King of the World as you tilted your head up just a little, as if to say: that’s right world, this is my soundtrack. What you haven’t done is strutted down the street listening to Steely Dan’s ‘King of the World’ and felt like that, because, for a start, dad rock is about the furthest cry from “Fuck Bitches, Get Money” you can possibly find, but more importantly the idiom is totally different. Hip hop provides what you might call a more enticing model for personal success.
On a more practical level, the form dictates the medium, and form, as we all know from year nine art class, follows function. Guitars and drum kits represent an age past, a more kinetic time where you had to physically hit things one way or another to make sound. It is a technological anachronism, at least in part. Sure, there will always be room for guitars and basses in modern music. But it’s unlikely that they will dominate song form any time in the near future. The 808 drum machine (realistically the 808 drum machine sample) is the new guitar, and the music production suite, be it Logic or Ableton is the fretboard. Modern musicians don’t need to learn instruments in any physical way to be able to reproduce their sounds, though that is not to take away from the separate skill set – call it auteurism – requisite to totally produce a track on a digital audio workstation. The teacher has been replaced by YouTube, which with its vast library of videos can teach even a complete novice the ropes of production. Pure cut and paste.
Hip hop, of course, jumps on these innovations with relish and, with a sprinkling of say, an obligatory ’70s soul sample, serves them up in a hyper-compressed, digestible, booty shaking cocktail.
A “me-first” generation demands “me-first” demagogues and hip hop does nothing if not serve up a boatload of those. It has seized upon the technology and means to produce high quality, crowd-pleasing music in record time. Rock just can’t compete with that sort of zeitgeist-riding opportunism, and so it has been relegated to a moody second fiddle, as it were. Of course, everything comes full circle so don’t be surprised if in a matter of years we see a new breed of bedroom guitar heroes emerging from the shadows to take centre stage in the cultural melee. To quote those interminable stalwarts of dinosaur-rockstardom, the Rolling Stones, it’s only rock n’ roll. But I like it.