F--- everything, f--- The Man, f--- Imagine Dragons, f--- the Grammys, f--- all this s---.
-- Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age
Music's biggest night... to be disrespected. A heartfelt F--- YOU guys.
-- Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails
We're sorry, you are...?
-- majority of U.S. music fans
PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Weeks after the Grammy awards were handed out and much of the music world finished debating Macklemore's awards and apology tweet to Kendrick Lamar, Lorde's age and Daft Punk's impact, rock and roll's middle-aged guard was still complaining about a perceived slight against its character.
It's not just that Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme and Nine Inch Nails figurehead Trent Reznor had their show-ending performance cut off halfway though, though they both seemed pretty cranky about it. It was that Imagine Dragons had, somehow, beat out Homme and his band for Best Rock Performance -- and that Homme felt the need to address this fact on stage weeks afterward.
Never mind that Homme wasn't nearly as bothered that his band's album ...Like Clockwork lost the Best Album category to an album from Led Zeppelin. Or that said album was a recording of a concert performed seven years ago by a band that broke up after drummer John Bonham's death in 1980 and hasn't released an album of new material since 1982. Or that his band wasn't even nominated in the Best Rock Song category that featured Black Sabbath, the Rolling Stones and a Nirvana reunion featuring Paul McCartney.
Never mind that Nine Inch Nails lost in the only category it was nominated in -- Best Alternative Music Album -- to Vampire Weekend.
No, it's the rest of the world's fault that Homme and Reznor are so angry. They're the rock stars who've been at this for decades and have collaborated with legends in the industry, so they should still be the tastemakers, right? They're going to make their music their way and the rest of us are just going to have to sit there and listen to it because rock and roll will never die, right?
Yeah, whatever you say, old man.
Rock and roll isn't dead, but its screaming-guitar, wide-stance, arena-rock bombast has turned down dramatically. As my editor Carlton Wilkinson made clear in Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of his series on The Beatles pegged to the anniversary of their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, that band is being remembered so fondly this year not because they recall a time when rock was the dominant genre and strings were the thing, but because of how they changed music by incorporating the music and influences around them.
They incorporated Broadway, R&B, classical, Indian music and, yes, heavier rock into their sound. When the Who's Pete Townshend expressed a desire to write the heaviest song imaginable, The Beatles responded with Helter Skelter. When they wanted to know how Donovan sounded the way he did, they went to him directly. They covered the Isley Brothers, imitated Ray Charles and The Beach Boys and collaborated with Billy Preston, Eric Clapton and Duane Allman. Wilkinson still finds it mind-blowing that John Lennon was listening to the "Moonlight" Sonata when he wrote Here Comes the Sun King. As Wilkinson notes, nothing was off limits.
It led McCartney to the conclusion that pop music was the new classical music, but the window for that statement's truth closed quickly. When music lovers moon over The Beatles this year and mourn the 20th Anniversary of Kurt Cobain's death, a large part of what they're mourning is the death of their scholarship and the life they helped breathe back into rock. Much is made of Cobain's screams, distortion and metal-punk influences, but what just about every terrible post-grunge band that followed Nirvana failed to take into account were the more subtle elements that balanced it: The hints of David Bowie and Lou Reed's artistry, The Vaselines and Beat Happening's tween sensibilities, Daniel Johnston and R.E.M.'s earnestness.
Nope, instead we got vacant modern rock that existed in a vacuum and steadfastly refused to admit that the world was changing around it. We got a genre so hung up on the fact that Aerosmith gave Run/DMC a hand up with Walk This Way that it hadn't figured out that Jay-Z was doing Linkin Park the favor when he teamed with them on Numb/Encore almost 20 years later.
Rock has slid from a universal entity and vital part of the overall pop landscape to a small, aging niche in an industry full of them. Nielsen and Billboard still consider "rock" synonymous with "pop" when measuring album sales, but even that didn't stop the supergenre's album sales from sliding nearly 6% in 2013. The "alternative" and "hard music" album categories also fell 5% and 11%, respectively, Rock is more clearly defined among digital track sales, but even those sales dropped 12.2% last year and only dance/electronic music (8.4%) saw any real gains.
It's pretty much a non-entity among the nation's most popular music as well. Imagine Dragons was the only "rock" act to crack the Top 10 in Nielsen and Billboard album and track categories, while only one other "rock" band can be found among the top-selling artists of 2013: Mumford and Sons. You have to go down into vinyl sales before Homme and Queens Of The Stone Age make an appearance and, even then, they're lumped below Daft Punk, Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire and two Mumford & Sons albums and rank just above The Lumineers, The National and Justin Timberlake.
There hasn't been big rock in a while and, when it does surface, it's not all that rocky. Imagine Dragons' album Night Visions, for example, was made with the help of hip-hop producer Alex da Kid and lets the percussion account for much of its bombast. It's rock made by a band that grew up listening to 2Pac and Biggie Smalls and wanted beats, not blistering Eddie Van Halen riffs. As lead singer Dan Reynolds told Music Connection, it was just an organic mix of influences that even he didn't think was going to find a huge audience.
"The four years before this, we were just grinding it out on the road," he said. "For all we knew, we'd be a small club band for the rest of our lives. None of us ever thought it would blow up internationally or anything like that."
Is there any loftier goal for a rock band right now? Imagine Dragons occupies a small patch of middle ground between Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, U2, the Foo Fighters, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and other arena-devouring classic rock beasts and Vampire Weekend, The National, Cloud Nothings, Toro Y Moi, Best Coast and the rest of a broad, expansive indie-rock niche. They're big enough to join Kendrick Lamar onstage at the Grammys and draw sideways glances from kids in Pixies T-shirts who think they're keeping it real, but just low enough on the rock ladder to take barbs from Homme and Reznor and have their credibility questioned by those who consider Dave Grohl and Jack White to be contemporary rock music's backbone.
In truth, Imagine Dragons is likely closer to The Beatles or Nirvana than any of the above, but that assumes that the modern equivalent of either of those acts would be a rock band. Imagine Dragons and contemporaries like Muse, Of Monsters and Men, Capital Cities and Fitz and the Tantrums have all taken bits and pieces of hip-hop, pop and electronic dance music and incorporated it into a rock template, but none of them have drawn it all in or distributed it as broadly as The Beatles and Nirvana did with the influences of their time.
In truth, the most "rock" album of the year was likely made by the one person who had the most reason to complain about the Grammys this year: Kanye West. His album Yeezus was locked out of the Best Album category and, despite being the least specifically hip-hop album he's ever produced, was thrown into the Best Rap Album category to lose to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' The Heist. West's album drew from a galaxy of influences, pushed him out of his comfort zone and required no less than the late Lou Reed to critique it in coherent fashion.
Being snubbed at the Grammys has become a regular occurrence for West, but he's had plenty of opportunity to sound off about his album this year and defend his thesis. Unlike Homme and Reznor, who didn't get nearly as much attention for their efforts this year, West opted against complaining about the Grammys like a petulant child and, instead, did the most rock thing an artist can do to an awards show he feels he's bigger than: He stayed home.
Maybe cranky, aging rockers will one day take the hint and do the same.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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