Is Hard Rock About To Roar Back Into The Mainstream?

Jason Squires/Getty Images

Is Hard Rock About To Roar Back Into The Mainstream?

Jason Squires/Getty Images

Hard rock is not dead; it has merely retreated to the range to plot its comeback.

Although metal has never been pop the way Madonna, ‘N Sync, or Taylor Swift are pop, for decades the genre’s most accessible bands maintained a strong presence in the musical mainstream. From genre originators Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath to the nü-metal bands of the TRL era, hard rock produced some of the most popular, visible, bestselling, and influential bands in the world. And although populist heavy guitar music has spent the past decade-plus relegated to a fertile niche market, a grand return to the spotlight might already be in motion. Less than two years after I prematurely predicted the genre’s extinction, we may need to brace ourselves for a hard rock revival.

Before I explain, let’s back up for a moment to consider a different critically maligned genre that recently enjoyed its own critical evaluation.

A few years ago, when the music press got all worked up about an alleged emo revival, the constant refrain from emo denizens was: What revival? We’ve been here all along. Both sides were correct in their own ways: On one hand, emo had never gone away, it had just fallen out of fashion with media tastemakers and trend-conscious metropolitan listeners. On the other hand, the scene was now exploding in a way that couldn’t be ignored, both in terms of creative vitality and grassroots popularity. And with many of the classic emo bands that influenced this new generation enjoying a fresh evaluation due to the usual 20-year nostalgia cycle, some kind of “revival” seemed legitimately afoot. The genre that gave us Through Being Cool was suddenly cool again. It was a remarkable turnaround.

OK, now back to hard rock: Last weekend Columbus hosted the tenth installment of Rock On The Range, billed as the biggest rock festival in the US. Once again promoters Danny Wimmer Productions (DWP) and Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) assembled a massive pile of modern rock radio favorites — headliners included Disturbed, Rob Zombie, and Red Hot Chili Peppers — seasoned with a handful of niche stars and curiosities from across the heavy music spectrum. And once again, the soccer-centric Mapfre Stadium was sold out all weekend, teeming with loud music lovers in a wide variety of black T-shirts. I ventured into the madness on Sunday, when the lineup skewed the closest to my taste with sets by At The Drive-In, Deftones, and Death From Above 1979. And even with those personal favorites on tap, the culture shock was immediate.

Compared to most major US festivals, which have come to be ruled by EDM dance parties, blockbuster reunions, and an assortment of recent critical sensations, Rock On The Range felt like an alternate universe: one where mid-aughts retro relic Wolfmother plays “Woman” to tens of thousands; where an old skate-punk standby like Pennywise, the kind of band that’s usually ignored by the Coachella kids, commands a fiercely moving throng of devotees; where English metalcore stars Bring Me The Horizon non-ironically engage in the kind coordinated headbanging that once made Attack Attack! an online punchline and are greeted as conquering heroes.

In fact this “alternate universe” is very much reflective of the real world; it just represents a segment of the population whose taste is not often represented in the media. This kind of rock — loud, aggressive, boorish headbanging fare unmoored to contemporary notions of cool — may not rule the charts anymore, but it remains a mainstream unto itself. And if a new Billboard report is to be believed, the genre could be in for a big summer.

Per the report, fests like Rock On The Range, Fort Rock, Carolina Rebellion, Welcome To Rockville, and next weekend’s Rocklahoma remain a major draw in “secondary and tertiary” markets. These are cities where people largely don’t care about what’s hip, a notion Cory Brennan — who manages acts including Slipknot, Megadeth, the Misfits, and Lamb Of God — humorously communicated to Billboard: “Sponsors, brands, and media may think that Tame Impala and X Ambassadors are sexy and exciting to talk about, but the rest of the country couldn’t give two shits.” AEG Live’s hard rock guru Joe Litvag put it more diplomatically: “You get outside of LA and New York, there’s a lot of nooks and crannies out there. There are rock fans in every one of those nooks and crannies, and our job is to speak to them.”

And the nation’s rock promoters are speaking loud and clear. Ozzy Osbourne’s scene-defining Ozzfest is joining forces with Slipknot’s popular Knotfest for a one-off event this September called Ozzfest Meets Knotfest. Next year’s annual ShipRocked cruise is already sold out with headliners Breaking Benjamin, Papa Roach, and Alter Bridge on deck. Mimicking country music’s Megaticket program, which allows fans to purchase passes for a whole season’s worth of concerts, Live Nation just launched its Ticket To Rock program, allowing fans bulk access to for package tours including Disturbed/Breaking Benjamin, Korn/Rob Zombie, and Slipkot/Marilyn Manson. And, as if this demographic’s parallels to Donald Trump’s flyover country coalition needed to be spelled out, the Make America Rock Again tour will bring together rock veterans Trapt, Saliva, Saving Abel, Alien Ant Farm, Crazytown, 12 Stones, Drowning Pool, and Tantric this fall.

Hard rock as a self-contained scene is undeniably surging. But more intriguingly, the genre seems to be gaining an audience beyond its longtime partisans. The Guns N’ Roses and Misfits reunions have been greeted with enthusiasm far and wide. Fashion designer Jerry Lorenzo, whose Fear Of God label has released retro Metallica and Nirvana shirts and supplied metal-oriented merch for Kanye West and Justin Bieber, has recently been rocking Slipknot T-shirts. Two decades into their career, adventurous hard rock cult favorites Deftones are suddenly gaining positive attention from media outlets that have traditionally ignored them — us included — while a recent Rolling Stone retrospective assigned nü-metal originators KoRn’s self-titled debut a level of influence similar to that of the Velvet Underground or the Ramones.

The timing seems right for a reevaluation. Writer Steven Hyden’s smart 2013 series The Winners’ History Of Rock And Roll pointed out that from Zeppelin to Bon Jovi to Metallica, populist rock bands that begin as critical pariahs tend to be embraced decades down the line. Yesterday, our own Tom Breihan noted that the same thing is happening in rap: Once music becomes old enough to qualify as “classic,” nostalgia tends to trump critical distance. About 15-20 years since their genesis, could the likes of Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit be the next generation of hard rock bands to experience a reclamation?

One the more fascinating threads in Billboard’s report was promoters’ ambitions to crossbreed a modern rock lineup with more mainstream-accepted or critically acclaimed bands. In a Pitchfork feature on the emo revival, Greg Horbal, a former member of ambitious emo collective the World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die, bemoaned an invisible wall between the “indie rock” and “emo” scenes: “[Andrew Savage] from Parquet Courts used to be in Teenage Cool Kids, and we would definitely have played with them at some point. There is no way we’ll ever be put on the same show with Parquet Courts.” The same kind of class division bars many Rock On The Range-type bands from getting booked alongside acts like Jack White or the aforementioned Tame Impala. That’s why landing a blockbuster general-interest band like Red Hot Chili Peppers was such a coup for Rock On The Range. Fest founder Danny Wimmer told Billboard he wants to see the walls come down:

Nirvana didn’t break alternative, there was something already brewing and Nirvana was just the band that you could point out. Go to your grocery store, there’s metal imagery everywhere. Foo Fighters are selling out stadiums, that’s a rock act. Black Keys is a rock act, Jack White is a rock act. I want AWOL Nation and Kings Of Leon playing with Avenged Sevenfold; it’s good for music and it will help grow both sides. The key is to keep investing in all the genres and subgenres. How many times can Red Hot Chili Peppers play a dance event?

Sunday’s Rock On The Range lineup demonstrated Wimmer’s vision at work, with modern rock and metal mainstays sharing space with a wide range of more famous and/or tasteful artists. It wasn’t just the Chili Peppers topping the bill. It was Death From Above 1979 unleashing violent bass detonations on the same stage where Disturbed did their dirty deeds less than 48 hours earlier. It was Deftones artfully filling in the space between Quicksand and Cocteau Twins just after the stadium aired promos for nü-metal supergroup Hellyeah. It was the reunited At The Drive-In delivering one of the most urgent, exhilarating, fun half-hours of music I’ve ever witnessed.

Now, is this kind of cross-pollination sustainable? For the avowed rock fans that comprise Rock On The Range’s core audience, probably; the Rock On The Range audience seemed plenty happy to rock out to a wide variety of heavy music. For those of us on the outside of that demographic, it’s less clear. Admittedly the whole reason I attended Rock On The Range in the first place is because they scheduled most of the “cool” bands on the same day. To lure someone like me back for a whole weekend, they’d have to alter their lineup to an extent that might cost them their hard-won identity. There are already rock festivals geared toward people on the punk, indie rock, and emo side, like Atlanta’s Wrecking Ball or Gainesville’s the Fest. On the other hand, one killer headliner can be enough to sway both ticket-buyers and booking agents, so ROTR could significantly broaden its appeal by landing someone like Metallica or even Queens Of The Stone Age and using them as bait to secure an ever wider range of small-font bands.

Frankly, though, the hard rock scene does not need to win over the cool-conscious crowd in order to thrive. Recent albums by everyone from Slipknot to Foo Fighters to Five Finger Death Punch to Iron Maiden scored top-5 debuts. Disturbed are having a crossover moment with their “The Sound Of Silence” cover, tapping into that Staind vein. As opposed to the pure nostalgia trip that is the Guns N’ Roses reunion, these bands are a going concern, and their fans are voracious. And if bands can find a way to build on the momentum from Disturbed’s big hit, they might even be able to spill over into to the level of cultural ubiquity hard rock’s royalty once enjoyed.

The bigger question, in terms of hard rock’s long-term growth and vitality: Where’s the next wave? The emo revival was largely driven by a new generation of bands, many of whom have exploded beyond their original scene to reach a broader swath of music fans. Now, Modern Baseball and the Hotelier are not operating on the same scale as Slipknot and Disturbed, but they’re making at least as much cultural noise as forebears like Sunny Day Real Estate and Braid did in their heyday. And who knows, maybe they’ll reach Dashboard Confessional/Jimmy Eat World heights. On the other hand, all of the groups driving this hard-rock resurgence have been around for at least a decade. To complete this revival, we don’t just need the old Guns N’ Roses, we need a new Guns N’ Roses.


Last week, when The Week In Pop was enjoying a family vacation, Justin Timberlake’s Max Martin-produced “Can’t Stop The Feeling” debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart. It was Timberlake’s first #1 hit in more than nine years and his biggest debut ever, and Slate’s Chris Molanphy had a lot of great insights about the reasons for that. But “Can’t Stop The Feeling” slides down to #3 this week as Drake’s “One Dance” climbs back to #1 for a second nonconsecutive week, followed by Desiigner’s former chart-topper “Panda” at #2. In other significant singles movement, the Chainsmokers and Daya’s “Don’t Let Me Down” reaches a new peak of #6, and Rihanna’s “Needed Me” remains at its #10 peak.

Drake also stays on top of the Billboard 200 albums chart for a third straight week with another 239,000 equivalent units (83,000 in pure sales) for his platinum-selling Views. That means Views also ruled last week, when top-10 debuts included Radiohead’s #3 A Moon Shaped Pool, Keith Urban’s #4 Ripcord, and Cole Swindell’s #6 You Should Be Here.

As for this week’s album action, Beyoncé’s Lemonade stays put at #2. Its 128,000 units are well below Drake’s numbers, but notably, with 92,000 in pure sales, Queen Bey would be #1 if the chart did not account for streaming. The week’s biggest debut is Meghan Trainor’s Thank You at #3 with 107,000 units/84,000 sales. Rock band Pierce The Veil starts at #4 with 54,000 units/50,000 sales for Misadventures. Chance The Rapper’s Coloring Book enters at #8 with 38,000 units, becoming the first full-length release to chart on the Billboard 200 exclusively on the strength of streams. And Jennifer Nettles’ Playing With Fire nabbed 33,000 units/31,000 sales to begin at #10.


[Note: The Week In Pop was on vacation last week, so this week’s song roundup reflects two weeks of new releases.]

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – “Dance Off” (Feat. Idris Elba)
Fun video. Goofy/corny Macklemore is so much better than woke/guilty Macklemore. And frankly, if it’s good enough for Stringer Bell, it’s good enough for me.

Fergie – “Hungry”
This is only a one-minute preview, but you get the gist. It’s a surprisingly dark, almost gothic turn from the woman who brought you such hits as “Glamorous” and “London Bridge.”

OneRepublic – “Wherever I Go”
Paging Tim Cook.

Nick Jonas – “Chainsaw”
This is basically “Jealous 2: The Breakup,” and that works for me.

DNCE – “Toothbrush”
Dammit, do I like DNCE now?


[Note: The Week In Pop was on vacation last week, so here’s two weeks’ worth of news.]

  • Future was granted joint custody of his son with Ciara. [TMZ]
  • The makers of the Kim Kardashian: Hollywood mobile game have launched Britney Spears: American Dream. [Glu]
  • Florida Georgia Line covered Backstreet Boys. [YouTube]
  • Mark Ronson talked briefly to Charlie Rose about Lady Gaga’s new album for which she’s learning to play guitar. [Idolator]
  • In other Gaga news, despite conflicting reports, she reportedly will appear in an upcoming Dionne Warwick biopic. [THR]
  • In a newly unearthed interview from 1991, Donald Trump — while pretending to be a Trump publicist! — claimed Madonna and Mick Jagger’s girlfriend were pursuing him. [Gawker]
  • Andrew Lloyd Webber is furious with “crazy” Nicole Scherzinger for dropping out of his Cats revival. [The Guardian]
  • Macklemore visited the White House to discuss opioid addiction with President Obama and became the first non-administration official to appear on the president’s weekly address. [YouTube]
  • Ellen DeGeneres and Wanda Sykes made a really bad Lemonade parody. [Ellen]
  • A San Diego crane operator was inundated with death threats from the Beyhive after he joked about sabotaging Beyoncé’s stage in an Instagram comment. [TMZ]
  • Avril Lavigne passionately defended Nickelback on Twitter, telling haters to grow up. []
  • It has now come to light that Kelly Rowland inserted a homophobic slur into the 2003 slasher film Freddie Vs. Jason. [HitFix]
  • The tralier for Mariah Carey’s reality series is here. [YouTube]
  • Carey will also make three more original movies for the Hallmark Channel. [Deadline]
  • Demi Lovato and Nick Jonas did James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke. [YouTube]
  • Jonas also sang about shapes on Sesame Street. [YouTube]
  • Mick Jagger, Timbaland, John Fogerty, and Demi Lovato will appear on the new Brad Paisley album. [Taste Of Country]
  • Ariana Grande dueted with Christina Aguilera on The Voice finale. [Twitter]
  • On The Ellen Degeneres Show Aguilera acknowledged that Hillary Clinton seemed to be “staring at my bosoms” in a viral 2012 photo: “She supports the girls … They need support.” [People]
  • Clinton also stopped by Ellen and fielded a question submitted by Taylor Swift: “Have you seen Lemonade and do you like it?” [NY Daily News]
  • Adele won Songwriter Of The Year at the 61st Ivor Novello Awards. [BBC]
  • Soulja Boy reportedly signed a $400M endorsement deal with World Poker Fund Holdings, of which not coincidentally he was already a major backer. [Market Wired]
  • After his car crash, Calvin Harris left the hospital against medical advice when they wouldn’t give him a private room. [TMZ]
  • A new Discovery Channel series will pair wildlife stories with artists like Usher, Christina Aguilera, and Ellie Goulding. [THR]
  • Pharrell produced the new Little Big Town album. [WaPo]
  • In Touch says Gwen Stefani is struggling to fill seats of her upcoming tour. [In Touch]
  • Niall Horan has complained of being besieged by vicious messages from One Direction fans, just as evidence shows he has his first solo song registered with ASCAP. [Metro]
  • Maroon 5 went on a trip to the Guatemalan rain forest and are now woke about illegal logging. [Billboard]
  • Meanwhile Maroon 5’s bassist has accepted a community service deal following his arrest on cocaine charges earlier this year. [Billboard]


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