Nostalgia And The Shape Of Mainstream Rock To Come
In late 2017, alternative rock radio returned to New York City for the first time in six years. 92.3 FM made the switch from pop to rock, which at the time was welcome news since NYC already has a behemoth in Z100 for top charts, and like with the city’s sports teams, there’s only a real need for one of the same thing.
A press release promised “an expertly curated playlist with local, informed discovery.” Having grown up listening to the station back when it was K-Rock, I was happy a channel like this was back for the masses, and there was even a small (but naïve) part of me hoping that maybe they’d play some cool stuff like borderline radio-friendly “indie” artists like Courtney Barnett or the War On Drugs. Hell, I even would’ve taken the new Paramore record. Alt-radio still likes those guys, right?
So, on its first day of existence, did 92.3 FM live up to my nerdy pipe-dream for a mainstream radio station? Reader, it did not.
Instead, it was more of the same. The station’s first block of songs was as follows: Foo Fighters’ “My Hero,” MGMT’s “Kids,” Vance Joy’s “Lay It On Me” and — you guessed it — Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” That’s right — they couldn’t wait 20 minutes to play another Dave Grohl-related song. If that’s your thesis statement as an alternative radio station, you might as well be branded as classic rock.
Maybe it’s not all 92.3 FM’s fault though. It’s an indication of where radio rock is today: too infatuated with its own history, and too stubborn to be different. Those programming the format revere heroes like Grohl, Chris Cornell, or even Billy Corgan, yet they never stop to think how or why those guys became who they are in the first place. Instead, mainstream rock finds itself in the middle of an existential crisis, barely noticed at the big party, but trying to fit in anyway. (Meanwhile, the indie kids are having the most fun in the basement.)
That’s not to say rock artists haven’t been at least trying to stay relevant in the mainstream. For many reasons tracing back decades — iHeartRadio buying up and homogenizing stations, the rise of first iPods and then streaming, demographic shifts, etc. — a significant chunk of rock radio playlists now comprises bands angling to become pop’s next “alternative” crossover hit. And not all of them are small-font festival bands with major-label contracts.
Pop-punk veterans like Fall Out Boy and Panic! At The Disco, for instance, spent 2018 like Steve Buscemi trying to pass as a high school kid, hanging out on the Hot 100 chart with Ariana Grande and Drake. But hey, you gotta give credit where it’s due. Panic! At The Disco (or should I say solo-artist Brendon Urie) scored their biggest hit ever this year with “High Hopes,” their first top 10 single since they were writing sins, not tragedies. Both bands have somehow managed to outlast their peers and have successfully adapted to the mainstream sound over the years.
Of course, with that adaptation, they have become a mutated shell of what they used to be. FOB and P!ATD may still technically identify as rock, but they’re staying the hell away from rocking. Why? Because rock is a losing business. They’re not dummies. If the kids want something like Marshmello or Post Malone, then that’s what they’ll get because that’s what sells. Such hybridization, in which genre parameters become so blurred that rock ceases to be recognizable as rock, is how you get the likes of Twenty One Pilots, lovelytheband, and Imagine Dragons — all of whom had a big year in 2018.
But you know what also sells? Nostalgia.
Nostalgia was the biggest story in rock in 2018. It’s always been a hot commodity, and there is a certain comfort in looking back. While the good memories fade, the feelings remain. For many of us in 2018, good feelings were hard to come by, and as parts of the world around us burned by wildfire or was washed out by the sea, memories were all that remained. We have come to yearn for the days when it didn’t feel like we were always on the brink of destruction. Just as Disney has been hell-bent on recreating its classic movies recently, rock cashed in this year on our vulnerable needs for the “good old days,” perpetuating a stubbornly recursive cycle that we’ve already heard before.
Weezer was the biggest name to dive head-first into the well of nostalgia. Again, give the band credit; their output may be insufferably bad lately, but in a month, they’ll be releasing their third album in three years. And you know what? People are still eating that shit up! Can’t knock the hustle, I guess? That said, none of those albums have or will produce a bigger song for Weezer than their cover of Toto’s “Africa,” released in May of this year in response to a fan petition on social media that went viral.
As if we haven’t heard enough of Toto’s bro-drinking anthem already, Weezer’s “Africa” cover their biggest hit since “Beverly Hills” in 2005. Of course, cashing in on other bands’ success is nothing new. As you’ve surely seen in Tom Breihan’s excellent The Number Ones column this year, artists have been doing it for years, reworking old songs time and again. But this wasn’t even a rework. It was as straight-up as a cover can be. And what started out as kind of a joke on social media turned into a crossover hit that peaked at #51 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the Alternative Songs chart. Visually, they took the backward fixation even further by parodying their own “Undone (The Sweater Song)” video and recruiting “Weird Al” Yankovic for good(?) measure. In just about every way, “Africa” embodied the meme-ification of rock music. What next? Are they going to cover “All Star”? Oh God, they’re going to cover “All Star,” aren’t they?
Then there was Greta Van Fleet. Oh, Greta Van Fleet, you beautiful young hippie children. Remember when you were a kid and fantasized about getting up on stage at your high school talent show and just ripping into a Jimmy Page solo as your classmates stare and swoon in awe of your god-like guitar wizardry? It wasn’t just me, right? RIGHT? Well, Greta Van Fleet is currently living that dream, quite literally. If they sounded any more like Led Zeppelin, Phil Collins would be asking to drum for them.
Be that as it may, the kids from the land of the ice and snow (Frankenmuth, MI) have racked up three #1 hits on the mainstream rock charts over the past nearly two years. In October, they released their debut album Anthem Of The Peaceful Army, which peaked at #3 on the Billboard 200. Of course, this opened the door to people like that one uncle to proudly claim that “Rock is back!” at Thanksgiving before proceeding to talk to you about the first time they saw Rush live. Only time will tell how long this fad will last. I mean, didn’t we already try this with Wolfmother? At least those guys had cool cover art. Anyway, call me when GVF discover the Velvet Underground.
Even the music-related movies from this year went heavy on the nostalgia. A Star Is Born, while disappointingly not about 2018 breakout celebrity Gritty, recalled the days when rock bands mattered and pursuing a music career was an attainable goal (ha!). It also produced a top 10 rock ballad for Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper with the “AHHHHHHH HAA AHHHHAHHHHH” song. Not too shabby for a fourth remake.
One of the other most talked about movies of 2018 was Bohemian Rhapsody, another trip down memory lane that poses the question, “Hey, remember when Queen played Live Aid?” and answers by replying to itself, “That was awesome.” Also, the soundtrack to the film reached #3 on the Billboard 200, and has stayed in and around the top 10 since. Yes, it’s a testament to the timelessness of the music they created, but are there still that many people out there who still need to hear “We Will Rock You”?
We all want to be one of the Strokes, but both Julian Casablancas and Alex Turner are savvy enough to know that this doesn’t have to be it. Their two bands — the Voidz and Arctic Monkeys, respectively — both released two of the strangest, daring, and best alternative rock releases of the year, eschewing any desire to get back into the ring in order to follow their weirdest tendencies.
Each album was a grower in its own way. Virtue was anti-Strokes in every way — sometimes pointedly and literally. Casablancas even took his name off the bill, a move that was surely calculated to rid the album of any unnecessary baggage. He then trolled listeners by putting the most Strokes-y sounding song, “Leave It In My Dreams,” first on the album before diving deeper into a bat-shit world of prog-rock, metal, punk, funk, and whatever the hell “QYURRYUS” is. The whole album is a power move to rid listeners of any premeditated notions of what a Strokes record should sound like. The end does in fact have an end; Virtue is Casablancas’ way of telling us to move on.
He isn’t the only one. Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is a whole other kind of crazy endeavor. Each subsequent Arctic Monkeys release has built and improved upon the previous record’s sound and lyrical magnitude. AM was a masterclass in riff-heavy rock and roll combined with an R&B groove and Turner’s confidently unique turn of phrases. The mainstream seemed to finally begin catching on in a big way. You had the feeling that the band was building up to something huge, and Arctic Monkeys could’ve been the first “traditional” rock band since Kings Of Leon to break the glass ceiling rock has built for itself. Instead, they dropped a sci-fi lounge album about living on a colonized and gentrified moon. It’s one of the most surprising things I’ve heard from a rock band in years. It’s a left turn on a road where almost everyone else is staying straight, and it rewards repeated listens.
Unfortunately, the mainstream seems like it is no longer able to embrace weirder albums like these, even from seasoned and proven veterans. As Tony Soprano once said, “‘Remember when’ is the lowest form of conversation.” Much of 2018 was spent reflecting on the so-called “glory days” of rock and roll. At some point, when do we stop relying on the past and start using it to shape the future?
2019 marks the beginning of the end to a bizarre and tumultuous decade, and as it has been, rock remains in a questionable state of existence. Is it better off now than it was 10 years ago? Who will make the next big crossover hit and what will it sound like? Will it come from Kevin Parker, a man flush with pop sensibility AND credibility? Will 2019 be more than a brief inquiry into the 1975? Will the women-led indie acts currently ruling year-end lists — the likes of Snail Mail, Soccer Mommy, and Mitski — finally get a crack at heavy rotation on stations like 92.3? Any of that would be an upgrade from what we’ve been hearing lately. For now, as 2018 comes to an end, rock is like the narrator of “The Ultracheese,” the closing track off Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino: just a loner in the present future, who can’t stop longing for what once was.