Normally, The Cutout Bin highlights songs, albums, and artists who have been unfairly overlooked or under-appreciated. Instead of the usual format, however, I’d like to spotlight a genre that may or may not be endangered: rock and roll.
While this seems like an outrageous statement, statistics do back this claim somewhat. In the July 2, 2011 edition of the Chicago Tribune, reporter Robert Channick takes a close look at the state of Chicago radio. As he points out in “The Volume of Rock on Chicago Radio Is Quieter These Days,” conglomerate Merlin Media recently purchased three bundled stations: WKQX (Q101), WLUP (The Loop), and New York’s WXRP, all at a greatly reduced price. Rumor has it that the company may turn Q101 into an all-talk format, leaving only three all-rock stations standing: WLUP, WXRT, and WDRV (The Drive). Stations such as the all-oldies WLS may air some rock as part of their format, but are not classified as “rock” by Arbitron Ratings. Only WDRV remains in the top ten ratings; the rest are either talk, news, urban, or pop stations. Channick quotes Chicago radio veteran John Gehron (current consultant for Merlin Media) as saying that rock radio is struggling in several major markets: “It’s not the dominant sound that it was in the ’60s and ’70s, when rock really was the sound of a generation,” he explains. Is the state of Chicago rock radio symptomatic of rock in general?
Times have indeed changed since the 1970s, when the “album rock” format was introduced to listeners. Originally a loose format, where DJs could play entire album sides, the genre evolved into “classic rock,” or the music catalogs of Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Eagles. In Chicago, WLUP and WXRT became hugely popular; in WLUP’s case, its high ratings were partially due to radio personality Jonathon Brandmeier. Wearing a “The Loop” t-shirt became a symbol of coolness. According to Radio-Info.com’s Chris Huff, Chicago rock radio reached its peak around 1992, when the city had WCKG and WFYR (The Blaze), in addition to Q101, WLUP, and WXRT (WDRV was a classical station; WLS had a talk radio format at the time).
The seeming decline of rock radio can be attributed to a combination of factors. High-paid DJs have largely disappeared; in fact, The Drive rarely has its DJs talk on air. Technology has played a major role in the radio landscape, as more people listen to their MP3 players as well as internet, digital, and satellite radio. All of these formats allow users to create their own playlists, either from their individual libraries or through streaming media like Last FM or Pandora. In addition, tastes have changed, as R&B, hip hop, rap, and pop dominate today’s charts. A glance at Billboard’s Hot 100 provides an instant snapshot of current popular music: artists Pitbull, Adele, LMFAO, Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga, Maroon 5, Bruno Mars, and Lil Wayne inhabit the top ten spots, none of which could be classified as pure rock. At first glimpse, it seems as though rock has become an endangered species. However, we have heard this song before.
Flash back to July 12, 1979. Back then, disco was king; numerous stations around the country had switched to an all-dance format, and disco groups such as the Bee Gees, Chic, the Village People, and Sister Sledge ruled the charts. Even rock and pop artists such as Rod Stewart, Blondie, Barbara Streisand, Paul McCartney and Wings, and Cliff Richard flirted with the genre, earning them major hits. Admittedly, disco was quickly becoming overexposed, with grandmas and grandpas taking disco dancing lessons, and Studio 54 promoting their own brand of jeans. Some rock fans began feeling disenfranchised, although in retrospect other, more sensitive issues (namely racism and homophobia) may have intensified the backlash. Capitalizing on this growing feeling, then-WLUP DJ Steve Dahl staged the infamous “Disco Demolition” event at the former Comiskey Park, urging fans to bring disco records for destruction. With great drama, Dahl blew up the albums in a crate, inciting attendees to rush the field, resulting in a riot. Supposedly this even was pivotal in “killing” disco, returning rock to its rightful place on the charts. However, dance artists such as Donna Summer, Shalamar, Linda Clifford, and Stephanie Mills continued releasing successful singles in 1980. The claim that Disco Demolition “killed” disco and restored rock and roll remains dubious.
Did disco ultimately destroy rock? Hardly. Among the massively popular artists that emerged from the 1980s include U2, REM, Guns ‘n Roses, Bon Jovi, Living Colour, Metallica, Judas Priest, and Def Leppard, among many others. Alternative rock and grunge ruled half of the nineties, with Nirvana and Pearl Jam leading the way. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction, Weezer, and Green day also emerged, and still influence today’s bands. Bruce Springsteen and John Cougar Mellencamp continued racking up hits, and women became major forces in rock (Sinead O’Connor, the Breeders, 10,000 Maniacs, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Bonnie Raitt, Pat Benatar, and Chrissie Hynde, just to name a few).
Fast forward to 2011—yes, rap, hip hop, and pop may seem to dominate the airwaves. But rock carries on with Coldplay, Fleet Foxes, Radiohead, Foo Fighters, Death Cab for Cutie, My Morning Jacket, The Strokes, PJ Harvey, and Fiona Apple, among many others. In 2010, Bon Jovi reigned as Billboard’s top touring act, with the Dave Matthews Band, U2, AC/DC, Metallica, Nickelback, Paul McCartney, and the Eagles following closely behind. Rock also shows the ability to adapt, as it has merged with hip hop, beginning with the landmark 1986 Aerosmith/Run DMC collaboration “Walk This Way.” Groups such as Limp Bizkit, the Beastie Boys, Gorillaz, and Beck have continued experimenting with such hybrids.
Rock may not dominate the charts or radio airwaves as it once did, but reports of its death are highly exaggerated. Since the disco days of the 1970s, critics have sounded the alarm for rock’s demise, but the cataclysmic event has never happened. From Elvis Presley’s sneer to Buddy Holly’s glasses, from the Beatles’ haircuts on Ed Sullivan to Mick Jagger’s swagger, from Jimi Hendrix’s flaming guitar to the Who’s demolition of the stage, rock’s presence lingers. Teenagers will still save money to purchase electric guitars or starter drum kits, dreaming of stardom. Not even Lady Gaga can kill a music form that continues to resonate through generations.
By the way, what was the first track to earn double-platinum status on iTunes? Journey’s 1981 hit “Don’t Stop Believin.’” Perhaps that best sums up today’s rock and roll status.