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Is rock alive? When, how, why: music vs marketing

Di Gerolamo Sacco
Data di pubblicazione 05/03/2017

Hi everyone! I’d like to dedicate this article to the history of rock and to all of you passionate about music, but also to branding and anthropology. Also to anyone who’s simply curious and looking for a new inspiration. If you’re already familiar with the titles I’m going to present here, this article will be very quick to read, the final listening included. The subject is rock music: some say that rock’s been long dead, some think that rock is still alive and around us. I had my doubts, so I decided to explore this issue. Let’s say that if you look at it from a „hobbyist’s”, amatorial perspective, rock turns out to be more alive than ever, like football, modelling, or yoga. There are no doubts about that. However, If we look at it from the artistic perspective, the answer is different and you’ll get know it at the end of this article. To give you a tiny spoiler – let’s start from the presupposition that when a music scene loses its soul or its original message, or when it’s unable to renew itself, artistically speaking this scene is dead. But there’s also the fact that even if Elisa changes her name into Elena, it doesn’t mean that Elisa doesn’t exist anymore, it’s enough to recognize her. And I’ve already told you too much ? Have fun !

The ’50s. Rock is born. A genre, style, cultural movement with 5 precise features. 

Let’s start with the definition of rock as it originally was.

Rock, the abbreviated form of Rock’n’Roll, was born in the USA in the ’50s, as a byproduct of the avant-garde music genres of all American pop cultures. It’s starts an immediate revolution, and its five pillars are: 1) it’s mixing white and black musical roots, taking the forms of preceding cultures 2) it’s a popular dance music 3) it uses new technologies to create new sounds 4) it’s loaded with positive energy 5) it’s promoting transgression, rebellion, and abolishment of the norms.

Between the black and the white music, danceable to the point of making yourself a mess, with new sounds and technologies, a great “fuck you “ to all who were playing before, rock is one of the most revolutionary breaths of fresh air in the history of the Occidental music. I don’t want to to take those five features for granted though – as we’ll see, what’s called rock today is exactly the contrary to all that. I know that today you wouldn’t think of rock as the African American music, but at the beginning it was exactly that. What’s more, it was so “black” as a genre, that white people who played it were tauntingly called Rock-a-Billy, not Rock’n’Roll. Also, please don’t take rock being dance for granted. Maybe today it is? Attention: I’m not saying danceable, I’m saying DANCE. A revolutionary dance music, pure and healthy joy which substituted the organized ball dances in pairs. Also, don’t take it being technologically innovative for granted, maybe today the electric guitar isn’t considered high-tech, but back then, electric instruments were something totally new, like magnetic tape was. Finally, don’t forget that the first rock was lively, positive, and full of energy, what made it so different from the melancholic blues. So, don’t take anything for granted and we’ll see what happens, starting with the ‘60s.

The ‘60s. Rock loses its first building block: its “black” roots.

With the contributing factor of a general cultural boom, in which rock is a leading figure starting from the postwar period, the greatest masterpieces in the history of genre are born, between the 1986 and 1971, after the decade when flagships like Stones, Beatles, and California Dreaming paved the highway to an unimaginable creativity. These are themes of Vietnam, of emancipation, of revolution. Santana, Joplin, Doors, and many others literally rewrote the music history. But it’s in the ‘60s that rock splits with its „black” cultural origins, which form autonomous forms like Rhythm’n’blues – the rock of black population. Hold on I’m Coming and Gimme Some Loving are symbols of the newly born R’n’b. During this separation period, the young rock music scene stripped of its origins, takes interest in folk, which is „white”, and country, which is as „white” as any genre can get. An irreversible process, which thirty years later generated monsters such as rapper and metalheads’s rivalry.

In this moment I’d like to congratulate the Blues Brothers for recovering the bond between the white and the black music twenty years later, but still – it’s only in a movie. The last black one of rock was Jimi Hendrix, a man who decided how the electric guitar should be played from his times on. He died, what a coincidence, exactly in 1970.

However, this doesn’t really seem to damage the music scene too much. In the subsequent years of the ‘70s rock firmly holds on to the features that made it revolutionary. Rock became white, but remained innovative, popular, and dance. In fact, in 1968 there was no “dance music” per se, if you wanted to dance to something you danced to Born to be Wild and On the Road Again of Canned Heat. Nothing wrong with that. But, as you’ve probably already sensed, the ‘70s turned out to change things quite a bit. I’m going to divide the ‘70s in three parts.

The ‘70s. – PART 1. Rock stops to be danced.

The separation of rock and dance comes in the ‘70s, right after the golden period of the hits from the ’68, like Born to be Wild. Rock becomes something you listen to while seated, leaving all the dancing to the „black” music spectrum, which hasn’t been caring one bit about rock for at least twenty years by now. After the „Green onions” binge, the black went on to give life to funk and later to disco music. Rock, on the other hand, loses this quality. The fusion of the Nordic ballads, classical, and the conceptual sprirt give birth to so called „progressive” rock, which creates a string of masterpieces, however, betraying the original spirit of rock. Already the ‘60s saw some totally non-dance songs like for instance Because by The Beatles, or The End by The Doors. But The Beatles also had tracks like Polythene Pam (the same album that has Because, Abbey Road) and The Doors like Through (the album of The End, Electra). The same with Led Zeppelin. However, starting from the 1975 dance becomes a tabù.

You could ask “how come?”. The people of the ‘70s just stopped dancing? No, on the contrary: it seems that it was the time when people got fed up with sitting down, that in order to just move they put up with little musical disgraced such as I will Survive or YMCA (everyone has their own taste, but let’s say that ugliness falls in its own, separate category).

Fortunately, Italians, Germans, and French bring dance to the scene, even producing some masterpieces. For example I Feel Love by Donna Summer, which stirs the world already in the ’76, or Plastic Bertrand, who comes out in France with Tout Petit La Planete.

The die is cast. The ‘70s leave dance for others to take care of, while rock looks for its identity somewhere else. Between the 1977 and 1978 the newborn Police and some others try to move the public a little, but dance music and the music you can dance to are two different things, different species in the times when the newly born electronic disco has already reached the level of Fade to Gray. Not only them, but also Meteor Man, Dirty Talk, everything that today’s rockers call the ‘80s’ rock. Actually, it was the ‘70s dance, but let’s not go into that. Whatever called, this music’s efficiency is so rapid, that rock starts to seem a genre of timid kids.

What’s interesting, the same root from which dance grew up, gave life also to punk. The same needs, the same chaos. It’s also interesting that punk is not called rock. It’s not a coincidence. Punk, although very different from disco, makes people move a lot. But the rockers of the ‘70s don’t care about that anymore. During those years, influenced also by the political unrest and the aggressive music criticisms, which invades the minds of the public, artists, and journalists, a new problem is born: the problem of rock being popular music, good for everyone, music which apart from making people dance, should also fit their taste.

The ‘70s – PART 2. Rock doesn’t want to be pop anymore.

It’s in the ‘70s that the term “pop music” starts referring to a genre, not just to any music which is simply popular. What is more it’s a genre contradictory to rock. As if rock sent the people to hell, you could say. Some think that pop was born before those times, but that’s not true. Before the ‘70s when you talked about pop you talked also about rock, it was the same thing. You talked about rock vs mods (virus of the forefathers), but not about rock vs pop. In the second half of the decade pop starts to be defined as all music which displays elements excluded from the rock sphere, for instance the black, or dance elements, which are not strictly belonging to r’n’b or disco. So, pop music becomes the mass music, a bit black, maybe danceable, but not dance nor punk.

Pink Floyd, with some healthy conceptual marketing avoid being defined as pop by separating themselves from the public with a veil. It was 1979. Personally, I think that Pink Floyd had already taken their place in history with their Relics from 1967, and in my very personal opinion Julia Dream is one the most beautiful songs in the history of music since the ‘900. That’s why I’m convinced they didn’t have to play intellectuals in order to to be liked by the cool part of the society at that time. But it happened, and wasn’t bad at all, because The Dark Side of the Moon is a masterpiece. I think it’s more of a classical music than rock, I don’t see any rock there (accounting for the original rock’s festures), but still, it’s a masterpiece. A bit like Abbey Road, which is not really rock, but a masterpiece anyway.

What’s left of rock after all this shake up?

The ‘70s – PART 3. The research of new sounds is what remains of the original rock. But now rock is on the verge of disappearing.

The beautiful things of the ‘70s, especially the second half of the decade, are the already mentioned Pink Floyd, but also the American and German avant-garde gems (so-called Kraut rock) and numerous innovative projects such as Tangerine Dream, Popol Wuh, and Can, which keeps the rock scene alive. It’s possible thanks to the exploration of new sounds, enabled by the technology. However, the mainstream with its great public took another direction, because now the concept of rock is not to be mainstream. After all, as I said before, also Because of The Beatles and Julia Dream of Pink Floyd are tracks like this, psychedelic but very mainstream (beautiful times). From one point of view you can’t really blame the big public. I adore Tangeribe Dream, but I certainly couldn’t listen to them everyday, it’d be like going to the psychologist every morning. That’s why at the end of the ‘70s rock becomes an electronic super cool thing, but for few. At least in comparison to the preceding years. And if not for the arrival of the mysterious, misunderstood, and screwed ‘80s with their dynamite cargo, shortly it would be dead.

The ‘80s. Rock is reborn but abandons the new sounds. Towards the self-destruction.

The ‘80s start with Pink Floyd, Ramones, Queen, Police, Michael Jackson. There’s a bit of everything. No, wait… Michael Jackson isn’t “rock” (MJ took it bad and disfigured his face to look white, but noone ever called him a rocker: he died artistically in ’97 with a horrible song Blood is on the Dance Floor). Neither Ramones are rock, they’re punk. They say police were pop. You’ve already understood the damage done by the ‘70s. But there’s also something positive: in the sales classification YMCA gives its spot to Another One Bites the Dust, even with the thing being criticised as shit to kiss up to the black public, and I will Survive lost with My Sharona by Knack. Tracks like I Love Rock’n’Roll become real staples for the new generations. Rock is reborn. However, despite the fact that the ‘80s revived rock, we all have that one friend who says that “the ‘80s killed rock”, “the rock of the ‘80s is shit”, “rock was killed by all those new technologies”.

Everyone thinks that the new technologies of the ‘80s killed rock, but whatever you say, it’s been exactly the opposite. From the invention of MIDI (1983) rock abandons the use of new technologies, and it’ll stay like this forever. Everybody, the public, the musicians, the critique, everyone together claim that rock is rock only if it has some precise characteristics. Not only those of sound: also the composition of the band, the hairstyle, etc. Today it’s simply assumed, but in the ‘80s it was a novelty, it has never happened before. Think about it, otherwise we would never see Little Richard and The Doors in the same preamble: it was like that. Multinationals, critics, musicians, and a big part of the public adapt, and this will produce, quite rapidly, the first copies, especially from the ‘80s to the ‘90s. And later even more and more copies.

Rock was not afraid of electric guitars, or portable synths. But the MIDI was just to much to stand. Of course not musically speaking, given that from the ’83 music becomes programmable on the level of marketing and strategy, especially meritable for the brand - if we can call it that way - of rock. In other words, rock felt the necessity of becoming authentic. As if the rebellion rooted in rock could not depend solely on music anymore, and started needing a political legitimization. This, in fact, happened.

And so the ones taking advantage of the new technologies are the border line communities of the cultural industry: the independent labels, subcultures, the margins of society that invent Techno, House, and Hip Hop in an instance. And pop follows. Pump up the volume! What happens between the ’87 and ’89 feels like punk, the first great independent revolution of music, a joke. In 1989 after the end of the Soviet Union with permission of Pet Shop Boys (grand), while everyone was enjoying themselves watching Marty McFly in Back to the Future, an Italian named Davoli from a small Italian label Groove Groove Melody, makes it big with the world hits and a girl on a keyboard which sings “Ride on Time”. The movie already seen in the ‘70s. Intellectuals and multinationals as always don’t take it good and prepare a collective depression which they dump on high schools. The ‘90s arrive.

The ’90. Rock abandons all kinds of energy and positivity: “…and suddenly sad songs are not sad enough”.

For some the ’90 are very short, starting in the 1992 and finishing in the 1998. I agree: to me the 1991 is one thousand and eighty one. But anyway, let’s start from the 1990: it’s a moment of some major action by Guns’n’Roses (if you’re listening to Led Zeppelin, for a long time they only make you laugh, or you like them) and Queen with their quintessential Greatest Hits. There’s also a definite consecration of metal. Italian rock is good (Litfiba, Vasco), because we’ve always been good at writing songs, as well as at playing. We also have to mention the Japanese, who performed on the Occidental rock scene dressed like characters in Noh theater, costumes strangely similar to those of Kiss, but the Japanese can say it’s been a thousand years since they’ve started to dress up like that. In the 1990 Iron Maiden take out their best card - “Fear of the Dark” - an incredible track that the whole world loves, and that’s how the mass explosion of metal begins. There’s nothing whiter than metal, the blondest music ever, and paradoxically, every metalhead dresses in black. And what remained of the original rock ? Only two things: the positive energy, the kick; and also melancholy, but always gushingly sacrilegious. Rebelling. It’s in the ’90s, let’s say somewhere in between the 1991 and 1994, that rock and its children leave this positive energy behind.

Some will say it was metal to destroy this quality, but that’s not true. You can’t say that Iron Maiden’s Afraid to Shoot Strsgers lacked positive energy. Epic and melancholic doesn’t mean deprived of energy. But starting from these years, music is to become like that – unepic and deprived of energy. There’s something else. The reason for which metal, year after year, becomes a scene totally independent from rock. The reason for which in the ‘90s’ punk returns. If you wanted to listen to electric guitars and rough sounds without getting suicidal, punk was a great resource in these years.

(Author’s note: at that time I was in highschool. I was listening to electronic music, techno, and shitty pop because after fifteen years of total immersion in rock started by my dad, the rock of these years made me feel like puking. I could spit Nirvana in the face, to me they were shit. My friends, who grew up on “Ricchi e Poveri” apart from Nirvana which was “just cool”, took refuge in punk. And in this case I was with them: in the end I didn’t mind being a part of this scene, it was kinda fun)

We were saying: was everyone depressed from the 1991 till the 1994? Well, I’d say not really. What is Love wouldn’t sell a copy. Neither would All that she Wants. Neither would Rhythm is a Dancer and so on. Only what was defined rock (bass, electric guitar, drums, rock vocals) seemed to have its mind set on becoming sad. And that’s the marketing’s masterpiece, my friends. Not music masterpiece. The depression of rock in the ‘90s finds its exaltation in the discographic campaign of a multinational corporation selling art named Kurt Cobain. While the smiley face jumps on the stages around the world as a symbol of Techno, the young from good families are grateful for Nirvana’s success, this majestic operation with a lot of “controlled denomination”: the grunge.

Techno is stupid. But Nirvana copied it’s symbol, that is the smiley face, and they were perfect: they’re not black, they’re not danceable, they’re not pop, their sound is like from thirty years ago and it has no positive energy. But, they’re rebellious. And that’s the last characteristic remaining from rock. The rebellion for itself. I’ll make an off-key song because I’m rebellious. He commits suicide 27 years old, so blond and so rebellious. Not many know that the last program Nirvana appeared in was from RAI: the program was called Tunnel, hosted by Serena Dandini. Nirvana gave a mini-concert between one joke of Corrado Guzzanti an another. Do you get it? After his disappearance, t-shirts with Jim Morisson, Bob Marley, and, mysteriously, with Che Guevara sell like hot cakes.

These were the signs that something was not right, somethin was slipping from hand. And in 1996 the first movie about drugs, mess, and all the inconvenience comes out : I’m talking about Trainspotting, whose soundtrack rewrited history. We remember two songs: Born Slippy by Underworld (England, 1995) and Think about the Way (bom diggi diggi bom diggi bom) by Ice Mc (Italy, 1994).

This is a bad blow for rock. The critique says that techno is “post rock” not to call it techno, admittimg that there’s nothing left of rock out there. With Black Hole Sun, a beautiful “grunge not rock” song, rock officially declares its death. - Black Hole Sun, wash away the pain – the lyrics go. I agree that Wonderwall, Hedonism, and Zombie are beautiful songs, but in my opinion a bit overrated, Creep and I’m a Loser also beautiful but not what we got used to ten years before, focusing on rebellion, the aspect which is a strong point of the pro-Nirvana & friends campaigns. I’ll ask you a rhetorical question: what’s more revolutionary, transforming an airport into a concert hall without permission, or going out wearing a Kurt Cobain t-shirt? Let me explain myself. Sure, if you leave the revolution at the university, in expensive colleges, highschools, well, you know how your revolution is going to end. In an ashtray, which will welcome us in year 00 with sound of Marylin Manson, or just absolutely nowhere.

2000. Rock doesn’t want to rebel anymore. It goes to a hairdresser, sad, with its electric guitar and a stock photo.

You’ve noticed, that apart form Creep I haven’t mentioned Radiohead. I won’t do it even now, when their golden moment is arriving after two CDs published in the ‘90s, because apart from Creep, the whole Radiohead world is marketing, and only marketing. I will be short with those few ridiculous years of rock music. In 2000 rock is agonizing, and finally abandons its last feature, saved by post-rock: the deep connection to the upheaval of values, fashion, and esthetic. Rock becomes solely esthetic. For this Radiohead is different for the reason they seemed real. In 2000 noone (apart from Radiohead) seems real.

It’s rock- Virgin Radio, with its gyms. It’s rock -tattoo on the ass and maybe even a photo in the mirror, it’s also rock- a girl all in black with a scull on her backpack. The phenomenon of people wearing Metallica shirt to a Marylin Manson concert. Iron Maidem shirt to Vasco. Blink 182 who are or “punk” or “pop” – noone knows- and who for me are simply “bad rock”, but that doesn’t matter. Radiohead who are “indie”. In ’00 if something works it’s not rock, it’s pop. Or electronic. Depeche Mode, in 2004 get themselves remixed by all coolest producers and go on another world tour. Can you say rock is dead? In 2000 maybe we could say that. We lingered in the ‘70s, the ‘80s, we forgave the ‘90s, but the ’00s don’t leave a doubt. But later… Later the ’10 arrived. I realized I was sure that rock had died because I wasn’t listening to music, I fell pray to the discographic marketing. Even me, who thought to have known so much.

2010. The epilogue or… A new start?

It was 2012. Hot and blooming spring. It was a few days after the earthquake in Emilia, not far from where I live. I had the need for new energy. Radio on. There’s Titanium by Guetta and Sia. I turn it up. And I have a fatal realization.

Titanium has many European elements harmonically, but also some African Americans rhythms. There’s a bit of Italy, of France, of California. Technologically it’s super advanced with the greatest sidechain (mixing technique which uses an “invisible” sound to modify the volume of all other sounds), you could dance to it till you pass out, it’s freakingly pop, because everyone is able to appreciate it, and, it’s rebellious. Word after word. If you’re able to appreciate this song at full volume you feel like noone can stop you. Like in a video clip, where a boy on a bicycle runs towards everyone and everything, invincible. Titanium has the same function as Great Balls of Fire or Born to be Wild. The function of “pushing”.

Now let’s finish the puzzle. What’s the music I just described? Think. You can even go back to the beginning of the article. Anyways, I’ll tell you. Titanium is unequivocally a rock track. Not the one from the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, or the ‘90s or even form 2000. But what does Slipknot have to do with Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis with The Doors? NOTHING. I got fooled too.

I asked people around about the genre of Titanium, to make a small test. They said: pop/dance/edm/electronic/electroporation/techno, and two or three other genres I can’t remember. And that’s how I realized, rock is still alive, you just don’t need to call it rock. Call it as you wish, the fact is, it’s there.

Artistically rock is still alive. In all genres apart from rock.


Siamo quindi giunti alla fine.

So, this is the end.

Now, to explain the ‘10s and to talk about rock which is not rock, I could give you a string of masterpieces by Kygo, Skrillex, Muse, or Linkin Park. Or to write for another hour. But I prefer giving you a track written and sung by me myself, inspired by rock and its history. It’s not a coincidence its called Alieno Blues. Good bye to you all.

"In cenere, in cenere, in cenere per colpa del genere" :)



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