Rolling Stone’s 500 Best Albums List notes how technology fails Rock & Roll
The emergence of Rolling Stone’s just-released 2020-updated listing of the “Top 500 Albums of All Time” has highlighted awareness of rock’s latest — and to many, most damaging — pop-dormant cycle.
Insofar as what comes next? Taking a look at the rock that has retained relevance through the decades and held firm in Rolling Stone’s countdown offers many answers.
Ultimately, rock’s present “demise” is due to how poorly the genre adapts to technology. What started at the turn of the video era was doubled down upon in the social media age.
It all begins with a conversation about REO Speedwagon and Green Day.
We don’t think about these two bands as much as other critically and popularly acclaimed bands. However, they appear when contemplating the “death of rock & roll” as seemingly foretold by the genre’s sliding overall reputation as showcased via Rolling Stone’s list. The compound influence of how their demise lost key ground for rock’s mainstream appeal finally makes itself apparent, here.
In the era before MTV’s 1981 launch, REO Speedwagon sold 25 million albums. In the period following MTV’s launch, the band sold one-fifth as many albums. More astoundingly, in the period preceding the rise of social media, Green Day sold 50 million albums. The generation that followed has seen the band sell 25 times less than that total, combined.
Yes, popular music is a fickle beast. However, in a fascinating sociopolitical sense, rock also fails because technology allows for voices marginalized by rock’s often homogenized sounds and presentations to form space and community. Rock, due to these factors, is often forgotten, then shoved into a void.
Rescuing rock from modern obso-lescence isn’t tricky. Six of the ten most influential albums are rock records, and roughly 20 percent of the albums are from one of approximately 20 artists who have distinguished themselves in rock history. Of that collection, Radiohead last achieved critical success for an album release at the turn of the 21st century. The Beatles — who have placed the most albums of anyone on the chart — broke up in 1970.
Resuscitating rock’s grip on the global zeitgeist — as judged through a cultural arbiter like Rolling Stone’s list — is a cyclical process that dovetails with technology’s grip on the said zeitgeist. When technology — be it FM radio, music television, or the combined forces of Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok — emerge, rock’s dominance wanes.
The REO Speedwagon and Green Day corollaries provide perfect windows into which to understand rock’s less than stellar moments wherein technology’s onset exposes the inherent flaws in rock’s beloved, essential, and best two-dimensional presentation.
VIDEO: REO Speedwagon “Keep On Loving You”
REO Speedwagon’s video for their 1981 hit single “Keep On Loving You” proves that the veteran rockers had minds best served in studios, with proverbial faces for radio and arena stages. Famously, it destroyed the band’s string of success and forward progression.
In the book I Want My MTV, it’s noted that most of REO Speedwagon’s videos were dominated by performance footage. They were deemed not photogenic enough to compete on the network with Duran Duran, Van Halen, and others who did a better job matching a picture to the sound.
Ultimately rock, at its core, is best when simply delivered. As a concept, video adds the elements of method acting and modeling to the art of making popular music. It’s not a concept that lends well to artists who lack talents — like REO Speedwagon — at acting and modeling. To that point, on Rolling Stone’s list, for the one mention of 80s video era rock star Bruce Springsteen, rappers Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West — rappers from the modern day — have a total of ten albums on the list between them. A
Moreover, there’s Green Day. As previously mentioned, Green Day had sold 50 million albums in the era before Twitter’s 2008 invention. However, what’s kept them from selling 50 million more is the idea that the same aggression young people had once built up to take out on guitars in three-chord punk anthems, they could now take out on Twitter. Or, if they were still musically inclined, they could click their mouse and download electronic music production software.
VIDEO: Green Day “Brain Stew/Jaded”
One depression of a Macbook’s mousepad takes considerably less talent than it takes to pick up a guitar and play a hardcore show as Green Day did in their 80s roots. The placement of Robyn, Daft Punk, Massive Attack, Kraftwerk, DJ Shadow and Brian Eno on the list certainly highlight the surge in how social media and the digital age have co-conspired to remove vestiges of rock’s core vitality out of the “Greatest Albums of All Time” conversation.
However, pop emerging that entertainingly lampoons rock’s standards ultimately strengthens rock’s revival eras.
Disco’s digitized homosexual urges were a slap in the face to analog, blueccollar, and heterosexual-trending rock. However, disco’s demolition occurred at the hands of new wavers and punk rockers. These artists distilled a now digitized rock to its core impulse of roughly or simply constructed songs performed by bands who reduced music to its core motivations of hitting core human emotions with raw, insistent and human-made instrumentation.
Hip-hop sampled rock records to borrow the genre’s overwhelming bravado. Then, rock’s grunge era saw bands deconstruct that bravado. Instead, a wall of emo noise eventually calmed into the melodic, yet insurgent soundtrack of revolutionary youth with broken dreams.
Now, we’ve emerged from an era wherein EDM DJs headlined main festival stages featuring theatrics that blended the best elements of KISS concerts with Queen at Live Aid-level crowds. However, as always, technology’s grip has tightened to the point that rock’s lampooning is ripe to appear trite and uninteresting to mainstream ears.
Moreso than anything else, 2020’s Rolling Stone “Top 500 Albums” update ideally serves as a bellwether point for rock’s mainstream revival. Artists on the cusp of sustainable pop success exist wherein reviving rock’s roots could occur. Trap-loving country crooner Sam Hunt samples 70-year old country records. Black alternative breakout star Janelle Monae worships at the altar of Prince and plays a mean live guitar like her hero. Also, established acts like The 1975 have embraced electronics, and EDM don Skrillex was once the lead vocalist for screamo act From First To Last and has already created productions that sample The Doors.
VIDEO: From First To Last “Note To Self”
Compiling this list in 2030 could see 22 albums alone credited to Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, The Who, David Bowie and Elton John, which were rated in 2012, return to the list. While it’s undoubtedly a fantastic album, Billie Eilish (#397, for 2019’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?) is likely ranked mainly because of how emblematic her album is of the pop bubble in which it was created. But what happens when that bubble inevitably bursts? Rock, as always, will reappear. The genre is forever pop music’s balancing essence. As things move left, right is inevitable.
Not to sound trite, but “rock on.”
VIDEO: Billie Eilish “Bad Guy”