Rock isn’t dead. It’s not on life support, either, and hasn’t been for a single solitary second since Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and the forefathers of the genre brought it into the mainstream more than six decades ago.
“Rock is alive and well, it’s just been underground,” says Allison Hagendorf, Global Head of Rock for Spotify. “I’m out [in Los Angeles] at the Roxy and Troubadour every night. I’m seeing it.”
The rise of acts like Ghost and Greta Van Fleet, reflected in this year’s Grammy nominations, where Greta are up for the prestigious Best New Artist award, and Swedish hard rock outfit Ghost, the exciting Fever 333, Halestorm and Bring Me The Horizon are up for Best Rock Performance, is bringing new blood into the rock categories, and maybe a return to commercial prominence in 2019. Ghost scored a top five debut last year with their album “Prequelle,” and went on to play arenas like Los Angeles’ Forum and Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.
“People always say, ‘Rock is dead.’ We know that’s not true,” says Sam Kiszka of Greta Van Fleet, the band that’s been at the forefront of the new generation genre. “There’s plenty of it out there, it’s just not something that is mainstream.”
“I’m confident this will be a big resurgent year for rock,” says Hagendorf. “And when I saw the Grammy nominations it basically just supported that — specifically having Greta Van Fleet in Best New Artist. It’s been a minute since there’s been a young rock band in that category. So already, that’s a massive win. And then as far as having bands likes Bring Me The Horizon and Fever 333, both nominated for the first time — they’re important bands for the genre and also transcending the genre. I think Bring Me The Horizon is actually gonna cross over this year, again helping this resurgence of rock, bringing it back into the mainstream.”
Tobias Forge of Ghost believes time is right for the analog explosion. “Statistically, theoretically, usually it goes in waves and that’s how music changes,” he tells Variety. “And just as in the beginning of the ’90s, there were a lot of bands no one knew about in 1990, but in 1992 everybody knew about them. And I think a lot of bands that didn’t exist in 2000 were huge in 2003. I’m talking about Coldplay, Muse, Kings Of Leon, Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, Kaiser Chiefs. And that’s probably gonna within a few years. There will be a new branch of bands we don’t know about.”
Forge takes his theory further: “Maybe Greta is one of the first ones and the rest of them are being formed as we speak. And maybe Ghost is also part of that. I definitely think having a band like Greta Van Fleet rising to such prominence is a good sign.”
Having won a Grammy with Ghost in 2016 for Best Metal Performance, Forge can attest to the branding power the awards have within the industry. “When you are a nominee or receiving in the Grammy sphere you’re definitely being welcomed a sphere with promoters that wouldn’t necessarily notice you before that,” he says. “You’re being given a box of tools via the Grammy nomination.”
There are a lot of factors that can play into the renewed mainstream interest in rock, but many surmise that the current political discord, regardless of with which side of the aisle you align, is a factor. From Bob Dylan and Neil Young to Pearl Jam and Rage Against The Machine, rock has been the loudest purveyor of social consciousness in music, even if in recent years rap has challenged that title.
All three people interviewed for this story — Kiszka, Forge and Hagendorf — agree that the desire for social change will be a major factor if rock does indeed enjoy a commercial renaissance in 2019.
“Music with a message is very powerful and refreshing,” says Hagendorf. “I describe Fever 333 as somewhere between Rage Against The Machine meets Refused with a little bit of Linkin Park. And I can’t say it enough, that live show is one of the best live shows period.”
She sees the next wave of rock acts to blow up in 2019 as those also carrying a message. “There are two young artists that I’m beyond excited about: Grandson and YUNGBLUD,” she says.
Another factor in the potential return of rock to the mainstream is new fans. Part of what had driven rock to the underground was that it wasn’t bringing in the youth that pop, rap and other genres were attracting. Bands like Metallica, Guns N’ Roses, the Rolling Stones, U2 and the Who have continued to be among the best-selling live acts while the legend of acts such as Queen and Led Zeppelin continued to grow, but a great deal of their fanbase was in the older demos.
However, being on the road, both Kiszka and Forge see that tide turning. “I think children seem to have a lot more truth in them than people who have been weathered by whatever our society says. And that’s where it all started in the ’50s, the teenage revolution,” Kiszka points out. “That dropped out for a while until about now. It’s a mainstream thing again.”
Interestingly, Forge, who grew up in Sweden, also turns to the ’50s to talk about the relationship between kids and rock and roll. “I think people still have the same need now as the kids in 1954 realized that they had when they heard Bill Haley,” he says. “I think rock and roll, and there was music like that before that with jazz and blues, resonates in a very primal part of us needing to let go and at least for a few moments tap into the more primordial part of ourselves.”
For those who are signaling the death knell of rock, Hagendorf and Kiszka point to Greta’s Best New Artist nomination as the biggest sign rock is coming back in a big way. “People are craving intelligence and anthems. It’s [about[ more than a band. It’s a movement to come together as a community and to inspire and create change.”
With reporting by Michele Amabile Angermiller