If there’s one thing worse than being trampled to death by hundreds of Cineplex-goers fearing a non-existent conflagration, it’s enduring the endless social media volley of “is not”/“is too” that follows whenever anyone checks on rock’s vital signs.
So let’s avoid that kerfuffle and accept without argument that all sorts of indie, emo, metal, and otherwise unclassifiable subgenres of rock are hale and hearty. Still, what about the mainstream stuff? Is there mainstream stuff? Does corporate rock still suck? Or does the old geezer lack the lung capacity?
To investigate what “popular rock music” might sound like nearly two decades into this awful century, we turn to the sad, confusing world that is the Billboard “Hot Rock Songs” chart, a grab bag of recorded miscellanea that some cohort of someones (radio programmers? Billboard editors? actual rock fans?) has hastily (as we used to say back in the record store days) filed under “rock.” Let’s zip from #10 right on up to #1 and see what’s left of commercial rock in 2017.
10. Bob Pressner – “American Dream”
Who says there’s no more protest music? This pitch-challenged Florida rocker (“the ‘first great troubadour’ since Paul Simon and James Taylor,” his website insists) wrote a Mad Libs jeremiad about our nation’s ills (or something) a couple years back, then scored virality shortly after the Trump inauguration when he set his wretched old tune to a new video of shouting partisans. Pressner’s actual beliefs are fuzzy — he rants against “Rules and regulations/ So many frustrations” like a guy you don’t want to be stuck behind in line at the DMV — but he mostly seems upset about people being upset about politics. So yeah, this is basically a David Brooks column, but with shitty guitar parts where the Edmund Burke references are supposed to go. 12,402,251 views and counting.
Yes, but is this “rock music”? Whatever else this may be, it is, sadly and most certainly, rock music.
9. The Revivalists – “Wish I Knew You”
After Pressner, the unflagging competence of this New Orleans septet makes for an innocuous palate-cleanser. Emotive frontman, chicken-scratch guitar, a modestly funky studio rock beat, obligatory horns but enough taste and restraint not to hire some female backup singers to lamely doo-doo-doo in response to the lead vocal. It’s awful.
Yes, but is this “rock music”? Would they call themselves “the Revivalists” if it wasn’t?
8. Lil Wayne, Wiz Khalifa & Imagine Dragons with Logic & Ty Dolla $ign feat. X Ambassadors – “Sucker for Pain”
Imagine if Michael Jordan, after quitting the NBA, decided not to play baseball but lacrosse instead. That’s what Lil Wayne’s weird obsession with being a rock star is like – having proven himself a peer of Biggie, Jay, and Nas, now he wants to show us he’s as cool as like, Wes Borland or somebody. This PG S&M anthem from the Suicide Squad soundtrack has camped on the rock chart for so long it’s like the folks at Billboard have forgotten it’s even here. There are more artists credited here than executive producers on a Miramax film, but none of ’em is wannabe rock star Jared Leto, which I choose to cherish as an intentional slight.
Yes, but is this “rock music”? Yes, Wayne, it’s rock music. You have a rock hit. You are a rock star. Now please — slowly — back away from the guitar.
7. Rag’n’Bone Man – “Human”
A manly defensive bellow that I triple-frikking-dog-dare you to call “soulful” over a ghostly looped yelp and a beat like clanging chains. Anyone who makes a chorus out of “Don’t put the blame on me” has done something seriously wrong, guaranteed.
Yes, but is this “rock music”? Are you kidding me? An overemotional white dude trying to shirk responsibility? That’s pretty much the essence of rock.
6. Paramore – “Hard Times”
Great gosh almighty, I have never been so happy to run into Hayley Williams in all my life. Where once she exorcised her pain through screaming matches with emo-pop guitars, now she dances away her blues in a #RememberThe80s synthpop band. That opening marimba hook subtly transmogrifying into a simulated Andy Taylor riff does my old heart good. By Memorial Day, “Hard Times” will either sound like an indisputable classic or like an unconscionable instrument of torture.
Yes, but is this “rock music”? Rock stars sing and play rock music. Haley Williams is a rock star. QED. Paramore plays rock music. That’s called a syllogism, suckers.
5. Lord Huron – “The Night We Met”
Fresh from the hit teen-suicide TV drama 13 Reasons Why comes a slow dance of stately arpeggios, fingers squeaking across guitar strings, and furrowed, brooding choruses — a prom-friendly version of the National.
Yes, but is this “rock music”? Nah, this is straight-up acoustic sniffle-pop, the CW’s stock in trade since back when it was the WB. If this is rock, Rachel Platten is Cannibal Corpse.
4. Lana Del Rey ft. the Weeknd – “Lust for Life”
It’s a shame that for the funny parts of Lana Del Rey’s shtick to work she has to throw in the dull parts where she pretends it’s not a shtick — that fools unwary sexists into thinking she isn’t in on the joke. But Lust for Life” not only matches A-grade punch lines — “My boyfriend’s back/ And he’s cooler than ever,” a chorus of “Take off/ Take off/ Take off all your clothes” — with a celestial doo-wop coo from Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye, it also overlaps melodically with Taylor Swift’s Lana-jacking (and -one-upping) “Wildest Dreams.” What is this, some kind of 12-dimensional meta-self-homage or something?
Yes, but is this “rock music”? Well, add L.A. woman Lana’s tragic pretensions and gorgeous blankness to Abel’s doomy, self-parodic sexual obsessions and you’ve pretty much got Jim Morrison, so … yeah?
3. Twenty One Pilots – “Heathens”
Another Suicide Squad cut – that soundtrack is like the Saturday Night Fever of haunted house crap-rock. Rock has always toyed with the image of the ominous wimp, and moral-panicked adults respond by imagining every sullen malcontent is one bully’s shove into the locker away from becoming an active shooter. I’d be falling into the same trap if I said “Heathens” sounds like a friend-zoned redditor’s hackneyed manifesto promising vengeance against his foes, wouldn’t I?
2. Linkin Park Featuring Kiiara – Heavy
The Beatles of nü-metal to Limp Bizkit’s Stones, as recently determined by popular vote. The worst part isn’t that this sounds like the Chainsmokers, as everyone who’s said anything about “Heavy” has said. The worst part is that there’s literally nothing more interesting to say about “Heavy” than that it sounds like the Chainsmokers.
1. Imagine Dragons –“Believer”
To understand the essence of America’s biggest current rock band, I turned to America’s greatest current music critic, Wikipedia, where I learned that “Imagine Dragons maintains a band culture of humility, relatability, and creativity” and are “an atypical band” because “three of the four members are not tattooed, and the group chooses not to attend afterparties.” “I’m fired up and tired of the way that things have been,” whines Dan Reynolds, with the petulance of a Trump voter quoted in a Times election post-mortem — not to imply political bent, mind you, just to say that rock’s epic dissatisfaction with the status quo and fist-pumping individualism are, well, ideologically malleable. Playing “Mutt” Lange to the Dragons’ Def Leppard is the Swedish production team of Mattman and Robin, who’ve done great writing and production work for Britney Spears, Selena Gomez, and Hailee Steinfeld. In fact, two songwriters who worked on “Believer” and Linkin Park’s “Heavy” had a hand in many of those same songs. So maybe the most interesting thing about “rock” in 2017 is that it’s being crafted by the same people responsible for “pop” — except they’re doing a much worse job of it.
But is it “rock music”? Only one tattooed member? No afterparties? I don’t know, you guys.