At some point you'd think that the "rock is dead" meme would finally die—but, alas, it hasn't happened yet. Gene Simmons is the latest figure to trot out the cliché. In an Esquire interview last week with his son Nick, Simmons said:
As you might expect from a man who thought that "Mr. Speed" was a nickname that would impress the ladies, Simmons's thoughts are somewhat incoherent. On one hand, he's talking about distribution and cash-flow—he's upset because the advent of file-sharing and (probably moreso at this point) YouTube means that young people (and for that matter old people) are buying fewer and fewer albums. On the other hand, though, he's bemoaning the loss of rock music in particular; he thinks music has gone to hell because pop, rap, and country are more successful these days than the kind of mostly male guitar bands that Gene Simmons listened to and played in.
He asks his son earnestly to name artists since 1984 who are as iconic as Madonna, U2, Prince, or Pink Floyd (Pink Floyd?) and whose legacy will last. And inevitably, Nick doesn't mention Public Enemy nor Tribe Called Quest nor Sonic Youth nor Timbaland nor Beyoncé, nor Dr. Dre, nor Tupac, nor Björk nor Outkast nor Missy Eliot nor Radiohead nor the Pixies nor even Kanye. Instead, he inevitably holds forth that perennial great white hope of rock, Nirvana. "The craft is gone," Gene Simmons complains—which is a pretty funny thing for a founder of Kiss, of all bands, to say.
It's clear enough what's happening here. Simmons is conflating one particular genre, rock—or more precisely, album-oriented ‘70s pop rock and its influences and direct offshoots—with quality and authenticity. For Simmons, rock denotes "good," and so the move away from the heyday of rock is a long downhill slide, in which file-sharing (explicitly) and hip hop (tip-toed around) are mixed together, in an indistinct and querulous mass.
I quite like classic Kiss albums; guys playing guitar rock, including Nirvana and even Pink Floyd can be great. But does it really have to be seen as the quintessence of goodness—or even, for that matter, of rock? Beyoncé's mix of powerhouse gospel vocals and strutting attitude seems like it should have a right to a rock tradition that kicked off with (among others) LaVern Baker and Etta James. Lana del Rey's layered torch songs to nostalgic decadence seem like they fit well enough into a genre that includes Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. As Dee at blackrocktumblr often points out (and as I've written about elsewhere), rock's history is way more diverse in terms of style, race, and gender, than folks like Simmons are willing to allow. If Kiss can be rock for having a great sense of theater attached to indifferent music, why not Lady Gaga?
Even if you don't buy Lady Gaga or Beyoncé or Nicki Minaj as rock, it's difficult to see why exactly it matters in terms of the overall quality of music. Yes, there are some acts today (like, say, Katy Perry or Iggy Azalea) whose success seems to far outstrip their musical talent—but Kiss is a standing reminder that that's not a particularly new phenomenon. Similarly, it's true that the waning of the album has made it harder for mid-range bands to earn a living. But it's also true that the Internet today makes it much easier for folks to get their music out themselves—which means that there's just gobs and gobs and gobs more music, and more kinds of music, available digitally than the major labels could ever have released on circular analog delivery systems.
I'm not an Internet utopian or anything, and the world and the web are both awash in mediocrity of every variety. But still, when you browse around even a little bit through bandcamp and Youtube, it's hard not to feel like we're living in an amazing age.
Just this weekend, I discovered Dunnock, a remarkable Bay Area one-man, lo-fi shoegaze-being-eaten-by-demons black-metal outfit; Jason Eady , a solid country throwback in the smooth-voiced, hard-luck honky-tonk tradition of Merle Haggard and Randy Travis; and Mirel Wagner, a gothic, freak-folk acoustic indie performer who's getting a lot of buzz. And then from the last year or so there's Lizzo and Insect Ark and SZA and Clipping and Akkord and on and on. None of these performers is iconic, and none of them will likely ever sell as many records as Kiss. But they all make great music, and they all have an audience and a listenership that extends wherever the web does, despite the fact that they don't happen to be working in genres that mainstream radio can monetize or that Gene Simmons can relate to. Rock may or may not be dead, but if you love music, it's a pretty great moment to be alive.