It was a rough night for rock. Megadeth, the Grammy winner for Best Metal Performance, walked to the stage to the tune of “Master of Puppets,” a song that’s actually by another band, Metallica. Before Metallica’s own performance, actress Laverne Cox introduced the band only as “Lady Gaga,” who was onstage, but in a supporting role. Finally, Metallica frontman James Hetfield kicked off the song by singing into an unplugged mic. The trinity of tiny humiliations served as an easy metaphor for the long demise of rock, a Viking funeral for the former king of American music.
A quick glance at the Best Rock Performance category shows how withered the genre has become. David Bowie's haunting 9-minute “Blackstar” took the prize with instrumentation that sounded more like anguished jazz than rock ‘n’ roll. Meanwhile, none of the other four nominees were traditional rock recordings. They included “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” off Beyoncé’s genre-spanning Lemonade; “Heathens,” a pop song that is mostly rapped, by Twenty One Pilots; a cover by Disturbed of “The Sound of Silence” that originally appeared on Conan, and a live performance of “Joe” by Alabama Shakes.
Just a generation ago rock dominated the music landscape. By the 1990 Grammys, the genre was so stuffed with popular artists that there were three separate awards for Best Rock Vocal Performance—for Duo or Group, Female Performer, and Male Performer—plus additional awards for Best Rock Instrumental Performance, Best Hard Rock Performance, and Best Metal Performance (in fact, Metallica won the latter for “One”).